Bible, Christian living, creation care

Creation Cries Out

A devotional written for Creation Care Week at Wayland Baptist University. Published on Earth Day 2022.

If you missed it somehow, a war is raging in Ukraine the past two months.  While stories of the war seem ever-present in our newscasts and newsfeeds, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is by no means the only war presently occurring in the world.  What, you might ask, does war have to do with Creation Care?

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War does not only have a heavy human toll through death, dismemberment, and mental trauma.  Nor is it limited to the destruction of cities and infrastructure necessary for civilization and human thriving.  War also affects the environment.  One study of greenhouse gas emissions released by weapons of war discovered 1.2 million metric tons of gases were released during the twenty year global War on Terror—an annual emissions rate more than double that generated by all U.S. automobiles.  Wildfires from incendiary bombs or simply human negligence is another threat.  In 2008, a wildfire destroyed large portions of the forests of Borjomi and Khagarauli national parks during Russia’s war with Georgia.  During the battles around the port city of Kherson, fires erupted in the Black Sea Biosphere Refuge, fires severe enough to be seen from space.  The biosphere was the winter home for many migratory birds and an important breeding habitat.  Even when habitats aren’t destroyed, the frequent movement of troops and equipment and the constant noise of war leads to disruption of the animal population.  According to a Georgian environmentalist, there was a noticeable migration of animals fleeing over the Caucasus Mountains from Chechnya to Georgia during the Chechen insurrection against the Russian Federation in the 1990s.

War also creates ecological damage when human industry is targeted.  Intentional damage to oil export equipment along the Black Sea has destroyed marine habitat.  The sudden closures of mines in the Donbas region as civilians flee the current Russian assault may result in toxins seeping into aquifers as no one is at the mines to ensure proper pumping operations.  Chemical plants and nuclear power plants could being hit, releasing toxins or radioactive material into the atmosphere, land, and watershed.  And the ecological impact of this war isn’t limited to Europe.  Ukraine and Russia account for a third of grain exports worldwide.  Between the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports and Western sanctions against Russian exports, the United Nations warns a food crisis will likely impact Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. 

Creation is in distress because of human actions.  As Paul puts it, “creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it” yet there is still “hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into . . . freedom and glory.”  This hope is rooted in creation’s “eager expectation” for the disclosure (apokalupsin) of the “Sons of God.”  Creation waits for this hope, groaning in its suffering and crying out in its anticipation of this apocalyptic moment when the Sons of God reveal themselves as healers, redeemers, and liberators (Rom 8:18-22).  Now, your English translation might have “children of God” (as the NIV does) instead of the literal “Sons of God.”  “Children” certainly is a more inclusive term and does fit Paul’s overall meaning, but “children” loses the symbolic nuance of what Paul is asserting. 

The term “Son of God” was a term for the kings of ancient Israel.  When Jesus was called “Son of God” during his earthly life, those who used the title meant the human king who would restore David’s kingdom.  (Only after the resurrection does the title begin to develop divine signification.)  Paul says Christians are kings (and queens).  We are part of Christ’s mission.  We are to work to establish the Kingdom of God.  Paul tells us we are adopted as sons (and daughters) by God to be “co-heirs” with Christ, sharing both in his suffering and in his glory (Rom 8:15-17).  Jesus himself referred to believers as Sons of God.  “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. . . .  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called Sons of God” (Matt 5:5, 9).  Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has argued that Vladimir Putin is the Defender of the Russian Orthodox faith on a divine mission to reclaim the sacred lands of Holy Rus (a land that includes Ukraine).  Yet Jesus says the true Sons of God are not warmongers or authoritarian strongmen, whether Tiberius Caesar or Vladimir Putin, but are instead meek peacemakers.

As we strive to see the Lord’s Prayer realized, working with the Father to bring earth into alignment with his will just as heaven already is (Matt 6:10), we should be reconcilers, peacemakers, and healers—not just for humans, not only for societies, but for creation itself.  While we will not fully realize our potential until Jesus returns and the Kingdom comes in its fullness, we are called today to live in the Spirit and to strive to live up to our calling as kings and queens (i.e., Sons of God) co-reigning with Jesus.  Can you hear creation?  It cries out with Jesus, “Blessed are the meek!  Blessed are the peacemakers!”

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Image by Anastasia Vlasova from Getty Images as used in the ABC News story below. “A rocket sits in a field near grazing cows on April 10, 2022 in Lukashivka village, Ukraine.”

The Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011 (with clarifying modification).

Anthes, Emily. “A ‘Silent Victim’: How Nature Becomes a Casualty of War.” The New York Times, April 20, 2022.

Jacobo, Julia. “Experts Predict Lasting Environmental Damage from Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine.” ABC News, April 20, 2022.

Kekenadze, Davit. “The Environment: The Silent Causualty of the Ukraine War.” Euronews, April 17, 2022.

Bible, Jesus, sermon

When All Is Lost, Look to the Cross!

There is perhaps no better known verse in all the Bible than John 3:16.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (NIV).  Tim Tebow wore this scripture reference on his eye black during the 2009 National Championship.  During the game, Google reported over 90 million searches for the verse!  Even though the verse is well-known even by non-Christians, however, many Christians read the verse in isolation and do not consider its context within John’s gospel.  In particular, the two verses that precede it state, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:14-15, NIV).

The story of the snake Moses lifted in the wilderness is in Numbers 21:4-9.  Jesus says that he himself must be lifted up as the snake, so it is important to understand what this snake was and how it functioned in the story of Moses to understand better the love of God for the world and why he would send his Son.

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The Snake Lifted Up in the Wilderness

First, we find that the people rebelled against God.  They grew impatient and questioned God’s ways.  They said he brought them to the desert to die, when in reality he was leading them through the desert to a land promised to their ancestors.  They complained there was no water, even though, by this point in the narrative, God had provided water on two occasions when it was desperately needed.  The people even asserted there was no bread, even though each morning they found a miraculous substance on the ground, a gift from God, which they could harvest, grind, and bake into bread.  But instead of being thankful for this bread from heaven, they despised it and called it “miserable” and “detestable.” 

What the people don’t seem to understand is that God was providing the best for them in the midst of a very bad situation.  They began to romanticize their old life in Egypt.  It isn’t stated in this story, but we read elsewhere how they reminisced about the diversity of food back in Egypt—forgetting they had been suffered as slaves there.  They also ignore the reality that the only reason they are even in the wilderness at this point was their lack of faith.  God had taken them rather quickly to the very edge of the Promised Land of Canaan, but instead of trusting God would help them conquer the land, they rebelled in their fear, so God cursed them to wander for forty years in the wilderness.  Yet despite their complaints and rebellion, God remained with them, guiding them and providing for them daily.

Even today we often think we know better than God and so we go our own way.  Sometimes we make destructive decisions for short-term moments of pleasure.  Other times, we act on what we think is a great opportunity only to discover many hidden traps.  Perhaps worst of all are the times we act like the these Israelites, following God half-heartedly but grumbling the entire time.  We neglect to see how our choices lead to slavery, lifelong consequences, hardened and embittered hearts, and/or even death.  This, however, is what the Israelites soon discovered.

Second, God judges the people’s sin.  Snakes came among the people and began to bite them.  Many of the affected people died.  If they thought God’s gift of Manna was miserable, just imagine how they felt now!  While some see the story as the act of a vengeful or vindictive God, the bigger picture emphasizes God is with the people through both good and bad times.  He is judging them not to punish so much as to discipline them.  Like a parent, he sees the direction their immediate choices will have on their future and the future of their children.  God hopes to correct them now so that they will mature in their faith and enjoy a better in the future.  He want to make them aware of their sinful state and its impact on their relationship with him and with each other.

Third, the people repent of their sins.  They agree with God that their actions are wrong (“we sinned against God”) and they ask Moses to pray for them.  Asking Moses to pray doesn’t mean they need a “professional” to whom they confess their sins.  Rather, it is a recognition that their sin wasn’t just against God but also against Moses’ leadership (“and we sinned against you”).  Asking Moses to pray for them was an act of repentance and reconciliation, acknowledging him as their appointed leader.  What is far more significant than who should pray, however, is what they ask him to pray: “take the snakes away”!

Finally, the Lord provided deliverance.  Moses is told to make a bronze snake and put it on a pole.  What God does is take the object of their suffering and affliction—the snakes—and turn it into the source of their healing and deliverance.  Death, in the shadow of the bronze snake, is transformed into life.  Chaos is given order.  Despair gives way to hope as one looks in faith upon the very image of despair.

Notice God says anyone “can look.”  When someone was bitten, they didn’t have to look.  If they did so, it was an act of trusting God, an act of faith. . . . but they didn’t have to.  In fact, what sense did it make?  There was a far more obvious solution: kill the snakes!  Don’t wait to get bitten.  But if you were bitten, there was a a more sensible action: take steps to remove the poison before it filtered through your body!  Imagine if a man showed up in Mariupol, Ukraine holding a staff with a bronze artillery shell on it.  If he told the people there, whenever you hear the whistle of an incoming shell, you’ll be fine if you just look at this bronze shell and trust God, they would think he was mad!  There are far better options!  Find an evacuation route to get out of the city.  Why stay in harm’s way?  Flee to a bunker to ride out the shelling.  Why remain in the open?  But this is just how ludicrous Moses probably sounded to the people back then.  Yet salvation doesn’t come through our own actions.  It comes from God and we need to trust him to provide for us in our times of need.

Also notice that God didn’t take the snakes away as the people requested.  Instead, God gave the people a bronze snake.  We are told that “when anyone was bitten,” if they looked at the symbol, they lived.  But God didn’t remove the snakes, at least not right away.  He provided a way through the situation, a way to bear up under it.  When someone becomes a Christian, they aren’t immediately translated into the Kingdom of God.  Rather, they remain here in this world of suffering, pain, and death.  But now they have been reconciled to God and he promises to provide them a way through the suffering, a way that leads towards healing and hope.  For the Israelites, they endured the snakes for a time.  They endured the wilderness for even longer.  But their story didn’t end there.  The goal was the Promised Land, the Land of Canaan that became the Land of Israel.  So we look to a future full of healing, joy, and life in the Kingdom of God, a hope made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The Son of Man Lifted Up on Calvary

Here is the meaning of John 3.  Just as the snake was lifted up, so the Son of Man would be hung on a cross.  In the first century world, the cross was the most humiliating form of execution.  It was purposefully torturous to emphasize why no one should consider rebelling against the Roman Empire.  It was a symbol of rebellion, futility, and death.  Yet today, Christians see the cross as a symbol of forgiveness, hope, and life.  Many wear it as jewelry or hang it as art in their homes.  The snake and the cross were both objects of suffering and death that were transformed by the creative work of God into sources of healing and life.  Both were means of his salvation.  Christians hope for new life because the cross wasn’t the final word.  The cross was followed by the empty tomb, Jesus raised from the dead now seated in heaven.  Jesus suffered and died for us that we might live for him as we look to him in faith.

Just as in the wilderness, God doesn’t want to condemn the world.  He sent his Son to be lifted up so he could draw all people to himself.  But we have a choice, just as the dying Israelites did when bitten by the snakes.  “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” (Jn 3:17-18).  Just as the snakes were already destroying the people because of their rebellion, so we are already separated from God and dying on account of our own sinful actions and choices.  There is only one choice that can heal.  When all is lost, look to the cross!

Father Brian Jordan ministered to the workers at Ground Zero during the months of cleanup after September 11, 2001.  One day after mass, one of the construction workers, Frank Silecchia, approached him and asked, “Do you want to see God’s house?”  Soon, Father Jordan found himself descending with Mr. Silecchia into the rubble of the fallen towers.  After a while, they reached the lowest-most level where the foundation had been lain.  Eventually, they stood in front of a steel column that had survived the destruction.  Attached to the column that rose from the ground was a steel girder, a crossbeam, which held fast despite the weight of the building’s collapse.  As the priest looked into the eyes of the workers there, he saw hope rising within them from this remnant.  In the midst of the rubble and chaos of death and destruction all around them, these two steel beams stood in the shape of a cross.  These beams weren’t not simply part of the wreckage.  They were something far more significant.  These beams were a symbol of hope and endurance.  All was not lost in the shadow of the cross.

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When All Is Lost, Look to the Cross!
John 3:14-18 / Numbers 21:4-9

Bible, Christian living

When Life Comes Crashing Down

How do we respond to life crashing down around us? The prophet Jeremiah understood this question all too well. He was called to be God’s servant in Jerusalem during the final decades of the Hebrew monarchy. Jeremiah had to help his countrymen wrestle with trusting God while the Babylonian army laid siege to their city on multiple occasions. He wrote to the first wave of exiles to Babylon, encouraging them to make sense of the radical changes in their life. He attempted to help those left behind to understand how God could possibly be in control of all the chaos surrounding them. He himself felt the weight of years of seemingly fruitless ministry and cried out to God: How long did he have to keep doing this? What was the value of his existence? Ultimately, Jeremiah wasn’t even able to remain in the land of his birth. He was kidnapped by Jews fleeing to Egypt–Jews who subsequently refused to listen to his encouragement to rebuild their relationship with God.

Within the book of Jeremiah, there are two stories placed back to back to emphasize the two different responses we can have whenever the very foundations of our life is shaken to the core. These stories appear in Jeremiah 18:1-12 and 19:1-15. Whether it was the nation of Judah in the sixth century B.C., America in the twenty-first, our community, our church, or our individual lives–these two stories show us the right and wrong way to respond to crisis.

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In the first story, God tells Jeremiah to go and watch a potter at work on his potter’s wheel. Jeremiah sees a clay pot being made by the potter, but as he watches the pot becomes imperfect. The potter then smashes down the clay pot and begins his work all over again. Soon, a new pot rose up out of the clay that once had been the first pot. The new pot did not retain the imperfections of the first pot. It was new . . . yet it originated from the same old lump of clay. God spoke to Jeremiah in that moment. God asked Jeremiah if he could not do the same thing to the nation if they would turn to him and trust him. God told Jeremiah that even though life as the Judahites had known it was going to be completely upended by the terrible destruction that was coming, he could use this troubling time to rebuild the nation into something better . . . if the people would trust him through the chaos. Isaiah, at a different point in time, used the same imagery to emphasize that we are nothing more than clay; God alone is the potter. We cannot reform ourselves or work away the flaws within us. We must trust him with our lives–flaws and all–and believe that he can rework us into something beautiful and useful to his service. And so we pray not only that God will remake us but will not remember our sins forever (Is 64:7-9).

In the second story, God told Jeremiah to purchase a finished pot from the potter’s home and take it, along with the elders, to the valley of Ben Hinnom, a place containing shrines to various foreign gods. Jeremiah told the people judgment was coming to the nation and it would be as destructive as what was about to happen to the pot in his hands. Jeremiah then threw the pot down to the ground and it shattered into irreparable pieces.

What was the difference between these two pots? Why did one shatter so it could never be put back together while the other could be remolded and reformed? The answer is in the character of the pots themselves. The pot in the first story was still made of soft clay while the pot in the second story had been hardened in a kiln’s fire. Jeremiah was telling the people that the life-shattering events coming to Jerusalem could not be stopped. The city would fall. The temple would be destroyed. Many would be killed and others taken into exile. Only a few would remain in the land, but life as everyone knew it was coming to an end. Life was going to crash down around them. That was inevitable. But how it would impact them wasn’t? If their hearts were still soft, if they trusted God and held on to the steadfast hope that the potter was compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love and faithfulness (Ps 86:15), God could reform them into something new. This did not have to be the end, even though the smashing was coming. God could work even that destruction for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes (Rom 8:28). If they resisted, however, if their hearts were hardened to his work and his call, if they loved the other gods more than him, then the very same smashing would destroy their lives and leave them irreparably damaged.

You can see these two responses play out in life-shattering events all the time. The same situation can hit two families or two individuals. While both have their lives upended, one family comes closer together through the experience while the other is ripped apart; one individual finds new life and new purpose even in the midst of heartache while the other turns to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain, or even to suicide in hopes of escape.

In all of our lives, there are times when the world crashes down upon us. When those times come, some of us cry out to God in the midst of our brokenness while others try to rebuild our lives on our own. Peter and Judas both experienced the sorrow of Jesus not starting the revolution they hoped he came to lead. Both saw Jesus sentenced to crucifixion. Judas let it destroy his life. He only saw the crucifixion but didn’t wait to see what lay beyond. He only focused on his role in bringing it to pass. On the other hand, Peter, even though he ran away instead of defending Jesus and denied knowing him in order to avoid his own death, discovered hope on the other side of the sorrow. He experienced the resurrected Jesus. Both these men’s stories revolve around the story of Jesus, who himself experienced the crashing down of life in his betrayal, suffering, and agonizing death. Yet in the midst of the darkness, Jesus entrusted himself to his Father, who proved himself faithful by raising Jesus from the dead. So when life crashes down, be like Jesus and trust God all the way through to the end. Keep your heart soft and attentive to God in the midst of the chaos. Avoid the temptation to harden your heart and reject the help of God and others. The same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is living and active today in the midst of your chaos.

newborn – we are tender and weak
in death – we are rigid and stiff

living plants are supple and yielding
dead branches are dry and brittle

so the hard and unyielding belong to death
and the soft and pliant belong to life

an inflexible army does not triumph
an unbending tree breaks in the wind

thus the rigid and inflexible will surely fail
while the soft and flowing will prevail

Tao Te Ching 76
Bible, Christian living

What about Phoebe? When Scripture “Contradicts” Scripture

Rick Warren has done it now, if you listen to some of the current leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention. While I appreciate much of what current president J.D. Greear has tried to do to guide the SBC through the pandemic and the many politically tumultuous issues that have occurred in the past year, I do not support Greear’s view that Saddleback Church’s ordination of three women pastors is “disappointing,” because Scripture “clearly reserves the office of pastor . . . for qualified men.” Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and candidate for SBC President in 2021, sees this action as going against the “codified . . . convictional issues” of the Baptist Faith and Message of 2000, which he calls a “clear” statement several times in his blog. I do not doubt he considers it clear, since he was its primary architect (according to a 2000 letter I received from Adrian Rogers, the BFM chair, directing me to Mohler when I asked why the criterion of faith statement had been removed). Another presidential candidate, Mike Stone, says SBC churches do not have to adhere to every point of the BFM (2000), but he does support removing the SBC’s second largest congregation from the convention because of this issue. It appears Stone views the ordination of women as a doctrine of the first order, on par with denial of the triunity of God or the deity of Jesus.

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These men appeal to the Bible for the view that men only may hold the title of pastor, primarily 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Mohler connects this issue to 1) liberal theology, 2) liberation theology, 3) “second wave” feminism, and 4) LGBTQ issues, assuming that one or more of these underlies the motives of any Baptist who, though holding a high view of Scripture, comes away with a different reading of the text. While Mohler is clearly driven by a cultural war mentality prevalent in many sectors of American Evangelical Christianity, Greear seems more open to engagement with contemporary culture in his blog and position paper. Yet both Mohler and Greear come to similar views, making a distinction between “minister” (which both men and women can hold as a title) and “pastor” (which may only apply to men). They do not mean only the “senior pastor,” as Mohler articulates in his blog (saying that is an unbiblical term). They mean that a woman may be called a “youth minister” but not a “youth pastor.” The latter implies “authority” while the former indicates you are “under” some elder or pastor’s direction. In Greear’s position paper, he creates non-biblical categories of “general teaching” and “special teaching” (which he also calls “elder teaching”). Women can do the first with both men and women present, but they cannot do the latter. For instance, the position paper says women cannot preach the “weekend sermon” because that implies the woman’s speech “functionally acts with the authority of an elder.” (Interestingly, the paper cites Lottie Moon’s work in China to men and women positively but assumes it was not “preaching” or “elder teaching.” This is strange when Kevin Howard on SBC Voices stands against Moon’s teaching men as part of her mission work in China.) Mohler completely dismisses any Christian who wrestles with the whole of Scripture when he thinks his selected proof-texts settle the issue. “Simply put, the only way to affirm women serving in the pastoral role is to reject the authority and sufficiency of biblical texts such as 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2.”

This is disingenuous. Its black and white approach ignores the multicolored world of Baptist life. The Baptist Standard noted that some Southern Baptist churches clearly had a different perspective on women preaching from the pulpit. It noted Anne Graham Lotz spoke at Second Baptist, Houston, the SBC’s largest congregation. (Billy Graham called his daughter “the best preacher I’ve ever heard,” not son Franklin.) Beth Moore and Kay Warren preached at other SBC churches on Mother’s Day.

Baptist scholar E. Earle Ellis, deceased professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and renowned in his day as a premier New Testament scholar, argued 1 Corinthians 14 was not about all women but was narrowly focused on the wife of a husband when both were prophets within the congregation (The Making of the New Testament Documents). Ellis, a complementarian like Mohler and Greear, noted the injunction for women to be silent is in a chapter on the proper use of gifts within orderly worship and immediately follows instructions to prophets to speak one at a time while the other prophets weigh the prophecy being uttered. Ellis said Paul’s emphasis was that the spirits giving rise to prophecy were “under the control” of the prophets (so they could speak or not speak as appropriate to the situation), and this applied to a wife “weighing in” on the prophetic speech of her husband. If the husband stood to prophesy, the wife should not speak in public regarding her husband’s prophecy, whether for or against its authenticity, as part of her official ministry to test the spirits (a role she was expected to play with any other member of the community and which sounds surprisingly like “elder teaching” which Greear says women should not do). In other words, she shouldn’t create a public spectacle by disagreeing (perhaps out of an emotional flareup about a pre-service disagreement on some other matter, according to Ellis’s in-class commentary) nor should she attest to the truth of his prophecy (when it could be planned collusion somewhat akin to the Ananias and Sapphira story, again based on Ellis’s in-class commentary). Ellis viewed 1 Timothy 2 as a pre-formed tradition based on the 1 Corinthians 14 passage and so applying in the same limited scope. (I personally find the 1 Timothy 2 passage the more problematic one, as there doesn’t seem to be a clear context that provides explanation for his injunction.)

Ellis’s reading of the text is but one of several ways to understand the context for 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 as a temporal prohibition on women’s speech that might not be an eternal mandate or prohibition from the role of pastor. (For example, some see the prohibition as referencing the general lack of educational opportunities for women in the first century. They shouldn’t ask questions during the service but wait and ask in private afterwards. If that were the case, then universal education in twenty-first century America should not create the same barrier for pastoral leadership.)

Now, to the point of this blog’s title. There is the curious status of Phoebe in the letter to the Romans. She is mentioned at the start of the final chapter. Without mentioning her by name, Greear’s position paper takes account of Phoebe’s role as a deacon of Cenchreae in its allowance that women might serve in Summit Church as deacons. But Phoebe is only standing before the Roman church as the letter is first read (and thus in need of introduction to the church within the letter) because she was the letter’s carrier. As Baptist scholar E. Randolph Richards notes in his chapter on Paul’s use of letter carriers (Paul and First-Century Letter Writing), Paul did not consider the role of letter carrier lightly. Whether it was Timothy, Titus, Tychicus–or Phoebe!–the letter carrier was Paul’s envoy to the church. The letter carrier was trained before going in how to perform the letter before the community. (Many scholars prefer the term “perform” to “read” because there would have been rhetorical flourishes intended as one read the text in public.) Once the letter was read, Paul expected the letter carrier to be able to answer any questions about Paul’s meaning within the letter. Do you see the issue that results if Phoebe was the letter carrier? She read the Scripture to the whole congregation–both men and women. She stood in the place of Paul as his representative. She likely did this on the Lord’s Day (during what Greear calls the “weekend sermon” from which women are prohibited in his church). When she answered questions about the letter, she spoke with the authority of Paul himself (using what Greear refers to as “special teaching” or “elder teaching”–speaking with the authority of the elder Paul, one of the four primary leaders of the early Christian movement). She authoritatively taught men and women the truth of the gospel.

So what do you do when one Scripture (Rom 16:1-2) seems to contradict another Scripture (1 Tim 2:12-14)? Many scholars and pastors would say that you have to listen to the arc of the entire biblical narrative. What is the trajectory of the biblical witness? What is the direction toward which it is pointing that would allow continued movement beyond the written text of any specific passage? As Baptist E.Y. Mullins used to say, the Bible didn’t create the community. The Bible came into being within the community (The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression) and the community continues to grow and develop beyond the writings of the Bible but always under its direction. Phoebe (and Priscilla and others) seem to indicate that, while there certainly is a prohibitive statement about wives being quiet in church, there were exceptions to this rule that were setting us on the trajectory that “you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

It appears Mohler rejects this Biblical trajectory approach to the Bible, that there can be a hermeneutical arc that points in the direction of a specific position that lies beyond what is literally stated in the text. Mohler asserts, “the Holy Scriptures have not changed and cannot change.” Yet this concept is found within the biblical community itself. (For example, the Jerusalem Council tells Gentiles to avoid meat offered to idols yet Paul later gives some caveats to this prohibition when they do not fall within religious contexts.) Without this arc of biblical narrative premise, how could Baptists develop a doctrine of the sanctity of the unborn? There is not a specific text about abortion. Instead, the sanctity of the unborn is argued as the logical conclusion to a biblical arc of passages affirming the sanctity of life of the born and the sacred mystery of God’s work in the womb.

Mohler labels any attempt to interpret statements like 1 Cor 14 or 1 Tim 2 on the basis of textual or historical contexts “revisionist arguments” and “biblical subversion.” Certainly such condemnations were made of Martin Luther when he re-read the doctrine of justification in a new way and launched the Reformation movement. He also appeals to the long history within the Christian tradition as evidence that ordination of women as pastors is wrong. The same thing was said about the Anabaptists and Baptists when they rejected infant baptism after a millennium of such practice. Baptist and Protestant theology is based on the belief that we are unable to read the text from an omniscient or untainted vantage point, knowing we cannot read without error. This is why the churches of the Reformation are the churches which are always reforming, though our basis of faith must always be the God-breathed Scriptures as we read within the Body of Christ through the empowering work of the Sprit.

To look at the issue from another perspective, why do Greear and Mohler take Paul literally to say that women can never at any time teach or have authority over a man yet they do not take the next injunction literally, that women are only and ever saved through childbearing? Certainly they do not assert such a position (as it would mean single and barren women could not be saved). The point is that we all pick and choose what is “literal” and what is to be interpreted, what to foreground and what to recede into the background. In reality, all Scripture must be interpreted.

It is certainly understandable for Greear, Mohler, and Stone to come to a position that the biblical witness is against women holding the role of pastor. There is a case to be made from the Scripture for that view and history backs it up. It is not acceptable, however, for Mohler or Stone to assert that those who come to a different position automatically do so because they are not committed to the authority of the Bible. This is a complicated issue without as clear a statement within the Bible as some might wish to claim. One thing the New Testament is not ambiguous about, however, is the importance of seeking unity within the Body of Christ. Therefore, we should all be very careful about a desire to incite division between two groups that both seek to honor Christ and to be led by his Spirit simply because each arrives at a different understanding of the same Scripture they both affirm as divinely inspired.

Bible, Jesus, sermon

Beloved Daughter

Happiness comes and goes. Sorrow and suffering can be with us for years or can come upon us suddenly. Yet we can find hope in the midst of sorrow. We can trust in the Trustworthy One in the depths of our despair. Mark 5:21-43 tells the story of a man and a woman from two very different lives, though both know sorrow and suffering. The story tells us of a father who fears losing his daughter and a woman who long ago lost the hope of being called daughter. Throughout the story, we see Jesus acting intentionally to take on our uncleanness in order to make us clean, to make us whole, and to give us hope.

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An Outcast Woman; a Beloved Daughter

We first meet a man who seems to have it all. He has a family. As a synagogue ruler, he has prestige in his community. Most likely, he is middle to upper income to have the time to serve as ruler. Yet at the moment we meet him, none of this matters to him. He is losing his daughter. He is desperate to save her.

The woman we meet partway through the story has likely lost everything. We are told she has an issue of blood that has not ceased for twelve years. That is, something about her body does not allow her menstrual cycle to ever fully stop. According to Jewish Law, women were ritually unclean during the days of their period. She has been unclean for twelve years. Like a leper, she would have to call out to those who came near her, “unclean!” to warn them not to come into contact with her. If they did, Jewish Law said they also became unclean until they performed a ritual cleansing. So this woman has probably has lost her family during the years. At the least, she has become a source of public shame for them because everyone in the town knows she is theirs. She is isolated from her community and the touch of others. All dignity is gone. She is an object of scorn to be avoided. She has been stripped of her personhood.

For twelve years, the woman had been unclean, suffering from humiliation and struggling with pain. We’re told she spent all she had on doctors but her condition only got worse. The man’s daughter was twelve years old. What a different life she had lived. Twelve years of love, joy, the benefits of wealth, and the loving touch of family. Twelve years ago, her mother had life come from her womb. But for the past twelve years, the woman had only death coming from her own womb.

Years of Grueling Anguish; Days of Sudden Sorrow

The woman for twelve years suffered physically and psychologically. She also lost all of her money, unlike the ruler who probably was middle to upper income. Yet in the story, she appears to still have hope for recovery. She is willing to try to touch Jesus’ garment to see if he might have healing power to help end her suffering. Despite her loss of family, community, and money, she still had hope. Where she had been suffering for years, the man had only suffered a few days (maybe a few weeks). His daughter was ill. He was in despair. His hope, his faith, was in tatters. His money, his power, his family and community connections–none of it could solve the problem he faced of his daughter’s grave illness. While Mark uses describes the girl as his “little daughter,” Luke tells us she was his monogenes, his “one and only” daughter. She was his life and her life was ebbing away.

We have no idea how the woman handled her illness when it first appeared, but we do know how she handled it now, twelve years later. Although she suffered greatly and had lost everything, we never hear her complain or cry out. Later, when Jesus gets to the man’s home, the family and friends of the girl are wailing and causing a commotion. Yes, the girl was dead, and likely some who were there were professional mourners. But the sudden illness and loss of this young life created sharp emotions and led many to cry out loudly in their grief.

Public Restoration

The man clearly was seeking to find Jesus in his despair. We are told that “when he saw” Jesus, he fell at Jesus’ feet. Though he had prestige in his community, he humiliated himself in public with this act. He knew the crowds could see him and hear his pleas that Jesus would heal his daughter. He literally says, “My little daughter is at the end.” This is a final act of desperation. She is about to die. He went to seek the healer. Perhaps, like his colleagues, he had mocked Jesus before. Now, however, he was pleading for Jesus to help him. He wanted Jesus to save his daughter from death and give her life. The word sozein can mean healing, but it can also mean salvation. Jesus intentionally acts in the moment. He departs to go with the man.

We then encounter the woman in the story. She doesn’t seek out Jesus as the man had. We are told that she “hears about” Jesus. We’re told crowds are around Jesus and Jairus as they travel. No doubt some were talking about the healer and how he was on the move to do it again! The woman also wanted to be saved from her infirmity. She wanted to be healed. Unlike the man’s public actions, however, she hoped to be healed privately without anyone knowing. She thought she could just sneak up behind Jesus and touch his robe. That would be enough to heal her. She didn’t want to be a bother to anyone. She didn’t want to cause a fuss.

Immediately, she knew she was healed. Mark says she could feel the “fountain” of flowing blood “dry up.” She was freed from the affliction. Literally, it says she was freed from the whip, the common belief of people that God was actively punishing those who suffer for something they must have done wrong. At the same time, Jesus immediately knew power had gone out from him. We then see his second intentional act. He does a 180 to look behind him. He asks who touched him and looks from person to person in the crowd. The disciples are incredulous. “Jesus,” they reply, “how can you ask that! This crowd is constantly pushing up against you.” But Jesus looked into the eyes of each person until eventually the woman couldn’t stand it.

Jesus forced this private act to become public. Unlike the bold though desperate synagogue ruler, the woman fell to Jesus feet trembling in fear. She told him the whole story. She had hoped for a private healing to avoid what was now occurring. Jesus would know that this unclean woman had touched him. She had made him ritually unclean. Would he be upset with her? He had been on important business and she now had interrupted him. What’s more, if the disciples are telling us the truth, she must have bumped into many others in her attempt to touch Jesus. How many did she make unclean just now? How would they respond, since she didn’t cry out “unclean” to warn them? Would they be angry and stone her for her transgression of the Law? For twelve years, she had been alone and unnoticed. She was nothing to these people except as an object to be feared and avoided. Why, she wondered, did Jesus make her visible?

Jesus doesn’t reply with anger or rebuke. Instead, he called her “daughter” and told her that it was “her faith” that healed her. Jesus made this public so she could be welcomed back into community, into his kingdom. More than that, we welcomed this woman who had probably not had family connections for twelve years into his own family. Moreover, he honored her by saying it was her faith, not his power, that had healed her. Jesus made himself a servant to her needs and showed his love through inviting her into relationship and restoring her to community. She wanted healing, but he told her to go with “peace” for she was no longer unclean but cleansed (the Greek word hygiēs from which we get “hygiene”) from the whip.

Private Reunion

Part of the reason Jesus honored the woman was to welcome her back to her community. Another reason was for Jairus. He probably saw this woman as a distraction who was wasting precious minutes that his little girl couldn’t afford to lose. Indeed, while Jesus was speaking the good news to the woman, members of Jairus’ community came with the worst news imaginable. His daughter was dead. “Why bother the teacher any longer?” they asked. If they shared the skepticism of many Jewish leaders, this might have been said sarcastically. Why bother with “the teacher” any longer?” Not the healer, notice. The woman had feared public exposure and was forced to face it. Now, the man faced something even worse: the fear that all hope is lost. His little girl was dead.

For the third time, Jesus does something very intentional. He first went with the man. He then looked and found the woman. Now, he intentionally ignores the words of these messengers. He tells the father, “Don’t fear. Just trust!” Perhaps Jesus pointed toward the woman nearby who, despite her fears, showed great faith and now stood there healed. Again, Jesus seems to honor the woman as he encourages the man.

Jesus and the father go with three of Jesus’ disciples to the man’s house. We are not told that they stopped at a mikvah for a ritual cleansing to purify themselves from the woman’s unclean touch. So Jesus apparently entered Jairus’ home unclean. This made Jairus’ home unclean and all within it–including Jairus himself–unclean. What we see is that Jairus cared less about rituals than about relationship. He was willing that he and his whole family become unclean like this man if Jesus could give him back his daughter. In this way, he also identified himself with the woman and her faith.

Jesus was possibly mocked by his disciples (or the crowds) when he asked who touched him. He may have been mocked by the messengers who said the girl was dead. Certainly, he is laughed at and ridiculed for saying the girl wasn’t dead but just asleep. Jesus then ran everyone except the parents and his disciples out of the house. Doing this forced Jairus, a man who had been in the public eye as a leading member of the community, to learn the importance of privacy and intimacy.

Then, for the second time that day, Jesus was made unclean. The first time, it happened to him when the woman touched him. This time, he intentionally took the hand of the dead girl. Then, where power unconsciously went out from Jesus to the woman, Jesus consciously touched the girl and gave a verbal command to rise up. He calls her “little girl,” not “daughter” because the girl already had a family. She had a father who loved her and believed she would live again. Immediately, she stood up and walked around. Maybe she was walking to each of her parents to hug them. As the woman was freed from her affliction, the girl was freed from the power of death.

Not only was this a private healing and reunion for the family, but Jesus made sure the privacy continued for several minutes. He told the parents not to share what had happened, that is, don’t shout out to the crowd outside. He then told them to get the girl something to eat. As the family shared table fellowship, Jesus and the disciples exited the house. Not only did Jesus still bear the “uncleanness” of the woman and the girl, but he had to endure the mocking of the crowd as he passed them by. No doubt they continued to laugh at his ignorance, not knowing the difference between death and sleep! How could he be a great teacher if he was so unaware? But Jesus bore the mocking to allow community and restored relationship to thrive inside the home.

Final Thoughts

What do we learn from this story? First, we see that Jesus doesn’t truly become “unclean” from his contact with the women. Instead, his life-giving power flowed out to these women and made them whole, healing and restoring life to them. He also restored the woman to community and the girl to her family. Believers in Jesus are called to the same engagement with others. We are to enter into the messiness of life and seek to heal and restore community. We even have to bear mocking or misunderstanding to do the work of the kingdom.

Second, we see that it is not physical contact with Jesus that saves or makes one whole. It was the woman’s faith. It was the father’s faith. Trusting in Jesus to save and heal is something we can do the same as the woman. Though Jesus is no longer on earth, he now sits at his Father’s right hand and can bear our uncleanness and make us how.

Third, both women teach us about the Kingdom of God. The woman gives us hope that in the kingdom, whatever troubles we encounter in this life, they are not the end of the story. We will be freed and healed to experience peace and wholeness. The girl helps us see that our greatest need is to be raised to new life in Christ. This life is not something we can bring about apart from Jesus any more than the dead girl could raise herself. There is also the hope of reunion with those we love in the kingdom. Also, the verbs used of the girl, “rising up” and “standing up” are both used of the resurrection in other parts of the New Testament. Her rising to new life came after only a short period of death. Though we die, it is but a twinkling of an eye and then we will be raised to new life in the new heavens and new earth.

Today, your life might be full of struggles or it may be filled with joy. You may be in the midst of years of suffering a debilitating disease or enduring a long, lingering death. You may be experiencing a rapid loss of a loved one or a sudden change in fortune. In all situations, we are called to trust in Jesus. He is the source of our healing, life, and wholeness. He welcomes us all into community as he saves and heals us. He calls you beloved son. He calls you beloved daughter.

Beloved Daughter (Mark 5:21-43)

Bible, sermon, Stories That Shape Our Life

Crossing the Jordan

(Taken from a sermon at the end of an interim pastorate a few weeks before the new pastor would arrive on the field.) These are some of the memes the week after the winter 2021 storms that wreaked havoc on Texas:

  • 2021? Feels more like 2020 and a half
  • 2020: the year from hell / 2021: the year hell froze over
  • 2020: learn to stay home / 2021: same, but now let’s test your survival skills
  • Shame on all of you who made fun of Bernie Sanders. Now look at you sitting on your couch in the same outfit!

Like many of you, my wife and I conserved electricity and wore extra layers of clothes to help keep the power grid up in our area. I think Lucy stayed in the living room by the fire most of the week! Friends and family went without power or had water damage from frozen pipes or leaking roofs. And many had to conserve or boil water as a by-product.

It may have felt like a winter wilderness, but it only lasted for a week. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Their daily lives were a marginal existence for an entire generation. Finally, however, it was time for them to cross over into the land promised by God to their ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That is the focus of the biblical passage in Deuteronomy 31:1-8. The story of the Israelites crossing the Jordan is one of the stories that shapes our lives.

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It Is Time to Leave the Wilderness

The interim period between pastors is like a wilderness experience. It is a time when you have left the familiarity of the old pastorate and you walk by faith with the interim minister in anticipation of the new minister who will soon come to the field. Many times at the beginning or in the middle of the interim, you are not sure what lies in the future. Frequently, it is a marginal existence, like the wilderness, with the interim minister only on the field on weekends or certain ministries suspended for a season. Even churches not in an interim situation felt this margin living In 2020, as the pandemic forced worship online or delayed or canceled a number of “normal” ministry opportunities.

But as an interim ends (or for us in 2021, as we may be nearing a turning point with the pandemic in the U.S.), a new day dawns. Like Moses, the interim minister cannot follow the congregation into the new pastorate but he can provide some words of wisdom. With the end of the interim, the journey ends for the minister but it is just the start for the congregation. It is for this reason that Moses says repeatedly in this passage, “Be strong and courageous” and “do not fear.

As rough as the wilderness was, some had become comfortable in it. For some, it was all they had ever known. Often, Christians are comfortable with the way church has been done (sometimes for decades). Some might become familiar with the leadership or worship style of the interim pastor or liked the reduced meeting times of the interim period or pandemic restrictions. In the wilderness, there were times the people wanted to return to Egypt. So as they crossed into the new land promised by God, some would continue to look backward toward the wilderness or beyond.

Moses tells the people not to be terrified because of “them.” Whether with the start of a new pastorate or the end of a pandemic, there are new problems coming and new issues to address. Perhaps new ministries need to be started. Other ministries need to be revived or restarted. This can be just as scary as conquering a land. Don’t be terrified by the unknown or the new, for God will be with you.

God Crosses the Jordan Ahead of You

The blessed news is that we are not alone. We do not have to go it alone. God is with us. He says in the passage that he will never leave us nor forsake us. This is a blessed hope and comfort. What is more, God crosses before us and enters the new land, the new phase of ministry, the new situation we cannot fully understand, ahead of us. He will fight the battles for us, if we will only trust in him. We are called to be obedient, but he himself is our strength and our shield.

Whether in the interim period or through the pandemic, we have seen God at work even in the wilderness. He helps those who trust in him to grow closer to one another as they grow closer to him. He uses the wilderness time to resolve and heal various issues lingering since we have left Egypt as he prepares us to enter the new land of Canaan. He has helped us learn to adapt to new situations and to seek his guidance when times seem dark. As we have trusted him through the wilderness, we find over and again that he proves himself faithful. God knows the future to which he is calling us. We can trust him and rest in him.

Follow Your Leader Into the Promised Land

Before Moses died in the wilderness, God called Joshua to be the new leader. This leader would go with them into the promised land. Like God, Moses says Joshua will go ahead of the people into the new land and will lead the people. Yet he was just as scared and unaware of the future as the Israelites. Moses gives Joshua the same words of comfort to be strong and courageous and not to be afraid. For churches beginning a new pastorate, the new pastor enters into the unknown with the congregation. He will lead and the congregation will follow, but he and the congregation both truly follow God who promises to go before them. On the other side of the Jordan is the promised land. It is a land of new opportunities and new ministries. It is the place of hope and new life.

For all the hope that lies beyond, however, the promised land is scary. Change is scary! For the Israelites, they were moving from the barren wilderness to beautiful farmland. They knew how to be nomads. That was comfortable. What did they know about farming? What did they know about living in settled villages and permanent homes? So church life now or even in the past may not be what it will be in the future. We always need to be ready for change, but especially in times of transition.

An interesting feature of the wilderness story is Joshua himself. He was one of the twelve spies originally sent into the land for forty days just a few months after the people left Mount Sinai. Ten spies returned saying there was no way they could enter the land. Joshua and Caleb said, there is a way–with God! The Israelites listened to the ten, however, and so they were condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years because they refused to face change. They refused to trust God for fear of the unknown. Yet during those forty years in the wilderness, as the current generation gave way to a new generation, the legend of Joshua–the man who trusted God–grew. Joshua trusted God so we can trust him to guide us.

During the interim period, the congregation has prayed for a new leader and prepared themselves for the next phase of life together. They have trusted God that he would guide them to the right person to take them into the next years of ministry. When that man is called, you must trust God and trust him.

Notice one key difference in Moses’ encouragement to Joshua than to the Israelites. Moses adds to his admonition to Joshua, “do not be discouraged.” For forty years, Moses bore the brunt of complaints about the wilderness and the struggles and needs ever wore down on him. Moses understood that ministry could have periods of discouragement. The new pastor will make mistakes. Joshua made mistakes. The role of the congregation is to encourage the minister, pray for him, trust him to lead, and forgive the mistakes that are made. Certainly, this doesn’t mean to forgive moral lapses or ignore ungodly actions, but we are called to trust in the leader as he trusts in God. He will lead the congregation into the promised land.

Soon after this, God let Moses ascend to Mount Nebo. Moses was able to look over and see the promised land even though he wasn’t able to enter in with the people. And then Moses died. In some ways, the role of the interim minister is similar. He has the opportunity to see the potential within the congregation as he helps the congregation believe in that possibility as well. So be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Trust God who is going on before you. Trust your new leader and give him grace to fail. Help him conquer giants as you enter into the land of promise.

Crossing the Jordan (Deut 31:1-8)

Bible, psalms

Flourishing like a Palm and a Cedar

As we think about creation care, I want you to consider two biblical trees: the palm and the cedar.  Recent changes in climate are threatening the cedars of Lebanon, a symbol of pride for that nation (just look at their flag!).  The forests on the mountains of Lebanon are starting to die, however, as the climate warms and dries.  The forests are shifting upwards on the mountains, seeking cold winters, yet they can only go so high.  Soon the southern trees won’t have elevation left to pursue.  If trends continue, some estimates indicate the only trees remaining at century’s end will be at the northern edge of the country.

On the other hand, the palm stands at the forefront of the battle against climate change.  UAE scientists are exploring ways to harvest palm “waste”—leaves, stems, and empty branches—and convert these into biofuel and biochar, which would have less impact than fossil fuels on carbon dioxide emissions.

The Psalmist compares the righteous to these two trees in Ps 92:12-15:

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,
    they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon;
planted in the house of the Lord,
    they will flourish in the courts of our God.
They will still bear fruit in old age,
    they will stay fresh and green,
proclaiming, “The Lord is upright;
    he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”

Ps 92:12-15, NIV

Both trees were connected to Solomon’s temple, so they were “planted in the house of the Lord.”  Palms were carved onto wood inside and outside the temple as decorations.  Palms were symbolized by the two pillars on each side of the temple entrance.  The cedars of Lebanon were used in construction as beam supports and paneling.

One reason the psalmist focused on these trees is that they are evergreens.  They are consistent through the different seasons of life, not changing depending on circumstance.  Our righteousness should not come and go but should constantly and consistently flow out of our lives.  Both trees thrive in their environment.  The palm grows in the desert, where there is little water and the temperatures are high.  The cedar grows in the mountains, drawing on the mists from the Mediterranean Sea and thriving in the cold climate.  Their two extreme climates are apt reminders that we are called to thrive wherever we find ourselves.  Whether our spiritual life is on fire or stone cold at the moment, we should trust in the Rock of our salvation and honor him in those periods of life.  Whether our life is pleasant and peaceful as the misted cedar or life’s struggles bear down on us like the desert palm, our Father sustains us.

We are called to “bear fruit,” that is, honor God through acts of justice and righteousness.  Throughout our lives, we are called to service (“in old age staying fresh and green”).  Our lives should be a blessing to others.  Like the Lord, the palm is “upright” and straight.  Its height is an aid to the nomad searching for food, water, and respite from the sun in a dry, barren land.  The maturing cedar’s trunk grows ever sturdier, allowing it to spread out its branches in order to provide shade, shelter, protection, and help to those creatures who live in and under its canopy.  Like the Lord, its fragrant wood brings delight and joy.

Father, help us to flourish like the palm and the cedar.  May our lives produce fruit and bless others around us.  May we honor you consistently throughout our lives.  You are our Rock in whom we rest.  We know you are faithful in every way.  May our roots drive deep into you, the eternal Source of Life.

Bible, psalms, sermon

Who Is Like the Lord?

Psalm 113 is the first psalm in the Great Hallel of Passover (Pss 113-118). One thing that we find in the text is that we should exalt the LORD at all times. Because of the liberation of God’s people through the Passover, verse 1 describes the radical change that has occurred for the Hebrews. While in Egypt, they moaned and cried out because of oppression. Now, however, they shout “Hallelu Ya” (Praise the Lord)! Before the Passover, they were the servants of Pharaoh, but afterwards servants of the LORD. Three times in the text, there is an emphasis that the “name of the LORD” (YHWH) should be praised. To the Hebrews, the name was symbolic of someone’s character, so the praise the name was to shine a light on the character of the LORD. He is YHWH, the “I Am Who I Am” who fulfills his promises. At the burning bush, Moses is told that God is the I Am, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who will free the people and deliver them into the land promised to those ancestors. Because of who he is, we are to praise him now (whatever our current circumstances) and praise him forevermore. From the dawn to dusk, his name is to be praised (vv. 2-3).

Another thing we find in the text is that the LORD is the Exalted One. He is over all the nations. There is no God like him. His glory is described as being not “in” the heavens but “above” them. Who is like him? He sits on high as King of the Universe (vv. 4-5). Yet this great and mighty God who dwells above the heavens humbles himself. We are told that he stoops down to look upon the heavens and the earth. What is it he searches for as he lowers himself (rather non-regally) to stoop and search the earth?

The text tells us that he does this because the LORD is the One who exalts. The surprising thing in verses 7-9 is that the object of his gaze are the poor and the childless. We are told he raises the poor from the dust and the needy from the dung hill (NIV, “ash heap”). He even puts the poor onto level ground with royalty. The psalm reminds us of the parable of Jesus about the rich man and Lazarus. The poor beggar Lazarus is exalted at the end of the story while the rich man is punished. In the ministry of Jesus, we find his care focused on the blind, the lame, the lepers, the tax collectors, the so-called “sinners” (as defined by the religious elites). He shows compassion to them but engages in debate and argument with the rich and powerful (both politically and religiously). The placement of the poor and the prince on level ground can also be seen in the selection by the Spirit of Jesus of two of the primary early Christian leaders–Paul, the well-educated Pharisaic rabbi, and Peter, the plain-spoken fisherman. Jesus places them on equal footing (or even places Peter a little above as he was selected for leadership much earlier than Paul).

The other object of God’s focus, as mentioned above, is the childless woman. She will be “settled” in her home “as” a happy mother. The text doesn’t promise she will be a mother, but God will bless her just as he blesses the woman with child. Still, the statement reminds us of the care the LORD has for the motherless wife–Sarah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, and Hannah most notably. In fact, some scholars have noted the similarities between words and phrases of this psalm and Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2. Both images (the poor being exalted and seated and the childless being settled and happy) are apt images for the Exodus. The slaves are liberated from poverty; the mothers who lost children find happiness.

This compassion for the lowly and exaltation of the humble is the story of Jesus. Paul tells us that Jesus, though he was in very nature God, did not grasp at equality with God but humbled himself to become a servant. (The God who stoops in Psalm 113 is the same humble God seen in Jesus.) Jesus lowers himself into the dirt and dung of human existence, even to the point of a violent and humiliating death on a Roman cross. But then God the Father exalted him! He gave him “the name” (mentioned three times in Psalm 113) that is “above” every name (as God is “above” the heavens) so that all tongues will confess “Jesus is LORD” (Hallelu Ya!), for the name above all names is the name YHWH, the LORD.

This is also the story of the Church. Paul tells us that God chose the foolish and the lowly in order to shame the wise and the powerful. His purpose in so doing was to make sure that no one could boast about themselves (that is, be arrogant). They could only praise him in humility. Praise the LORD!

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Who Is Like the Lord?” Psalm 113
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Bible, Jesus, sermon

What Moon Are You?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:14-16). In John’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims himself to be the Light of the World (John 8:12; 9:5).

What’s going on? How are both Jesus and his followers the light of the world? Jesus is the true light; his followers are called to reflect his light. Jesus is the sun; Christians are the moon. The moon doesn’t generate its own light. It only reflects the light that is generated by the sun. So if you call yourself a Christian, the question becomes–what kind of moon are you?

Full Moon

Jesus said the light should be placed on a lamp stand so that it can give light to everyone in the house. Everything we have is from the true light. The blessings and gifts we receive from him should flow out in service to others. We should strive, therefore, to be a full moon in order to bring light to as many people in a dark world as we possibly can.

Jesus warned that you shouldn’t put the light under a bowl. We can do this in one of two ways.

New Moon

First, we can separate from the world, like the Essenes in Jesus day. If we do, we might be “holy” but we will never be the change agent Jesus intended. Notice how the Essenes aren’t mentioned even once in the New Testament! Turning away from the world is like being a new moon. You may fully reflect the sun, but it is meaningless in your church walls or prayer closets. New moons do not shine their light toward a world that needs it.

Lunar Eclipse

Second, we can hide the light is to strive to be just like the world. We conform completely to our culture for a number of reasons. We might be engaged in the sins around us. We might think conformity is the best way to share the light. Or we may not even realize how much our culture’s values have replaced those of the Kingdom. When the moon moves into the earth’s shadow, it results in a lunar eclipse. The moon no longer reflects the sun because it’s allowed the world to separate it from the source of its light.

Jesus tells his followers to live such good lives that it leads others to glory our Father in heaven.

We are to live lives of virtue. We are to have beautiful deeds that draw people to the Father and the true source of light, his Son. If we never share the true source of our deeds, however, we can become a solar eclipse. We can allow our lives to come between the sun and the world so that they see something beautiful . . . but also something deadly. Staring at a solar eclipse can cause blindness. Not bearing witness to Jesus as the source of your good deeds can create spiritual blindness.

The Mar Thoma are Indian Christians who say their church originated with the Apostle Thomas. I have always liked their motto on their logo. It emphasizes the purpose for our calling to bless others because we have been blessed. The Gospel is not just about personal salvation. It has social and cosmic dynamics. The reason we are “lighted” is so that we can “lighten” others. This should be the purpose statement of all Christians. We need to be a full moon to a dark world until that world turns to the full day of the Son of God.

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Be a Full Moon to a Dark World (Matt 5:14-16)

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Bible, sermon

Godly Worship, Godly Fasting

Why do humans who say they love God repeatedly misunderstand what it means to worship God and to live a life that honors him? Before the exile, Amos warned about misdirected worship. After the exile, Zechariah noted the same problems remained. Even today, we still find so many who bear the name of Christ acting in the same way. Since these two sermons have a similar theme, I am sharing them together.

Amos (5:18-24) warned about the disruptive nature of the coming Day of the Lord. Today, we are living through one of those disruptive times with the COVID pandemic and racial protests. If we worshiped God the way he wants us too, we would be the salt and light that Jesus called us to be within the midst of this disruptive time. But unfortunately, we often do not understand what true worship means. God, through Amos, told the Israelites their worship didn’t pass three important “tests”: the smell test (God wouldn’t smell their sacrifices), the vision test (God couldn’t see their offerings), and the hearing test (God hated their music). Instead, as Martin Luther King Jr. so often emphasized, the worship God desires is for justice to roll on incessantly like the never-ending lapping of waves on the seashore and for righteousness to flow out from us like an unending river.

A little over 200 years later, as the second temple neared completion, some Israelites came to Zechariah inquiring whether they should continue the fast of remembrance for the destruction of Solomon’s temple. God, through Zechariah (7:4-10), asked if the fast was ever about him at all, or if it was about the loss of their own privileged position within the culture, the destruction of their political capital and collective power, and the embarrassment they felt at “pagans” getting the better of “God’s people.” Zechariah emphasized that true Godly fasting isn’t about simply denying personal desires or denying yourself to honor God. Fasting should be a denial of yourself for the sake of giving yourself for the other, whether that other is your neighbor or your enemy. Zechariah called the people to a fast from deeds of injustice, from acts of selfishness, from structures of oppression, and from plots of evil.

So both Amos and Zechariah emphasized true worship of God is found in active care and compassion for our fellow human beings. To love God we must love humans. The Good News of Jesus as the Christ is not an individualistic call to personal salvation, some type of a “get into heaven free” card for the end of life unrelated to daily living. Christian witness is not about proving the “rightness” of your beliefs through demeaning, confrontational or plain hateful social media posts. Advancing the Kingdom of God doesn’t depend on power politics that aggressively advance your agenda and demonize your opponents. If Jesus is the Christ, he is seated at the right hand of God ruling over all of creation. His followers are called to live and die as he did. Kingdom citizenship requires daily denial of ourselves in order that we might live for others. We are called to struggle against the injustices we encounter–not real or perceived offenses against ourselves or our personal rights (see Paul’s life!)–but injustice against others. We are called to defend the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, the poor–in a word, to seek justice for our neighbor, especially our marginalized neighbor. We don’t worship in anticipation of the future. We worship through living in the present, so God’s will might be done on earth as it already is in heaven.

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The Worship God Despises; the Worship God Desires (Amos 5:18-24)

The Worship God Despises; the Worship God Desires (link to sermon)

A Call to Godly Fasting (Zech 7:8-10)

A Call to Godly Fasting (link to sermon)