Monday, December 24, 2012


Luke 2:41-52 is the only story of Jesus as an older child in any of the four canonical gospels. Neither Mark nor John tell us anything of Jesus’ life prior to his public ministry. After the birth narrative and the visit from the Magi, Matthew skips from the flight to and return from Egypt to the ministry of John the Baptist. In Luke, only a brief summary statement about Jesus’ growth and this story of Jesus at the age of 12 intervene between Jesus’ infancy and his ministry as an adult.

It seems that in telling this story of Jesus in the temple at a young age, Luke is giving us an indication of the greatness that is to come in the story of Jesus’ life. It was a common tactic in Greco-Roman literature of the first century to narrate some remarkable story from a hero’s early life that was an indication of the great things they would later accomplish. To some degree, this is not uncommon in the biographies of our own day as well. If we are going to hear the stories of successful people, we often want to know about their “roots”. Where did they come from? What made them who they are? Were there signs of their success early on?

This episode serves a similar function in Luke’s gospel. We learn that Jesus comes from a pious and devout family for they journey to Jerusalem for the Passover festival every year. But we also learn that Jesus is not merely the typical product of a devout family. At only 12 years old, Jesus is found sitting among the teachers in the temple, listening to them and asking questions that cause all those who hear him to be amazed at his understanding. Clearly, Luke wishes us to see that Jesus is maturing into one who can fulfill the remarkable promises that surrounded his birth.

What may be just as remarkable, however, is the restraint with which Luke accomplishes this. Although this is the only story of Jesus’ childhood in the canonical gospels, there are a number of stories about Jesus’ childhood in the many writings about his life not included in our Scripture. These other writings were deemed to not be faithful witnesses to Jesus and so were not included in the Christian canon of Scripture. Nevertheless, they make for an interesting comparison since most of them include stories which are almost comical in their miraculous content. In one a young Jesus molds doves from the mud he is playing in and then breathes on them to bring them to life. In another a childhood playmate stomps through the puddles in which Jesus is playing with the result that Jesus strikes him dead but will later raise him back to life after being reprimanded by Joseph. In yet another it is not Jesus’ power but his superior intellect which is on display when he lectures the tutor Joseph has hired for me him about how little he knows.

Compare those stories with the one Luke tells. This story from Luke’s gospel contains no miracles or signs. And while the people do marvel at Jesus’ wisdom, Luke says that he was listening and asking questions, not lecturing anyone. Although Jesus is presented as remarkable, the story ends with his submissive obedience to his parents. In contrast to the overly dramatic childhood stories of the non-canonical gospels, Luke’s presentation of 12 year old Jesus is almost mundane.

But there is power in this more subtle presentation of Jesus for it communicates what is most remarkable about him.  When Mary finally finds Jesus, she asks “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” Jesus responds by saying “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” The word translated as “must” is the Greek word dei; a word that communicates necessity. There is a driving necessity in Jesus’ life to be about his father’s work and it is this necessity; this commitment to his Father’s will, more so than even his miracles or his wisdom, which makes him remarkable. This overwhelming necessity in Jesus’ life to do his Father’s will is the one thing we must not miss about Jesus in this passage of Scripture.

But there is something else we might notice here as well. Often we think of faith and family as two things that go hand in hand; one reinforcing the other. In fact, “family values” are sometimes spoken of in our culture as if they were completely interchangeable with Christian faith. In this passage, we certainly see that Jesus’ family is instrumental in shaping his own obedience to God. But we also see that Jesus’ obedience puts a strain on his family. Mary is clearly upset with Jesus when she finally finds him and Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph fail to understand what Jesus said to them about being in his Father’s house. Later in the gospels, Jesus speaks of his kingdom dividing families and in another place he declares his disciples to be his brothers and sisters over and above his actual mother and siblings. As important as family is, even as important as it is in the formation of faith, Jesus refuses to allow it to detract from the one overwhelming necessity of his life.

In our lives today, family continues to be important. For many people, it is the primary means of discipleship in their life. Godly parents and grandparents can often do much more to disciple children than a pastor or Sunday School teacher ever could in the one or two hours we get each week. But family values are not faith and having a happy and healthy family is not the same thing as being about our Father’s work in this world. The kingdom that Jesus proclaims relativizes every other allegiance in our lives; including our allegiance to our family. When we are baptized, we become a part of the family of God first and our biological family second. When we are plunged beneath those waters, we become a part of a people whose life consists of a driving necessity to be about our Father’s work and it is that necessity which defines us as a people. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

With Us To Emmaus

Two disciples are journeying from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus. On the way, they discuss the terrible things that have happened in recent days. They have seen the one they thought was Israel's messiah handed over to the Romans; beaten, and crucified by the very powers they thought he would defeat. They have seen their hopes and dreams for God's redemptive work in the world nailed to a cross and buried in the ground.

One who appears to them as a stranger begins to journey with them and asks what they are discussing. They are surprised by this question for everyone knows what happened in Jerusalem. They speak of Jesus' death as one of those incidents where people are saying "Did you hear about..." and they don't have to finish the sentence because there is only one tragic event about which everyone is talking and of which they are trying to make sense. Nevertheless, the two disciples inform their fellow traveler about Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet mighty in word and deed. You can hear their pain and disappointment bleeding through the pages of Luke's gospel. "But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel."

"We had hoped..."

Had. Past Tense. No longer. There is no hope now. Jesus is dead. For all his power, he was unable to prevent this tragedy of all tragedies. When his followers needed a miracle most, Jesus failed to come through.

This stranger who journeys with them has a different perspective. They thought the Messiah was one who would prevent these terrible things from happening. He points them to Scripture they had never considered to be speaking about the Messiah. He argues that rather than being a conquering warrior the Messiah was always meant to be a servant who would suffer with those who are hurting; one who would win his victory by weakness rather than strength.

As the three travelers near the village, the two disciples urge their new traveling companion to stay with them. He agrees and they sit down at table together. There, he blesses the bread, breaks it, and gives it to them. It is only then, in this act of hospitality, this table fellowship, and the breaking of the bread, that they realize it has been Jesus himself who has been journeying with them all along.

This is not the text from which I had planned to preach this Sunday. It is one more often associated with Easter than the Sunday before Christmas. Nevertheless, I find it to be an appropriate word for the final Sunday of Advent. For in this season we remember that Christ has come but that his kingdom is not yet. In Advent, we are reminded that Jesus was the long-awaited prophet, mighty in word and deed. But we are also reminded that we are still waiting. That our hope has not yet been fulfilled. That our world is far from being filled with the peace and justice of God's reign.

Most of the Christian life is walked on that road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We've placed our trust in Jesus. We've pinned our hopes for God's redemptive purposes in the world on Jesus. We've confessed that he was the one who could deliver our world. But then a 20 year old man walks into a school and takes the lives of 20 children and 6 adults after killing his own mother. And our confession threatens to become past tense. We had hoped that he was the one but what can stand up against this kind of evil? This kind of brokenness? We thought Jesus was supposed to put a stop to precisely this kind of madness. If in all of God's power and might, he failed to act in this most critical of times, this time when his intervention was needed most, this time when 6 and 7 years old were crying out to him for help, then perhaps he does not deserve our hope, our trust, or our faith. Perhaps we are best served by giving up on the idea that this world can ever change.

There are no answers in these times. There are no explanations that can make things better. Explanations don't bring children back from the dead.

But I do believe that in the midst of our darkest tragedies, Jesus walks that road from Jerusalem to Emmaus with us. I believe that when it seems that God is dead and powerless, he is actually walking right beside us. In all likelihood, we will not be able to see that it is Jesus who walks with us. The pain and tragedy are real; blindingly real. But Jesus isn't put off by our inability to see him. He keeps walking with us. He lovingly listens as we tell him about the tragedy, about why we've lost all hope and faith in him. And he keeps walking with us. He tries to show us that God is one who suffers with those who suffer. And he keeps walking with us.

And because he keeps walking with us, I do not believe that our blindness to his presence will last forever. If, in the time of our deepest tragedy, the time when we question our hope for God's redemption of our world, we can manage to show hospitality to a stranger...  If we can continue to enjoy table fellowship together... If, despite all the reasons to give up hope, we can continue to break bread together then our eyes will eventually be opened and we will realize that Jesus is far from dead. He has, in fact, been traveling with us all along. And though we may not be able to say it now, we will eventually be able to say of this time "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked with us on the road?" even when we didn't recognize the one who spoke with us.

Then we will be a people who proclaim an Easter hope in a Good Friday world. Not because everything is OK. Not because there is no tragedy. Not because we are blindly optimistic. But because the resurrected Jesus, the God who suffers with the suffering, walks with us. Because God's love for us is so great that he took on our flesh; the weak and vulnerable flesh of Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, James, Jesse, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, and Allison. Because death is not the end of God's redemptive purposes in the world. Because he is present with us in the breaking of the bread until his kingdom comes.

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

What's So Great About Being a Nazarene?

In our Sunday evening services, I have been responding to questions that individuals in my congregation have asked. One of those questions was this: With so many different churches and traditions to choose from, 12 churches just in our own little town, what is the benefit of belonging to and attending the Church of the Nazarene? The very first thing I want to say in response to that question is that I regard all Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ and I think we can learn a lot from other denominations. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy participating in our minster’s association here in town, why I always strongly encourage our members to attend the community services we have with other churches every year, why our teens are currently learning about and visiting other churches in town, why we combined with the Methodists and Presbyterians for VBS this past summer, and why we are happy to have those same two denominations participate with us in our community 4th Wednesday meal. As the priest at the Catholic parish we visited just last Sunday reminded us, there is much more that unites us than divides us.

That being said, there are meaningful differences between the different denominations within the body of Christ. Furthermore, while our allegiance to Christ should always be held in higher regard than our allegiance to a given denomination, I do think there is something to be said for digging in deep and putting down roots into a single tradition. This is not because one denomination is without fault or superior to all the rest but because the only way to truly know Christ is to know his Church in all its humanity and brokenness. Our loyalty to Christ inherently entails some loyalty to a local congregation and, therefore, the tradition of which that congregation is a part.

I confess and rejoice that I was born into a family of Nazarene parents and grandparents and that this has a lot to do with me being a Nazarene today. In spite of that, I could have found a home somewhere else at any time. Instead, I have not only remained but become a minister in this denomination. That doesn’t mean that I think the Church of the Nazarene is perfect or without the need for Spirit inspired change. But it does mean there are good reasons I have happily stayed. Here are my top ten.

10. We affirm historical Christianity. This may seem an odd way to begin a list of what makes us distinctive as Nazarenes but I think it is important. There are some traditions and non-denominational groups which acknowledge little or no connection to the history of Christianity which has preceded their own fellowship. As Nazarenes, we confess the historic creeds of the Church and acknowledge that our story does not skip directly from Jesus and the apostles to our founding as a denomination in 1908.

9. Our Wesleyan heritage as a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism. We typically refer to ourselves as protestants and John Wesley certainly wasn’t Roman Catholic. However, as an Anglican, he was part of a tradition that had found a blended, middle way between the Catholic and Protestant traditions which had alternately prevailed at different times in England. Since we often look to Wesley as our theological father, that moderate, catholic spirit has been passed down to us. The earliest Nazarenes followed the maxim “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity”.

8. We believe that God’s prevenient grace makes salvation available for anyone who will accept it. This is not an attempt to put down our Reformed brothers and sisters. They remind us of the important reality that salvation is not first and foremost a matter of human will. It is primarily an act of God. However, we do not believe that God chooses to elect only a few for whom that act is efficacious. We believe that God’s work of salvation in Christ has freed every human will to the extent that they can choose to accept or reject Christ. While salvation is entirely by the grace of God, we believe that God’s Spirit enables our spirit to cooperate with that grace.

7. We Are Not Fundamentalist (but neither do we exclude fundamentalists from our fellowship). Nazarenes have an extremely high regard for Scripture. We confess that it is “inerrant in all things concerning salvation.” Wesley described himself as “a man of one book.” Yet we also recognize that one can not read this one book without making use of reason, experience, and tradition. Our understanding of Scripture does not require us to choose between a faithful interpretation of Scripture and modern scientific and historical research. We believe that the two can easily co-exist. However, neither do we make an attempt to exclude those from membership who do see a conflict between modern science and their faith. We believe there is room for both approaches in our tradition.

6. Global Fellowship and Missional Unity. In a time when “denominational loyalty” is in decline and “church hierarchy” is often viewed with suspicion, I actually think our denominational structure is one of our great strengths. Nazarenes enjoy a fellowship and mutual support structures across a district that independent congregations do not. Furthermore, even denominations which have such a fellowship often go no further than a district or conference level. By contrast, Nazarenes from around the world gather every four years. Our most recent General Assembly was the first to consist of more delegates from outside the United States than from within and also the first to elect a General Superintendent (the highest office in our denomination) from outside the United States (Eugenio Duarte of Cape Verde, Africa). Additionally, while some churches see the budgets we pay to the district and the general church as a drain on local resources, I see them as an opportunity to pool resources and carry out ministries in other parts of our district and the world that simply would not happen if it was left up to each local church to plant churches or send missionaries.

5. Nazarene Compassionate Ministries. I am proud to be a part of a denomination that has an organization dedicated specifically to compassionate ministry to those in need across the globe. NCM works in impoverished areas throughout the world, especially providing nourishment and education for children through their sponsorship program. In times of disaster, NCM is often quick to respond because they have already been working in the area where the disaster struck. When they do not already have resources in place, they are quick to funnel resources to those who do.

4. The Church of the Nazarene began with the stated mission of serving the poor of the inner city. In contrast to the “white flight” pattern of many churches in North America today, Phineas Bresee (usually considered the founder of the Church of the Nazarene) envisioned America’s cities as “centers of holy fire.” As such, service to the disadvantaged in the urban core of America cities has been a part of our identity from the beginning. In fact, the name “Church of the Nazarene” was chosen to reflect the humility of Christ who called lowly Nazareth home and was to be reminder that Nazarenes were always to find themselves among those of humble means as well. To be sure, we have not always lived up to that heritage but it is an encouragement to know it is a part of who we are. A renewed insistence on the presence of Church of the Nazarene in the urban core is not a strange, new development for us but a reclaiming of our ecclesial DNA.

3. The Church of the Nazarene has ordained women for ministry since its inception. In a world where a large number of denominations still do not allow women to serve as ordained ministers (and others won’t allow women to hold any office of authority whatsoever), I am thankful to minister in a denomination whose ordination practices reflect Paul’s words when he says that in Christ “there is neither male nor female.” In its 100 year existence, the Church of the Nazarene has always held that women are just as fit for every office of ministry as are men. While there is certainly more work to be done in this area (since female ministers still make up a very small percentage of senior pastors in the Church of the Nazarene), the ordination of women is certainly one of the reasons I am proud to be Nazarene.

2. Our Colleges and Universities. This one is especially personal for me. I would not be the person I am today if it wasn’t for Eastern Nazarene College. My time at ENC changed the course of my life in a number of ways. Obviously, my faith already played an important role in my life before college since I chose to go to a Nazarene school but the “conversion” which took place in the way I understood my faith while I was at ENC was, I believe, no less significant than the life changing stories we often hear from others when they first come to Christ. The existence of eight colleges and universities (in addition to the Bible college and seminary) spread across the country where Nazarene young adults (and many non-Nazarenes as well! Two other ministers in Clinton attended Nazarene schools when they were younger.) can find a “safe” environment, full of trustworthy mentors, in which they can ask the hard questions of the Christian faith while also gaining competence in their various future vocations and professions is an invaluable resource for our denomination and the Church in our country as a whole. So many of the graduates of our schools go on to become the lay leaders of our local churches as well as Christian professionals who engage others in their field in thoughtfully Christ-like ways. I know that we are not the only ones with great schools but the schools we do have are, in my opinion, one of the most encouraging things about being a Nazarene.

1. Entire Sanctification and the Possibilities of Grace.  Our doctrine of Entire Sanctification declares that we are a people who are optimistic about the transformative power of God’s grace in this life. Our optimism does not stem from a naivety concerning human nature but from the hope that the Holy Spirit can make us truly new creatures in Christ thus fulfilling God’s promise to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. There is little doubt that we have overstated this claim at times in our history. Even as our article of faith on Entire Sanctification has been recently revised in positive ways, I have made no secret of the fact that I believe it needs to be revised further still. Nevertheless, I think we are right to continue to proclaim that it is possible for the Holy Spirit to turn all of our affections toward the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, even in this life. Even as I am painfully aware of our many failings to live up to our calling as Christ’s body in this world, it is good to be a part of a denomination that boldly declares that those failings do not have to be the norm of our existence. We believe that the possibilities of God’s grace are so great as to include a whole and complete sanctification of our lives for God’s purposes in this world. For that I say, “Thanks be to God.” 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Preparing the Way in a Broken World

In the third chapter of his gospel, Luke introduces John the baptist as a prophet. He does so by giving him the literary introduction typical of prophets. Consider the following:
"The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzzah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah." Isaiah 1:1
"On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal..." Ezekiel 1:2
"The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem." Micah 1:1
These are only a few of the introductions of the Old Testament prophets but they are enough to show that Luke is doing the same thing for John when he says:
"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness."
Not only does Luke give John a prophetic introduction. We also see in the next few verses that John does what prophets do; he calls Israel to repentance. Clearly, Luke wants us to see John as speaking on behalf of God in the same way that Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets had done before him.

In addition to letting us know that John was a prophet, this prophetic introduction, like its Old Testament counterparts, also locates John's prophetic word in history. More than merely giving us a date for John's ministry (which any commentator will tell you it actually doesn't do all that well), it tells us something about the world in which this word from God came to John. It tells us that John ministers in a world where Rome reigns supreme, its power overwhelming and unquestionable. It is also a world in which the largely despised Herod Antipas serves as an underling of Roman power. In other words, it tells us that, not unlike the days of Israel's earlier prophets, Israel finds itself under the thumb of foreign rule. I imagine that for a first century audience the simple mention of the names of these rulers would have been a reminder of all they felt was wrong with their world.

In the midst of these hopelessly corrupt politics, the word of God came to John in the wilderness. This, I think, is an enormously important statement by Luke in its own right. That even as the Caesars and Pilates and Herods of the world seem to hold all the power, God still speaks. And of all places, God speaks not in the courts of rulers, the halls of power, or even in the religious spaces of temples but in the wilderness. Neither is John's message a profound one; a simple baptism signifying repentance leading to the forgiveness of sins. But Luke tells us that this is how God speaks.

Furthermore, the word that God speaks through John is one of deliverance from exile. Luke tells us that this is what was written about in the prophet Isaiah when he said:
"The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
These words come from Isaiah 40:3-5, verses which proclaimed the end of Israel's exile in Babylon. By quoting them here, Luke is letting us know that John prepares the way for the Lord who will bring about the end of Israel's exile.

It goes without saying that although we believe John's proclamation that Jesus is the one who has come to end our exile, that end has not yet come in its entirety. We still live in a world of Caesars, Pilates, and Herods though they go by different names. Luke teaches us that in all the corruption and complexity of the politics of our world,  God still speaks and God's kingdom will still come. We are a people who are called to prepare the way for our coming Lord by our own repentance leading to forgiveness.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Christ in the Psalms - A Preview

The text below is the introduction to a study on Christ in the Psalms that I'm writing for the small groups at our church for next Lent. I thought I'd post it here as a preview and to give others a chance to give feedback about the idea as I continue to write the lessons. 

This study is an attempt to read Scripture in a different way - or more precisely, an attempt to return to reading Scripture in a very old way. Finding Christ in the Old Testament is nothing new. Even the most cursory reading of the New Testament demonstrates quite obviously that its authors were concerned with articulating their beliefs about Jesus in the language of the Old Testament. What is surprising, at least to me, is the way that they went about that task.

 For a good portion of my life, I had always assumed that Jesus’ identity as Israel’s Messiah was plainly laid out in the Old Testament, easy to find for anyone who was willing to do the work of searching. The relationship between the Old Testament and Jesus, I often thought, was as simple as prediction and fulfillment; that is, the Old Testament outlined clearly what the coming Messiah would look like and Jesus fit the bill perfectly. Jesus’ identity as the Messiah was so plainly obvious that only the Pharisees and other religious leaders in all their hard-hearted tradition and legalism could miss what was obvious to everyone else. If only they had traded in their man-made laws and traditions for a plain reading of God’s word in Scripture then they too would have known that Jesus was the Christ.

 More recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that these assumptions don’t seem to match-up with the way the New Testament authors themselves made use of the Old Testament to talk about Jesus. Far from treating the Old Testament as a book of predictions, I noticed that the New Testament authors seemed to be reading the Old Testament much less literally than I did, applying passages of Scripture to Jesus in very creative ways; so creative, in fact, that the first authors of those passages probably never imagined that what they had written would be used to describe Israel’s Messiah. So, for example, the author of Hebrews can make use of a Psalm that sings the praises of the God who rescues the faithful (Ps 40) to say that Jesus’ own faithfulness makes animal sacrifice an unnecessary part of the new covenant he inaugurates. Likewise, Psalm 110:1, the single verse of the Old Testament quoted in the New Testament more often that any other, is used repeatedly to speak of Jesus’ exaltation to the Father’s right hand and ascension into heaven even though the Psalm’s author almost certainly did not have ascension into heaven in mind when he wrote the Psalm.

 Upon closer inspection, it seems the prediction-fulfillment formula is actually just the opposite of how the earliest Christians understood the relationship between Jesus and their Scriptures. If anything, it appears they viewed the relationship the other way around. It was not so much Scripture which was determinative for their understanding of Christ as much as it was Christ who was determinative for their understanding of Scripture. To be sure, all of Jesus’ first followers believed that Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures. However, he did so in such radical and unexpected ways that it was by no means an obvious truth to everyone who encountered him. In other words, the Pharisees actually had a pretty good point in their arguments with Jesus. The Pharisees were the ones who were looking at what Scripture said about the Messiah and looking at Jesus and seeing that he clearly didn’t fit the mold. Claiming that he was the Messiah and that he was himself authoritative over Scripture and the temple and Israel was enough to get him killed, itself the surest of signs that he was not the Messiah he claimed to be.

 If all of this is true, then why did those first Christians become disciples of Jesus? If Jesus so obviously did not fit everyone’s Messianic expectations as shaped by Scripture, then why did his first followers so boldly proclaim him as the Christ and even the Son of God, even to the point of giving their own lives? It seems to me that it was because they knew they had encountered in the flesh and blood of Jesus the full, definitive Word of God personified and that Word trumped every other word that had ever been spoken or written. They may not have fully realized this as he healed the sick and proclaimed the kingdom of God and they surely doubted whatever they had previously believed as Jesus hung dying and defeated on the cross. But the resurrection and the consequent pouring out of the Holy Spirit planted firmly in the minds and hearts of his followers that God had done something unique in Jesus. So much so that they began to re-read their own Scriptures in completely new ways through the lens of what they knew to be true in Jesus. For the first Christians, Jesus was the light by which the Scriptures were to be read.

This should come as no surprise to us. It is, after all, what the New Testament authors themselves tell us. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”[1] and “God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”[2] Jesus as the Word of God, the Son by whom the Father has spoken, is one of the most fundamental affirmations in all the Christian faith.

 In spite of that, it seems to me that we often fail to read our Scriptures in accordance with that basic confession. Instead, we approach the pages of Scriptures as if the ink on those thin little pages of paper were the full and definitive Word of God for us, forgetting that title belongs first and foremost to Jesus and only derivatively to Scripture as it witnesses to Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, we often speak of “Scripture alone” being enough to answer all of our questions. So we assume that if we can simply “prove” something from Scripture then it can serve as a universal truth for our doctrine and ethics. But what if Jesus’ disciples had stuck to Scripture alone over and above their experience of Jesus? Can you imagine them meeting with Jesus shortly after his resurrection and saying “Well, there’s no verse that says the Messiah was supposed to be raised from the dead so we’re not convinced.”? In my opinion, when we read Scripture as a document with one fixed and inerrant meaning given to us by God to serve as a source for an unassailable system of doctrine and ethics, we become more like the Pharisees who rejected Jesus and less like the early Christians who proclaimed him as Lord. 

 This is, by no means, an attempt to diminish the importance of Scripture. It is, however, an attempt to recapture its rightful place in the life of the Church and the believer: as a witness to Christ. When we remember that this is its purpose, I think it can actually raise our respect for Scripture by reminding us that God’s Word is not something written long ago, lifelessly locked into words on a page. Rather, “the Word of God is living and active,”[3] a Word that speaks to us presently. It goes to work on us like a sharp scalpel cutting us open and laying bare our weak and broken nature before the Great Physician in whose hand it serves as a powerful tool.

 Of course, the New Testament authors quote from a vast array of passages and books in the Old Testament. The Psalms, however, were a favorite of these first Christian theologians, especially as they reflected on the identity of Christ. A few Psalms in particular are quoted repeatedly in the New Testament with reference to Jesus. It is those Psalms which form the basis of this study.

 Each week will focus on a different Psalm, beginning with Psalm 2 on Ash Wednesday and ending with Psalm 16 on Easter.  Most weeks will consist of four lessons; one about the Psalm and three about its various uses in the New Testament. As a part of each lesson you will also be encouraged to interact with the Psalms as prayers. The readings for each Sunday’s worship are also included along with space for sermon notes.  Each week will also include a small group meeting in which you will discuss the passages you have read in the previous week as well as some quotes from the earliest Christian theologians about those passages. You can move through the lessons at your own pace within the week and, depending on when your small group meets, you may not complete all the lessons by the Sunday they are read in worship. (Even though the Sundays in the outline below appear after days 1-4, if your group meets on Wednesdays you might do days 1-2 on Thurs - Fri and days 3-4 on Mon - Tues.) However, you should attempt to complete all the lessons before your small group discusses them later in the week so that you can contribute to the discussion. Here is an outline of what lies ahead.

Psalm 2
Ash Wednesday - Ps. 2; Mark 1:9-11; 9:2-8; 15:39
Thursday - Meditate on Psalm 2, Lesson on Hebrews 1:1-5
Friday - Pray Psalm 2, Lesson on Acts 4:23-31

First Sunday in Lent - Psalm 2:1-9; 2 Samuel 7:1-17; Hebrews 1:1-5; Luke 4:1-13

Small Group Discussion: What stood out to you from this week’s Scripture readings? This week’s sermon? Quotes from Church Fathers with questions for reflection. 

Psalm 8
Week 1 of Lent
Day 1 - Read Psalm 8, Lesson on Psalm 8
Day 2 - Meditate on Psalm 8 (let God speak to you), Lesson on Matt 21:12-17
Day 3 - Pray Psalm 8 (let it speak for you to God), Lesson on Hebrews 2:5-9
Day 4 - Hear Christ in Psalm 8 (Christ speaks with you), Lesson on 1 Cor 15:20-28

Second Sunday in Lent - Psalm 8; Isaiah 8:11-18; Hebrews 2:5-9; Luke 9:28-36

Small Group Discussion

Psalm 40
Week 2 of Lent
Day 1: Read Psalm 40, Lesson on Psalm 40
Day 2: Meditate on Psalm 40, Lesson on Hebrews 10:1-10
Day 3: Pray Psalm 40, Lesson on Ephesians 5:1-2
Day 4: Hear Christ in Psalm 40, Lesson on Luke 7:18-23

Third Sunday in Lent: Psalm 40:1-8; Hosea 6:1-6; Hebrews 10:1-10; Luke 13:1-9

Small Group Discussion

Psalm 110
Week 3 of Lent
Day 1: Read Psalm 110, Lesson on Psalm 110
Day 2: Meditate on Psalm 110, Lesson on Mark 12:35-37
Day 3: Pray Psalm 110, Lesson on Mark 14:53-64
Day 4: Hear Christ in Psalm 110, Lesson on Hebrews 1:13; 7:11-22

Fourth Sunday in Lent: Psalm 110; Exodus 29:1-9, Hebrews 5:1-10, Luke 20:41-47

 Small Group Discussion   

Psalm 69
Week 4 of Lent
Day 1: Read Psalm 69, Lesson on Psalm 69
Day 2: Meditate on Psalm 69, Lesson on John 2:13-22
Day 3: Pray Psalm 69, Lesson on John 15:18-27
Day 4: Hear Christ in Psalm 69, Lesson on Romans 15:1-7

Fifth Sunday in Lent Psalm 69:4-9; Isaiah 53:3-9; Romans 15:1-7; John 12:1-8

Small Group Discussion

Psalm 118
Week 5 of Lent
Day 1: Read Psalm 118, Lesson on Psalm 118
Day 2: Meditate on Psalm 118, Lesson on Matt 21:1-44
Day 3: Pray Psalm 118, Lesson on Acts 4:1-12
Day 4: Hear Christ in Psalm 118, Lesson on 1 Peter 2:4-10

Palm Sunday: Psalm 118:19-29, Isaiah 28:14-22, 1 Peter 2:4-10, Luke 19:28-40

Small Group Discussion  

Holy Week
Maundy Thursday: Read Psalm 22, Lesson on Psalm 22 and Hebrews 2:10-18
Good Friday: Meditate on Psalm 22, Lesson on John 19:23-27
Holy Saturday: Hear Christ in Psalm 22, Lesson on Matt 27:45-50

Easter Sunday: Psalm 16:5-11, Acts 2:22-36, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, John 20:1-18

[1] John 1:1, 14, ESV.
[2] Hebrews 1:1-2, ESV
[3] Hebrews 4:11

Monday, November 26, 2012

With Power and Great Glory

Luke 21 is a mysterious and puzzling passage of Scripture - though perhaps we produce some of that puzzlement ourselves in the assumptions we bring to the text. Its talk of wars and destruction, famine and pestilence have caused countless Christians to speculate as to when the events described in this chapter might take place. Many modern Christians have assumed that the events referred to here are still future ones that will take place before Jesus returns. Consequently, many Christians have also spent a good bit of time trying to match up events of our own time with the events described in this chapter and others like it thereby predicting that the return of Jesus is near. This approach, however, is problematic for a number of reasons.

Perhaps the most important of those reasons is that Jesus himself warns against it in this very passage. The disciples ask Jesus when all these things will happen to which he replies:
"See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is at hand!' Do no go after them." (v. 6)
This, combined with Jesus' admonition in Acts 1 that no one knows the time and date of Jesus' return, should be enough to put to rest every attempt by Christians to put together any kind of "End of the World" timetable or blueprint.

A second important facet of Jesus' discourse in this passage is that it is all ultimately a response to comments about the temple. The chapter opens with the story of a poor widow putting two copper coins into the temple offering and Jesus commenting that she has given more than all the rest because she has given all she had. Afterward, some of those present are marveling at the temple in all its glory. The Jerusalem temple was indeed a building that would have inspired awe by ancient standards. It was both enormous in its construction and ornate in its craftsmanship. But rather than joining in their gawking over the temple, Jesus says:
"As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down."
This prophecy by Jesus was quite literally fulfilled in 70 A.D. when the Romans put down a Jewish insurrection and burned the temple to the ground in the process. Far from being a prediction about the future, much of what Jesus speaks about here takes place in the disciples' own lifetime. In fact, Luke makes a point of speaking about the disciples in Acts in a way that fulfills Jesus' words here. In v. 12-14 Jesus says:
"But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name's sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict."
In Acts 4, Luke tells the story of Peter and John being arrested and brought before the religious leaders because they have been preaching in the name of Jesus. When they are given the chance to defend themselves, Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit and speaks eloquently about Jesus. When the religious leaders heard Peter's speech they are astonished that some with education could speak as Peter has just done. Furthermore, seeing the formerly crippled man that Peter had just healed standing next to them, the council is unable to speak in opposition to what Peter has just said. Jesus' words in Luke 21 are fulfilled in Peter.

Thirdly, it is important to recognize the kind of literature we are dealing with in this passage. Like its similar sounding counterparts in Daniel and Revelation, this passage is an example of apocalyptic literature. The Greek word from which this literature derives its name means to reveal or uncover. The purpose of apocalyptic literature is to pull back the curtain of everyday, visible reality and expose the greater reality that easily remains unseen. So in Revelation, for example, John portrays seemingly harmless compromise with the Roman Empire as nothing short of keeping company with a Great Harlot who derives her seductive power from the unholy psuedo-trinity of false prophet, satanic beast, and devouring dragon. Likewise, Jesus is uncovering an important reality for his disciples when in v.27 he describes himself as the Son of Man described in Daniel 7. A few verses from that chapter of Daniel will suffice to show why that would be a reassuring image for those who count themselves followers of Jesus.
"I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away; and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed." Daniel 7:13-14
In other words, in the midst of all this tragedy, when things seem most hopeless, Jesus' disciples are still to raise their heads and their hopes high because their redemption is near. Even as nation rises up against nation, Jesus is the one to whom dominion over all the nations has been given. Whatever chaos the powers that be may cause, Jesus is the one true power who reigns supreme.

In some ways, this may seem an odd message for this time of year. We would rather think of holiday cheer and a cute baby boy born in a manger. But the gospels will not let us forget that the baby boy in the manger is the one who rules the nations. Furthermore, this is an appropriate word for the first Sunday of Advent for it is the coming of Christ and his kingdom which is our hope. As Christians, there is a certain sense in which we are always living in a season of advent because it is Christ's cosmic reign of peace and justice which we eagerly anticipate even as we live in a world of wars and rumors of wars. We are always a people who are waiting, a people leaning into the future, living into the day when the Son of Man will come in the clouds with power and great glory. May His kingdom come.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Different Kind of Fiscal Cliff

Last week, I wrote about some of the surprising ways in which Leviticus calls us to love our neighbor. Leviticus 25 is another one of those somewhat surprising ways. Israel has already been commanded to keep a Sabbath rest every seventh day. Now God declares that the land is to have a Sabbath as well - every seventh year. In that year, the people of Israel were to leave the land uncultivated, allowing it to grow wild. It is easy to see how this would have been a remarkable practice of trust in Yahweh for the people of Israel - just imagine taking a whole year off of work and trusting God to provide in that year. God promised that if Israel kept this command that the land would produce enough surplus in the sixth year in order to provide throughout the scarcity of the seventh year. Israel was to trust God in the promised land just as they had to trust Yahweh to provide during their wilderness wandering.

But the commandment becomes even more exceptional. In addition to leaving the ground fallow every seventh year, Israel was also to celebrate Jubilee every 50th year. As a part of this celebration, Israel was commanded to proclaim liberty throughout the land; slaves were released from their slavery and property was returned to its original owner. It seems the year of Jubilee was a way of maintaining some level of economic equality within Israel. In other words, it was acknowledged that some Israelites might grow wealthier and others poorer and that in itself is not condemned. However, it seems there was also an acknowledgement that if left unchecked this disparity of wealth could become to great and therefore unjust. As a result, every 50th year was to serve as a "leveling of the playing field". If someone had grown so poor that they had to sell their property or sell themselves or a family member into slavery, then on the 50th year they or their family member or their land were to be released. God specifically states that land was not to be sold into perpetuity because the land ultimately belonged to God (v. 23). As such, God would not allow the land to be used to accumulate a wealth so great that it was crushing one's neighbor. There had to be limit on how much one could profit while another suffered.

This had to be one of the most radical of all of Israel's laws (so radical, in fact, that many scholars question whether or not it was ever actually practiced in Israel). If it is hard to imagine on an individual level what would happen if one intentionally went without work for a year trusting God to provide then it is even more difficult to imagine the kind of large scale economic restructuring that would take place in a society where every land-debt was forgiven and every slave released on one day. How would our own society be transformed if every debt was forgiven every 50 years? (To his credit, Pope John Paul II called for the year 2000 to be a year of Jubilee, a call which went largely unanswered by the corporations and nations of the world. However, there has been some discussion since then about the wealthier nations of the world forgiving the overwhelming debts owed by poorer nations.)

Isaiah 61 uses this radical language to describe Israel's own return from exile. The prophet declares:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor ; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor..."
 "To proclaim liberty" is language lifted right out of Leviticus 25. In his commentary on Isaiah, Walter Brueggemann argues that "the year of the Lord's favor" is also an allusion to the year of Jubilee. Isaiah uses this language of Jubilee to proclaim God's deliverance of Israel. The poor, brokenhearted captives described in this passage are God's own people who have been exiled from their homes by the nation of Babylon. God is, in effect, declaring a year of Jubilee through the prophet Isaiah for Israel itself by proclaiming that the debt of Israel's sins have been canceled, that they will be released from their captivity, and that they will return to the land God gave them. The God who commanded Israel to practice Jubilee is now enacting Jubilee on their behalf.

Jesus quotes these words from Isaiah in Luke 4. In fact, they are programmatic for the way Luke will go about portraying Jesus in his gospel. Bringing good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, and proclaiming liberty to those held captive by disease, disability, ritual impurity, and prejudice are precisely the kind of things we see Jesus doing in the gospel of Luke. After reading from the scroll in the synagogue, Jesus hands its back to the attendant and sits down - the position from which someone would typically expound on the Scripture just read. Jesus' only words are "Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Initially, the people marvel at Jesus' words. When Jesus read this, the people of Israel lived in their own land so they were not in exile in the traditional sense. However, they lived in their land under the rule of Rome. As such, many Jews considered themselves to be living in exile and looked for God to deliver them from that exile again just as God had in the days of Isaiah. So the synagogue audience is excited because Jesus has just proclaimed that Israel's return from exile is close at hand. Furthermore, Jesus' makes this proclamation in his hometown of Nazareth. Surely, the people assume, if the messiah who accomplishes the return from exile is from their very own town then they stand to find themselves at the head of the victory parade.

In fact, Jesus sums up those assumptions well when he says:
"Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Physician heal yourself.' What we have heard you did in Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well."
 But Jesus then undercuts those assumptions when he says:
And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
Not only does Jesus remind them that no prophet is ever accepted in his own town. Jesus also cites two instances of prophetic ministry in which gentiles receive God's deliverance while Israel does not. In other words, Jesus declares that his promise of Jubilee and return from exile is not for Israel alone but for non-Jews as well. The audience which first responded to Jesus' message so favorably now becomes so angry that they try to push him off a cliff.

I find it fascinating that Luke chooses to portray Jesus' proclamation of salvation in the economic language of Jubilee - to say that the salvation Jesus brings is akin to an emancipation proclamation and a nation-wide mortgage burning ceremony all rolled into one. Like the audience in that synagogue, our response to such a revolutionary message will probably be largely determined by where we stand. So long as we think we are the ones having our debts canceled then we welcome the word of liberation. When we find out that some one else might receive the same grace, we question this message or perhaps even become angry. Or to put it in terms of the wealthiest Christians who have ever inhabited the face of the earth, so long as Jesus' message of liberation is about canceling our spiritual debts we are happy to accept it. But what if Jesus' proclamation of Jubilee is also a call to restructure the economic systems which benefit us but lead to the oppression of others? What if praying for the forgiveness of our own spiritual debts entails our forgiving of all kinds of debts on behalf of others?

Will we find the nearest cliff?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Charity Is No Substitute

What do you think of when you hear Jesus' command to "love your neighbor"?  What does it mean to fulfill that command?

I preached a sermon on this topic several years ago and I was somewhat surprised afterward when someone said to me "You know pastor, you're right!  I really need to do a better job of loving my neighbor." - by which this person quite literally meant their actual next door neighbor. It was a pleasant surprise though. This is the kind of epiphany we could all have and our communities and churches would be all the better for it. I know I could do a much better job of loving my actual next door neighbor.

However, I imagine that most of us understand this command a bit less literally. We realize that our neighbor can actually be anyone we encounter. In fact, by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus communicates to us that the question for us should not be "Who is my neighbor?" but "Am I being a neighbor to everyone I encounter?" And I would guess that when we think of being "neighborly" to the people we encounter in our daily routines that we usually think of being kind, courteous, and lending a helping hand when its needed. Again, these are good things and we could do a lot worse as the Church.

But I think many of us would probably be surprised to know that when Jesus says that the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves, he is quoting a verse from Leviticus. We might be even more surprised to hear the kind of things that our associated with loving our neighbor in that passage. Here is a sampling:
"When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard, You shall leave them for the poor and the sojourner: I am the Lord your God." 19:9-10
"You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him.  The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning." 19:13
"You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor." 19:15
This isn't exactly smiling-at-your-grocery-store-cashier or giving-a-few-bucks-to-a-stranger kind of stuff. In fact, this isn't the language of individual charity at all. We're talking about harvest and wages and courts. This is the language of business and law we are dealing with here. In other words, when Leviticus speaks of "loving our neighbor" this is not something that is merely a private or individual matter. Love of neighbor extended even into God's expectation for Israel's businesses and legal systems.

Of course, this is not to say that we can simply pick up these commands and implement them unchanged in our own corporations and justice system. The verses I quoted above are ones that might cohere more readily with our modern sensibilities but they are surrounded by verses which we ignore entirely; verses that prohibit garments made of two kinds of material or that condone slavery or that forbid certain haircuts, not to mention the entirety of the sacrificial system. No, a good biblical ethic must consist of more than merely a series of verses that give us a list of do's and don'ts. Furthermore, we live in a democracy very unlike Israel's theocracy and we find ourselves in the midst of a complex global economy where it can be extremely difficult to discern what is most loving for our American neighbors, much less our neighbors half way around the world.

In spite of all of that, Leviticus challenges us to see that Jesus' command to love our neighbor extends well beyond individual acts of charity. Loving our neighbor in this world means being informed about the products we buy and how they impact those who make them. It means thinking about how the laws of our land will impact the disadvantaged and defenseless.

St. Augustine, probably the most influential theologian in the history of the Church, is often quoted as having said "Charity is no substitute for justice withheld." Helping those in need is not a substitute for remedying the unjust systems which lead to their need in the first place. We are a people called to love our neighbor. Caring for our literal neighbors, our co-workers, those we encounter day to day is a good first step but we must also love the neighbor we may never meet by witnessing to a kingdom in which justice and mercy prevail.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Day of Atonement

Leviticus 16 describes the Day of Atonement, an offering carried out once a year by Aaron and his priestly descendants. The ritual began with the priest removing his ornate priestly garments, washing himself with water, and putting on plain linen garments. The sacrifice itself actually involved three animals: a bull and two goats.

The bull was slaughtered as a sin offering for the priest himself and his household. The priest then entered behind the inner curtain of the tabernacle, the most holy place, bringing with him fine incense and the blood of the slaughtered bull. This was the only time each year that the priest ever entered this inner most part of the tabernacle, the place which represented the very presence of God. The incense was apparently for the priest's own protection (16:13, perhaps the cloud of smoke serving as some kind of barrier even as the priest stands in the very presence of God?) and the blood was to be sprinkled on and in front of the mercy seat as a way of cleansing this most holy place from the priest's sins accumulated throughout the year.

The two goats served as a sin offering for the people of Israel. The priest would cast lots over the two goats to see which would be designated for God and which for Azazel (more on that in a minute). The goat designated for God was slaughtered and its blood was brought into the most holy place and placed on and in front of the mercy seat just as the bull's blood and was meant to cleanse the inner sanctuary of the people's sin accumulated over the course of the year. The priest would then use both the bull's blood and the goat's blood to cleanse the altar at the front of the tabernacle as well.

The priest would then lay his hands on the second goat, the one designated for Azazel, and confess over it all the sins of the people of Israel. This goat was then sent off into the wilderness to "bear all their iniquities on itself into a remote area." There is much debate about what "Azazel" means. Some think it may be the name of a demon roaming in the wilderness while others think it may be a name for the wilderness itself. The simplest explanation is probably that the word is a combination of the Hebrew words for "goat" and "to go away". It is the goat that is sent away carrying Israel's sins; or as many English translations term it, the scapegoat.

Although the meaning of the sacrifices and rituals in Leviticus can often be opaque to us, this one actually seems to be relatively clear. Much like the regular sin offerings, the sacrifices on the Day of Atonement were meant to purge the tabernacle of Israel's sins both through the cleansing agent of blood and now also by being carried away on the scapegoat. Unlike other sin offerings, this was the only day each year when the priest entered the most holy place behind the second curtain of the tabernacle. The presence of God was so holy and tremendous that one could not simply enter the most holy place on a whim. But even this most holy place had to be cleansed of Israel's sin from time to time so as not to drive God away. So the priest entered by the blood of bulls and goats this one day a year to cleanse the inner sanctuary.

It is specifically this Day of Atonement ritual on which the Epistle to the Hebrews builds much of its portrayal of Christ as our high priest. When the priest entered the earthly tabernacle, Hebrews argues, he is entering only a copy and shadow of the real tabernacle of heaven where God's presence truly dwells. Christ, on the other hand, has entered the true most holy place in heaven. Much as the blood of bulls and goats allowed the high priest to enter into the inner sanctuary, so Christ's own blood has allowed him to ascend into heaven and be seated at the right hand of the Father. Since Christ perpetually dwells in the presence of God he does not have to make this sacrifice year after year but is able to intercede for us continually. Furthermore, by accomplishing all this in our own human flesh, Christ has also cleansed us and opened the way for us into the very presence of God.

This ritual and the argument which Hebrews builds on it surely seem foreign to us for a number of reasons. Perhaps not least of these reasons is that we don't really regard the presence of God as all that holy or tremendous - at least not in the way these ancient Israelites did. We walk casually into our churches, take our seat, and expect God to show up in a mighty way after only a few worship choruses. We pray and expect that God will listen and grant our requests. Come to think of it, isn't God present everywhere? So what's all the fuss about with the curtains and the incense and the blood of bulls and goats?

As a result, perhaps we miss out on just how good the good news of Hebrews is. If Leviticus as a whole, and the Day of Atonement ritual in particular, teach us anything it is that the presence of a holy God is not something to be taken lightly. While Hebrews proclaims the good news that Christ has opened the way for us into the presence of God, the Levitical roots of Hebrews' argument reminds us of what an enormous gift that is. After all, it took not the merely the blood of bulls and goats but the blood of the Son of God to make it happen.

Honestly, I'm not exactly sure where Leviticus and Hebrews are leading me this week.  I have a lot of thinking to do about these passages between now and Sunday. But I do know that this theme of just how precious God's presence is seems to keep coming up as I've been preaching through Exodus and Leviticus. In Exodus, Moses knows that it is only the presence of God which distinguishes Israel from all the other peoples of the earth and as such it is worth wrestling for. In Leviticus, the whole purpose of the tabernacle and sacrificial system seems to be about providing an appropriate place for God's presence to dwell in the midst of Israel's camp. It seems to me that the Church also should recognize that the only thing which sets us apart is the presence of God transforming us and as such we should do whatever we have to in order to provide an appropriate place for God's presence to dwell in our midst.

Monday, October 29, 2012

No Worship Without Justice

The fifth sacrifice described in the opening chapters of Leviticus is the guilt offering or restitution offering. Leviticus 5:14 - 6:7 gives three reasons why this sacrifice might be offered. 5:15 states the first reason: "If anyone commits a breach of faith and sins unintentionally in any of the holy things of the Lord...". Its not exactly clear what "a breach of faith" or "the holy things of the Lord" might mean. Many scholars guess that this has to do with the sacred items set apart for worship in the tabernacle. The second reason given in 5:17 is nearly as vague with the very general statement "If anyone sins, doing any of the things that by the Lord's commandments ought not to be done...". In contrast to this pattern, the third reason given in 6:1-5 is quite detailed.
"If anyone sins and commits a breach of faith against the Lord by deceiving his neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery, of if he has oppressed his neighbor or has found something lost and lied about it, swearing falsely - in any of all the things that people do and sin thereby - if he has sinned and has realized his guilt and will restore what he took by robbery or what he got by oppression or the deposit that was committed to him or the lost thing that he found or anything about which he has sworn falsely, he shall restore it in full and shall add a fifth to it, and give it to him to whom it belongs on the day he realizes his guilt." 
We have here the first indication in Leviticus that right worship of God is bound up with our relationships with other human beings. The first four offerings have all been directed toward God and even some of the reasons for this offering has to do with "the holy things of the Lord." But now we also see that an offering is to be made to God even when another person has been wronged, the unspoken reasoning being that taking advantage of our neighbor is an offense to God. In fact, God takes this mistreatment of our fellow human beings so seriously that merely making an offering to God is not enough.  The offending party must make full restitution and add a fifth to what was taken. Additionally, this is the only sacrifice described in these first six chapters which does not offer a sliding scale where wealthier individuals brought larger, more costly animals while less prosperous individuals could bring smaller ones. The only proscription for the guilt offering is a ram; an animal which was probably second in cost only to a bull. Given the demand for a ram and the command to make a 120% restitution, this was one costly sacrifice which was needed to atone for the sin involved in taking advantage of one's neighbor.

Although this may be the first indication in Leviticus of the connection between worship of God and care for others, it comes as no surprise following closely on the heels of Exodus. We have already seen in the destruction of Pharaoh and the liberation of the people of Israel from their slavery how seriously God takes the oppression and injustice that human beings inflict upon one another. Likewise, we see in the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai that more than half the ten commandments regard our treatment of each other. Of course, the Hebrew prophets are well known for their calls to practice justice and mercy and to remind Israel that offering sacrifices is no substitute for respecting basic human dignity and caring for the vulnerable.

Standing in this same prophetic tradition, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for taking so much care in following their religious obligations that they tithe even a tenth of their spices but simultaneously neglect the weightier matters of the law, namely, justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Similarly, Jesus says that if someone is offering a sacrifice and they remember that they have wronged a brother they should leave the sacrifice and go set things right before completing that act of worship.

I know this is sort of basic Christianity. Anyone who has spent much time in church is probably familiar with the passages I mentioned in the previous paragraph not to mention the fact that Jesus says the two greatest commandments are to love God and your neighbor. 1 John tells us that anyone who says he loves God and hates his brother is a liar. James says we must show our faith by caring for others. Acts portrays the early Church as a community in which everyone's needs were met. This is a theme that is all over the Bible.

But, often... we need to be reminded of the basics.

Worship of God is not a substitute for loving our neighbor. Piety is not a substitute for justice and mercy. 

One of the stories I find most revealing in this regard is that of Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple. At first glance, this story is often read as a condemnation of business transactions taking place in this religious space but those who were selling and exchanging money in the temple-courts weren't just selling any old product. They were selling the animals necessary for sacrifice and they were exchanging Romans coins with images of the emperor on them for coins without an image so that faithful Jews could make an offering without bringing an idolatrous image into the temple. In other words, they were enabling Jews to carry out proper worship. But Jesus' words in this story tell us why this was a problem. He says:
Is it not written, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of robbers."
That first line is a quotation from Isaiah 56:7, a chapter in Isaiah which describes the temple as a place of prayer not only for Jews but for the people of every nation on the earth who turn to God. In fact, there was a specific place in the Temple called the Court of the Gentiles which was to be a place of prayer for non-Jews. As you might have guessed, this is where the sellers and money-changers set up shop and by doing so they effectively eliminated the one space where non-Jews, foreigners, that is, religious outsiders could worship the God of Israel. The piety of the religious was preventing the prayers of those seen as less religious. 

The second line of Jesus' words are a quotation from Jeremiah 7:11, a chapter which describes the people of Israel as practicing every kind of injustice and oppression only to run back to the temple for protection. The thinking was that as along as the temple stood in Jerusalem it meant that the presence of God was still with Israel and they would be safe. In other words, they were literally treating the temple like a robber's den, a hideout, a lair to which they could return and offer a prayer for protection after committing their evil acts. By quoting Jeremiah, Jesus declares that the kind of worship which went on in the temple, a worship that paid attention to every pious detail while turning a blind eye to the oppression and injustice of the world, made the temple less a place a worship and more a place for thieves to hide from their obligation to their fellow human being behind a veneer of religion and piety. 

And to think that this was the one thing in all the gospels which really got Jesus' blood boiling. This is the one episode of outright anger that we ever see from Jesus. Think of all the sin Jesus encountered in the gospels, the demon possessions, the often clueless disciples, the complete misunderstanding of who he was, even the threats of death and ultimately his crucifixion! But in the midst of all those things Jesus is calm, steady, patient, gracious, and forgiving. But this temple turned den of robbers, this worship without justice, is the one thing that turns that calm and patient Jesus into a raving mad man. 

If ever there was a word of warning to the Church today, I believe this is it. There is no bigger danger for "good, religious folk" like myself and the people who attend our church than that we will become a people so caught up in the details of our worship that we will neglect the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness, that we will become so enamored with points of piety that we will take what should be a house of prayer for all the nations and turn it into nothing more than a place where religious people can hide from the neighbor we are called to love. May the Spirit of Jesus come and overturn our tables as well if that is what it takes for us to be rescued from becoming such a place and such a people.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sin Excluding Love

Last week I introduced Leviticus and described the practice of sacrifice in general terms. Having made that introduction, I think it is now important to point out that not all sacrifice in Leviticus is the same. There are actually five kinds of sacrifice described in the first 6 chapters of Leviticus. The first three are the whole burnt offering (1:1-17), the grain offering (2:1-16), and the peace offering (3:1-17). Each of these had different purposes and different procedures but one thing they all had in common is that they were all free-will offerings. There is no stipulation in Leviticus for when these sacrifices were to be made. Instead, they could be brought freely and willingly at almost any time by anyone in Israel.  Presumably this was done merely out of joy or thankfulness. These sacrifices were intended solely as acts of worship, as a response to the grace and salvation that God had provided for Israel. This is significant because I'm pretty sure that when most Christians think of sacrifice we almost always think of it in terms of something being offered because of sin.  At most, however, only half the sacrifices described in Leviticus are about sin (the sin offering and guilt offering in ch. 4-5 and the Day of Atonement offering in 16). Sacrifices could also be offered as a sign of deliverance (the Passover meal signifying the Exodus from Egypt) and provision (sacrifice at the Feast of Firstfruits and Feast of Weeks in relation to harvest). Sacrifice does not always signify sin.

Of course, there are times when it does. Leviticus 4:2-3 reads "If anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord's commandments about things not to be done, and does anyone of them... then he shall offer a bull from the heard without blemish to the Lord for a sin offering." Leviticus 4:1-5:13 goes on to describe the proper procedure for the sin offering to be brought by various people (for the sins of priests, leaders, the whole of Israel, etc.) whenever they have failed to keep God's law. However, even when a sacrifice does signify sin, I wonder if we still often miss much of what is going on here.

In a good portion of evangelicalism the reasoning for sacrifice often goes something like this:
God is a perfectly just God whose righteousness can not be impugned. Therefore, when God's perfect law is broken the offending party must be punished in order to keep God's justice and honor intact. God graciously provided the sacrificial system so that God's justice might be satisfied and his wrath averted by the blood of an animal. This, in turn, explains Christ's sacrifice on the cross. The Son absorbed the wrath of the Father so that we would not have to bear punishment for our sin.
 Aside from all the theological problems one might have with such a characterization of God (Why is this God so vengeful and blood-thirsty? Is Christ's death an instance of divine child abuse?), there is also the fact that this reasoning for sacrifice is never given in Scripture itself. It is a reading imposed upon the text by a certain idea of God and God's justice which is not necessarily in line with the character of God as it is revealed in much of the rest of Scripture. In fact, there is very little, if any, explanation or reasoning given for the sacrifices proscribed in Leviticus. They are simply proscribed. This means, of course, that any attempt to explain the "theology of sacrifice" in Leviticus will have to go beyond what Scripture says since it gives no explanation. However, in attempting such an explanation we can pay careful attention to the details of the rituals themselves and how they fit into the larger story of God revealed in Scripture.

First, we must take note of the only statements in this chapter which come close to an explicitly stated theology. After the ritual of the sin offering is described the text says "So the priest shall make atonement for his sin and he shall be forgiven." (4:26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10. 13) There is no mention here of God's wrath being appeased or justice being satisfied. Instead, the Hebrew word for atonement indicates the idea of covering over the sin that has been committed. The Greek equivalent of this same word in the Septuagint carries the idea of purging obstacles that might stand between the person and God. Even our English word itself, at-one-ment, speaks to the idea of being at one with God. The emphasis here is on maintaining the relationship between God and the people.

We find this same idea highlighted in the practice of the ritual itself, especially in the use of blood, which acts as a kind of cleansing agent in the sanctuary. In contrast to the whole burnt offering where the blood of the animal is merely splattered against the sides of the altar and then poured out at the base of the alter, here the blood is placed on the horns of the altar and, in the case of the priests and the congregation of Israel, sprinkled seven times in front of the curtain leading into the most holy place. Much as the Hebrew and Greek words communicate, the animal's blood is used to cover over and purge the effects of one's sin from the tabernacle. (So much so that many scholars believe this should be referred to as the purification offering rather than the sin offering.) To be sure, the individual receives forgiveness in accordance with the sacrifice but forgiveness is really only part of the problem. The bigger problem is that the stench of sin threatens to drive God out of the Israelite camp. When someone sins, it threatens to pollute God's house. In the case of priests and communal sins of the whole people, it seems the stink is so pungent that it reaches right up to the inner curtain, threatening to enter into God's very dwelling. The concern of Leviticus is less for God's justice and more for God's holiness; that God's wholly otherness, God's sacredness will be profaned by the common and impure. The biggest problem with sin isn't that it might invite God's punishment but that it might drive God away entirely.

This understanding of sacrifice and sin is also in keeping with the picture of God we are given in the rest of Scripture. There are certainly times when God sends wrath and punishment but often it serves the purpose of rehabilitation more so than retribution. God exhibits his wrath to get Israel's attention and to call the people of Israel back to God. Likewise, we've just seen in the book of Exodus that it is God's presence with the people which is the number one concern of Israel. Indeed, Moses says it is the one thing which distinguishes them from all the other people on the earth.

Sin is a troublesome word these days. To speak it is to almost guarantee that you will be misunderstood. But before we go blaming our "relativistic, amoral culture," we as the Church need to realize that sin is our word. It is uniquely a part of our faith vocabulary. If others misunderstand the meaning of a word that is uniquely ours to define, perhaps the problem is that our speech and our lives have not served as trustworthy dictionaries.

I believe that the sin offering described in Leviticus shows us that sin is a deadly serious thing and as such it is a word worth reclaiming. Perhaps Leviticus can also help us take the first step in knowing how to reclaim it - by reminding us that the real tragedy of sin is not the failure to keep what can sometimes seem an arbitrary moral code. The real tragedy of sin is that it threatens to drive the presence of God out of our lives. And conversely, if we can't say that something really threatens to distance us from God then maybe we should think twice about calling it sin. Sometimes Christians can become so absorbed with fleeing sin that we forget we should be running toward God.

It is not the narrative of an angry God which under-girds the notion of sin but the story of a God who is holy love; who will go to any length - even taking on our own flesh - in order to dwell among us. Sin is the name given to the things which keep this loving God out of our lives. On a blog to which I subscribed just earlier today, I happened across these words.

The man who keenly longs to escape his sin
Has first to forget about escaping sin.
What he requires instead
Is a role in a Larger, Better Story.
A Good Story.
A God Story.
And when he finds it, he will realize,
There is no escaping sin.
There is only learning Love.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Embodied Worship

This Sunday I begin a series from the book of Leviticus. If your first inclination after reading that sentence is to stop reading the rest of this post, you probably aren't alone. In fact, I thought a story from one of the commentaries on Leviticus I've been reading in preparation for preaching from Leviticus summed it up well. The writer said that he discovered that his children were working on reading through the entire Bible on their own. When he found out that his son was about to begin Leviticus he encouraged him to merely skim it rather than actually try to read it for fear that he would get bogged down and never make it past Leviticus. It is a pretty strong statement as to our general aversion to this book of the Bible when even someone who has himself written a commentary on Leviticus discourages his own child from spending too much time in the book. Surely Leviticus has to make the (very) short list for the most neglected books in all of the Christian canon.

I think it is helpful to begin by considering what it is we actually have in front of us in a book like Leviticus. It is essentially an instruction book. I know Christians sometimes characterize the whole Bible as God's instruction book on the Christian life but that's really not quite right, at least not in the way Leviticus is; not in terms of categories of literature. Much of Scripture is story (and a number of other genres too, of course) and while we may indeed gather instruction from those stories, the stories themselves do not come in the form of instructions. They, in fact, serve a much larger and more complete purpose than that.

But Leviticus is not like that. There are a handful of stories in it but the vast majority of this book is very detailed and specific instruction regarding things like sacrifice, purity, festivals, and harvest. In short, most of the book is an instruction manual for worship. A parallel today might be the Revised Common Lectionary which outlines passages of Scripture for each Sunday's worship or the Book of Common Prayer which provides prayers and orders of worship for certain occasions like weddings or funerals. In our denomination, we have the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene. It is a small book that outlines our church government, certain moral expectations, and even some rituals for certain parts of worship like communion, baptism, or the reception of new church members. Although the Manual is not exactly the same kind of literature as Leviticus, it is probably the closest modern parallel we have in our tradition.

Notice that none of the examples I mentioned above are books that you would read from cover to cover. This isn't out of laziness or the irrelevancy of the books themselves. Its just not what those books are designed for. Likewise, there is a certain sense in which Leviticus probably wasn't meant to be read like other parts of Scripture. The point of reading an instruction manual is not to become an expert on the instructions but to have successfully carried out what the manual describes. When we read Leviticus, we are reading something that ultimately was not meant to be read but practiced. In some ways, reading Leviticus is somewhat akin to reading a really detailed order of worship that might be written out for a worship leader or praise team. Obviously, reading the order of worship is not nearly as meaningful as having actually participated in the worship service it describes. I think this is part of the reason even faithful readers of Scripture often flounder on the shores of Leviticus.

Of course, saying that Leviticus is a book concerned with practices doesn't entirely let us off the hook from reading it because there is another sense in which it is a book that is meant to be read. By saying that Leviticus is Scripture, we are claiming that God speaks through the reading of this book. In fact, it has ceased to be an instruction manual, a book of practice for us as Christians since we carry out virtually none of its admonitions. How does a book written as an instruction manual, the instructions of which we don't follow, become Scripture for us? Does this book have anything to say to us or does it fully deserve the neglect it often receives?

Perhaps we can return to our earlier examples for help here. Let's say that one did sit down and read the Revised Common Lectionary from cover to cover. Although this is not the purpose for which the book is designed, one could still learn an enormous amount about the worship of a church which used it. For example, it would become obvious that a church which utilized the RCL thought that hearing Scripture was an important part of worship and also that it was important to hear from all parts of Scripture, not just favorite passages. It would probably also be a church that thought the seasons of the church year were a good way to keep the life of Christ at the center of its worship. Similarly, one could learn a lot about our beliefs concerning marriage, baptism, and church membership in the Church of the Nazarene simply by reading those written rituals in the Manual.

Likewise, we can learn something meaningful about ancient Israel's worship of Yahweh simply by reading Leviticus. One of the very first things you notice about the worship described in the book of Leviticus is that it is active, its demanding, its overwhelmingly physical, even costly. Worship in Leviticus is not passive listening, it is not merely attendance, and it is not primarily a mental or emotional thing. The vision of worship in Leviticus says there is work to be done here. The act of worship we hear described in most of Leviticus 1 involves bringing a farm animal (read: stinky, dirty, and I am going to assume not always cooperative), laying your hands on its head, shedding its blood, the priest splattering that blood on the altar, dissecting the animal so as to throw out the inappropriate body parts, putting the other parts on the altar, washing them to make sure they are free of excrement or undigested food, and finally offering what is on the altar by fire. 

Sounds exhausting, doesn't it? At the very least, it sounds like a lot more than is usually demanded of us in most of our worship services. So much so that for many of us our first reaction is probably something along the lines of "Thank God Jesus died for me so that I don't have to do all that." But I want to suggest that such a statement is at best only half right. 

To be sure, we believe that Jesus' death means that the kind of animal sacrifice described above is not the kind of response that Jesus demands of us. But let's be clear that Jesus still demands a response. And that response is not merely "belief." There is work to be done in the Christian faith, in Christian worship, as well. 

Often when we in the protestant tradition hear that word "work" in relation to our faith we automatically assume that someone is talking about earning their salvation. In fact, we often accuse the Jewish people of this; that their failure was that they thought they had to earn their salvation by following the Law. Nothing could be further from the truth. The people of Israel knew they were not earning their salvation by offering the sacrifices prescribed in Leviticus. God had already provided salvation for them in their exodus from Egypt before any law was ever given. The laws of sacrifice were an opportunity to respond to what God had already done and to continue to participate in the covenant which God had so graciously provided for the people of Israel. 

In the same way, the work we are called to is not to earn our salvation but to respond to the salvation Jesus has already provided and to continue to participate in the new covenant which Jesus has inaugurated. But just because it is a new covenant without animal sacrifice does not mean there is not costly, sacrificial, very physical work to be done. In fact, the Epistle to the Hebrews, the very book which so carefully articulates why animal sacrifice is not a part of the new covenant Jesus has made for us, is also the book which so painstakingly defines "faith" as a work that must be lived. Hebrews 10:23-25 reads 

"Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."
Our faith is something we must work to hold fast to. It involves stirring up one another to love and good works. It means choosing to meet together and encouraging each other. And this is only the beginning for from here the author will go on in Hebrews 11 to describe those who lived "by faith" as those who did the work of faithful living: enduring persecution, actively trusting God, pursuing justice, righteousness, and peace.

Christian faith and Christian worship may not be as grotesquely physical as animal sacrifice but it is no less of an embodied faith. We are a people called into a covenant which requires the response of our whole selves. What if we showed up to our worship services with the expectation that the pastor wasn't the only one doing work that day? Or if instead of focusing on "being fed" we were focused on how we can actively contribute to the worship of the Church, our own spiritual growth, and the growth of those around us? Or if we left our church building knowing that our spiritual work week had only just begun?