hymns

the gift of repentance

I imagine we have occasionally come upon some characters dressed in unusual garb, professing to have a word from God.  They often are dressed in robes, crying out their appeals / commands.

I recall one such individual, who was poised on a traffic island in downtown Nashville.  He was wearing a sign bearing the message, “Repent in the raw.  Nudist Christians.”  If my recollection of the fellow is accurate, it seemed underneath the sign, he was wearing no shirt.  However, he did have on some pants.

Below the delightful invitation was a phone number.  I didn’t bother memorizing it.  I had no intention to follow up and get more information on his group.

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[photo by Samuel Regan-Asante on Unsplash]

The nudist fellow aside, the call to repent is usually understood to be a stern warning.  It’s a demand to get your act together!  If you have ever encountered any of those oddballs on the sidewalks, it would be easy to get that idea.  Or maybe you’ve been in church with a wild-eyed preacher pointing and shouting, “Repent, ye sinners!”

The fellow in Matthew 3 could fit the bill.  “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (vv. 1-2).  He seems to be a rather formidable force, with a bit of fanatic thrown in, at least according to polite society.

“In those days” he appears.  No particular time period is intended.  We might think of life going on as normal, when suddenly this prophetic figure arises.  It happens in the wilderness—a region “off the grid,” so to speak.  The reason for repentance is due to the kingdom of heaven as drawing near, as being at hand.

It’s right here, within our grasp.  The pure of heart are graced, as the gospel later tells us, to “see God” (5:8).  The kingdom can be sensed in moments of awe.

We’re told John is prefigured by Isaiah with the message, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’” (v. 3).  By this time, those in the Jewish faith had come to see this as a messianic scripture, a reference to the end times when the Messiah will establish universal peace.  There’s a slightly different spin from Isaiah 40, which says, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”

Being in the desert, in the wilderness, is far from the structures erected by human ingenuity.  Having said that, the wilderness is less about outward structures than it is about inward ones.  The desert is a place of utter openness, of exposure that is complete vulnerability.

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[photo by Ahmad Ardity on Pixabay]

The clothing of John the Baptist has been an inspiration for those characters I mentioned earlier.  It’s not exactly what would be seen on the runways of fashion capitals around the world.

How about his menu, consisting of locusts and wild honey?  In Leviticus 11, which deals with ritually clean and unclean food, “locusts of every kind” are pronounced kosher (v. 22).

On a side note, locusts have been and are still eaten in many parts of the world.  They are rich in protein, and can be prepared in many different ways, including frying in olive oil, perhaps with a dusting of salt and spices.  They are a tasty and crunchy biblical food!  So accompanied with wild honey (as opposed to the product of domestic bees) we have a combination of savory and sweet.

3With verses 5 and 6, we see why John is at the Jordan.  He’s baptizing folks from near and far.  They are confessing their sins, heeding the call for repentance.

Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor says of him, “When John waded into the water with people, he was cleaning them up for their audience with God, which he believed would take place very soon. He begged them to change their lives in preparation for that event, and he was not below scaring them half to death if that was what it took.”[1]

That especially applied to the Pharisees and Sadducees who approached him, who he referred to as a “brood of vipers” (v. 7).  John compares them to snakes fleeing a fire.  In doing so, he’s hardly saying their ministry and leadership are based on such noble and godly qualities like love and concern for the people.

He warns them against relying on their status as sons of Abraham.  Quit acting like big shots.  Demonstrate a conscientious desire to serve the Lord.

Taylor continues, saying John “offered to hose them down, if they were willing.  If they could come out of their comas long enough to see what was wrong and say so out loud, then he would wash it away for them, forever.  Or God would.  The same God who could make children of Abraham out of river rocks could make children of God out of them right there, if they were willing.  All they had to do was consent, repent, return to the Lord and they could start their lives all over again before they even dried off.”[2]

That was an amazing gift.  “The past would lose its power over them.  What they had done, what they had said, what they had made happen and what had happened to them would no longer run their lives.”

Too often we want to hold on to the past, even a past that was destructive and hurtful.  Have there been voices in our head telling us, “You’re dumb.  You’re ugly.  You’re worthless.  You’re an embarrassment”?  Or maybe we’ve inflicted that kind of pain on others, possibly without even intending to.

“As scary as John was,” says Taylor, “it was a pretty great offer.  No wonder people walked days to get to him.  No wonder they stood around even after their turns were over, just to hear him say it again and again.  ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’  What sounds like a threat to us sounded like a promise to them.  We hear guilt where they heard pardon, and at least part of the problem, I think, is our resistance to the whole notion of repentance.”[3]

Remember the wild-eyed guy I mentioned yelling, “Repent, ye sinners”?  As just noted, where we hear a threat, they hear a promise.  That goes to my title: the gift of repentance.  If that sounds counter-intuitive, please know there are scriptures in the Bible making that very point.  I could cite several, but I’ll just give one from both Old and New Testaments.

In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet speaks the word of the Lord to the people in exile in Babylon.  They are promised return and restoration.  “A new heart I will give you,” says the Lord, “and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26).  They are promised outer restoration (their nation), and inner restoration (their spirit).

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In the New Testament, Peter is describing to his fellow Jews how God directed him to go to the home of the Roman centurion, Cornelius.  Understand, Jews were forbidden to visit Gentiles—and certainly not to sit down and eat with them!  Peter said, “as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning,” that is, on the day of Pentecost (Ac 11:15).  How do they react?  “When they heard this, they were silenced.  And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life’” (v. 18).

The Gentiles received the gift of repentance.  Do we also not play a role in that?  Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Repentance leads to life.  The chains of death and darkness are shattered, torn asunder.  We are set free from the power of sin.  We are slaves no more.

However, having those shackles removed doesn’t mean we won’t be aching to put them on again.  Sometimes we don’t want to be healed.  Sometimes we like being stuck in the mud.  The hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” cries out the plea, “Take away the love of sinning; Alpha and Omega be.”  Poor wretched creatures that we are, we are prone to not only choosing sin, but loving it.

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We don’t want to give up the fun of spreading rumors or talking smack behind somebody’s back.  Why forego the enjoyment of berating the driver who cut us off in traffic?  Why is it called road rage when it’s such a thrill?  Why deprive ourselves of the pleasure found in getting revenge, which is a dish best served cold?

Worst of all, we too often refuse the love of God, who calls us to do the things—or calls us to love the ones—we would rather not do.  We might even notice our ignoring Ezekiel’s caution about hearts turning to stone.

Repentance is indeed a gift, but it also must be sought.  Without a desire to change, without a desire to know Jesus more deeply, there is no repentance.

John is baptizing, but he knows very well it’s not about him.  “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 11).  Now he really sounds like that wild man from the wilderness.

If John the Baptist hoses you down, the one to come (a perfect image for Advent) sets you on fire.  Jesus is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  He wields a winnowing fork, throwing the wheat into the air and allowing the breeze to blow away the debris.

The chaff will be consumed by flame.  It takes up space but contributes very little.  It’s not terribly nutritious.  It provides some empty calories, so to speak.

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There is chaff within us to be burned away.  (I’m addressing this to myself more than to anyone.)  It can be quite painful; burning usually is!  As noted before, sometimes we don’t want to be healed.  We want to remain stuck.  We love our sin.  And to submit to it being wrenched away feels like we’re losing part of ourselves.  And guess what?  It’s true, and it needs to go.

Once we let that stuff go, we find a liberty we couldn’t imagine.  A burden is lifted.  Dare we look inside and have the courage to face it?

We are freed to love and serve whose advent is nigh, Jesus Christ, the one who comes to us.

 

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Journal for Preachers, “A Cure for Despair: Matthew 3:1-12,” 21:1 (Advent 1997), 16.

[2] Taylor, 16.

[3] Taylor, 17.


in with the old, out with the new

Psalm 51 has been called “one of the most moving prayers in the Old Testament.”[1]  It hits all the right notes.  There’s a full admission of guilt, acknowledgment that no pardon is deserved, and loving joy because God does forgive.  There’s an expressed awareness that “unless a radical change is wrought by God, the future will be but a repetition of the past.”  That’s why the psalmist “appeals to God for a clean heart and a new spirit.”[2]

This is the psalm which appears in the liturgy with Ash Wednesday, which by the way probably never makes the list on anyone’s favorite holidays.  There is a cruel and kind revelation about our very existence, who we are, down to the bone.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  There can be no pretensions.

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A key verse in our psalm is verse 14.  The psalmist seems to be on the precipice of some kind of horror, something to be dreaded.  “Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,” is the cry, “O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.”

Opinions differ as to what “bloodshed” here is all about.  Is it something the psalmist has done—or something feared yet to happen?  Is it a comment about the whole nation, something we frequently see in Old Testament prayers?  I would say there’s room for both.

Still, there is a painful, agonizing note sounded by an individual.  The caption of the psalm refers to it as King David’s plea for pardon after raping Bathsheba.  The prophet Nathan has confronted the king and exposed his guilt.  There’s nothing to say.  He has been caught red-handed, so to speak.

Lest we think we are free of the shedding of blood, reflect on this.  Even with inflation, have you ever thought of how so many items are priced so cheaply?   Consider the overwhelmingly vast number of goods coming from a single country.  We support that country, which commits plenty of bloodshed, both literally and figuratively.

Recall verse 1, how this whole thing gets kicked off: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.”  The Hebrew word for “abundant mercy” (or in the New Jerusalem Bible, “tenderness”) is רַחַם (raham).  It means “womb.”  O God, according to your compassion for your unborn child…

Recalling David’s violation of Bathsheba, the Lord can be seen (or is seen) as a female who has suffered that grievous harm—one who has been violated in that most violent way.

The king can’t undo the past; he knows a radically new way is called for.

As we recite the psalm on Ash Wednesday, we should note not all of the psalm is used.  We stop at verse 17.  Here are verses 16 and 17: “For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.  The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

As we scroll through this poem, time and time again, we see calls for radical openness.  I encourage you to read every verse and then pause and reflect on it.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity…

Against you, you alone, have I sinned…

You desire truth in the inward being…

Create in me a clean heart…

Restore to me the joy of your salvation…  (I think the point is made.)

For that vision, for that reality to come alive, some radical change—as already mentioned—must come to pass.  That sounds great, but then here are verses 18 and 19.  These last two verses are often seen as having been added later, as a sort of appendix.

“Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem; then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.”  We might ask, “Okay, so what’s the point?”  It sounds like a perfectly acceptable and necessary part of repentance.

I would suggest there is a chasm between these two verses and what has gone before.  I know not everyone agrees with me.  They might say I’m overstating the case, pretending I’m looking at the Grand Canyon, as opposed to a babbling brook.  And that’s fine.  But see for yourself.

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On the one hand, “For you have no delight in sacrifice…”  And on the other, “Then you will delight in right sacrifices…”

On the one hand, “If I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased…”  And on the other, “You will delight in burnt offerings…”

“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit.”

With those last two verses, there is a sense of “but then…  There’s nothing wrong with the way we served God in the past.”

At the Missionaries of Prayer website, there’s a post titled, “Prophetic Word—Why am I Attracted to This?”[3]

Why am I attracted to this?  That’s a question for each of us.

Why am I attracted to this?  Suggestions are offered.  Why am I attracted to this church…  this person…  this place?  What do I really want?

“You need to know the answer to this, for yourself.  Because this will help to make or break you.  Only you know the answer.”

This is hard.  It is deeply uncomfortable.  I want the safe.  I want the secure.  I want what verses 18 and 19 promise: the tried and true.  I don’t like being dangled over the cliff, held only by spirit, held only by the Spirit.  How badly I want to say, “In with the old, out with the new.”

Last week, we had a dinner in which a young woman invited many of her friends.  Some of them were sharing experiences they had with the Holy Spirit.  I appreciated a comment by another young woman who said she was asking her husband if they should leave.  With these other people uttering such profound insights (my words, not hers), she said she felt “shallow.”  She felt inadequate.  As I just suggested, I have had feelings like that.

The author of the article says, “We need to grow up.  Christianity is not comfortable.  Growth and change are not comfortable so if every now and then your pastor is not preaching a message that stretches you and causes you to think about your life or calls you to repentance, then something is wrong.  It means you’re only hearing the parts of the Bible that makes you feel good but there are large sections not being preached.  And that should bother you.”

And that should bother me.  As the apostle Paul said, “woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (1 Co 9:16).  That’s a stark warning.

God forbid I give you easy answers.  God forbid I don’t encourage painful and probing questions.

Adam Neder, professor at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, says, “If our way of talking about God leaves [us] unaware of the threat he poses to our lives, perhaps that is because we no longer perceive the threat he poses to our lives.”[4]  Can we see God as a threat to our lives?  What could that mean?

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I would suggest we often—or perhaps always—believe our lives are limited to the way we sleepwalk through life.  We don’t necessarily have to get into some deep philosophical discussion.  A trip to the grocery store can be quite revealing.  We see people rushing around, impatient, not smiling, without joy.  What would happen if we conducted an experiment?  What would happen if we decided to slow down?

The late Thomas Merton wrote, “Our ordinary waking life is a bare existence in which, most of the time, we seem to be absent from ourselves and from reality because we are involved in the vain preoccupations which dog the steps of every living [person].  But there are times when we seem suddenly to awake and discover the full meaning of our own present reality…  In the light of such an experience it is easy to see the futility of all the trifles that occupy our minds.  We recapture something of the calm and balance that ought always to be ours, and we understand that life is far too great a gift to be squandered on anything less than perfection.”[5]

Thank the Lord that God is a threat to that substitute for real life, our life hidden in Christ.  We fear the dangerous and delightful depth expressed by the worship chorus, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. / Cast me not away from Thy presence, O Lord / and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me. / Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, / and renew a right spirit within me.”

At the beginning I used the quote, “unless a radical change is wrought by God, the future will be but a repetition of the past.”  The psalmist ready to move on.  There’s no looking back.  The past has involved David’s being a rapist and a murderer.  The threat God poses is seen and welcomed.  “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice” (v. 8).

To insert a New Testament perspective: “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being!” (2 Co 5:17).

So, what now?  As the song says, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going, / And soon all those around can warm up in its glowing. / That’s how it is with God’s love once you’ve experienced it; / You spread His love to everyone; You want to pass it on.”  Pass it on.  “I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (v. 13).

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We aren’t made righteous in the eyes of God just for the fun of it.  If we have truly experienced it, our lives will be changed.  We won’t be able to do otherwise.  We need not feel inadequate, as did the young woman at our dinner.  We are made more than sufficient, more than conquerors.

 

[1] A. A. Anderson, The Book of Psalms, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1992), 389.

[2] Anderson, 398.

[3] www.missionariesofprayer.org/2022/10/prophetic-word-why-am-i-attracted-to-this/

[4] Adam Neder, “Theology as a Way of Life,” Theology Matters 28:3 (Summer 2022), 4.

[5] Thomas Merton, The Ascent to Truth (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1951), 10.


summer's almost gone

I realize that people tend to think of the Labor Day weekend as the end of summer, and from a tourist perspective, maybe that’s so.  Not to be picky, but it is at the autumnal equinox.

To the extent that people have feelings associated with the end of summer, they often tend to be of a wistful, melancholy variety—a longing for those warm breezes and carefree nights.  As a kid, I had those feelings, along with a certain dread at having to go back to school.  But I also looked forward to fall, because that’s football season!  Even now, the first days of cool weather remind me of the fun I had playing that game.  Every year, at some point in time, I catch a scent or a feeling that fall really has arrived.  (It hasn’t happened yet.)

I’m reminded of a song by the sixties group the Doors.  They had a song called “Summer’s Almost Gone.”[1]  (And to avoid disparaging the late Jim Morrison, I won’t sing this!)

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“Summer’s almost gone, / Summer’s almost gone, / Almost gone, yeah, it’s almost gone / Where will we be when the summer’s gone?”  There really is a tone of gloominess to it.  The song ends this way: “Summer’s almost gone, / Summer’s almost gone / We had some good times but they’re gone / The winter’s coming on, summer’s almost gone.”  (Actually, winter is my favorite season!)

Jeremiah 8 has an expression in which the people, realizing that summer is over, consider it an evil omen.  “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (8:20).  Some say this refers to the drought mentioned in chapter 14.  Others see it as a saying that Jeremiah uses to sum up the mood of the people.  Maybe both are true.  One thing is sure: the impending invasion of the Babylonians has people wondering what to do.

We see the prophet’s torment because of all the disaster happening to the people.  Jeremiah utters his laments, his jeremiads.

“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick” (8:18).  “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (9:1).  That fits right in with Jeremiah’s nickname, “the weeping prophet.”

He truly loves his compatriots, even though they haven’t shown much love to him.  In return for his desperate hopes and prayers that they’ll listen to the truth, Jeremiah’s been given ample helpings of all kinds of abuse: mockery, beating, and imprisonment.  His words have been twisted to make him sound like the enemy of the people.

2There are those who would say that the prophet is a fool to get so worked up over the fate of this bunch.  After the way they treated him, they deserve all the pain coming their way!  Why should he care what happens to people who’ve made his life hell?  Besides, it’s not like his tears are going to do any good anyway.

"Jeremiah" by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

There are at least two responses to all this.  First, Jeremiah isn’t naïve.  He clearly knows the nature of the people he grieves, both the few who’ve been kind to him and the many who haven’t.  Continuing in chapter 9, we hear his cry: “O that I had in the desert a traveler’s lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them!  For they are all adulterers, a band of traitors” (v. 2).

Jeremiah would like to have a place way out in the wilderness.  It would be nice to separate himself from all the villainous stuff going on.  He would like to get away from it all.  Get some peace and quiet.  Jeremiah needs to get a Land Rover or maybe an ATV.

Still, having said that, the prophet’s care—his sorrow—does accomplish something.  There is a certain wisdom gained.  We do learn from grief things we can’t learn in any other way.  I imagine that’s a class no one’s in a hurry to sign up for!  But if Jeremiah were to harden his heart—if he were to say goodbye to compassion—he would become less human.  That goes along with the call which came to him as a youngster: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord” (1:8).

What about us?  From whom do we need deliverance?  From whom do we need rescue?  Could it be ourselves?

Jeremiah wails, “For the brokenness of the daughter of my people I am broken, I mourn, and horror has seized me” (8:21).  For their brokenness I am broken.

We are all familiar with twelve-step groups.  There are Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and others.  I have attended one AA meeting.  Our church in Jamestown hosted a group.  I asked permission to be there for the beginning of the meeting.  I made sure to leave before they started sharing personal stuff.

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I will confess I have a bit of a problem with the idea saying, “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.”  I understand there are medical, psychological, even spiritual components involved.  It’s not something to take lightly.  But it seems to me if we always refer to ourselves as an alcoholic, we make it part of our identity.  There is a sense in which we can own a disease or an addiction.

I remember when I was in seminary taking a program called Clinical Pastoral Education.  It’s required for ordination as a Presbyterian minister.  For most people, it involves an internship as chaplain, usually in a hospital.  At our first meeting, we began with introductions.  One of our members was a lady who literally said, “I am cancer.”  (Not, “I have—or have had—cancer.”  Or, “I am a survivor of cancer.”)

Now that is a case of making a disease your identity.  She eventually gave us her actual name!

Without a doubt, we are all broken in various ways.  We sin, and we need a savior.  Nonetheless, if we take brokenness as our identity, the defining characteristic of who we are, does that mean we will remain broken?  Here’s an unsettling question: do we come to embrace our brokenness?  Do we begin to love it?

Jeremiah seems to recognize this.  He looks at those around him and concludes, “They all deceive their neighbors, and no one speaks the truth; they have taught their tongues to speak lies; they commit iniquity and are too weary to repent” (9:5).  In the Revised English Bible, that last line reads, “deep in sin, they weary themselves going astray.”

They’ve basically said, “It’s hopeless; we’re too far gone.”  And that bit about teaching their tongues to speak lies can lead to a point where the moral compass is completely broken.  We lose the ability to discern right from wrong.  Thus we have verse 6: “Oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit!  They refuse to know me, says the Lord.”

The New Jerusalem Bible puts a disturbing twist on it.  “You live in a world of bad faith!  Out of bad faith, they refuse to know me, Yahweh declares.”

A world of bad faith.

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Bryce Dallas Howard in a quirky take on social credit in the episode "Nosedive" on the series Black Mirror.

I would like to suggest one possible example of that is social credit.  For those who don’t know, social credit is a measurement of how good a citizen one is.  It originated in China with businesses and individuals scored on categories like charitable actions, care for the environment, proper online behavior, and many others.  There are some commendable aspects of social credit.  The problem comes with who determines what are positive and what are negative qualities—big tech, the government, our next door neighbor?

We see this system evolving in what have been democratic nations.

Libertarian writer Kristin Tate has commented on this.[2]  “The potential scope of the…social credit system under construction is enormous.  The same companies that can track your activities and give you corporate rewards for compliant behavior could utilize their powers to block transactions, add surcharges or restrict your use of products.  At what point does free speech—be it against biological males playing in girls’ sports, questioning vaccine side effects, or advocating for gun rights—make someone a target in this new system?”…

“Peer pressure, trendy movements, and the ability to comply with the new system with the click of a mouse combine all of the worst elements of dopamine-chasing Americans.  As it grows in breadth and power, what may be most surprising about our new social credit system won’t be collective fear of it, but rather how quickly most people will fall in line.”

It’s a short step, if we haven’t already reached it, for the power of public shaming to take hold.  We could be encouraged (or commanded) to report on each other, in the best tradition of totalitarian societies.  It is surveillance gone wild.  On the plus side, we can finally be excused for using our binoculars to spy on others.  After all, it’s our civic duty.

The prophet warns, “Beware of your neighbors, and put no trust in any of your kin, for all your kin are supplanters, and every neighbor goes around like a slanderer” (9:4).

We are wounded, and we wound each other.  How does one counteract slander, false reporting?  How often is a retraction issued which barely gets the coverage of the original sham story?

Our idols would kill us.  We discover these new shiny things, and they blind us in the glare.  The next thing you know, we have stumbled and fallen into a ditch—or off a bridge!

Still, there is healing.

On that matter, Jeremiah asks with dismay and disbelief, “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why then has the health of the daughter of my people not been restored?” (8:22).  Gilead was noted for its balm, produced by certain trees.  It was prized for its curative properties.  In the story of Joseph, his brothers sold him into slavery to a caravan traveling from Gilead.  Their destination was Egypt.  (I think we know the rest of the story.)  Among their cargo was the medicinal balm.

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There is the beloved hymn which affirms, “There is a balm in Gilead / to make the wounded whole / There is a balm in Gilead / to heal the sin-sick soul.”  That healing is found in our Lord Jesus Christ, the great physician.

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, but salvation is at hand.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Fe0UcS2uFw

[2] thehill.com/opinion/finance/565860-coming-soon-americas-own-social-credit-system/


into the heart of truth

I suppose we’ve all heard someone say, at one time or another, “All paths lead to God,” or maybe we’ve said that.  Usually, that’s about different faiths, different religions, like Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and so on.  In many ways, I do agree with that.

A few years ago, in a previous congregation Banu and I were serving we were talking about it in Sunday school.  Someone drew a picture of a mountain, with a number of trails leading up to the summit.  For him, it symbolized those paths leading to God.

I drew something different on the paper, an expressway with many lanes, explaining I see the life of faith as a continuous journey.  In the center of this road, I put Jesus Christ.  I said I see him as the pure, perfect expression of God’s vision for humanity.  He is flowing into the heart of truth.

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Then in the lanes on either side of the center, I said to the extent that we can know such a thing, I would place other expressions of faith that have varying degrees of truth and authenticity.  Way over on the shoulders would be groups like mind-control cults and twisted versions of faith.  Like drunk drivers, they’re on the verge of going off the road entirely, crashing and burning.

I need to emphasize the importance of having a sense of humor, as well as a sense of humility, in all of this.  We too often claim to know more than we do—or even, are able to know!

I would submit as one example of our need for humility the reason for today’s name, Trinity Sunday.  Understanding that the word “trinity” doesn’t appear in the Bible, people have devised all kinds of explanations for the Holy Trinity.  That is, they’ve tried to explain how one is three and three is one.

Some explanations are better than others.  Some people talk about H2O, how it exists as ice, liquid, and water vapor.  Others talk about relationship, such as, “I am a son, a brother, and a husband.”  Really, no description does a very good job.  They tend to turn God into a problem which needs to be solved!

Trinity isn’t three as the answer to a math problem.  Trinity speaks about the nature of God.  God is a community.  You need at least three for there to be a community.  But this isn’t “community” the way we often think of it.  It isn’t a collection of individuals who just happen to be in the same place.

There’s a term called “perichoresis” (περιχώρησις).  It comes from two Greek words meaning “around” and “to contain” or “to rotate.”  It was used by ancient writers to describe how the Persons of the Trinity share the lives of each other, constantly interwoven in a vibrant intimacy of love, a dance of love.  They hold each other in a holy dance.  That is what’s happening within the heart of God.

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The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “I would believe only in a god who could dance.”[1]

I’m reminded of the chorus from the hymn, “Simple Gifts.”  It was a dancing song that a group known as the Shakers used to sing.  “When true simplicity is gained / To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed / To turn, turn will be our delight / ‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.”

This is a joyous love that is interwoven into creation itself.  God, who is love, sees of creation, “It is good.”  After the human race comes into being, God sees, “It is very good.”  When we get a glimpse of that, we realize the Holy Trinity is far from some dry, dusty doctrine.  We dive right into the heart of truth and get the invitation that says, “There’s a party going on!”

So, back to my point about speaking on matters of faith, it’s good to be humble in our pronouncements—and learn to just dance!

There is a little snippet from a passage in John’s gospel that goes on for four chapters.  Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure.  And at this point, he’s telling them about the work of the Holy Spirit.  To continue with that image of the dance, maybe we can see the Spirit as the music!

Still, we can sense a certain heaviness in the air.  We cannot escape the fact that this is a solemn occasion.  After all, this scripture comes after Judas has left to meet up with his co-conspirators.  There follows the ominous note: “And it was night” (13:30).  Jesus tells them, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (v. 12).

They’re having enough trouble with what he’s been trying to teach.  Philip has already said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied,” to which Jesus says, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:8-9).

If they still aren’t getting it, what hope is there?  If traveling with Jesus—having seen how he lives—isn’t convincing enough, then what would do it?

I like the name Jesus gives the Holy Spirit: “the Spirit of truth” (v. 13).  The Spirit of God, the Spirit of holiness, is also the Spirit of truth.  We might contrast that with the spirit of error, the spirit of falsehood, the spirit of lies.

There’s another angle to this business of the Spirit guiding us into all the truth I really appreciate.  It’s the importance of valuing people who are located all along the theological spectrum: conservatives, liberals, and everyone else.  We could say the same thing about those all along the political spectrum, as well.

I have often had the experience of finding a greater level of agreement, of rapport, with those who say and believe different things than I do.  I’m talking about people who read the Bible differently from the way I do, or those who feel differently about politics, sometimes quite differently!

During these past couple of years, I have found myself, in more than one way, becoming increasingly alienated from those I once considered like-minded.  The word “alienated” might be a good description.  On certain topics, if you dare express a dissenting opinion, you might find yourself censored.  You might find yourself snarkily dismissed.

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One of the Historic Principles of Church Order, dating back to 1788, which is in our Presbyterian Book of Order, is entitled “Truth and Goodness.”[2]  It says that “truth is in order to goodness; and the great touchstone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness, according to our Savior’s rule, ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’”

Saying that “truth is in order to goodness” means that the truth is the servant of what is good.  It is possible to make a statement which is factually verifiable—we can look at it and prove that it is so—and it still not be true, at least, not be true at the deepest levels.  There is a devilish way to present the truth.

If its mission is to harm, to hurt, to shame, then it really isn’t true because it isn’t God’s truth.  It isn’t spoken by the Spirit of truth.  The truth of God never humiliates us.  The devilish presentation of truth does not “promote holiness.”

Jesus says of the devil, “He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44).

We might wonder, “Is there a way to know what is true?”  Jesus tells the disciples that the Spirit “will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (vv. 13-15).

Jesus reminds them, and us, that the Spirit of truth “will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  The Spirit doesn’t act independently from who God is.  Remember what I said earlier about expressions of faith, like drunk drivers on the highway, who veer away from the character of Christ.  Remember about the nature of God, which is a self-giving community in an endless dance, a dance of love and generosity.

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The truth that the Spirit speaks does correct us—but never shames us, never ridicules us.  The Spirit gives us the courage to follow into the heart of truth.

With God as Trinity, we have the perfect model of community.  This is a community whose only truth is one that builds up and does not tear down.  It is truth that heals; it does not destroy.  There’s no awareness of being laughed at, only laughing with.  As our friends the Shakers remind us, “When true simplicity is gained / To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed / To turn, turn will be our delight / ‘Til by turning, turning we come round right.”

 

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Press, 1968), 153.

[2] F-3.0104


bearing belief of enduring hope

There are several scripture texts that are popular at weddings, but one I believe is on the short list is chapter 13 of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  It fits what our hope would be of the newly married couple.

It is also good fodder for greeting cards.  Please note: when I say “fodder,” I’m not demeaning greeting cards, and I’m definitely not demeaning Paul’s chapter on love.  However, sometimes it gets reduced to a touchy-feely, cute teddy bear level.  That’s instead of the serious and even fierce declaration of the stratospherically high nature it embodies.

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At times it’s even scary.

Something else often ignored or overlooked is its location.  It is smack dab in the middle of Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts.  In chapter 12, in trinitarian language, he tells us, “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone” (vv. 4-6).  He speaks of, for example, gifts of healing, working of miracles, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues.  Paul finishes with the promise, “I will show you a still more excellent way” (v. 31).

Thus, we have chapter 13, which teaches us if the gifts are not used under the guidance of love, then they are worthless.

In chapter 14, Paul shows how the gifts are to be used in worship.  There is to be no putting oneself ahead of others, no strutting around and saying, “Look how spiritual I am.”  Since “God is a God not of disorder but of peace,” the apostle sums it all up with the reminder “all things should be done decently and in order” (vv. 33, 40).

This has been addressed to a church with all kinds of problems: splitting themselves up into competing factions, treating the poor with disrespect, chasing after the latest fads.

Consider the place where they live.  Corinth is a major crossroads in the Roman Empire.  It’s a prominent hub of commerce; people from many nations, speaking many languages, and many social backgrounds flow through it.  Corinth provides a market for a variety of goods and services—that is, goods and services of all kinds, appealing to appetites of varying levels of decorum.  On that last note, the city developed quite a reputation.

2 coThere was a verb that came into popular use: “to Corinthianize,” referring to all manner of carousing, or as the band Kiss put it, to “rock and roll all night and party every day.”  The church has reflected the culture around it, with both its honorable and its less than honorable qualities.

In retrospect, I hope we can see the apostle Paul’s message isn’t intended to address romantic love or warm fuzzies.  He is concerned about life in community.  How do we order it?  How do we fail and fall into disorder?  How does the love of the meek and mighty Spirit strengthen and counsel us to not tear each other apart but to build each other up?

This chapter is jam packed with lovely ingredients.  Paul begins by listing events one might find in the spiritual Olympics.  You can set a world record, but without love, you might as well be sitting on the bench.

Next, we have a laundry list detailing what love is and what love is not.  Love is kind; love is not rude.  Love is patient; love is not irritable.

There’s a German word “schadenfreude.”  It expresses the joy at someone else’s misfortune, the pleasure derived from someone else’s pain.  Love does not engage in schadenfreude.  When someone slips on a banana peel (literally or symbolically) love doesn’t laugh.

Verse 7 tells us love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  I’ll come back to that verse.

Moving on, we see that when all else ends, love never does.  “When the complete comes, the partial will come to an end” (v. 10).

Paul presents us with this majestic observation, saying, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (v. 12).  The apostle Paul is a man whose life has been transformed by love.  He has gone from the schadenfreude of approving the stoning of Stephen, often considered to be the first martyr, to identifying with the frail: “Who is weak, and I am not weak?” (Ac 8:1, 2 Co 11:29).

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The chapter ends with his grand proclamation, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (v. 13).  That’s a note for this motley crew with their quarreling, nitpicking, shaming, shameless ways.  In other words, they’re behaving not unlike us.  (That is at least, in our worst moments!)

Now, back to verse 7, informing us that love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things.

What does it mean to say love bears all things?  The word for “bears” (στεγω, stegō) also means “to cover, to keep secret, to hide the faults of others.”  One thing we’re basically talking about is keeping confidence—not going around blabbing.  If you get some dirt on someone, keep it to yourself.

There can be confusion between confidentiality and secrecy.  Sometimes a good faith attempt at keeping confidence can be misconstrued as dealing in secrets.  Here’s one good measure for telling the difference: confidentiality affords protection, secrecy causes damage.  While confidentiality respects, secrecy disrespects.

Love believes all things.[1]  Love places confidence in someone or something.  Love is willing to entrust, to look for the best, to give the benefit of a doubt.  On occasion, it can even be accused of being naïve.  We might suspect that someone is taking advantage of us, but we let it slide.  In the world’s eyes, we can appear foolish.

In chapter 6, Paul speaks of believers taking each other to court.  He goes as far as to put the questions, “In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.  Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be defrauded?” (v. 7).  Those are awkward questions.

Love hopes all things.  The Greek word ελπιζω (elpizō) also carries the sense of expectation, an expectation with confidence.  This isn’t an empty hope.  It’s not a case of saying, “I wish it were so.”  It’s a strong and secure hope.  “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

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It’s a hope when everyone else has given up.

It’s a hope when all we want to do is fret.  Fretting attracts negative energy, bad mojo.  I have usually found that when I lapse into fretting, it turns out to be a waste of mental, emotional, and spiritual power.

Love endures all things.[2]  Love remains.  Love waits.  Love doesn’t flee.  Love doesn’t hit the road, Jack.  Love perseveres.  Love stands alongside.

Haven’t we all been in situations in which we know we should hang around, but all we want to do is just take off?  I admit I have done that.  Love has called to me.  Love has pleaded with me.  Love has begged me.  But instead, I said “no” to love.

These are less commands than they are descriptions.  That would be setting a very high bar indeed.  It would be quite a challenge even for those athletes in the spiritual Olympics!

Remember the location of this hymn to love.  It’s placed in the midst of Paul’s commentary on spiritual gifts.  This love, αγαπη (agapē), is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  We can’t summon this up by ourselves.  Having said that, it doesn’t mean we don’t try to put it into practice.

I want to revisit verse 12 where it says, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly.”  The old King James language has a poetic spin as it states, “now we see through a glass, darkly.”  I like how the Revised English Bible reads, “At present we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror.”  Puzzling reflections.

Even the sharpest of insights is barely visible from the world behind it.  In a time beyond time, that world, that realm, will be apparent.  Still, the gift of grace that is agapē gives us fleeting glimpses.

5 coLove, in its many facets, emanates from the Spirit.  It is a gift.  What do we do with this gift?  How can it transform us?  Would we like to be transformed?

I’ll give us all an assignment.  I definitely include myself in this challenge / opportunity / blessing.  Can we do our best to bear with each other, to believe in each other, to hope for each other, and yes, to endure each other?

Let’s learn to treasure the gifts given to us by the Holy Spirit.

 

[1] “believes”: πιστευω, pisteuō

[2] “endures”: ύπομενω, hypomenō


wisdom be a lady tonight

I have a little story regarding my choice of scriptures.  On Christmas morning, I was about to read the Bible, and I had a thought about where to go.  Mind you, I don’t recommend this to anyone.  Still, I had the urge to just open the Bible and see what page presented itself.  Without paying any attention, I opened the book to a random spot and let my finger fall.

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Lo, and behold, it fell on Proverbs 7.  It’s the story of a woman sometimes called Dame Folly, or Madam Folly.  I reflected and thought, “This doesn’t seem very Christmassy.”  Immediately after that, in chapter 8, we have a portrait of Lady Wisdom, as she’s usually named.  Foolishness is followed by wisdom.  I read both chapters and concluded, “This might be something to follow up on.”

The opening chapters of the book of Proverbs present a father teaching his son about wisdom.  It’s the imparting of knowledge from parent to child.  (We could also see it, with some modifications, as involving mothers and daughters.)

A scenario is presented in which the father is looking out his window and watching the world go by.  He spots “a young man without sense” (v. 7).  He’s wandering through the streets, approaching a particular woman’s house.  I like the image used: “in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness” (v. 9).  Another version says, “at twilight, as the day faded, at dusk as the night grew dark” (Revised English Bible).  To borrow from Shakespeare, “something wicked this way comes.”

What was this young man without sense, this simple boy, doing hanging around in that neighborhood anyway?

When I was young, my mother often spoke pearls of wisdom to me.  One of them referred to doing something “accidentally on purpose.”  Accidentally on purpose.  That might apply to meeting a certain someone, maybe a potential boyfriend or girlfriend, “accidentally on purpose.”  Maybe someone could “accidentally on purpose” forget to attend a meeting they wanted to avoid.

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Could it be this young man “accidentally on purpose” wanted to encounter this enticing woman?  We hear the lines from the hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, / Prone to leave the God I love.”  Well, if that was the young man’s wish, as the day faded, then his wish was granted.

Regarding Dame Folly herself, I won’t dwell too long on the less-than-delicate details.  Suffice it to say, she wears suggestive clothing and awaits her prey.  Upon spotting him, she “seizes him and kisses him” (v. 13).  She tells him she has just fulfilled her religious obligations, and she has everything prepared for him.  Best of all, she assures him, no one will catch them in the act.  Conveniently, her husband is away on a long trip.

Therefore, Dame Folly says, “Come, let us take our fill of love until morning; let us delight ourselves with love” (v. 18).  The other version I mentioned says, “Come!  Let us drown ourselves in pleasure, let us abandon ourselves to a night of love.”  “Abandon” is probably the right word.  The father instructs his son to not imitate him, because he “goes like an ox to the slaughter,” “like a bird rushing into a snare” (vv. 22-23).  He is a moth drawn to the flame.

The father concludes his story, “many are those she has laid low, and numerous are her victims.  Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death” (vv. 26-27).  Eugene Peterson put it in terms quite colorful in his paraphrase The Message: “She runs a halfway house to hell, fits you out with a shroud and a coffin.”

And that’s why it might be a good idea to bring your girlfriend home to meet mother and father!

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Now, let’s go from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Lady Wisdom is presented in ways almost parallel to Dame Folly.  They’re like twins whose paths in life have radically diverged.  They both make their appeals to all, especially to the simple.  The two sisters (if I may continue the metaphor), present what they have to offer.  Unlike her foolish counterpart, Lady Wisdom wishes not to entrap, but to enlighten.

She calls out, “O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it” (8:5).  The Hebrew word for “prudence” is עׇרְמׇה (`armah).  It has the connotations of “guile” or “craftiness.”  There’s a sense of “trickery”—but it’s a good trickery, one that doesn’t leave you…well, feeling foolish!

Lady Wisdom is able and willing to go where Dame Folly is unable and unwilling to go.  Folly—foolishness—can offer short-term excitement, a short-term sense of well-being.  Wisdom hangs in for the long haul.  Folly is a fair-weather friend.  Wisdom is there in both good times and bad.

“Wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her” (v. 11).  All that glitters is not gold.  (Thinking about my mom has me dispensing all sorts of sage knowledge.)  “I, wisdom, live with prudence” (v. 12).  There’s our Hebrew friend prudence again!  More than we might realize the Lord surprises us.  We think what we want turns out to be less than the best, even positively harmful, but the Lord tricks us (remember, tricks in a good way!)—the Lord amazes us and gives us something beyond belief.

So far, we’ve seen wisdom personified, as Lady Wisdom.  With verse 22, wisdom seems to almost leap off the page and be considered as a divine life form.  No longer personified, wisdom is something greater, though not necessarily female.

Here’s a quick word of explanation.  Hebrew, like Spanish for example, has masculine and feminine nouns.  The Hebrew word for “wisdom” (חׇכְמׇה, chakmah) is feminine.  That’s not the only consideration.  Some speak of the so-called masculine and feminine in God.  Some even imagine Lady Wisdom portrayed as a goddess.

She says of herself, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth” (vv. 22-23).  We get a story reminiscent of Genesis.  The word for “set up” (נׇסַךְ, nasak) literally means “poured out.”  That is, poured out, as in the pouring out of the Spirit.

She says she “was daily [the Lord’s] delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (vv. 30-31).  This is a picture of uninhibited, unrestrained joy.  It is the oblivious wonder of children, the abandonment to astonishment.

4 prDame Folly urges the young man to join her in drowning themselves in pleasure, in abandoning themselves to a night of love.  Of course, there’s no mention of consequences.  To modify the tourist slogan, “What happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas.”

At the end of the chapter, Lady Wisdom says, “Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors.  For whoever finds me finds life.…  all who hate me love death” (vv. 34-36).  Whoever hangs around wisdom finds life.  How different are the ones who hang around Dame Folly.

Del Hungerford speaks quite literally of hanging around wisdom.  She says, “I’m standing in a clearing in a forest, looking up at the sky, watching clouds dance to the music in heaven.  Everything reacts to the worship, and I love to watch how it all responds.

“After a moment, I sense Wisdom next to me.  Together, we enjoy the activity in the atmosphere around us.  I think of teachings about getting to know Wisdom.”[1]

She really is listening to wisdom.  Earlier, I spoke of thinking about what we want.  Wisdom issues a warning.  “Remember, the motive is always known.  If the motive is incorrect and people are lazy or want it for selfish gain, it won’t do them any good.”[2]  Dame Folly whispers in our ears.  Something might be good, in and of itself, but it might not be good for us—at least, not at that time.

Wisdom continues, “Also, remember that for those constant requests ‘I must have…’  When they get what they ask for but their character doesn’t match, it will destroy them…  When people’s motives are not pure, too much of a good thing can have a very devastating effect…”

Ask yourself this question, ‘Do you want something because you’re trying to gain a position in the earthly realm, or are you trying to build relationship with YHVH [Yahweh] and then out of that relationship, you’re given responsibility?’”

She replied, “I think I’d rather have the second choice since relationship is most important.  When you understand true character, you know what to expect.”[3]

Along with Lady Wisdom, Jesus also speaks as the very voice of divine wisdom.  As wisdom incarnate, Jesus is humble, not “loud and wayward,” as is Dame Folly.  He presents a model of being teachable, heeding Lady Wisdom’s call to “take my instruction.”

The best teachers always practice the art of teachability.  Here’s one example among many that comes to mind: the professor of the one economics course I took in college did not seem to practice that art!  He would get visibly irritated if he had to answer more than one or two questions during a class period.  His philosophy was to just plow through the material, whether or not the students knew what in the world he was talking about.

It seems our culture increasingly is becoming one in which asking questions is discouraged.  A society like that is ruled by fear.  Honesty isn’t encouraged; compliance is.

The best teachers remain open to new ideas.  That’s especially evident in Jesus’ encounters with society’s outcasts.  I think Jesus not only gives benefit, but receives benefit, by his interaction with the poor and the unwanted.  He learns things that the high and mighty can never understand.

I asked, “What does wisdom look like?”  Consider this.  What positions have we rethought and changed our minds about in the last few years?  What does this say about us and our journey?  I can think of a couple of changes I made in the past year, although it wasn’t entirely of my own choosing.  At some level, the decision was made for me.  I think I just needed to say, “Yes.”

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Without going into all the details, I can say I’ve come to agree with those I once thought of as disagreeable and to disagree with those I once thought of as agreeable.  In a sense, I have repented—which doesn’t have to carry some dark, heavy weight of turning from evil to good.  It simply means “to turn” or to “change one’s mind.”[4]

Back to Hungerford’s encounter with Wisdom.  Wisdom wondered if she was concerned about gaining worldly position or developing a relationship with God.  As you recall, she preferred the relationship.

That is the call of wisdom; wisdom wants to know us.  “I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me” (8:17).  Wisdom is calling for us.  Wisdom is calling our name.  We develop our relationship with wisdom.  We develop our relationship with the Lord.  It is a lifelong quest.  Out of that relationship, as noted, we are given responsibility.

We are responsible to each other.  We are to speak words that “are righteous,” with “nothing twisted or crooked in them” (v. 8).  Whether it’s accidentally on purpose or deliberately on purpose, we are called to lift each other up, to pray for each other and to be a help.

I will close with a prayer from the website, Missionaries of Prayer.  This is titled, “Ask for Wisdom.”[5]

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Holy Spirit, bring revelation to me on where I am stuck.  Show me the places where I need to leave.  Relationships that I need to leave.  Groups or movements that I need to leave.  Mindset that I need to leave behind.

I ask you now for a fresh start.  Give me wisdom to know the next step to take.  Where do I go from here?  How do I move forward?  Lord, I quiet my heart and listen for your still small voice as you guide me and lead me into a year of wholeness and peace, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

 

[1] Del Hungerford, Accessing the Kingdom Realms (CreateSpace Publishing, 2017), Kindle edition, Chapter 13, section 1, paragraphs 1-2.

[2] Hungerford, 13.1.9

[3] Hungerford, 13.1.10

[4] שׁוּב (shuv) Hebrew and μετανοια (metanoia) Greek, respectively

[5] www.missionariesofprayer.org/2022/01/prophetic-word-ask-for-wisdom/


flesh and blood

Banu and I are fans of vampire movies.  There are many I like, but my favorite is still probably one we saw in the theater when we were in seminary, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  I also very much like the Swedish movie, Let the Right One In.  Banu got me started watching the Twilight movies, which I grudgingly will say aren’t too bad!  However, I do have one big complaint with their contribution to the vampire mythos:  sunlight doesn’t hurt them.  Rather, it makes them sparkle!

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Why do I begin with vampires?  It’s directly related to one of our sacraments.  In the first century, as word gradually spread that the early church was eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ, many non-Christians, Jews and Gentiles alike, were horrified.  Prohibitions against blood in the Hebrew scriptures go back as far as Genesis: “you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (9:4).  The blood is the life.

Some called the Christians cannibals.  And though the legend of the vampire goes back to ancient times, we can’t really pin that one on the early Christians.

Still, hearing this, one might be forgiven if there were some doubts: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”  Those are the words of Jesus in John 6:54-56.  To the uninitiated, it probably would sound like cannibalistic or vampiric actions are in order!

This isn’t the only place where the gospel of John speaks quite insistently about the flesh and blood of Jesus.  Later, I’ll mention its role in the encounter with Pontius Pilate.  But right now, flesh and blood have a prominent role in today’s reading: the introduction to the gospel of John.

The introduction, like the book that follows it, is very different from the other gospels.  The other three don’t have the level of philosophical and theological reflection we find in John.  Many would say this gospel is the most beautiful at a poetic level.  (I would be in that category.)

These eighteen verses are packed with meaning.  I’ll only try to unpack a little of it!

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (v. 1).  Does that verse remind you of anything?  If it reminds you of the first verse of Genesis, then that is deliberate.  John wants to identify Jesus the Christ with the eternal living Word, the Word that transcends creation.

“All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”  That includes life, “and the life was the light of all people” (vv. 3-4).  Here’s some of that poetic beauty I spoke of.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (v. 5).  What does that mean?

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  The Greek word for “overcome,” καταλαμβανω (katalambanō), has several nuances.  It can mean “to grasp.”  In the physical sense, it would suggest “seizing” somebody or something.  In the mental sense, it refers to “understanding.”

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It can also have the sense of “detecting.”  In chapter 8, when some scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman “caught in adultery,” the same word is used.  In this case, she is both detected and seized!  (On a side note, we hear nothing about the man being detected and/or seized—nor about how word came to the scribes and Pharisees who detected her!)

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  The darkness did not grasp it, or seize it, or understand it, or detect it.  More than that, the darkness is incapable of grasping or understanding the light!

We are told John the Baptist testified to the light.  “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”  John testified that the Word, “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (vv. 8-9).

With verse 14, we have something of a summary of today’s reading.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  The Word became flesh and lived among us.  That’s how John portrays Christmas.  There’s no messing around with a baby in a manger.  Like I said earlier, there’s more of a philosophical and theological focus.

As I was doing research for this sermon, I came across an article with an eye-catching title by Jennifer Glancy, who teaches Bible at LeMoyne College in Syracuse.  The title was “Torture: Flesh, Truth, and the Fourth Gospel.”[1]  This is where Pontius Pilate enters the picture.

In the article, she wonders, echoing Pilate in his interview of Jesus, “What is truth?”  Expanding on that, she asks, “Does truth dwell in flesh?”[2]  If verse 14 is correct and the eternal living Word has come to dwell in flesh, then it seems we have to say yes, truth does in fact dwell in flesh.

That is the assumption of the Roman Empire and its project of torture and crucifixion—that truth can be extracted from flesh and blood.  Indeed, that’s the assumption of all who torture, truth can be wrenched from the body.

Glancy speaks of three intentions of torture.[3]  There is “judicial” torture, in which the intent is to discover the truth.  (You know what I mean: “We have ways of making you talk!”)  Secondly, there is “penal” torture, torture used for punishment.

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Finally, there is “terroristic” torture, which is part of a campaign to send a message to the rest of the population.  You make an example out of somebody.  Add to this the element of humiliation.  People crucified by the Romans were stripped naked and mocked.

For those who would say this talk of terror and torture has no place in the Christmas story, I would remind us of Herod’s attempt to kill the Christ child.  His paranoia results in the massacre of numerous little boys.  Sadly, that kind of brutality has a very real-world feel to it.

In order to protect their young one from Herod, Joseph and Mary are forced to flee to Egypt.  They have to seek asylum; they’re fleeing political persecution.  In Jesus Christ, we worship one who has been a refugee.  We worship one who has been a victim of torture.  Still, even though darkness does its worst, it still can’t overcome the light.

Almost five centuries ago, Martin Luther expressed it well in verse: “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us / We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us / The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him / His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure / One little word shall fell him.”  The Word became flesh and lived among us.

What does that mean for us?  Can we think of ways in which we see or experience the Word in flesh?  Are there ways in which we know there is truth in flesh, in this physical stuff?

The darkness could not grasp or seize the light; it couldn’t overcome it.  But the darkness did indeed grasp and seize the flesh of Jesus.

We all struggle with the darkness.  On struggling with darkness, Richard Rohr notes that it “can be experienced as pain and handicap.”  It can be “experienced by struggling with the riddles, dilemmas, and absurdities of life.”  Commenting on verse 5, he says, “Like physical light itself, true light must both include and overcome the darkness.”[4]

I pray—I hope!—we don’t literally engage in torture, but torture can have different meanings.  We torture each other in a multitude of ways.  I’m sure we can think of plenty of cases in which we find that to be true.  We torture ourselves, and we are tortured.  I think it’s safe to say Covid hasn’t always brought out the best in us.  We have shamed each other.  And there are consequences to all of this.  We are harmed as the body politic, and we are harmed as flesh and blood bodies.

Yet even though we surely know darkness can’t overcome the light, at some level—and in some ways we can’t quite put our fingers on—we turn away from the light.  Too often we hide in the dark.  We need to let the light, the light that enlightens everyone, penetrate our darkness.

That doesn’t happen by accident.  Responding to Christ’s call to eat his flesh and drink his blood is a matter of will.  As the early church father Ignatius of Antioch put it, “the Blood of Jesus Christ is love.”[5]  That’s what it takes to become aware of the body of Christ, be it in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist—or in the sacrament of everyday life.

The apostle Paul warns the Galatians when he says, “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (5:14-15).  Remember what I said earlier about vampires and cannibals?

We are at the beginning of a new year.  No one knows what 2022 will bring.  Certainly, it will have its own joys and sorrows, its own life and death.  We as the church, the body of Christ, have our own unique calling.  Our world is divided; our bodies are torn apart.

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We can remain whole.  We can be made whole.  We are told that from the fullness of Christ “we have all received, grace upon grace” (v. 16).  That is our witness.  That is our testimony.  Instead of tearing flesh and spilling blood, we build each other up.  We nourish each other, knowing that the Word has come and dwells with us.

 

[1] Jennifer A. Glancy, “Torture: Flesh, Truth, and the Fourth Gospel,” Biblical Interpretation 13:2 (2005).

[2] Glancy, 107.

[3] Glancy, 115.

[4] Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation (Chicago:  Loyola Press, 2010), 35.

[5] footnote in Archibald Robertson & Archibald Plummer, The First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1914), 252.


are we there yet?

“Are we there yet?”  How many of you have ever heard that question being whined from the back seat of the car?  How many of us have ever whined that question?  Are we there yet?

In my less charitable moments, I imagine an appropriate response to that question: “Look out the window.  Do you see (and fill in the blank, depending on the destination)…  Grandma and Grandpa’s house?…  the amusement park?…  the rest stop?”  (When driving on the interstate, that’s one I keep a lookout for!)

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Of course, that question when uttered with a whine—“Are we there yet?”—is less a request for information than it is a statement.  It is a statement of impatience, a proclamation of longing, a declaration of desire, that a goal be reached.  Geographical distance is irrelevant.  This is a desire expressed in time.  There’s a desire for something to happen now, or at least, very soon.

Today, on the fourth Sunday of Advent, we might ask: are we there yet?  We’re encouraged, both by scripture and by the Advent season, to look for the Lord’s return—to look for that return, that presence, in our lives and in the world.  We have the privilege to not only know about Jesus—to believe certain things about him—but to know Jesus.  So, are we there yet?

The gospel reading in Luke is quite appropriate for a question like, “Are we there yet?”  That’s because it tells the story of a visit.  It’s one of the best-known visits in the entire Bible: the visit of Mary to Elizabeth.  One pregnant woman comes calling on another.  Of course, as we know, there is a slight twist to this story of two women with child.  We have a virgin visiting a woman described by her husband Zechariah as “getting on in years.”  She gives birth to the baby who will become John the Baptist.

It’s been suggested we may even have a picture of the first church.  Mary and Elizabeth “are the ones who first hear the Gospel Word and [believe] that the messianic age has dawned with the little babe growing in Mary’s womb.  They [believe] that the Messiah has come, the one who is Christ and Savior.  They are the ones who receive the word and obey it.  They are doers of the word.  They are both filled with the Holy Spirit and break out into praise and joy.”[1]

I must confess, I think that description might be a tad premature.  I’m not so certain they had that full awareness.  But I might be wrong.

What we see in these scriptures is indeed amazing, truly revolutionary, especially regarding Mary.  By the standards of her society, Mary is nobody, more or less.  First of all, she’s a woman.  I imagine you’ve heard before, in that culture (as in so many others), women were treated by men as little more than children.

But Mary’s not simply a woman; she’s an unmarried woman.  Actually, from what evidence we have about her age, today we would call her an adolescent.  But whatever her exact age, she still isn’t married to Joseph.  Her pregnancy would have raised eyebrows and set tongues a-wagging.

Add to all this, the fact that Mary is poor.  We learn later in chapter 2 (v. 24), when the time comes to present Jesus in the temple, she offers a dove instead of a sheep, a provision made in the law for those who can’t afford a sheep for sacrifice (Lv 12:8).

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And not only is she poor; she’s from a backward part of the country.  The region of Galilee, and especially Nazareth, is considered to be the boonies.  That’s why elsewhere Nathanael asks the question: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46).

So Mary is a poor, young, unmarried woman from the back woods.  She’s a nobody from nowhere.  And now, this nobody from nowhere is presented with the option of being a pregnant poor, young, unmarried woman from the back woods.  To put it quite unkindly, in the eyes of her culture (at least the people whose opinion counts), Mary is riff raff.

And that is what’s so revolutionary.  That is what’s so shocking.  God chooses this riff raff to be the means by which the Messiah enters the world.  Even before he’s born, Jesus is already a scandal.

As I suggested earlier, the events of our scripture reading are prompted by a visit.  Earlier in the chapter, the angel Gabriel tells the virgin Mary how it is that she’ll be able to conceive a child.  That’s actually the visit that sets the stage for everything which follows.

It’s not until Mary hurries off to visit Elizabeth that she indeed acts on the word from Gabriel.  It’s true she makes the courageous decision to be “the servant of the Lord,” and she says, “let it be with me according to your word” (v. 38).  But it’s only when Mary takes off to see her relative that she puts her intention into motion.

Something happens in a visit that can happen in no other way.  There is an immediacy, a contact, that can’t be replicated by phone, letter, email, instant messaging, whatever.  In-person visits, as we know, have taken a hit in the past two years.

In these final days of Advent, I ask that we consider what it means to welcome Jesus.  We can’t do it the way that Elizabeth does in our scripture reading.  (Mary, quite literally, brings Jesus to her!)  But we can do it in ways even more powerful.  We can welcome him in the friendless, in the distressed, even in those who annoy us.

But that leads to something even more fundamental: what does it mean to be a Christian?  There are many in the church who know about Jesus, but don’t know and love Jesus.  Knowing about Jesus leads only to dead religion!  Knowing and loving Jesus leads to vibrant, energetic, joyful faith that is willing and able to let its boundaries be continually moved to welcome the least of the least.

3 lkHarry Emerson Fosdick, early twentieth-century pastor, commented on vibrant faith.  During World War 1, he wrote that we “cannot live without faith because [our] relationship with the future is an affair not alone of thought but also of action; life is a continuous adventure into the unknown.”[2]

Remember when he wrote this.  The Great War, the war to end all war, was raging across Europe and other parts of the world.  Who could possibly know what the aftermath would look like?  I don’t want to be simplistic (I really don’t), but the hope in Christ provides a foundation which can help endure anything.  That has been the testimony of believers throughout history who went through distressing times at the societal level.

Energetic faith also displays valor.  On that, Fosdick continued, we “cannot live without faith because the prime requisite in life’s adventure is courage, and the sustenance of courage is faith.”[3]  The Christian faith requires courage.

At the personal level, can we imagine being in a situation that required any more adventure into the unknown than Mary’s?  Can we imagine being in a situation that required any more courage than Mary’s?  Recall what I said before about her station in life.

Nonetheless, this young woman will be the mother of God.  In Greek, she is called theotokos.  This might be confusing to those unfamiliar with the word.  It doesn’t mean anything divine about Mary.  She isn’t a goddess or one to be worshipped.  Theotokos simply means “God-bearer.”  It is a statement about the one in her womb, the one to whom she will give birth.  She is carrying the one who is divine.  Jesus, the infant in her womb, is also God.

The God-man will be born, not from a woman in an exalted position—not from one accustomed to royal surroundings (although that would be incredible enough!), but from a poor virgin.

That would truly be an adventure into the unknown, truly one that would require immense courage.

Have we ever had such a visit?  Clearly, I’m not talking about bringing the messiah into the world.  That has already been done.  I would say we have indeed had such a visit.  We’ve had it many more times than once.  As I wondered earlier, the Lord has come calling on us.  The Lord is knocking on the door.  Have we opened the door?

Have we opened the door to others?  Here is a good and possibly uncomfortable question: have we gone out of our way to open the door?

The Lord comes to us in those who desperately need our help.  As the book of Revelation says, “Listen!  I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (3:20).  Who do we invite as our dinner guest?  (I told you this would be uncomfortable!)

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["Knocking at the Door" by He Qi]

And yet, we also need to shut the door to certain things.  Here is the first verse of the hymn, “Lord, I Have Shut the Door.”  “Lord, I have shut the door, speak now the word / Which in the din and throng could not be heard / Hushed now my inner heart, whisper Thy will / While I have come apart, while all is still.”

I won’t pretend that I don’t have plenty of work to do on these revolving doors.  I still have much to learn about welcoming the visit of Jesus.

Are we there yet?  Maybe not, but as we continue to learn how to know and love Christ, we come closer to the blessing pronounced by Elizabeth.  “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (v. 45).

 

[1] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C04advt4.htm

[2] Harry Emerson Fosdick, The Meaning of Faith (New York: Association Press, 1917), 3

[3] Fosdick, 4.


crimson detergent

Sometimes I’m inspired by a song when thinking and praying about a sermon topic.  Recently there was a scripture text about people reaching a conclusion about Jesus.  He was out of his mind.  He had lost his marbles.  The song “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince kept going through my head.  Even among those familiar with it, many don’t realize that song is actually about overcoming the temptations of the devil.

Last month there was the Creative Christianity Summit.  Artists and worship leaders from around the globe participated.  There was a sermon / teaching series on the tabernacle of the Israelites.  It was done by Rev. Paul Blackham, who lives in London.  I’ll go into detail on what he said in a few minutes.

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The song that really captured me—that captivated me—was the hymn, “Are You Washed in the Blood?”  I must confess, it’s never been one of my favorite hymns.  I’m not terribly fond of its tune.  I apologize to those who do like it.  As for the lyrics, to my mind, they lack a certain theological depth.

However, Blackham’s presentation gave me a new appreciation for the musical question, “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?”  I discovered a solid Old Testament foundation for it.  Blackham spoke of the tabernacle (and we’ll take a quick look at it) as a model of the universe.  But again, it was that image of being washed in the blood which was my main takeaway.

Now, I’m warming up to the song!

As I just said, Blackham’s presentation dealt with the tabernacle.  It served as a portable temple when the Israelites traveled through the wilderness after fleeing the slavery of Egypt.  Every time they struck camp, the sacred tent and its accoutrements were packed up and taken along for the ride.  The tabernacle is described in Exodus, beginning with chapter 25.  I have included a chart of it which I will reference.

The entrance to the outer courtyard was always facing east.  The first stop was the altar of burnt offerings; that’s where the animals were sacrificed.  I want to circle around to the bronze basin or bronze laver (a container of water for washing), so I’ll mention the rest of the tabernacle beforehand.

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We next enter what was called the Holy Place, the first part of the inner court.  The priests conducted rituals, using the golden lampstand, the table of showbread, and the altar of incense.  We then continue into the Most Holy Place, the Holy of Holies, which deserves some explanation.

This was the most sacred place; it was considered to be the dwelling place of God.  The Holy of Holies was a room separated from the rest of the inner court by a veil.  Only the high priest could enter, and that was only one time per year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  The Holy of Holies contained the ark of the covenant, which according to the scriptures, held a golden jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that budded (Nu 17), and the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  The high priest would go into the tiny room, sprinkle blood from the sacrifice, and burn incense, thereby receiving atonement from God for his sin and for the sin of the nation.

According to Harrison Ford in the movie, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, one dare not gaze into it.  Those foolhardy enough to do so might suffer the fate of the impertinent Nazis and have one’s face completely melt off.[1]

Now, back to that bronze basin.

Slaughtering all those animals was a messy business.  I have never slaughtered an animal myself, but anyone who has can no doubt attest to what I’m saying.  With blood and guts spilling all over the place, a provision had to be made for cleanup.  We might need a large container filled with water.

Exodus 30:19 says, “with the water Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet.”  To be sure, this is about more than personal hygiene.  It’s about more than “cleanliness is next to godliness.”  Or is it?  There is the reality that drawing near to God meant purification on the part of the priests.  There is a profound ceremonial aspect to the washing.  And as they say, this is not a negotiation.

If you don’t believe me, notice the repeated warning: “so that they may not die” (vv. 20-21).  So clean up your act, or else.

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As our friend Paul Blackham noted, the water became red with blood.  The priests were literally washed in the blood.

(That song, “Are You Washed in the Blood?” has been running through my mind for the past few weeks.  People call that an earworm—a piece of music or song, like an actual earworm, that burrows into your ear and infects you.  The Germans came up with the term.  Maybe someone couldn’t get Beethoven out of their head!)

“Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin, / And be washed in the blood of the Lamb; / There’s a fountain flowing for the soul unclean, / O be washed in the blood of the Lamb!”

We see that image brought into the New Testament, where we’re no longer talking about the blood of an animal.  Rather, the picture is now the blood of the crucified Jesus.  It probably isn’t more clearly illustrated than in chapter 7 of the book of Revelation.

That book is filled with visions given to John.  (This is likely John the apostle, but we’re not totally sure.)  We start with verse 9, which says, “After this, I looked.”  What has just happened is John’s vision of twelve thousand people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel.  They have been sealed as protection from damage about to be unleashed on the earth.  As we see in verse 9, his vision has been expanded.

He sees people from every nation, speaking every language.  John sees a gathering too vast to be numbered, all dressed in white, waving palm branches, singing praises before the throne of God.

Can you recall how large a crowd you’ve been part of, with everyone singing hymns?  Banu and I have gone to one General Assembly; it was in 2004 in Columbus, Ohio.  Being in a worship service with hundreds of people—and worshipping together in spirit—is an experience like none other.  Lifting up one’s voice in a multitude like that drowns everything in praise.  It doesn’t matter if you can’t carry a tune.  The Lord is the best audience!

Notice who’s right next to the throne.  It is the Lamb, slain for us.  What an image this is: the crucified and now triumphant Christ pictured as an innocent, helpless critter.  But there’s more to it than that.  The Greek word here (αρνιον, arnion) is translated as “lamb.”  However, it is literally “lambkin,” a little lamb.  A little itty-bitty lamb.

4 exRemember Mary, who had a little lamb, a little lamb, a little lamb?  She had a little lamb, whose fleece was white as snow.

I do have a point in mentioning the nursery rhyme.  The book of Revelation was probably written in the 90s.  The Roman emperor then was Domitian, the self-proclaimed “Lord and God” Domitian.  This was a fellow with some serious self-esteem issues.  Early in his reign, he hadn’t yet begun his plunge into paranoia.  He enjoyed a certain level of popularity.  Descending into a reign of terror definitely took care of that!

We’re not sure to what extent he persecuted the church, but those Christians calling their Lord and Savior “lambkin” made a powerful statement about what was seemingly powerless being the mightiest of all.

We see angels, elders, and the four living creatures worshipping at the throne, and then the question is put to John, “Who are these folks in white, and where did they come from?”  John replies, “I don’t know.”

The secret is revealed.  “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (v. 14).  Eugene Peterson put it this way: “they’ve washed their robes, scrubbed them clean in the blood of the Lamb” (The Message).  They’ve scrubbed them clean.  I don’t imagine we’ll ever see a laundry detergent company advertising that particular ingredient.  How indeed can blood remove stains?

It’s one thing, as those priests did, to wash your hands in crimson-colored water; it quite another thing to try it with clothing.

Lay aside the garments that are stained with sin.

John is told that they “have come out of the great ordeal.”  The word for “ordeal” (θλιψις, thlipsis) also means “tribulation,” “affliction.”  It has the idea of “pressing together,” of being under “intense pressure.”  Some people think this refers to a certain event or experience.  Others (and I think I would put myself in this category) believe this “ordeal” speaks to life in general.  We all are afflicted by sin.  We all feel the pressures of the world.

The law of Moses says, “The blood is the life” (Dt 12:23).  Washing those robes is washing them with life.  It is washing death away.  When we put on those garments, we put on Christ.  We clothe ourselves with Christ (Ro 13:14, Ga 3:27).  We wrap ourselves with Christ.

5 exWhat is to become of that multitude without number?

We see their destiny, and it is a glorious one.  “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more.”  “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (vv. 16-17).  The Lamb will shepherd the sheep.

There are a number of images that speak of the power of Jesus the Messiah: the miracles he performed, his wisdom, his love, and oh yes, a little thing called the resurrection.  Still, there is power in the blood.  The blood is the life.

 

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcR9k8o4I0w


what kind of father is that?

During the decade of the 90s, a term that became deeply entrenched in our political and cultural discussion was the term “family values.”  Many of the people who became the strongest advocates of “family values” held up, as examples of the model family, something that has largely disappeared in America: a husband and wife with no previous marriages, 2.5 kids, a dog, and a white picket fence.

1 gn[Do family values include standing under the mistletoe?]

“Family values” is usually closely linked with one’s reading of “biblical values.”  The interesting thing about this is that actual biblical families are rarely mentioned as models.  Maybe that’s a good thing, though it isn’t very honest.  Those families tend to be too messy; they have too much conflict and dysfunction.  In that sense, they tend to resemble American families!

A good case in point is the family in Genesis 21.  We’ve got all the ingredients necessary for some serious family therapy: jealousy, rivalry, power plays, squabbling over who’s the favored son, and feelings of betrayal.  I want to focus on the father, Abraham, because it is Father’s Day and because he is the one in the middle of the whole mess.

To be honest, there are two qualities of this family that don’t exist in American life—at least not legally—polygamy and slavery!  Another aspect, surrogate, or substitute, motherhood, is usually performed in a way quite different from the method described in the Bible.  Most wives today wouldn’t suggest to their husbands that they have sex with another woman (indeed a much younger woman) in order to produce a child!

And by the way, if you have access to Hulu, check out the quite excellent TV series, The Handmaid’s Tale.  The show illustrates with brutal honesty what’s behind our story and others like it.

Today’s account really starts in chapter 16.  God has already promised Abraham he will father a son, which so far in life hasn’t happened.  (On a side note, that’s something else from The Handmaid’s Tale.  Failure to conceive was always due to a barren woman, not a sterile man.)

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Abraham believes Eliezer of Damascus, a trusted servant, will be his heir.  But God assures him his heir will be his own offspring.  As you might guess, Sarah hasn’t given birth, but they do have a young woman as a servant.  So here’s the plan: following the custom of the day, Abraham is to take Hagar as his wife, and maybe she can have his baby.  The scripture doesn’t talk about Abraham’s response.  He doesn’t seem to offer much of an argument!

The son who is born, Ishmael, is legally Abraham’s heir.  And the same custom that provides for a male heir provided by a surrogate also forbids the expulsion of the slave wife and her child.  That partly explains Abraham’s distress when Sarah demands he do that very thing.[1]

But even before Ishmael is born, some of that serious jealousy and rivalry I spoke of earlier has already begun.  In a society in which women are valued largely for their ability to reproduce, as breeding stock, Hagar is empowered in a way Sarah, even with all her wealth, is not.

The three of them are driven by different forces.  Sarah feels a sense of desperation and outrage at her fate.  Hagar, the one with the least amount of say, has been forced to share her bed with her elderly master and now faces the wrath of Sarah.  And Abraham is torn by his love for Sarah, his respect for custom, and the bond that now exists with Hagar.  When Sarah complains, he simply withdraws and says, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please” (16:6).  In other words, “I don’t want to get involved; leave me out of it.”

Sarah proceeds to make life a living hell for her servant, and Hagar runs away into the wilderness.  It’s there she encounters God who tells her to return but also says she, too, will produce offspring that “cannot be counted for multitude” (16:10).  This encounter is important—Hagar is one of the few people in the entire Bible who gives God a name (El roi, “God of vision” or “God who sees,” 16:13).

Let’s jump ahead a few years, to today’s scripture reading in chapter 21.  The Lord has told Abraham and Sarah she really will have a son, and he will be the true heir.  Isaac is born, and the rivalry between the two wives now involves their two sons.

Things reach a melting point at the feast celebrating the day Isaac is weaned.  The party’s going fine until Sarah notices something that gets her really ticked off.  She sees, as the scripture puts it, Ishmael “playing” (v. 9).

What we have is a play on words, a pun.  The term for “playing” (מְעַחֶק, metsahaq) comes from the word meaning “laugh” (צָחַק, tsahaq), which is where Isaac’s name (יִצְחָק, yitshaq) comes from.  Some say “playing” can also mean “mocking.”  Some even think “playing” means Ishmael doing something even worse to his little half-brother!   In any event, Sarah demands that Hagar and Ishmael be driven out, this time, for good.

3 gnI’ve taken this time talking about Hagar’s expulsion because it’s a turning point in the story of this family.  It also helps us understand Abraham.  As I said at the beginning, I especially want to focus on him, today being Father’s Day.

[Max, the father of our dog, Ronan]

My sermon title asks the question, “What kind of father is that?”  If Abraham is intended, a rather harsh reply would be: “not a very good one.”  What kind of father would allow his own son to be driven away and abandoned in the wilderness?  What kind of father would allow the mother of his son to be treated that way?

(Even worse than that, later we have the truly horrific event of the binding of Isaac in which he is being prepared for ritual sacrifice by his father’s hand.)

Still, Abraham is chosen to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (12:3).  It’s God, not Abraham, who has the responsibility of bringing this to pass.  Abraham’s responsibility is to follow where God leads.  And despite himself, he succeeds.  And to his credit, we shouldn’t forget Abraham didn’t exactly ask for all of this.

Thinking about Abraham and the question, “What kind of father is that?” has led me to think of my own experience.  It’s led me to think of my own father.  And I’m glad to say: my mother never encouraged him to take another wife and to father a son with whom I now have a bitter rivalry!  I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have gone along with the idea!

On Father’s Day we are encouraged to praise the glories of fatherhood, which is fitting.  But there are others who go in the opposite direction and talk about how their dad was the biggest jerk who ever lived.  Thankfully, I’m not in that category!

What I will say is that my father is someone I know really loved me.  Having been adopted as a baby, I later came to understand all the hoops he and my mother had to jump through in order to get me.  I know I was truly wanted.

When I was young, we did the usual father-son stuff: going fishing, throwing the football, etc.  But as I approached adolescence, sometimes it seemed like we were on different planets.  (I realize, I was the only teen who ever felt that way!)  For example, he might be explaining how to fix something, and I’d be looking at our dog and wondering, “What would be like to think with her brain?”

Something happened in 1985.  Within the span of one or two months, both my father and I came to Christ.  Our relationship had never been a bad one; it just hadn’t evolved very much.  We didn’t have many deep conversations.  But Jesus Christ changed that.  We felt free to open up to each other.  And I rediscovered something I had believed as a little kid: my dad was a pretty cool guy!

Just as it was faith that redeemed our relationship, so it’s faith that redeems Abraham.  He and his family provide ample proof that “family” can be quite creepy.  In fact, we can be quite vicious to each other.  I like commercials with the promise, “We treat you like family.”  I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good thing!  But by the grace of God, we can rise above that.

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[Where along the scale of creepiness would this family fall?]

“What kind of father is that?”  We all can ask that question of our own fathers.  Each has a different answer.  But regardless of our own particular cases, there is a Father we all share.

According to the apostle Paul, this one is “the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction” (2 Co 1:3-4).  That’s a lot of consolation.  We might be forgiven if we don’t see Abraham in that light, and as hinted before, perhaps our own fathers.

Aside from binding and healing our wounds, this consolation has another role: we are to pass it on.  Paul continues, saying God’s consolation is given “so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God” (v. 4).  If we haven’t experienced consolation, if we haven’t experienced comfort and solace, that well will run dry before we know it.

The Father’s gracious provision enters a perpetual cycle through the risen Son.  “For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ” (v. 5).

What kind of Father is that?  Fortunately, we need not be a father to share in the self-giving that best epitomizes the character of “father.”  We need not be male to share in that.  By the way, Jesus modeled qualities which are too often labeled “feminine.”  It simply who he was.

Our final hymn today is “This is My Father’s World.”  (I realize, this being Father’s Day, it is a bit “on the nose”!)

We might see many families, as well as our society itself, being plagued by vicious dysfunction.  The second stanza has something to say about that:

“This is my Father’s world: Oh, let me ne’er forget / That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet. / This is my Father’s world: The battle is not done; / Jesus who died shall be satisfied, And earth and heaven be one.”

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[Love above all. My son and I. A picture taken in my mother's house in Kinshasa. Photo by Kaysha on Unsplash.]

As the church, as our best selves, we’re called to rescue the image of God as Father.  So much violence has been done in that name.  But the God of Jesus Christ is the Father who loves, protects, liberates, enlightens, saves.  With joy and confidence, we can ask, “What kind of father is that?”

 

[1] John Bright, A History of Israel, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1981), 79.