Sunday, September 25, 2016

Am I In The Place of God?

Late in Genesis chapter 50, there is an exchange between Joseph and his brothers. Before we can get the impact of this exchange, we need to grasp what has gone before. Joseph was Israel's favorite kid because we're told, he was a child of Israel's old age. Israel it seems dotes on the kid to the apparent exclusion of the older brothers. He even gives him a coat (of many colors, or one with long sleeves, although the many colors version is much more picturesque). It seems Joe can't leave well enough alone - we're told that his brothers can't even speak peaceably to him. Joseph gets a reputation for dreams and he has one about sheafs being gathered. You know the story, all the brothers' sheaves bow down around Joe's upright sheaf. Joseph volunteers the interpretation - his brothers will be subject to him.

You can imagine the response this receives from the brothers.

Some time later, Joseph is sent out to his brothers and they see "this dreamer" coming toward them. At first, they want to kill him and blame it on a wild animal. Reuben doesn't want to kill him and comes up with the idea of putting Joe into a pit rather than kill him - with the intent of Reuben coming back later to rescue Joe from the pit. Everybody's happy with that until Judah speaks up and says essentially, "what's in it for us?" Let's sell him to the Ishmaelites and make a little profit. We might still put blood on the famous coat and keep with our story about the wild animal devouring Joe.

So this is what they do - they sell Joseph to a passing caravan of traders of sorts, and stay with putting blood on the coat and the wild animal story. 

Israel is distraught and the brothers try to console him.

As we can tell, not only are these brothers considerably mean - they have taken the prized coat off of Joseph, thrown him into a pit, and finally sold him off into slavery; and then took the coat as evidence for their father that his favorite child was dead - but then they play at consolation. They know Joseph's not dead and yet they let Israel go through the torment of believing he is. These are not stellar fellows.

Then follows some famous stories about Joseph. There are Potiphar's wife, the dream interpretation in jail, and the interpretation of the coming famine. Joseph is promoted to second in the kingdom and responsible for preparing for the coming famine. He will end up storing a considerable amount of food to carry the nation over the seven years of famine. He does this well.

Eventually, Israel dies and the brothers return to Joseph to tell him. They like the Prodigal Son, want some mercy, and like that son they label themselves Joe's servants. They don't dare now claim superiority over this younger brother. They are afraid of what Joseph might do to them and so they carry a message presumed from Israel that Joseph should be gracious to his brothers.

This brings us to the last few lines of chapter 50. Joseph essentially says, don't worry, I'm not God and I forgive you. I'll take care of you and yours because while you meant to harm me, God has worked your deeds to the benefit of many people; many people have been saved.

We get reflections of the Prodigal Son story in the brothers who come and rather than presume a familial tie with this most powerful man, call themselves his servants. Joseph forgives them and in this sense, and despite what he has said, he does stand in the place of God. He can forgive their sin against him, and he does. Who has benefitted from God's working of good from evil? Many people.

Who are these many people? Not just Joseph's family, not just the Jews in captivity, but the entire Egyptian nation and any others who like Joseph's family have come to him for famine relief. God has not just worked good for Joseph through all this, but for people from all over.

We have in this story a shadow of the work of Christ. Christ is rejected and killed by his people. God is in that evil work and draws good from it. As a result of Jesus' willing death, he is elevated to the right hand of God, and people from all over the globe benefit from it. Not just Jews, not just Christians, but all people are welcome to come for rest, for relief, for life. Joseph's story has a myriad of parallels with that of Jesus, it's hard to miss them. Joseph turns out to be type of Christ.

What about you? Are you a type of Christ? Do you want to be? If you have or are going through difficult times of any sort, are you looking to see the good God is working through it? Not just for you, or even primarily for you, but for others? Do you allow God to work through your life and trials to bless other people - even those you don't know or who don't share your faith?

One last observation. That "Am I in the place of God" retort? That sounds like Jesus, doesn't it? But even though both Joseph and Jesus deny being in the place of God as judge, they both have the ability to forgive those who have wronged them. Joseph flatly says he does; Jesus asks forgiveness for us while he hangs on the cross. 

Want to reflect Christ? Forgive those who hurt you.
Who do you need no, who do you want to forgive as Christ forgave you this week?

Do it.

Monday, September 05, 2016

The Big Picture

Love can be commanded, or stated as an expectation for continued relationship. In fact, the covenant with Israel established loving YHWH as a condition for continued blessing. The essence of love however, love the thing we call love, cannot be coerced or manipulated. It cannot be produced as a result of a command. Love, to be love, must be freely given. Ultimately, loving someone "because you have to" is nonsensical.

The ultimate desire or intent of God is what it always has been. That is, a community of voluntary, self-denying lovers, with God in their midst as the chief lover, the life giver, the sustainer.

YHWH has demonstrated a desire that the people he blesses (but more importantly and by extension the people he has created) should both acknowledge his graciousness toward them, and use that divine grace as a model for their own lives. The location of this community (earth or Heaven) is irrelevant because the expectation is the same - an expression of the economy of God. We aren't waiting for Heaven to pull this together - it's supposed to be reality now, just as it is in Heaven.

Reconciliation or redemption (salvation) is not primarily about sin or damnation. It is rather, about restoring the object of the redemption to a previous state. That is accomplished by the gracious, unforced act of God. Having been restored or redeemed, or saved, the expectation remains as it always has - gratitude toward the redeemer, and a life modeled on the redeemer's life. Forgiveness of sins is a consequence, not a prerequisite for salvation and no longer being damned.

The cosmic redeemer says, "I have set things right, come back to me." As has been demonstrated through Scripture, life with God then becomes an open question for those who have been redeemed or reconciled to God. Deuteronomy 30 and Jeremiah 18 provide two examples of God's urging people to remain faithful to him and live in the world of his blessing. The relationship they have with YHWH exists because he wants it to exist, but they have the opportunity to reject the relationship. Similarly, we can accept the reality of redemption and reconciliation, or we can reject it. If we reject it, we separate ourselves from God and his life. There are natural consequences to choosing to not live with God, but they remain the result of our choice, not an imposition by God.

Why would God want you to live with him, as a cosmic lover yourself? Well it seems there are two interconnected reasons:

That is the best sort of life for any sentient being, and
That is the purpose and design for which you have been made. To become such a lover is to become most fully your true self.

God has created people in his image. We have, as our core values, desires, wants, drives, and ultimate satisfaction, to live as God lives - in his character; reflections or icons of God himself. Sin, at its basic level, is not behavior, but character fault. Sin is a failure to live as love itself. In Scripture, we can be both saved from our sins (having God reconcile us to him) and saved from sin (returning to live as the image of God we are).

This is the offer of God - return to me and live the most satisfying life possible for you. Salvation isn't primarily about sin, but being restored to real, full life. That life is the ultimate life for which you are made and is lived with the same characteristics as the very life of God. It is simply, the most natural for you and is the purpose or telos of your creation.

The ball's in your court.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Hosea 11 - How Can I Give You Up?

If YHWH picks you to be one of His spokesmen, you can be pretty sure of two things. One, this is a great honor if you can pull it off; and two, your life is going to get pretty problematic really soon. A cursory review of the people who have been tapped by God (not the modern, "I'm a prophet" sort of people; the real ones in Scripture) will easily bear this out. 

Hosea is a wonderful example of this. Perhaps best known for the story of he and his wife, Hosea is directed to take a wife of whoredom. As the story progresses there are a number of infidelities and reunions between the couple. Eventually, Hosea's wife Gomer, gives birth to three kids. Now if you're a prophet, not only does your life become problematic, but various aspects of it will be used to help spread the message YHWH wants communicated. Such is the case for Hosea. Those three kids are named by YHWH Himself and they aren't flattering names. They mean, in order, Jezreel, No-Mercy (or Not-Pitied), and Not-My-People. These three kids' names are part of Hosea's message to God's People. The first may well be the basis or cause of the other two named realities to come. Jezreel, where the blood of innocents has been shed and YHWH pursued unfaithfully, will result in there being No-Mercy for Israel, and Israel becoming not the people of YHWH. We can imagine the sorts of abuse Hosea would have born having had these judgments and proclamations as his message.

This message is the theme of Hosea's prophecies to Israel.

It is remarkable then, that in chapter 11, beginning in verse 8, we read these lines:

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
     How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
     How can I make you like Zeboiim?
My heart is changed within me;
     all my compassion is aroused.
I will not carry out my fierce anger,
     nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim.
For I am God, and not man--
     the Holy One among you;
     I will not come in wrath.

After promises of judgment and causing deliberate signs to be delivered in the very names of Hosea's children, YHWH here declares His compassion and His desire not to harm Israel. Hosea includes urgings to return to YHWH like these lines in chapter 12:

But you must return to your God;
     maintain love and justice,
     and wait for your God always.

I will heal their waywardness
     and love them freely,
     for my anger has turned away from them.
I will be like the dew to Israel;
     he will blossom like a lily.
Like a cedar of Lebanon
     he will send down his roots; 
     his young shoots will grow.

There will be restoration eventually but even now, if Israel would return to her God, calamity could be forestalled. Alas, she will not. Even so, there remains a time in the future when YHWH will restore her. A time when Israel will become strong and vibrant again - after her travail.

The message of Hosea is that God does not overlook persistent evil, but will punish it. This punishment is not something He wants to do -- God is much more willing to forego any punishment because the punishment is intended as discipline rather than wrath. If the lesson can be learned soon, the discipline will not be needed.

YHWH prefers compassion and mercy; He punishes to correct, not for punishment's sake. Unfortunately, we humans are a stubborn bunch and we throw ourselves almost headlong into worthless pursuits that result in discipline. God much rather would bless us with life in the Garden with Him than have us in the wild places estranged from Him. In fact, that is always the promise and always the offer - return to me and I will bless you; or I stand at the door and knock.

The choice is ours. God has come in the person of Jesus for the purpose of overlooking our sin and restoring us to life with Him. What will we do? What will you do?

Monday, March 21, 2016


Forgiveness is a choice that does not require anything from the other. Forgiveness simply accepts the human condition as it is, realizing that the offender is also human. It need not agree with or legitimize the offense in order to forgive it or the offender.

Forgiveness does not pretend that the other's character, reliability, or trustworthiness is changed or that we must continually leave ourselves open for abuse. The Kennedy quote is instructive in this regard, but the others are as applicable. Forgiveness includes, at its fullest, a renewed desire for the good of the offender. This is not codependency, not porous boundaries, not severe self negation. It is simply living in community with integrity, accepting others as broken humans.

In this sense, forgiveness is more of a stance, a readiness, a willingness more than a specific act although such a stance will result in behaviors of forgiveness. Those who are open to the reality of broken human society forgive as a matter of course.

An addendum. Sometimes forgiveness leads to or even requires grieving what we have lost in ourselves, for ourselves, and even for the other. If grief remains strongly associated with the hurt, defensiveness rather than forgiveness may result.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Triumph and Tragedy

On this Palm Sunday, many churches rehearse what is known as the Triumphant Entry. The palm branches, the coats on the road, the hallelujahs, the excitement, the exaltation of the crowds. Some will have a children’s procession in which they march in carrying palm leaves which they deposit at the front of the auditorium.
One of the texts often used comes from Luke 19 and this gives us the image of the crowds celebrating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as a king, riding on a donkey. But if we read the text closely, we find that the crowds aren’t celebrating because they think Jesus is king, or even that anything momentous is going to occur. Rather, they are celebrating the one who has blessed them, healed them, fed them. This is not God, but a miracle worker. These crowds are not lining the walls of Jerusalem, but they are with Him on the road. They are his escort as Jesus completes what Mark recounts as the “journey narrative.” With the crowd on the road are not just those celebrating but also some folks who are a little uncomfortable with all the commotion. These, called Pharisees tell Jesus to stop the crowds from declaring and being excited about His arrival.
Part of their concern may have been because it might appear that He is a competitor to Pilate who would also have entered Jerusalem by another gate. Pilate would have come to Jerusalem to make sure the Jews didn’t get out of control during their annual Passover feast. What they didn’t want is for Pilate to understand this procession around Jesus as the beginnings of an uprising. And so they say, top these folks from doing what they’re doing.
It is often that in the Bible people will do things that are part of God’s work without realizing that is what they are doing. An example of this is the argument that it would be good for one man to die than that the whole nation be destroyed. That speaker didn’t know that what he said had two meanings. One, the one he meant as a practical political consideration, and the other of which he was unaware. So here, the crowds are celebrating the coming of this wonderful sign worker, but they remain oblivious of who He actually was. Jesus’ response to their concern and demand that He tell the crowd to be quiet, was to say, If these folks were quiet, the rocks themselves would start to sing. Well that sounds silly, doesn’t it?
Not so fast. While the crowd is celebrating because of the benefit He has been to them, Jesus knows that He is actually God, come to die and set not just us right, but the entire creation aright. We are told that the creation waits as in birth pangs for the consummation of the ages; no doubt the stones themselves would have been ready to sing of their deliverance too!
This wonderful story, even if not fully understood by the participants is sandwiched in Luke’s account by two ominous stories. The first is the last sentence or so prior to the untying the colt story. At the conclusion of Luke’s recounting of the talent story, the demand is that those who would not want to be subject to the king are to be slaughtered. Then, immediately after the entrance passage, we are told that Jesus – even while in this very procession – cries over Jerusalem’s reluctance to accept her King. This Triumphal Entry then is not all rainbows and lollipops for Luke. Jesus has already told all of us that He goes to Jerusalem to die at the hands of the Jewish leaders and crowds. Within this week, He will die despite this celebration, or maybe even because we did not perceive who He actually was. Because of that misperception, Jerusalem and the Temple will be completely destroyed.
The question then for us, is the same question begging to be asked by those celebrating in Luke’s description. We have to ask for ourselves whether we celebrate Jesus because of what He will do for us, or do we celebrate His coming because He is God; a God who demands we die to ourselves? Is the coming of Jesus triumph or tragedy for you?

Friday, February 12, 2016

Valentines Day and Lent

Valentines Day falls on the first Sunday of Lent this year. We could probably ignore that fact since there's very little between them, at least from a cultural perspective. One is supposed to be full of romance, roses, and chocolate, and spending time with the one you love. Not a bad idea and many a marriage therapist would suggest special attention to this day as an opportunity to refocus and put a bit of extra effort into your relationship. Lent on the other hand is often seen as well, a downer. Self-denial, self-reflection concerning guilt and depravity, and what not. Lent seems almost the opposite of Valentines Day - it even calls for -- fasting! Highly liturgical churches will even remove the alleluias from their rituals during Lent. No fun, no rejoicing, certainly no foodie indulgences. Probably best to do Lent on days other than that for lovers.

It is probably true that we spend too much money on those closest to us on Valentines day but we do so to demonstrate something about our relationship, about them, about them as someone special to us. Valentines Day is first about love which is itself, all about self-denial, of giving, of putting someone else first. The problem of course is that we normally focus on someone we are already close to; someone we already feel a connection with. Normally, that's OK.

But this is Lent. Just as Isaiah reminds Israel that a fast her God appreciates is not one spent in sackcloth and ashes (nothing wrong with Lenten ashes), but one that blesses others, that saves or reduces eating so that the extra, rather than being saved, can be given away to those who actually need it. Valentines Day at the beginning of Lent can be a great reminder that Lent is about love, about connection, about others and The Other. In addition to flowers and chocolates for people who already expect them, look for someone who needs that same sort of love, uplifting, or connection.

On this day for lovers, be a cosmic lover.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Lent 2016

Lent is traditionally and routinely considered a period that requires observers to abstain from something they normally enjoy, or behaviors that are not considered reflections of a mature faith. This is characterized as a period of self-denial, of stopping the doing of something for a period of time.

There are two observations we might make this year. The first is that Lent need not involve giving something up that is not conducive to the Christian walk. What if instead of giving something up for 40 days, we began or took something up for those 40 days? Is there something in your walk that is missing, that you have not been consistent in doing? Are there practices you have thought about beginning? Maybe a more consistent quiet time, or an intentional ministering to the homeless or poor? Maybe it's journaling prayers, or maybe something that needs you to be more consistent at home, work, or school. Lent need not be a subtraction, but a growing into something positive, more disciplined, more other-focused.

The second observation is that we shouldn't treat Lent as only a limited period of time of denial or practice. Rather than giving up chocolate for seven weeks, intend to establish a habit of healthier eating that will last beyond Lent. If, rather than subtracting, you elect to add or develop a new practice or behavior, similarly do so with the intent of continuing the practice after Lent, rather than simply as an experiment.

The purpose of Lent can include reflection, waiting, remembering, or in some other way growing closer to God. If this is true, then it may be appropriate to add or begin something rather than ending something. Once begun or ended, whatever we choose for Lent, use the extended period of Lent to establish a basis to launch a truly changed perspective that would live well beyond Lent.

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