Thursday, December 31, 2009
1) United States
4) United Kingdom
4) New Zealand
8) South Africa
Most December Site Visits by State
2) North Carolina
Most December Site Visits by City
2) San Francisco
3) Santa Clara
4) San Mateo
6) San Carlos
8) Redwood City
John R. Franke, The Character of Theology: An Introduction to Its Nature, Task, and Purpose (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), pp. 206.
What is "postmodernity"? The overuse of this word has rightly been criticized; yet despite it ubiquity (or perhaps because of it), it remains difficult to define. Among others things, the term "postmodernity" names the current period in which epistemological questions--that is, questions about the sources and forms of knowledge--have become prominent. John Franke's The Character of Theology serves as a "postconservative evangelical approach" for doing theology--or, put another way, a postmodern epistemology primer.
Franke "suggest[s] a basic, minimalist understanding of postmodernism as referring to the rejection of the central features of modernity, such as its quest for certain, objective, and universal knowledge" (p. 21). This foundationalist "quest" sought "to overcome the uncertainty generated by the tendency of fallible human beings to err and the inevitable disagreements and controversies that follow. Foundationalists are convinced that the only way to solve this problem is to find some universal and indubitable means of grounding the entire edifice of human knowledge" (p. 26). Franke agrees with postmodern thinkers in their negative assessment of this efforts, and adds theological reasons--human finitude and human fallenness--for doing so:
[T]he questions that are raised by postmodern thought concerning the possibility and the desirability of foundationalism are also questions that emerge from the material content of Christian theology. They both lead to similar conclusions. First, modern foundationalism, with its emphasis on the objectivity, universality, and certainty of knowledge, is an impossible dream for finite human beings, whose outlooks are always limited and shaped by the particular circumstances in which they emerge. Second, the modern foundationalist emphasis on the inherent goodness of knowledge is shattered by the fallen and sinful nature of human beings who desire to seize control of the epistemic process in order to empower themselves and further their own ends, often at the expense of others. [An echo of the postmodern critique of metanarratives as imperialistic is heard here.] The limitations of finitude and the flawed condition of human nature mean that epistemic foundationalism is neither possible nor desirable for created and sinful persons. (p. 28)In response (or reaction) to modern epistemology, postmoderns like Franke observe that all knowledge is context-specific and advocate epistemic humility. This move "does not signal the denial of foundations or truth"; however, it does mean (in the words of Merold Westphal): "The truth is that there is truth, but not for us, only for God" (p. 80). In sum, "Nonfoundationalist theology seeks...the promotion of a form of theology and a theological ethos that humbly acknowledges the human condition of finitude and fallenness" (p. 81). Thus, the nonfoundationalist will tend to draw his or her conclusions tentatively.
In practice, these insights lead to various affirmations, including: (1) all theology is "provisional" (p. 138) and "ongoing" ("no matter how persuasive, beautiful, or successful past theologies or confessions of faith may have been, the church is always faced with the task of confessing the faith in the context of the particular circumstances and challenges in which it is situated" [p. 116]); (2) a biblical text may have multiple meanings, and these meanings may not be equally applicable in all contexts ("[w]hile the Spirit appropriates the text in its internal meaning, the goal of this appropriation is to guide the church in the variegated circumstances of particular contemporary settings" [p. 133]); (3) our important missional work of cultural analysis will not be "neutral" ("exegesis of cultural phenomena will not be objective" [p. 139]); (4) our interpretations of Scripture will not be objective ("[i]t is simply not possible to step back from the influences of tradition and context in the act of interpretation or in the ascription of meaning" [p. 150]); (5) "all expressions of the faith are contextualized...[even] the content of the biblical documents themselves" (p. 156); (6) to be faithful to its missional calling, the church "around the world" needs to live the gospel "in a variety of ways that share a family resemblance" (p. 174); and (7) our seeking of truth is "an ongoing participatory process involving convictional communities rather than something to be accomplished objectively in a once-and-for-all fashion" (p. 195).
Franke's book, in fine postmodern fashion, raises many questions and does not answer all of them--his work is provisional! It will be of value to persons seeking to make sense of epistemological shifts. Franke navigates these shifts with beautiful--at times almost lyrical--theological prose.
to be continued
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Want to predict whom we'll be praying for in 2010? According to Economist.com (http://www.economist.com/daily/chartgallery/displaystory.cfm?story_id=15098974&fsrc=twitter&sa_campaign=twitter&utm_campaign=sa_campaign%3Dtwitter&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter), it will probably be the people of one or more of the countries shaded darkly on the map above. Causes for social unrest include "poverty...exaggerated income inequalities, poor governance, lack of social provision and ethnic tensions." That much of the Middle East and parts of Africa are "very high" risk probably won't surprise; but the "very high" risk levels in Papua New Guinea, Bolivia, and Ecuador may.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
D. Stephen Long, The Goodness of God: Theology, the Church, and Social Order (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2001), pp. 336.The Goodness of God: Theology, the Church, and Social Order is D. Stephen Long's impressive attempt to show the necessity of the church for ethics. According to Long, ecclesiology and ethics go hand in hand: "If the church is not the church, the state, the family, and the market will not know their own true nature. Only when the church is the church can these other social institutions know their proper place. The church is, rather than has, a social ethic" (p. 28). When the church publicly embodies a particular ethic, other institutions are made aware of their specific and limited roles, which in turn helps them not to overreach them.
Long's affirmation of the church's indispensability for ethics is a refute of Kantian thought, which Long criticizes in the first part of his book as subordinating theology to ethics. Interpreting Kant, Long writes, "Ethics makes theology possible, but theology itself [including the church] has no necessary relationship to ethics" (p. 64). Kant argues for the existence of God, but "God only matters in a purely formal mode through things that can be universalized; God cannot matter in the particular" (pp. 64-65). (Long does not believe a universal ethic is truly possible: "Human nature as it is cannot provide the basis for a universal morality" [p. 105].) Kant's God and ethics are abstract, because only generalities can be regarded as universal principles; in this system, the specifics of particular narratives (including the biblical narrative) and the distinctives of the particular communities (including the church) these narratives shape are marginalized. Long criticizes Max Stackhouse, Ronald Thiemann, and Ismael Garcia for their Kantian prioritization of the supposedly universal over the particular (he is more charitable toward Garcia than the other two). Their concern about "any ethic that revels in the particular [is that it] disunites the human family and leads to conflict, strife, and possibly even violence" (p. 70). Long takes this concern seriously, while also observing that Kant's universal ethic has failed to reduce conflict and create peace. Long prefers the "theological politics" (p. 104) of John Howard Yoder, Oliver O'Donovan, and Stanley Hauerwas, all of whom value the particular ethic derived from the particular narrative of the particular body called "the church."
What does a theological politics (or, perhaps better, an ecclesiological politics) look like? Long addresses this question in the second part of his book. After an insightful discussion of the Ten Commandments (in which he observes that each commandment addresses one or more different social institutions), Long moves to three chapters that consider what the social ethic called church has to say to three other institutions--oikos (household), agora (market), and polis (state)--toward the ordering of their desires. Long's most provocative writing is found in these chapters, as he tackles some of the twenty-first century's most debated topics, including sexuality, abortion, global consumerism, and war (on this last topic, he includes a defense of Anselm's theory of the atonement, which he distinguishes from the penal substitutionary theory). Whether one agrees with all of Long's conclusions or not, his reflections on these subjects are undeniably profound; he shows a knack for asking piercing questions and seems able to poke holes in any argument.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Long's work is the number and diversity of theologians with whom he dialogues. (His charitable reading and frequent use of Tertullian are noteworthy.) The Goodness of God is perhaps best described as a series of conversations (often debates) with these thinkers. It is meat that is occasionally tough to chew; but the rereading that is sometimes required is also repaid.
to be continued
Alan J. Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk, The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006), pp. 219.
As a pastor attempting to lead a local church in a missional direction, I find myself returning repeatedly to The Missional Leader for help. In the last decade, there have been many "missional" books published, but some of these works are either too densely theoretical (Gary Simpson's Critical Social Theory) to be useful or too simplistically utilitarian (Reggie McNeal's The Present Future and Missional Renaissance) to be compelling. Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk offer an approach for congregational change (specifically, for becoming missional) that is both theological and practical.
Roxburgh and Romanuk begin by admitting that the word "missional" already suffers from overuse and invites "confusion." According to their understanding, "A missional church is a community of God's people who live into the imagination that they are, by their very nature, God's missionary people living as a demonstration of what God plans to do in and for all of creation in Jesus Christ" (xv). The Missional Leader provides resources for moving into this "imagination."
The book offers three especially helpful frameworks for leaders seeking to encourage a typical church to go missional. The first is a diagnostic tool that compares the common "pastoral" model of church leadership with the emerging "missional" model of church leadership.
- The pastoral model assumes a pastor must be present to validate a gathering's importance; the missional model does not depend on a pastor's validation.
- The pastoral model sees ministry offered by clergy as superior to that offered by laity; the missional model sees the role of clergy as equipping and releasing the laity to do ministry.
- The pastoral model requires clergy to exhaust their resources on efforts to meet felt needs; the missional model does not.
- The pastoral model looks to the pastor to be a problem-solver; the missional model looks to all God's people for discernment.
- The pastoral model is characterized by preachy preaching and teaching that reinforces the status quo; the missional model is characterized by preaching and teaching that draws people into Scripture's narrative world, thereby challenging existing ideas.
- The pastoral model sees clergy as professionals; the missional model sees the work of a pastor as only one piece of the pastor's discipleship.
- The pastoral model demands a high-charisma pastor; the missional model does not.
- The pastoral model expects a non-confrontational leader; the missional model expects a leader who can tolerate tension.
- The pastoral model looks for conflict to be denied or fixed; the missional model looks for conflict to be navigated.
- The pastoral model assumes that pastoral staff are still seen as important by the world; the missional model assumes that church leaders need to engage their immediate ministry contexts as learners.
- The pastoral model appreciates efforts to recover a congregation's "glory days"; the missional model appreciates efforts to cultivate the new.
- The pastoral model sees the role of clergy as one of management and maintenance; the missional model sees the role of clergy as one of creative cultivation toward previously unimagined participation in God's mission in the world. (pp. 12-13)
The second especially helpful "map" is the "Three Zone Model of Missional Leadership" (p. 41). This framework is also diagnostic, but instead of diagnosing types of leadership, it diagnoses "zones of organizational culture that congregations and denominations form at various times" (p. 40). When a church is engaging its context creatively and energetically, it is in the "emergent zone" (green); in this zone, the church experiments freely, with the most fruitful experiments gradually becoming repeated practices. Over time, these repeated practices become established ministries, and the church enters the "performative zone" (blue), in which it focuses on performing these ministries better and better. At some point, however, change occurs. The church finds that its skills no longer work as well as they once did, and it instinctively reacts with efforts to regulate or manage the change; it enters the "reactive zone" (red), which is almost always characterized by "an experience of confusion, conflict, and anxiety" (p. 48). The church has to work through a period of crisis (even chaos) before returning to the blue zone for a period of transition on the way to the green zone and rebirth. The successful navigation of each of these zones requires different kinds of leadership.
The third especially helpful framework is the "Missional Change Model," which is an approach for leading a local church or denominational body through change. The first step is "creating awareness," which is followed by "creating understanding," then "evaluation," then "creating experiments," and finally "commitment." Instead of top-down leadership, this approach calls for church leaders to help God's people through generative dialogues to become aware of the changes impacting the world and the church, to gain an understanding of these changes, to evaluate the faithfulness and effectiveness of existing ministries in responding to these changes, to engage in experiments, and to commit to those experiments that fruitfully engage the changed context (p. 105).to be continued
Luke 2:21-38 (NRSV)
December 27, 2009
Jesus was born!
All of us know as much, and those of us who were here for three Christmas Eve services know it especially well. We may not know, however, what happened next. Jesus was born—then what?
Something did happen after the birth of Jesus, right? When my children were just a little younger than they are now, they weren’t so sure. For them, there was just “baby Jesus.” When they prayed, they thanked God not for Jesus, but for “baby Jesus.” In their imaginations, Jesus never grew up. It was as if they had mixed the story of Jesus and the story of Peter Pan. (Since today is an all-family worship service, my children are present; but I want you to know that I paid them each two dollars for permission to talk about them.)
Jesus did grow older. Yet even those of us who already know that may not know what happened right after his birth. What happened next? If you had to guess, then you might guess that the visit of the wise men from the East happened next. After all, nativity scenes often include these characters, and we often sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are” this time of year. It’s more likely, though, that this visit took place a year or two later—after the circumcision and purification of Jesus. But there aren’t many good songs about circumcision and purification, so we tend to jump ahead to the so-called “Three Kings.”
Mary and Joseph were Jews, and it was the Jewish custom to circumcise newborn boys after eight days, and for the family of newborn boys to offer a sacrifice in the temple (God’s house) after forty days (in this way they obeyed God’s law as it is found in the Old Testament book of Leviticus). The Jews were aware of and concerned for the poor; and as a result, poor families were allowed to offer a pair of birds rather than a more expensive and valuable lamb. So, from this part of Luke’s story, we learn not only what happened next, but also two things about the family of Jesus: we learn that they were a family of faith who tried to obey God; and we learn that they were poor—which means that for Mary and Joseph raising a child would be hard.
But Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are not the only characters in this story. Luke then introduces us to a man named Simeon and a woman named Anna. Simeon is described as “righteous and devout, [and as] looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” In other words, Simeon also tries hard to obey God, and he is hopeful—he hopes that his people Israel will be saved from all the powers that beat them down. From sin and death, from the devil and the Roman empire, from disease and hunger—from all these powers and more, Simeon hopes for salvation. And when he sees the forty-day-old Jesus, he knows the one who will save people from all these things has come.
What is Simeon’s response? Well, he grabs Jesus from his parents and holds the kid up in the air (which must have been a bit alarming to Mary and Joseph). And then Simeon offers a prayer that indicates that he is quite old, and that the kingdom of God will be for both Gentiles and Israelites, for both non-Jews and Jews—it will be for everyone. Simeon prays: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” I’m an old man who can now rest easy, says Simeon, because I have seen hope for a brighter future for both non-Jews and Jews. Praise God!
Luke’s image of an old man and an infant boy suggests that Luke sees the gospel about Jesus as good news for people of all generations—people of all ages. I am reminded of the movie Up, which tells the story of two unlikely heroes—an old man and a young boy—who become unlikely friends. (Raise your hand if you’ve seen the movie Up.) The two main characters in the movie Up depend on one another. In a culture that is largely age-segregated, this movie’s message is countercultural; it shows the oldest generation and the youngest generation learning from one another and sharing life’s adventure together.
That Luke wants to say something about generations young and old is also heard in the conclusion of today’s passage. After telling us that Simeon blesses the family of Jesus, Luke then introduces us to another senior—the eighty-four-year-old Anna. Anna is a survivor, having lived much of her unusually long life without a husband. Anna is also a prophet—a mouthpiece of God. In a place and time when the words of women were not commonly held in high regard, Anna must have spoken with exceptional wisdom to be regarded as a prophet. “She never left the temple,” writes Luke, “but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.”
Anna reminds me of another woman, a senior named Patty whom I met while in Texas. When I went to seminary (pastor-training school), I worked as an intern at a Presbyterian church in New Braunfels (a German town that celebrated something called Wurstfest, which was a fair that had wonderful fried pickles). Patty was a member of the church who had become homebound. When I visited her, she told me of her decades of active involvement in the life of the church; and she also told me how frustrating her inactivity was. On my next visit to Patty, I brought her photos of the youth of the church. The youth of the church had written their names and some prayer requests on the backs of their photos. I asked Patty to pray for the youth. You might have thought she had seen the infant Jesus.
Patty, Anna, and Simeon—all seniors who knew that their lives were drawing to a close, but who nevertheless rejoiced. They rejoiced because they caught a glimpse of God’s future in the faces of children. In the case of Simeon and Anna, they saw this future in a child who was the Son of God.
Simeon and Anna blessed this child—and his family—with their worshipful examples and their prayers. And you who are seniors, who are perhaps unable to do as much as you once did, are able to be Simeons and Annas to our children and their families. You can bless them with your worshipful examples and your prayers. And while you cannot expect of them what Simeon and Anna expected of Jesus, you can have great expectations for them nonetheless.
In fact, I’d like those of you who are septuagenarians or older to stand if you are able. And now I’d like all of you who are children to stand (if you’re short, go ahead and stand on your pew—this one time only). Everyone look around you. The kingdom of God, the kingdom that dawned with the birth of Jesus, knows no segregation—people are not separated there, whether by ethnicity or nationality or age or gender or anything else. Look around you and see why we have these all-family worship services. Look around you and see why one of our core values is “loving and enjoying one another as an intergenerational family.” Look around you and see a glimpse of the kingdom of God.
William C. Placher, Jesus the Savior: The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), pp. 230.
"It is hard to write about Jesus" (x). So begins a Christology book that is indeed about the historical person Jesus of Nazareth, and not just about an abstract "Christ." This refreshing characteristic is alone reason enough to make Jesus the Savior worth reading, though it is certainly not the only reason.
In readable yet often profound prose, William Placher (recently deceased) has made the theological meaning of the story of Jesus accessible. He writes out of the Reformed tradition, but his theology is perhaps best described as generously orthodox (neither liberal nor conservative). Unlike Christians who focus almost exclusively on either the life or the death of Jesus, Placher attends to the whole story of Jesus--incarnation, ministry, cross, and resurrection. Moreover, he explores some of the practical implications of each part of this story:
If God became human in the incarnation, I explain in part 1, that says something about the value of the life of every human being, with consequences on issues from abortion to capital punishment. As we trace the course of Jesus' ministry, we will come to recognize how much controversy he evoked, and how often he sided with the outcasts of his culture. In part 2, I will thus consider homosexuality, one of the most controversial issues facing the church today, and one where Christians often condemn some who stand as outcasts in our society. Jesus went to the cross as a condemned criminal, so in part 3 I consider ethical questions about criminal justice and prisons. In the resurrection, Jesus triumphed over evil, but he triumphed without the use of violence. Part 4 will consider Christian attitudes toward war and violence. (p. 10)Placher moves seamlessly from theology to ethics, from theory to practice. In discussing particular contested issues, he manages to make bold claims without falling into ideological rants (which cannot be said of some other theologians). He affirms a consistent ethic of life (that is, he impugns abortion, the death penalty, and warmaking); on the subject of sexuality, he criticizes both the "implausibly narrow [exegesis]" (p. 99) of many liberals and the focus on homosexuality and indifference toward (the far more common) greed of many conservatives; he points out the racism of America's penal system, and calls for less retributive justice and more restorative justice; and he challenges Christians to be more willing to die than to kill--after the example of Jesus, whom they claim to follow.
Placher also discusses atonement with unusual nuance, combining the biblical themes of solidarity, sacrifice, reconciliation, and redemption to explain how Jesus saves. In this way, he is able to make use of Abelard's moral example theory, Anselm's satisfaction theory, and Augustine's Christus Victor theory. Placher steers clear of a typical articulation of the penal substitutionary theory; he cannot do otherwise, as he believes too much that God is incarnate in Jesus, that God is love, and that it is we who need to be reconciled to God and not God who needs to be reconciled to us (by placation or appeasement or anything else). Instead of writing that Jesus takes our place, Placher speaks of Jesus "stand[ing] with us in our place of sin" (p. 141)--thereby connecting the themes of solidarity and reconciliation.
to be continued
Biblical Studies (Old Testament)
Craig C. Broyles et al., Interpreting the Old Testament: A Guide for Exegesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), pp. 272.
I wish this book had been available when I was in seminary preparing for parish ministry. In seminary, I learned how much I did not know. Included in this learning was the discovery of things like source criticism and redaction and ANET (Ancient Near Eastern Texts). These discoveries were at best confusing (How would they help me preach and teach the Old Testament to lay people?) and at worst threatening (Did they not impugn my faith?). In Interpreting the Old Testament: A Guide for Exegesis, Craig Broyles and company (David Baker, V. Philips Long, John Bimson, Elmer Martens, Richard Hess, Paul Edward Hughes, and Jonathan Wilson) navigate the rough waters of Old Testament scholarship in a way that is helpful to the serious student whose studies are expected to produce sermons and lessons that both expand the knowledge and mature the faith of lay people. This book is rare in that it is both academic and readable (and consistently so, despite the fact that its chapters are written by different contributors); moreover, it shows how a scholarly approach need not undermine the Old Testament, but can in fact be useful for understanding the original intent of the various Old Testament writers.
The strongest chapters are those written by Broyles (one and five), Bimson (four), and Wilson (nine). In the opening chapter, Broyles outlines an exegetical approach for the serious study of the Old Testament (one that may also be helpful for sermon preparation). Along the way, he reflects on the problems with understanding inspiration as dictation (pp. 13-14), the perspectival (rather than objective) nature of all interpretation (pp. 15-17), the "liberal" tendency "to devalue the Bible" and the "conservative" tendency "to reduce the real God to the God 'contained' in the Bible" (p. 19), the difficulty of "discerning whether a character's actions are exemplary or simply one choice among many" (p. 29), and more.
In chapter four ("Old Testament History and Sociology"), Bimson wrestles with questions about the Old Testament's historicity that have been raised by archaeological findings. He focuses on the conquest narratives in the book of Joshua, whose historicity he acknowledges archaeology has impugned. However, he believes these stories have some historical basis; he uses ancient Near Eastern texts to argue that Joshua simply makes use of the hyperbole that was common in "ancient conquest accounts" (p. 142). (Thus, conquests of some sort happened in a historical sense, but descriptions of these conquests as God-sanctioned genocide were intentionally exaggerated, as was customary.)
Jonathan Wilson's concluding chapter makes the difficulty of biblical interpretation clear by asking a number of important questions:
[W]hat is the relationship between the OT and the NT? Is the OT promise and the NT fulfillment? How is the "old covenant" related to the "new covenant"? What is the relationship between the Israel of the OT and the church of the NT? What commands of the OT are still in force today? Should we distinguish among various types of laws and regulations in the OT, such as ceremonial, civil, and moral? (p. 246)Wilson invites us to wrestle with these questions, and simply by asking them he leaves no question that understanding and using the Old Testament well is an "enormous" challenge.
to be continued
Sunday, December 27, 2009
Biblical Studies (New Testament)
Morna Hooker, Paul: A Short Introduction (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2003), pp. 160.
In the very readable Paul: A Short Introduction, the under-appreciated Morna Hooker presents a winsome picture of the oft-maligned apostle. Refreshingly, Hooker seems to be captive to no constituency, which sets her work apart from that of some other theologians (N.T. Wright, for example, in his own recent book on Paul, pushes in intriguing directions with exegesis of counter-imperial language and with other insights, but seems to pull his punches--perhaps due to his awareness that conservative evangelicals make up much of his constituency). Showing intellectual integrity, Hooker honestly admits discrepancies between Luke's account of Paul (in the book of Acts) and Paul's autobiographical reflections (scattered throughout his own writings); she sensibly suggests that we privilege Paul's own words in reconstructing his story, rather than seek to harmonize Luke and Paul by means of mental gymnastics. She is able to do so warmly, making her appreciation for both of these biblical writers clear.
Hooker also shows a knack for making bold theological claims in profoundly simple ways; she repeatedly uses clear and concise arguments to cut through dense theological debate (and, again, she seems unconcerned about the possibility that challenging one long-held view or another will cost her some of her audience). Examples are many.
- Was Paul's Damascus Road experience (Acts 9) a conversion or a call (as Paul suggests in Galatians 1)? Hooker contends it was some of both--though not a conversion from Judaism to an entirely different religion (avoiding anti-Semitic implications). She writes, "[Paul] was not converted from Judaism; rather, he was converted to the belief that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and so the fulfillment of all his Jewish hopes" (pp. 33-34). Paul was a Jewish follower of Jesus.
- Addressing what Paul meant when he wrote "Christ is the end of the law" (Romans 10:4), Hooker observes that "the Greek term telos can mean both 'abolition' and 'fulfilment'" and goes on to point out that "when something reaches its fulfilment, its role is complete, and so it reaches its end in the sense of 'termination'" (pp. 66-67). In this way, she reconciles the words of Paul with the words of Jesus found in Matthew 5.
- Discussing the disputed Greek word hilasterion (Romans 3:25), Hooker suggests that the translation "mercy-seat" may be preferable to "a sacrifice of atonement" and similar translations. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses this word to refer to the place in the temple where blood was sprinkled to make atonement. Paul's intent in using this metaphor might have been simply to indicate that it is "in Christ" that we find mercy (pp. 77-79).
- In the space of a single paragraph, Hooker impugns the notion of Christ's death as a substitution, arguing that had Jesus died in our place, we would not die! In place of Christ as substitution Hooker offers Christ as representative, by which she means someone who shares our experience of living and dying, and someone in whom we share the experience of dying and rising. We die (to sin) with Christ, and we share in his resurrected life now and forever (pp. 92-95).
Hooker also offers a context-aware defense of Paul against charges of misogyny, sponsorship of the status quo (including slavery), and arrogance. "It was surely a gross misinterpretation of Paul's teaching to suppose that what he said about how one should behave within a particular social system gave approval to that system for all time" (p. 144). Paul's words are not necessarily timeless truths, and all of them are context-specific. As Hooker shows, however, when they are read well, they remain richly rewarding for persons striving to follow Jesus in their own particular contexts.
to be continued
Saturday, December 26, 2009
Biblical Studies (General)
N.T. Wright, The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God--Getting Beyond the Bible Wars (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), pp. 146.
It sometimes seems that there are no biblical scholars who both take the authority of Scripture seriously and interpret the meaning of Scripture intelligently. There are many biblical scholars who assert that the Bible is authoritative in strong terms, but who interpret the Bible in ways that are intellectually untenable; and there are many other biblical scholars who arrive at brilliant interpretations of Scripture, but who blunt the impact of these interpretations with their unwillingness to profess belief in Scripture's authority. N.T. Wright is one biblical scholar who both affirms Scripture's authority and interprets Scripture winsomely, and in The Last Word he shares how. As he describes it, his approach is neither modern nor premodern nor postmodern: "In this book I shall be arguing neither for a variety of modernism, nor for a return to premodernism, nor yet for a capitulation to postmodernism, but for what I hope is a way through this entire mess and muddle and forward into a way of living in and for God's world" (p. 10).
After insightfully (and at times pointedly) narrating the current state of the debate about the Bible, Wright moves to suggestions for moving forward into a more fruitful future. The Bible's authority, he explains, is derivative--it derives from God. The "authority of Scripture" means "the authority of God through Scripture"--that is, God works through Scripture, which gives it authority. The belief that God works through Scripture reminds us that God communicates, and directs us to the Bible as a source for new imagination and for equipping for participation in God's mission in the world.
Chapter 7 alone would be worth the book's price. Here, Wright names twelve "misreadings of the 'right'" and twelve "misreadings of the 'left'" (he is an equal opportunity offender). Misreadings of the right include (1) a Left Behind approach to eschatological texts, (2) a materialistic reading of biblical promises (the "prosperity gospel"), (3) proof-texting to support slavery (while ignoring the Exodus story and other passages), (4) reading racism into Scripture, (5) readings that fail to recognize some discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, (6) selective readings of Scripture (one example given by Wright is a focus on what the canon says about sex but not what it says about violence), (7) readings that assert the United States and other "Enlightenment projects" are the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, (8) readings that find "[s]upport for the death penalty," (9) spiritualized readings that ignore political meanings ("supporting the social status quo"), (10) readings of the Pauline corpus that fail to consider his Jewishness, (11) readings that identify "the modern state of Israel as the fulfillment of scriptural prophecy," and (12) "[a]n overall failure to pay attention to context and hermeneutics." Misreadings of the "left" include (1) readings that claim to be "objective," (2) readings that attempt to refute Scripture by appeal to history or science, (3) readings that assume contemporary cultures are superior to ancient cultures, (4) readings that rewrite what Scripture narrates as history, (5) readings that appeal to (supposedly) universal, abstract principles, (6) readings that caricature Scripture's teachings on one topic in order to impugn the Bible's authority on another topic, (7) politicized readings that ignore spiritual meanings, (8) readings that assume the New Testament uses the Old Testament carelessly, (9) reading the New Testament as something less than "scripture" because of the assumption that its writers did not think they were writing "scripture," (10) readings that make much of the fact that the canon developed over time in order to discredit the canon, (11) readings that appeal to "context" simply as a way of setting aside a text, and (12) readings that reduce "truth" to that which can be shown scientifically.
To move beyond these misreadings, Wright suggests reading the Bible as a five-act drama that is ongoing; this drama moves from creation to fall to Israel to Jesus to church. We live in the fifth act--the church act. For this reason, the New Testament is more directly relevant to our part in God's drama than is the Old Testament (though the latter remains "crucial and non-negotiable")--"[t]he New Testament is the foundation charter of the fifth act" (p. 125). In this way, Wright provides a rationale for the decision by the early church and Christians since not to practice parts of the Old Testament; it is not that the Old Testament writers were wrong, but that Christians are not called to play the part of pre-Jesus Israelites. Wright makes a compelling case that the church is called to improvise in a changing world, and that the Bible is to be the primary source of its imagination for participation in God's mission.
to be continued
Friday, December 25, 2009
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Biblical Studies (Commentary)
Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), pp. 256.
The typical commentary is a frustrating read, filled with information that is mostly useless for the practice of Christian faith in contemporary contexts. Whatever Colossians Remixed is (and some readers will not recognize it as a commentary), it is not dry reading. Walsh and Keesmaat offer a creative commentary on Colossians, reading this neglected book in the Pauline corpus (Romans and Galatians have been given much more attention) as a counter-imperial missive that subverts empire (in its original context, the Roman empire, and in our contemporary context, "the empire of global consumerism" [p. 34]). Walsh and Keesmaat make a compelling case that Paul's primary point in Colossians is to challenge the various empires (or kingdoms) of the world with the good news of an alternative--namely, the kingdom of God, which is both present and future. This empire's king is not Caesar, but Jesus. In short, Jesus is Lord!
From this evangelical starting point, Walsh and Keesmaat reach a number of progressive conclusions. To their credit, they refuse to reduce the teaching of Colossians by spiritualizing it, instead choosing to mine the epistle's riches for both spiritual and political meaning (which are sometimes one and the same). Topics addressed include consumerism, environmental concerns, gender equality, poverty, violence and peacemaking, and truth and postmodern suspicion. On this last subject, a path is navigated between the arrogant and unrealistic modern notion of truth as universal, objective fact, on the one hand, and the skeptical and unrealistic postmodern notion of truth as individual, subjective experience, on the other hand. Showing an awareness of the postmodern critique of metanarratives as imperialistic (put simply, when we claim to possess the truth we are tempted to coerce [even do violence to] persons who do not share our understanding), Walsh and Keesmaat aver that truth is neither universal and objective fact nor individual and subjective experience; rather, truth is relational and is revealed in the particular--most supremely in the particular person and the particular work of Jesus of Nazareth. The result is a reading that makes an ancient letter relevant to a postmodern age. Few readers will embrace all of the book's conclusions regarding practical implications; but fewer still will find the book boring.
to be continued
Yet on the eve before Joseph would have acted on his plan, an angel appears to him in a dream and lets him in on God’s plan. Astutely, the angel names Joseph’s own fear of embarrassment as one of the reasons he has decided to break off his engagement to Mary. And then the angel reveals that the baby to be born will not only be new life, but will also bring new life—“he will save his people from their sins” (1:21).
As it turns out, Joseph has a part to play in this plan. He is to take Mary as his wife, regardless of the whispers from others that may result. He is to resist having “marital relations” (1:25) with Mary until after she gives birth. And he is to name the baby “Jesus."
Prayer: Sovereign God, help us to know the part we are to play in your plan, and empower us to play it well. Amen.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.” For the LORD has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again. Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty, says the LORD.Those of us who are part of churches that light Advent candles have now lit four—the hope candle, the love candle, the joy candle, and the peace candle. There is a sense in which the last three of these gifts are encompassed by the first, as we hope for love, joy, and peace. And Jesus makes us bold to do so.
Prayer: God of hope, whatever our struggles—the loss of loved ones, the loss of jobs, the loss of dreams—turn our mourning into joy. Amen.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
In the Bible, it turns out, quite a lot. Various biblical names have various meanings. In the case of John the baptizer, though, it is not the meaning of his name (which Luke does not even tell us) but the role it plays in the story of Jesus that is important.
When Zechariah is informed by the angel Gabriel that his long-barren wife will conceive a child, the father-to-be doubts. The consequence of Zechariah’s disbelief is loss of speech—he becomes mute until after the child’s birth. His muteness is healed when he obediently names the child “John”—an unusual name because it belongs neither to the child’s father nor to any other close relatives. The name marks John as unique, indicating a unique calling and foreshadowing a unique life.
Luke tells us that Gabriel also instructed Mary what she was to name her son, to whom John would point: “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (1:31). The name “Jesus” means “God is salvation.” The Gospel of Matthew adds the name “Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us” (1:23). Jesus is salvation walking alongside us in our suffering and in our joy—and in all the ordinariness in-between.
Prayer: Jesus, make us aware of your saving presence in difficult times, in wonderful times, and in ordinary times. Amen.
Monday, December 21, 2009
It may surprise us, then, to discover that King David worried about building a house for God. Perhaps part of his motivation was guilt: “[T]he king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent’” (7:2). At first, Nathan responds by affirming David’s designs; but the prophet then receives word that impugns the notion that God would need David’s provision. To Nathan comes this word from God:
I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” (7:6-7)God then changes the subject—from what David might do for God to what God will do for David. It is the finite and fallen David who needs God, not the infinite and righteous God who needs David. Nor does God need us. Yes, we have been invited to participate in God’s work in the world. But our participation in the fully divine and fully human mission that began with the birth of Jesus is a privilege rather than a necessity.
Prayer: Ever-present God, forgive us for trying to confine you to parts of our lives; help us to invite you into every part of our lives, that they would be transformed for your work throughout the world. Amen.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (1:39-45)Mary, a virgin, has recently learned from an angel that she will conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit. Her visit to her relative Elizabeth reunites two unlikely mothers-to-be. Neither is supposed to be pregnant—Mary is not yet married, and Elizabeth is too old. Yet any anxiety caused by these awkward facts is overshadowed by joy. Even Elizabeth’s womb-bound child dances with joy! Life recognizes life. That which is alive knows that which is life-giving. Jesus is not only the light of the world, but also the life of the world.
Prayer: God of light and life, may your Spirit overshadow us, that we too may shine with joy for the sake of your world so loved. Amen.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
Paul first gives instructions regarding church leadership in Crete. Interestingly, his comments reveal that his primary concern is not that these leaders be knowledgeable, talented, or charismatic, but that they be people of character. Paul also wants them to teach “sound doctrine” (1:9); specifically, he is concerned that efforts to Judaize the Christian faith (note his references to “the circumcision” in 1:10 and to “Jewish myths” in 1:14) be refuted.
But Paul then returns to character and right action: “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their actions” (1:16). Perhaps here is the origin of the saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” Paul’s concern is that followers of Jesus incarnate the Lord’s way until he comes again.
Prayer: Word made flesh, make our works match our words, that your way may be seen by a needful world. Amen.
Friday, December 18, 2009
Our lack of awareness of God’s presence is not God’s doing, but our doing. The deity of the biblical story is not the deity of deism—not a god who is “watching us from a distance” (as in a song sung by Bette Midler). Rather, like “the man and his wife,” we hide “from the presence of the LORD God”—and we do so in any number of ways. When we sin, we ignore or deny God’s presence; and sin results in efforts to hide from God. We are like the dog who thinks that because he is not looking at his owner, his owner cannot see him.
Our efforts are unsuccessful, though. God is present in our lives—even in the ordinary of our everyday lives. We simply have more difficulty naming God’s presence in what is no longer a garden paradise. One name for God’s presence—the “name above all names,” in fact—is “Jesus.” In Jesus, God seeks to get our attention. Jesus is God’s way of saying, “Found you.”
We may as well stop hiding.
Prayer: Holy Spirit, give us faith to believe in the God revealed in Jesus—a present God rather than a distant God; and give us eyes to see the divine at work in the ordinariness of our lives. Amen.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Somewhere, the great twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth has written, “God is life.” Perhaps he had recently read the book of Revelation when these words came to mind. Repeatedly, Revelation celebrates the simple truth that God is eternal—God is life without end. This affirmation of faith would have been especially important to the book’s original audience, as members of this audience lived under threat of lethal persecution. Much of Revelation is a word of encouragement that condemns the violent Roman empire in symbolic code.
Nothing was more encouraging to these threatened Christians than the promise that death was no threat to God; for they had placed their hope in what God had done and was doing in Jesus Christ, especially his resurrection. In a world of death, death does not have the last word. Ultimately, God wins. “And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever” (4:9-10).
Prayer: Eternal God, you are life, now and forever; help us to trust that in Christ we share in your life. Amen.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Zechariah describes a scene in which “Satan” (which means “the Accuser” or “the Adversary”) stands ready to accuse Joshua. Before Satan can do so, however, God takes Joshua’s side, rebuking his enemy: “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan!” (3:2). God does not do so because Joshua is deserving of such support; on the contrary, Joshua is “dressed with filthy clothes”—symbolic of his sinfulness. God’s defense of Joshua is an act of grace. It is because God is gracious that Joshua’s rags of sin are replaced with “a clean turban” and “festal apparel” (3:4-5)—symbolic of the gifts of forgiveness and restoration.
More than once, the Gospel writers will make use of Zechariah in their telling of the story of Jesus. Joshua stands humbly before God. In Jesus, God enters history humbly, being born in a manger; later, Jesus will enter Jerusalem humbly, riding not on a mighty war-horse, but “on a donkey”: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9).
Prayer: Lord God, help us to humble ourselves that we may humbly follow your Son. Amen.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
The ruins of Laodicea can be explored in what is today western Turkey. Unlike some other ruins in the region, no modern city exists nearby. Laodicea’s remains are strewn about in a rural area, surrounded by fields. Some of these fields are cotton fields. These fields are a clue to one source of ancient Laodicea’s reported wealth; they are perhaps alluded to in the mention of “white robes to clothe you” (3:18).
Laodicea is lukewarm toward Jesus; its wealth has made it so. “For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17). Wealth has blinded the church in Laodicea to its need for Jesus; it has not rejected him (it’s not cold), but neither is it following him (it’s not hot). Jesus knocks at the church’s door (3:20); the church may or may not answer. Sure, it believes Jesus is a great guy; but he might not be “th’incarnate Deity” (“Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”).
All of which makes me think of suburbia.
Prayer: Holy Spirit, help us to see our need and to believe in what we have not seen, that we will with angels be able to sing, “Glory to the newborn King.” Amen.
Monday, December 14, 2009
For seventy years, the people of Israel suffered what they believed to be divine judgment, first in their exile and then in their return from exile (which came with challenges that included poor harvests [cf. Haggai 1:6]). Perhaps anticipating a question from Zechariah, “the angel of the LORD said, ‘O LORD of hosts, how long will you withhold mercy from Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, with which you have been angry these seventy years?’” (1:12). God’s response is described by Zechariah as “gracious and comforting” (1:13). At last, there is good news! God’s promise to God’s people is this: “My cities shall again overflow with prosperity; the LORD will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem” (1:17). Good news, indeed.
Advent falls during a season of increasing darkness. The days grow shorter, and what daylight there is often is dimmed by clouds in shades of gray. For many of us, listlessness and moodiness result. The good news is that the season is passing, to be replaced by brighter days in the future. God’s anger is like that—it lasts only for a time before it passes. In contrast, God’s love and light last forever.
Prayer: Lord Jesus, light of the world, you shine in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome you; thank you. Amen.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-9)By the third Sunday of Advent, many Christians have jumped ahead to Christmas; by this time, we are singing not only “Joy to the World,” but also many other festive songs that celebrate the birth of Jesus (I myself just recently went caroling). Undoubtedly, one reason for our impatience is the simple fact that most people like Christmas hymns more than Advent hymns (with the possible exception of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”). Another likely reason for our impatience is that many people want to experience Christmas joy as soon as possible, thereby extending this experience for as long as possible. These are understandable reasons.
Still, if we rush Advent, then we risk being unprepared for the arrival of Jesus. Luke and John make clear as much. Their concern is to teach that repentance—change—is necessary if we are to be ready for the coming King. Minus repentance, there is reason for the world to fear the Lord’s coming. “As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them…” (3:15-16a). John’s answer was that the Messiah had not yet come, and that repentance was necessary to prepare for that day.
Prayer: Lord, by the power of your Holy Spirit, “[l]et every heart prepare Him room.” Amen.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Unpleasant words, these. Sometimes they are used by others to rouse us from our slumber. Other times we find ourselves shouting them to rouse others (most likely our children). Whether shouted from the mouth of another or our own mouth, we would rather not hear these words.
Certainly, Christians in first-century Sardis (a city in what is today western Turkey) did not want to hear these words. But, in the words of a Rolling Stones song, “You can't always get what you want / But if you try sometime / You just might find you get what you need.” Of course, it seems that Christians in Sardis were not even trying: “I know your works; you have a name of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death” (3:1-2).
It’s easy to be lulled to sleep. We may be too comfy to recognize our need for God, lulled into an illusion of self-sufficiency. Or we may be leading frenzied lives at a fast (unsustainable?) pace, yet the monotony of daily repetition makes our minds nearly comatose even as our bodies are in constant motion. There is abundant life, and there is filling life with so much that we crowd truly living out of our story. Our lives are killing us.
Early Christians in Sardis were “dead” (or, at least, near “the point of death”). Waking them was no small task. The One who told them to “Wake up” was up for it, though; after all, he was not only born in a manger, but also raised from a tomb.
Prayer: Risen Christ, wake us up during this season of Advent, that we would be alive in our waiting and eager in our anticipation. Amen.
Friday, December 11, 2009
Five centuries before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Haggai wants to help the people of Jerusalem set priorities. These people have returned from exile in Babylon, and some time has passed since their homecoming. God has given them time—time to relocate, time to be refreshed. They have taken full advantage of this gift of time, updating neglected homes and “say[ing] the time has not yet come to rebuild the LORD’s house” (1:2). Meanwhile, the ruins of the temple wait their turn.
The people need Haggai, like Amos God’s mouthpiece, to tell them what time it is. It is time—past time—to rebuild God’s house. The former exiles have taken advantage of God’s kindness and tested God’s patience—and God is displeased. “Why? says the LORD of hosts. Because my house lies in ruins, while all of you hurry off to your own houses” (1:9). To their credit, the remnant responds in a way unlike that of many people before them; they respond to Haggai’s prophetic word with obedience.
Advent is a season of waiting—waiting for Jesus. It is also a time to reexamine and reset priorities—a time for renewed action. Whit Bodman writes: “Advent is not a season of still-lying Bethlehems and cooing turtledoves. It is the time for building the House of The Lord, a house where all are sheltered and nourished and all are healed. This is no public option. This is the Word-of-The-Lord: ‘You People!!’ God has an Advent Word for you.”
Prayer: Eternal God, you deliver us from exile and restore our hope; help us to build on the foundation of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
To be “in Christ” is to be united with him in his death and resurrection. The apostle Paul writes:
How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:2-4)
Paul makes a similar point in poetic fashion in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” The movement of the Christian experience is from old to new, death to life.
John of Patmos points in the same direction—toward and through death to life: “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10). Even as we celebrate a birth this season, we are called to die. We are called to die to sin—to the idolatry of self—and to “walk in newness of life,” following after the once newborn, now risen, and forever reigning Christ the King.
Prayer: Lord Jesus, may we die to those things that distance us from you, and may we live to those things that draw us to you. Amen.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
The prophet Amos was not cut out to be a parish pastor—he would have beaten up his flock. He was a visiting speaker who could say what needed to be said, and then return to his fields. Here again he pulls no punches, insisting that Israel’s injustices (especially their abuse of the poor) invite everything from natural disasters (8:8-9) to “baldness” (8:10).
Worst of all, though, is this threat: “The time is surely coming, says the Lord GOD, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD” (8:11). On this side of history, on this side of the incarnation of the Word of God, it is difficult to imagine a famine of “words from the LORD.” After all, we need only to read the words of Jesus to feast on such words.
Yet there is a sense in which we contribute to such a famine. Insofar as we fail to show and tell the story of Jesus we contribute to a famine “of hearing the words of the LORD.” With whom are we sharing “the words of the LORD”? With whom are we sharing the Word made flesh? With whom are we sharing Jesus?
Prayer: Word of God, give us works and words to share you with others—whether the neighbor across the street or across the hall, on the other side of the room or on the other side of the bed. Amen.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
We do not, however, share in the experience of violent persecution. Whereas early Christians often took up there cross and followed Jesus in a literal sense, Western Christians rarely if ever suffer violent persecution for their faith. When polled, a clear majority of Americans still identify Christianity as their religion of choice (though it is just as clear that nominalism is now the norm). It may seem obvious that the absence of persecution is a blessing; yet there is at least one sense in which the absence of persecution from our faith-journeys is a great loss: Jesus is for this reason anticipated with much less urgency. When John’s persecuted audience directed their thoughts toward the coming again of Christ, it was with a desperation inspired by the threat of death—a desperation that simultaneously challenged and required “patient endurance.”
In our relative comfort, how might we anticipate the coming of Jesus with passion rather than apathy?
Prayer: Holy Spirit, unsettle us; make us restless for the coming kingdom and its king. Amen.
Monday, December 7, 2009
Amos uses the alarming imagery of destruction—locust swarms (especially frightening to an agrarian society like that of ancient Israel) and “a shower of fire” (7:4) and “the sword” (7:9)—to sound an alarm among the people of Israel. In this way, he is an emissary of judgment and mercy—mercy because his warnings give Israel an opportunity to change its unjust ways. God sets “a plumb line in the midst of [God’s] people Israel” (7:8). A plumb line is used to determine depth or verticality. Here, its use indicates that Israel has gone askew—God’s people are out of line and need to get back in line.
Similarly, John the baptizer will proclaim, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:5-6). This salvation has taken flesh; it has been seen and will be seen again—this salvation is Jesus Christ. Let us “[p]repare the way of the Lord, mak[ing] his paths straight” (3:4); let us do so by making our paths straight.
Prayer: Lord, by the power of your Holy Spirit, prepare us for your coming, making our ways more like your way. Amen.
Sunday, December 6, 2009
Part 1: The Confession of 1967 (http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2009/08/on-atonement-part-one.html)
Part 2: Clement (http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2009/09/on-atonement-part-two.html)
Part 3: Augustine (http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2009/09/on-atonement-part-three.html)
Part 4: Anselm (http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2009/09/on-atonement-part-four.html)
Part 5: John Calvin (http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2009/11/on-atonement-part-five.html)
Part 6: James Denney (http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2009/11/on-atonement-part-six.html)
Part 7: P.T. Forsyth (http://postyesterdaychurch.blogspot.com/2009/12/on-atonement-part-seven.html)
Part 8: Gustaf Aulen
Part 9: D.M. Baillie
Part 10: Leon Morris
Part 11: Jurgen Moltmann
Part 12: Paul Fiddes
Part 13: Colin Gunton
Part 14: Thomas Torrance
Part 15: Darby Kathleen Ray
Part 16: Rene Girard
Part 17: Anthony Bartlett
Part 18: Morna Hooker
Part 19: Hans Boersma
Part 20: S. Mark Heim
Part 21: Stephen Finlan
Having narrated the birth of Jesus using words that are today widely known (thanks in part to A Charlie Brown Christmas), Luke fast-forwards through much of the life of Jesus to the beginning of his ministry. Why does Luke begin his account of this ministry by listing the names of the power-people of the day? Tiberius and Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas—these people have political power, religious power, or both.
Perhaps Luke, who is often described as a historian, is just doing what responsible historians do—setting the context for the story that follows. It may be naïve, though, to think he is not up to something more as well—something theological (perhaps even subversive). After listing the powers that be, Luke in the next breath speaks of “the word of God [coming] to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (3:2).
This juxtaposition provides a sharp contrast. The powers that be sit in lofty places. In contrast, the kid of some guy named Zechariah is up to something out in the desert. Whatever the rulers and priests have to say, Luke doesn’t think it worth reporting. But this wildman John—this “voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (3:4)—he’s got “the word of God.”
Where do you listen for God speaking? Politicians and generals, celebrities and televangelists—the power-people of our day? Luke counsels otherwise. Luke advises listening for God’s word in unlikely places and from unlikely people.
Prayer: Jesus Christ, Word of God and humble servant, help us to hear you anew this day, this season, and throughout the days we are given. Amen.
Saturday, December 5, 2009
About many things, moderns and postmoderns know far more than did Jude and other premoderns—astronomy, geography, geology, physiology, and radiology among them. About the future, however, we know nothing more than did Jude—the future remains a mystery about which we can only speculate. In fact, we may know less than did Jude; we may know less because we have forgotten the art of remembering. We live in a time in which there appears to be no time, and for this reason we are trained how not to engage in sustained reflection on what has already happened. Since the presidential election of 1968, the average sound bite from a candidate has decreased from 43 seconds to 7.2 seconds. When we watch television, we are inundated with commercials, most of which last only 15 or 30 seconds. Our brains have been trained to focus on one thing for only short periods before moving on to the next thing.
Jude had no such state-of-the-art training. Thus, he was better equipped for the art of remembering. And his remembering led him to a hopeful word in the form of a beautiful benediction:
Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Vv. 24-25)
Prayer: Savior and Lord, keep us from falling; make us stand without blemish and with joy in your glorious presence. Amen.
Friday, December 4, 2009
It would be easy to hear him as the first. Having criticized Israel at length, Amos now begins a lament that sounds like a dirge. There is no doubt that he believes Israel to be deserving of death. He names many injustices of which this people is guilty—militarism (5:3), the abuse of power (5:9), disdain for truth-tellers (5:10), mistreatment of the poor (5:11a), and living in luxury (5:11b).
Yet there remains hope. It is not too late for Israel—provided they repent. Four times Amos offers this word of hope: “For thus says the LORD to the house of Israel: Seek me and live” (5:4); “Seek the LORD and live” (5:6); “Seek good and not evil, that you may live” (5:14); “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate” (5:15). Repentance—turning around or changing course—is not optional. Yes, God is merciful; but God’s mercy is manifest in the prophet who warns of coming judgment. Were God not merciful, we would receive no such warning.
“Seek me and live.” Turn from sin and toward God; turn from evil and toward good; turn from injustice and toward justice. Perhaps Jesus had the words of Amos echoing in his head when he said, “[S]trive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).
Prayer: Holy God, help us to seek first your kingdom and its king, exhibiting your goodness and your justice for your world so loved to see. Amen.
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Perhaps you are waiting for restored health. Maybe you are waiting for a new job. Or maybe you are waiting for a reconciled relationship. These hopes and others have in common a desire for change—a changed body or a changed situation.
God does not promise these changes on our terms or according to our timing. Change is underway, however—or, put another way, “new heavens and a new earth” (3:13) are on their way. Because this chapter in God’s story is unfolding slowly (perhaps especially for persons who live in an Internet culture of instant gratification), we have need for patience as we wait.
God’s patience is life-giving. Christians are to “regard the patience of our Lord as salvation” (3:15). God’s patience allows time for “all to come to repentance” (3:9). Moreover, it gives us time to start participating in the missio Dei to God’s world so loved. It’s not too late to enlist in God’s mission of restoration, renewal, and reconciliation!
What are you waiting for?
Prayer: Sending God, give us the patience we need to wait for your new creation; and give us the passion we need to participate in your creative work today. Amen.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Matthew 27:1-31 (NRSV)
November 15, 2009
The mention of Pilate’s wife’s dream in today’s passage reminded me of another dream I heard about recently. A Trinity parent told me his daughter had dreamt about the end of the world. In describing the dream to him, she talked about earthquakes, explosions, fires, collapsing buildings, and so forth (perhaps she had seen the preview for the new movie 2012 just before going to bed). Lots of people died, she said. She and a friend survived, though, because they prayed. They prayed to God, and God delivered them from the end of the world. They were the faithful ones, and their faithfulness was rewarded.
After telling of her survival, the girl added:
“But the Rowleys didn’t make it.”
By the time Jesus was brought before Pilate, his followers were unable to imagine a scenario in which he would make it. They could not imagine his story ending well, and wanting to avoid his future, they fled his side. They wanted to survive what had become a bad dream.
The past two Sundays, Mary and I have invited you to identify with the first disciples—the student-apprentices who betrayed, deserted, and denied their master. It probably has not been especially difficult for you to do that. Certainly, I don’t know that I would have done differently than those disciples—not given their circumstances. When we wrestle with it honestly, this section of the story of Jesus will convict us. When we find ourselves tested, we may also find that our loyalty to self is greater than our loyalty to Jesus. We have in common with the disciples a strong desire for self-preservation.
But do we have anything in common with the character Matthew introduces today? Do we have anything in common with perhaps the only person who can save Jesus from a terrible execution? Do we have anything in common with Pontius Pilate?
Surely not! We may be able to imagine ourselves deserting or disowning Jesus; but ordering his torture and execution is another matter. Surely we cannot imagine doing that!
The good news (and the bad news) is that Matthew may be able to expand our imagination. After recounting Peter’s denial of Jesus, Matthew starts a new scene—it’s the morning of the next day and Jesus is being led to Pilate. As Judas sees the scene unfolding, he is convicted of his sin. He returns the money he was paid to betray Jesus and says, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” Judas is described as genuinely remorseful. Yet he cannot imagine that God’s mercy is wide enough for God to forgive him. Overwhelmed by guilt, Judas hangs himself.
Perhaps the reason Judas cannot imagine God ruling with mercy is that he has grown accustomed to rulers like Pilate. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus and the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo both criticized Pilate’s governing. New Testament scholar Richard Cassidy summarizes one of their grievances:
Soon after he took office Pilate apparently decided to show the Jews that he did not feel obligated to respect their laws; and, under cover of darkness, he sent his soldiers to set up standards bearing the likeness of [emperor] Tiberius within the city of Jerusalem. When these were discovered, there was a great popular outcry, and a large number of the city’s inhabitants went immediately…to protest to Pilate. When Pilate threatened to massacre them, the people proclaimed their willingness to suffer death. Recognizing, then, how seriously committed they were, Pilate had the standards removed.
Not only were the banners depicting Tiberius an insult to the occupied Jews (they rubbed salt in their wounds), but they also were idolatrous—offensive because they violated the first two commandments of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments). And Pilate was not above adding injury to insult; the Gospel of Luke mentions his slaughter of a group of Galileans (13:1).
It is this cruel governor whom Jesus faces after he has been declared guilty of blasphemy by the religious elites of his day. Representing the kingdom of Rome, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Representing the kingdom of God, Jesus answers Pilate, “You say so.” And that’s it from Jesus. That’s all he says until he is taken away to be crucified—just three words (in Matthew’s Greek, just two words).
The silence of Jesus makes life more difficult for Pilate. Were Jesus to have said more, he might have implicated himself in one crime or another, making it easier for Pilate to condemn him. As it is, though, Jesus is uncooperative—just two words come from his mouth. Still, the fact that these two words do not deny that he is King of the Jews is most likely enough to worry Pilate—the Romans do not want their subjects running around claiming to be kings (that’s how insurrections start).
So, Pilate cleverly tests the popularity of Jesus. Just how big a following does this peasant king have? To find out, Pilate gives the Jewish onlookers a choice: “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Whom do you want spared, a “notorious” bandit or Jesus the miracle-worker who heals the sick and feeds the hungry? Pilate figures that if the crowd prefers Barabbas to Jesus, then Jesus probably doesn’t have much of a following. Influenced by the religious elites, the crowd does choose Barabbas. One commentator puts it like this: “Pilate…gauge[s] how much support Jesus has, and how much danger he poses…. [H]e learns Jesus is not very popular.”
Now Pilate knows he has options. Were this “King of the Jews” popular, Pilate would have felt he had no choice but to kill him—despite the fact that a riot most likely would have ensued. The Roman governor would not have allowed a serious threat to the Roman empire to live.
As it is, “Jesus is not very popular.” And for this reason, it probably won’t matter what Pilate does with him. He can kill Jesus without much fear that he will become a martyr who inspires a resistance movement. Or he can let Jesus go without much fear that he will be able to attract enough followers to cause trouble.
The crowd, however, may cause trouble. And not wanting a riot, Pilate chooses to have Jesus tortured and crucified. But he does something else—something curious—along the way. He makes a public show of washing his hands, and he says, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Pilate places the blame for what he is about to do on the crowd.
Why does Pilate bother with such a show? He has already killed many Jews, some of them undoubtedly innocent. Of course, the writers of the Gospels could not have spoken about him so bluntly; had they done so, their writings would have been destroyed by the Romans. By the time of the writing of the Apostles’ Creed at the end of the second century, the church was more established and Christians were bolder; the Apostles’ Creed clearly places blame for the suffering and death of Jesus on Pilate.
It seems improbable that Pilate, the Roman governor entrusted with keeping the Jews in line, is genuinely concerned about the innocence of a Jewish peasant. More likely, the politician is hedging his bets. In other words, he’s not risking everything on the assumption that Jesus is unpopular; he’s also leaving open the possibility that Jesus has a following that may be mobilized by the martyrdom of their leader. So, he will flog and kill Jesus; but he will also make it appear that others are to blame for his actions. In this way, he hopes to get rid of Jesus without inspiring a revolt against the Roman occupation.
Here, I think, is where we have something in common with Pilate. Like Pilate, we are tempted to hedge our bets. We believe in God, and we believe Jesus was a great teacher on the subject of God; but we’re not sure about going “all in.” Perhaps we believe in the existence of a generic God, yet are unsure about a trinitarian God who exists in three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Perhaps we are “in” enough with Jesus that we are up for imitating his attitude, yet are unsure about imitating his actions. Perhaps we are moved to gratitude by the radical generosity of Jesus, yet are unsure about giving all that we have as a poor widow once did—rainy days happen, after all.
One of the ways I hedge my bets is seen in the choices I sometimes make in my preaching and teaching. I confessed this weakness to one of you awhile back; now I’m confessing it to a few more of you. When I am faced with multiple interpretations of a biblical text, I am often tempted to preach or teach the interpretation that I think people will like the most; and I often give in to this temptation. You see, I want to be liked—I want to be popular. I forget that Jesus was not popular at the time of his death. I forget that even after his resurrection and ascension he had only “about one hundred twenty [followers]” (Acts 1:15). I forget that the popular pastors of the big, growing megachurches really aren’t as Jesuslike as me (I’m kind of kidding, of course).
Unlike Pilate and unlike me, Jesus did not hedge his bets. Jesus went “all in” for God and God’s kingdom. With God’s help, may we “[g]o and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
 Richard J. Cassidy, Jesus, Politics, and Society: A Study of Luke’s Gospel, 94.
 Warren Carter, The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, 1797 n.
Matthew 26:31-75 (NRSV)
November 8, 2009
What would you do?
What would you do if you were walking in the sandals of a first-century Jewish peasant who had joined a movement and had found himself involved in something way over his head? What would you do if you were one of the closest friends of this movement’s leader—the right-hand man of a guy named Jesus? What would you do if you were Peter?
What would you do if Jesus himself put you on the spot at the end of a long and stressful week? Oh, the week started out well. At the start of the week, Jesus entered Jerusalem to great fanfare. Crowds gathered to welcome him with shouts of “Hosanna” (which means “save us”). The disciples might have preferred that Jesus ride on something manlier than a donkey, but the results could not be argued with—the people were jazzed about Jesus. The movement was at last starting to get somewhere.
The moment did not last, however. Jesus did not let it last. Soon after his entry into Jerusalem, he went inside the temple and raised a ruckus, turning over tables and driving out animals. The mood abruptly shifted from triumphant to tense.
And the tension continued in the days that followed. Jesus seemed to know it would; he took his stress out on a fig tree, to which he said, “[N]o fruit for you” (my rough paraphrase). In reply, the tree immediately started to die. This conflict with a tree turned out to be just a warm-up, as Jesus was then assailed with one pointed question after another. The elites of the day—the chief priests and the elders and the scribes, the Pharisees and the Herodians and the Sadducees—challenged Jesus with question after question, all designed to trap and discredit him. Sparks flew. Jesus responded to his questioners ingeniously, using questions of his own to evade traps and using parables to criticize his opponents along the way. Of course, his students might have wished for a little more diplomacy from Jesus—by not biting his tongue, he painted a target on his back.
Then came the Passover meal—worst dinner party ever. Jesus and his disciples gathered in the home of a man in the city to share a meal; the meal was in remembrance of the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt—specifically, the meal recalled the passing-over of Israelite households after they smeared the blood of a lamb on their doorposts. The Israelites were delivered from death then, and they were delivered from slavery soon thereafter.
The meal was going well at first—grub was good, wine was fine. But then Jesus broke the festive mood. Jesus let the disciples in on a secret: Judas would betray him.
So, it had been a long and stressful week by the time Jesus and his followers left the house and headed up to the Mount of Olives. Add to that the lateness of the hour and the consumption of wine, and it’s safe to assume that the group was tired. Jesus, though, was not done. As they walked, Jesus said: “You will all become deserters because of me this night.” Peter and company were put on the spot. What would you do if Jesus himself put you on the spot at the end of a long and stressful week?
Peter did what he had done before—he disagreed with Jesus. When he disagreed with Jesus the first time, Jesus called him “Satan.” He might have learned from that rebuke not to disagree with Jesus. But how could he not disagree with the prediction that he would desert his master? What else could he do but protest? What would you do?
Jesus was unconvinced by Peter’s protest. “Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter’s response? “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” Peter not only promised to stay with Jesus; Peter promised to die with Jesus.
Would you do that?
What would you do?
You would think that Peter would have had enough sense of urgency to have stayed alert as they went to Gethsemane to pray; after all, he had just mentioned the possibility of death—he knew that danger threatened. Yet as Jesus prayed, Peter and the other disciples fell asleep. After having told them to “stay awake with [him],” Jesus found them asleep—he found them asleep three times.
As Jesus roused his followers, Judas arrived—and along with him an armed crowd. Judas had told the crowd beforehand that he would identify Jesus by kissing him. Greeting Jesus as “Rabbi” (not “Lord”), Judas kissed Jesus; Jesus replied, “Friend, do what you are here to do.”
As Jesus was seized, one of his disciples came to his defense. Matthew does not name him, but the Gospel of John does—it’s Peter. Peter swung his sword and lopped off the ear of a slave. Before further dismembering could take place, Jesus ordered Peter to “[p]ut [his] sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus did not want Peter to kill for him; Jesus wanted Peter to die with him.
Peter had a choice to make, and he had at least three options from which to choose: (1) he could choose to disobey Jesus, hack away at the armed crowd, and die fighting; (2) he could choose to keep his promise to Jesus, giving up his sword and surrendering to the custody of the crowd; or (3) he could flee—he could desert Jesus. Peter chose to flee—and with him the other disciples as well. “[A]ll the disciples deserted [Jesus] and fled.”
Which option would you choose?
What would you do?
To Peter’s credit, he did not flee far. He could have hit the road back home to Galilee, returned to a simple life as a fisherman. Had he done so, it would have been understandable. Instead, Peter followed Jesus “at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end.” No doubt he feared it would not end well.
As Peter watched from a distance, person after person accused Jesus of various offenses. As was the case earlier and as would be the case later, Jesus offered no defense. Finally, the powers that be charged him with blasphemy, which is speech or writing that disrespects God; the Old Testament says a blasphemer should be punished by death (Leviticus 24:16). As Jews, every person present knew as much; and as the physical abuse of Jesus started, Peter’s anxiety must have been growing.
“Peter was sitting in the courtyard [when a] servant-girl came to him and said, ‘You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” Peter denied it. He changed locations, moving away from the servant-girl; but “another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, ‘This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.’” Again, Peter denied it: “I do not know the man.” A few minutes passed, the bystanders watching Peter and whispering to one another. Some “came up and said to Peter, ‘Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.’” One more time, Peter denied Jesus, swearing, “I do not know the man!”
What would you do?
What would you do if your choices were either denial of Jesus or suffering torture with Jesus? What would you do if your choices were either denial of Jesus or getting nailed to a cross alongside Jesus? What would you do if your choices were either denial or death?
What would you do?