Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Why read this blog?

“…Of making many books there is no end…all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.”  Ecclesiastes 12:12-14

            And making many blogs as well, for that matter. So why read this one? Because “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted…[The LORD] brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Genesis 13:16; 15:5. These staggering numbers, when combined, are still not enough to contain the fullness of God. They are but a drop in the bucket.

            It is the same with books, blogs, podcasts, and on and on and on. All the various media types combined are still not enough to even begin to explain what can never be explained. The best ones, I think, have one important thing in common-they do not teach what to think, they teach how to think. How to think generally does not come from repeating the same stuff we already know, although, as someone wiser than I once said, one must know the rules well to break them properly. Or intelligently. Or something like that-you get the point.

            Now back to Passover and Israel’s vocation. A good part of Exodus through Numbers describes God’s directives to Israel for living out their vocation and calling; a how-to manual, if you will. Deuteronomy is a recap. Deuteronomy also contains dire warnings about the consequences for Israel if they fail their vocation; if they follow the way of the serpent, who “… said to the woman, “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Genesis 3:4-5.

Funny how so much goes back to the garden. Paul describes it this way: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them…for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise…they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.” Romans 1:19-23.

Precisely the thing God warned against. Even if Israel was unfaithful to their end of the covenant, God remained faithful to His end: everything came to pass just as He predicted. Israel’s failures and the consequences she suffered are well documented in her scriptures, especially in her prophetic scriptures. Keep in mind, however, the prophetic voice is not all doom gloom and judgement. There is restoration as well, along with a vision for a new age.

            At this point we could, along with Paul, ask ‘What happened?’ Israel…”had everything going for [her]—family, glory, covenants, revelation, worship, promises, to say nothing of being the race that produced the Messiah, the Christ, who is God over everything, always.” Romans 9:4-5.

 Did God’s word fail? Was exile and captivity punishment or consequence? Was the whole thing preordained from the beginning? Did God base redemption on His intimate knowledge of human nature and plan accordingly? Why do it this way? Why do it at all? Stay tuned as we follow the redemption plan and see how it all unfolds. And buckle up. Things may get a little bumpy.


Sunday, July 19, 2020

A Brief Personal Interlude

    What does it mean to be saved? We considered this question early on in our Bible study. Let me say from the beginning, as many others have also said, salvation is more than ‘going to heaven when you die’. It is more than having a ‘come-to-Jesus-moment’ so we can get our sins forgiven and secure a good exit plan. The Kingdom of God is not some future event which will occur after the rapture-the existence of which is itself questionable. Being saved is not about separating ourselves from the ‘world’ and it certainly is not about adopting a strict moral code and forcing it on everyone else. Being ‘saved’ is a right here, right now event involving the kind of total shift in thinking many people are simply not prepared to make. I realize an awful lot of people do not want to hear this but that does not make it any less true.

            Salvation is relationship, re-establishing the broken connection between us and God. It is about turning away from whatever it is we are following and turning towards Jesus, about actually following Him. After all, Christianity was first referred to as ‘The Way’-it is the Way of Christ. It is about knowing-and being known-as opposed to ‘knowing about’. And here is perhaps the most revolutionary-not to mention controversial-statement you may ever hear-we do not worship the Bible. We worship the God of the Bible.

            This is not something I cooked up on my own. I certainly do not mean to disparage, denigrate, or demean the Bible. It does, after all, contain the very oracles of God, so please stay with me here. The idea of salvation as relationship has been taught by modern writers and teachers across the theological spectrum from N. T. Wright, Oswald Chambers, and Richard Foster to Richard Rohr, Marcus Borg and John Domenic Crossan, not to mention John, Paul, and Jesus Himself. I cannot overstate how important this is.

            I know this to be true from personal experience. Now, before you jump all over the experience thing, keep in mind the Wesleyan Quadrilateral (and Wesley knew a little bit about holiness)-scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. My experience is this-the traditional way of salvation did not work for me. I managed to accumulate a whole lot of knowledge about Jesus while barely knowing Him at all. What this produced-simultaneously-was a great deal of hubris and a whole lot of bad, addictive behavior I could not break free from. The result was pride in what I knew, on the one hand, and tremendous guilt over what I was doing and could not stop, on the other. All this was accompanied by the twin feelings that the way I was doing and being taught Christianity was not quite right (and that the Church as I knew it was loosing its way) and something was about to happen (think “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story).

            My change of mind did not occur overnight. I think what happened was all the above writers combined with some good stuff I learned in college and began to gang up on me. Once I saw the truth of here-and-now relationship in one place I saw it all over the place. Things I struggled with for years suddenly began to make sense. So, let me share a few things I now know to be true because they will become important later.

            First, salvation is relationship. Our connection to God is already built in, it just needs established (or maybe re-established). This is the real meaning of ‘image and likeness’ and it applies to everyone. We turn away from (fill in the blank) and turn towards God who rushes to meet us. Which leads me to…

            Second, whatever we have done, no matter how bad, has already been forgiven:

“as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us.” Psalms 103:12

“I, I am he
who blots out your transgressions for my own sake,
and I will not remember your sins.” Isaiah 43:25 (Italics mine)

            Third, God never gives up on us. Never. Ever. I know this to be a fact. God is and always has been on our side.

“But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8 (Italics mine)

“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?" Romans 8:31


“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:18-21

            Think deeply about these verses. They are foundational to everything we will be talking about and they are right here right now facts. God has done it. It is for everyone. And in fact, today is a great day to start a new relationship.




    Passover, along with the Feast of Weeks and the Festival of Booths, is one of three ‘Pilgrimage Festivals’ celebrated by ancient Israel (and modern Israel as well, although they no longer require pilgrimage). Passover is an early spring festival. Pentecost (Weeks) is an early summer festival celebrating the early harvest-first fruits. Booths (or Tabernacles) is a late summer festival celebrating the final harvest. All three required making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and presenting the appropriate sacrifices. Passover has been fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Pentecost was fulfilled by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost-the first fruits of the New Passover (Acts:2-ff). Booths has yet to be fulfilled.

            Passover is a festival of redemption and release, marking the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham:

GOD told Abram: "Leave your country, your family, and your father's home for a land that I will show you.
I'll make you a great nation
and bless you.
I'll make you famous;
you'll be a blessing.
I'll bless those who bless you;
those who curse you I'll curse.
All the families of the Earth
will be blessed through you
." Genesis 12:1-3 (italics mine).

            Passover is also the conclusion of an epic (if one-sided) battle between God and Pharaoh. Every plague signified the defeat of one of Egypt’s many gods, culminating in Pharaoh himself (and his army) being crushed in the Red Sea. Israel went down to Egypt an extended family and came out a company of freed slaves, ready for God to mold into the nation which would become God’s special treasure, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation (Exodus 19:5-6). This is how Israel would be called to live out her vocation to bear the image and demonstrate the likeness of God who called her. This is how all the families of the earth would be blessed through Abraham. During her desert formation the Tabernacle in the wilderness would become a significant part of Israel’s life and call and we will come back to it, but for now we will simply say it is the place where God first comes to meet his people-the place where heaven and earth come together.

            This then will be-more or less-our key to understanding Passover in light of the cross, where ‘Jesus died for our sins, according to the scriptures’. The Israelites were freed from slavery to Egypt so that they could become God’s chosen nation, called to bring God’s presence to earth and to live-corporately and individually-as God intended life to be lived. In this way they would become the means by which all the families of the earth would be blessed. That was the plan, or so it seems. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

What's It All About?

    Beginning with Lent this year (2020), our Thursday evening and Sunday morning Bible studies took up the question-What did Paul mean when he wrote ‘that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures…’(1 Corinthians 15:3). It is a two-part question. Part one: what does ‘died for our sins’ actually mean? Part two: what scriptures? We began our inquiry during lent because Jesus died during Passover; my assumption was if Jesus’ death was merely atonement for sin He would have died on the Day of Atonement, but He did not. He died during Passover, so something more must be involved (an assumption which turned out to be only partially correct). Thursday evening would examine the historical significance of Passover; Sunday morning we would see how Jesus reinterpreted Passover. Then the pandemic hit, the church closed and both Bible studies became a Thursday evening Zoom meeting, which is still meeting.

            I used material primarily from N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began; (2016); New York, New York; HarperCollins. Other contributors include Richard Rohr and Oswald Chambers. I am grateful to N. T. Wright not only for introducing new ideas but also for reinforcing and defining ideas that have been floating around my head for a long time but refused to take shape (the ideas, not my head). Wright opened the floodgates, so thank you Tom.

            My overall approach to the Bible is, it is not a scientific textbook (although all science comes from God), nor is it a history textbook (although it contains many historically verifiable facts). It is not even a theological textbook (although much theology-good and bad-begins there). It is not a book of absolute fact; it is a book that communicates truth (there is a difference). The Bible tells one story, using a variety of literary forms-for example, historical narrative, poetry, letters, apocalypse. The story begins with God’s creative activity culminating in His crowning achievement-humankind (us). Humankind promptly rejects their creator; the rest of the story describes God’s unrelenting, often surprising efforts to bring us back to Himself, restoring us to our original vocation and calling: “…that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19, italics mine).

            We begin with Genesis, the Book of Beginnings. Here we learn several foundational truths. First, God created everything that exists, therefore everything that exists belongs to God, not us (“…for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” Leviticus 25:23; italics mine). Including humanity, by the way; yes, God has a claim on all our lives. This is all reiterated in the prologue to John’s Gospel, where Jesus is named as sole creator (or creating agent). No other creator is ever named. This is important.

Second, humanity lives because God lives: “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being." (Genesis 2:7-8; italics mine). In Hebrew, one word-ruwach-can mean wind, breath, mind, or spirit. The wind from God blew God’s breath, spirit, and mind-God’s very life, God Himself-into the man. (A quick aside here-this is why so many spiritual traditions emphasize the breath. Think of it this way-every inbreath inhales God’s cleansing, life-giving spirit into our bodies. Every outbreath exhales all the toxic stuff-like ‘sin’, or ‘sinful thoughts’. Remember the child’s rhyme- ‘in goes the bad air, out goes the good’?) Again, God is the only giver of life-the only life period-ever mentioned. This too is reiterated in John’s prologue and is important as well.

            Third, all humanity-every human being who ever lived-was created for a purpose.

“So God created humankind in his image,
              in the image of God he created them;
              male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27

The vocation of every human being ever created (remember, there is only one life, only one source of life is ever mentioned) is to contain God’s image and demonstrate God’s likeness. We hold God’s image within ourselves and, as we are transformed inwardly, God’s likeness flows through us and we demonstrate it outwardly. This will become a common theme in much of Paul’s writing. The command-“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)-was humanities first calling. By the way, according to the NET Bible with Full Notes, Olive Tree edition,

 “one might paraphrase [Genesis1:28] as follows: "harness [the earth’s] potential and use its resources for [everyone’s] benefit." In an ancient Israelite context this would suggest cultivating its fields, mining its mineral riches, using its trees for construction, and domesticating its animals.”

Finally, Genesis tells us our first parents almost immediately rejected their vocation and call and followed the accuser’s advice instead: “…when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5-6, italics mine). This too is particularly important, and we will come back to it often.

            So here you have our five foundations. Everything belongs to God, including us. We all live because God’s breath/wind/Spirit gives us life. We all bear the image of God (even if it is very dim in most of us) and we are called to demonstrate God’s likeness. The tendency to reject that call and demonstrate our own likeness is the ‘original sin’ we all inherited from our first parents. The rest of the Bible is the story of God’s efforts to fix all that. Stay tuned. There is more to come.