Sunday, March 28, 2010

Shepherds’ Sending 28 March 2010

The Shepherds' Sending this week was Matthew 21.12-16, the first half of which reads like this:

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but you make it a den of robbers."

These two statements, "My house will be a house of prayer," and "you have made My house a den of thieves," did not simply stand on their own to those first hearers. Rather, when they heard them, there were two texts that flooded their minds. Taking the second first, it comes from Jeremiah 7:

"Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, 'We are delivered!'--only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the LORD. Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel."

This passage gives a larger context to Jesus' statement. When I was growing up, we learned that the people in the Temple who were selling pigeons and what not were cheating their captive audience of pilgrims who needed to buy the right elements for their sacrifices. That's why, we were told, the phrase "den of thieves" was used. We can see though that while they may well have been cheating pilgrims, this statement is a statement of doom on those who should know God, who should know better how to live God-lives and yet who do not. There are two things which are repeatedly indicated as having special concern from God…worshiping Him only, and caring for other people. These are so closely intertwined that Jesus, when asked what was the greatest commandment, answered with both Love God, and Love your neighbor. We cannot do one without the other. Jesus' hearers know this is a judgment on them and their reaction in the second half of our passage will make that clear.

"My house shall be a house of prayer" comes from Isaiah 56:

Thus says the LORD: "Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil." Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from his people"; and let not the eunuch say, "Behold, I am a dry tree." For thus says the LORD: "To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. "And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant--these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples." The Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, "I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered."

The import in this chapter is not just a "house of prayer," but a house of prayer for all people, especially the social outcasts, the imperfect, the shunned, the sinner. God will bring not just the scattered people of Israel to Him, but other peoples as well – all as one people to His house of prayer.

Let's pick up our text where we left off:

And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" they were indignant, and they said to him, "Do you hear what these are saying?" And Jesus said to them, "Yes; have you never read, "'Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise'?"

They became "indignant." Seeing the healings God is doing among the outcasts, at hearing praise for His work from children, these religious, arrogant, and blind leaders have contempt for the goings on. Jesus' answer is essentially "can you not see what children see?" "Are your hearts so calloused that you cannot see God working right in front of you and rejoice?

Today's text contains both a statement of doom for those that think they know God but who do not really see what He is about and therefore become indignant at what He does, and a call from exile for all who have been estranged from God. Holy Week includes two pillars – judgment and salvation. Judgment for those who think they know best and yet do not really know God, and salvation for those who simply respond to God and live as He lived.

This second pillar of salvation has as its background exile and estrangement from God, and then its relief not just for "God's People," but for the whole world – whoever would respond to, and conform themselves to Him. This is the great return from exile - the Creation is returned to God at His invitation, to join Him in His house of prayer for all peoples.

This season of Lenten reflection asks each of us to consider whether we really know God. Do we know His desires; do we know what He is up to; do we participate with Him in everyday life? Or are we like Israel's shepherds who do not know God. God describes them in the last part of Isaiah 56:

His watchmen are blind; they are all without knowledge; they are all silent dogs; they cannot bark, dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber. The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough. But they are shepherds who have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, each to his own gain, one and all. "Come," they say, "let me get wine; let us fill ourselves with strong drink; and tomorrow will be like this day, great beyond measure."

Shepherds and guides who are supposed to take God's message of hope and care, are concerned only for themselves, not knowing God, and not living as God has made them to live. This is a warning for those who would lead God's people, but also for all would be followers. Leaders must know God and what He is about, and encourage others to move in that direction. The rest of us must be seeking God, returning from our own exile, to the life we were made to live. How do you live? Do you live in God, or essentially for yourself? The answer you give to this question will determine whether the power of God on display at Easter is for you.

All Scripture quotations from ESV.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Promises

Many of us Christians, as many of us humans, seem to think that our time in history is THE time in history. Whatever may have gone before may be useful for learning, but wasn't quite as important as the time in which we live. It may well be interesting to dream of the future but it does not exist and it will be us that create it. This attitude is understandable since we are living now, not living in the past and can't live in the future. This view is unfortunate because living as though our time is the only time that matters tends to separate ourselves from our own histories and separates ourselves from actively participating with people who will come after us. Such thinking adds to an ego-centric and essentially hedonistic life style.

This is a dangerous view for Christians not because we know a God that will punish us in the future, but because it separates us from the greater plan of God in which we are both beneficiaries and active participants. Participants though in a different light than we normally perceive ourselves. One with deeper and more profound meaning than simply "being God's hands and feet in the world."

We have all made promises and have had promises made to us by others. Despite Scriptural encouragements to simply let our yes be yes, and our no, no, we still phrase our intentions with the words "I promise to…." Even wedding vows include such words as though saying "I promise" makes our intent any more sure or our word any more reliable.

This is not necessarily a bad situation since Scripture itself refers to the promises of God. We often refer to the more formal promises as covenants between God and people. The Bible is full of promises including those to Noah, Abraham, and David to name some well known ones. The Noah covenant is a promise to not destroy the world by flood again and the rainbow is recognized as the seal of that promise throughout Christendom. David's covenant includes the promise that a king will always be on the throne of David and in Christendom the fulfillment of that promise is Jesus as king of the people of God. Most of us know at least two promises to Abraham. The first is that the world will be blessed through his offspring and we understand that to mean the blessing of Jesus coming into the world to save us. Another promise to Abraham is that his offspring will number as the stars in the sky and the sand on the shore. Abraham, who was married to a barren woman was going to be the father of innumerable host of descendents. When we think of this promise we think of the Jewish people and the Arabic peoples in the Middle East.

Paul's discussion of the descendents of Abraham though turns the idea from physical descendents to spiritual descendents "It is not a Jew who is one outwardly, but he who is one inwardly; these are the descendents of Abraham. And so we see the promise to Abraham able to accept as its fulfillments the entire world if they would but come to God. We welcome our inclusion in Abraham because it represents our salvation; the inclusion of the Gentiles in the family of God.

And we should. We do ourselves – and God – a disservice though if we only consider that our participation in Abraham is simply something we receive. We serve a faithful God, a God who keeps His promises not just to us, but to Abraham. In a real sense we are evidence of, we are in reality, the faithfulness of God to Abraham. We participate in the steadfast love of God by our faithful being in God. We are the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham and are offered by God to Abraham as His fidelity. We do not just receive the blessings of Abraham, we are the blessing of Abraham. You are the real spiritual and physical evidence of God's faithful remembering of Abraham.

The other promise to Abraham, that the world would be blessed through him is of course ultimately fulfilled in Jesus, but we participate in this promise as well. Again, not as recipients of that blessing (although we are), but as people who implement that blessing daily to those around us.

In two ways then, through the promise to Abraham we become not just recipients of the promises but we become the enactment of those promises. We are both the faithfulness of God and the blessing of God for the world. During this season of Lent, consider how you have been offered to others as the fulfillment of God's promises for others.

Salvation

Those of us who are Christians are familiar with the idea of being saved, but I remain unconvinced that we really understand what salvation means. To fully grasp the idea of salvation we need to look at what God is doing from God's point of view rather than ours. While that may seem a daunting, even impossible task, doing so will help us understand what God means when He refers to saving a people, or offering salvation to us.

We often hear of those who have "come to Jesus," and we often encourage others to "accept Jesus as their savior." Neither of those are wrong as much as they are incomplete at least in the way we routinely practice them. These two phrases are often used interchangeably with "being saved" so that our salvation becomes a single point in time event seemingly divorced from anything that may follow it. We find ourselves referring to people who have been saved but who have not learned (or who are not learning) to live as saved people. Some theological ideas confuse the question further by insisting that faith is all that matters regardless of one's life style. We have successfully divorced salvation from transformation to such a degree that Christian lives do not reflect God and the public has plenty of reason to ridicule not just us, but our faith and our God.

This duality – of being saved but not transformed – grows from a misunderstanding of salvation itself. We humans like to break things down into steps, finding discrete differences in closely related concepts and statements when in fact those steps and concepts are not intended to be discretely separated.

A reading of Scripture using God's view rather than ours results in a different understanding of salvation than many of us use or have contemplated. Salvation as we see it is a discrete event that may or may not be followed by transformed lives. Such an eventuality is foreign to salvation as seen from God's view. Salvation from God's view is a gathering of people back to Him, that people being those who conform themselves to Him. The gathering and the conforming are the same thing; they speak to the same reality. It is impossible to be saved and yet not transformed, or in the process of being transformed.

Salvation is not simply a result of being baptized or asking God into our hearts even though we often individually and collectively treat it as such. Being baptized or asking God to enter our hearts represents a larger undertaking, one that surrenders ourselves to living the way He would have us live – for the rest of our lives. Salvation from God's view is a restoration of us to Him in heart, in motivation, in practical behaviors. It is not primarily a legal edict although an edict is involved.

When Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment, His response is "Love God with all they heart, mind, and strength; and the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself." His interlocutor approves of this answer and says this is the greatest concern. In turn, Jesus tells this man that he is not far from the Kingdom of God. Notice Jesus does not say "far from salvation" or even "far from believing in me." Rather, this person is not far from "the Kingdom of God." This exchange gives us a good idea of what the Kingdom of God means. In practical terms it is acknowledging God, and caring for other people. The questioner asks for the greatest command and Jesus responds with two commands. The questioner accepts the two and treats them as one, approving of Jesus' answer and acknowledging his agreement that these two – together – are the most important concern for God followers.

While stated as commands, these are not performance measures, but descriptions of the kind of people in the Kingdom. These are folks who's ways of life reflect the character of God, and these folks are "saved," to use our phraseology.

Jesus' desire was not that people would "be saved" but that they would conform themselves to God. This is what is meant by "Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven." What happens in Heaven isn't the point as much as bringing that economy to Earth. Living in that economy, living out of the image of God in which we are made, that is salvation from God's view. If we are not living in that economy or at least desiring and moving in that direction, the reality of our salvation is questionable at best


Thursday, March 04, 2010

Lent II

Isaiah 58 is a reading for Lent. Buried in this chapter is a discussion of a favorite Lenten practice – fasting. The discussion describes the fasting God expects, and it makes our timid and small efforts at fasting appear pitiful in comparison. Lent isn't so much about fasting – at least the way we usually practice fasting during this season, but is more about self-denial and reflection. Many of us give up something relatively easy to give up during Lent and think this satisfies the perceived obligation, but this sort of fasting isn't the fasting expected by God.

Verse 5 describes the kind of fasting, or penitence that we normally consider appropriate during both Lent and at other fasting times. This verse reads: "Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?" (ESV) That sounds like what we often consider fasting and penitence – self denial, and the practice of individual rites of fasting that demonstrate that we are fasting.

But verse 6 tells us we're wrong if we think God wants this kind of fasting: "Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?" (ESV)

Fasting in this passage is much more broad and demanding than our normal understanding of it. In this passage, fasting isn't focused on God, or our own penitence. Rather, this fasting is other-focused, and directly affects community. Self-denial in this passage is the sacrificial giving, not to church treasuries, but to those who need help.

I say fasting is sacrificial giving because of the wording of verse 10: "If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday." (ESV)

Did you get that? "Pour yourself out…" That is sacrificial giving to others. This echoes Paul's "if I pour myself out…." which means that he has given everything he has – his life's focus, his efforts, his riches – for the sake of the Gospel. This is fasting as God understands it – as God expects it. How are you doing?

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