Monday, November 30, 2015

Advent 2015 - Hope

As the church year begins anew, Advent engulfs our thoughts, our imaginations, and our horizon. The first Sunday reminds us of hope. This sort of hope has various nuances including those of weariness, of questioning, of desire, of want. All these are expectable human responses to a God who seems not present, aloof, disengaged. We have heard the hecklers even in Scripture when they ask, “it’s been a long time; where is your God?” Those who would be the people of God may be excused for these feelings that border on despair and threaten their trust in the God they seek to follow. This hope though, also includes remnants of that trust and leads to stronger trust in a God who is not seen but who has demonstrated His presence and power in the past.
Advent hope, fully exercised leaves the negative nuances behind and chooses not to look at them. Rather, this hope recalls the promises, recalls the past faithfulness, and leans into it once again. God has promised a messiah, a savior, a redeemer and it is this hope that Advent leads His people toward. In the first century, Israel was waiting for her messiah. In the 21st century, disciples are faced with similar nuances during this season. The world is in turmoil, society seems to want to sideline any sort of faith, and even people of faith seem to go crazy on a regular basis.
Advent reminds us, especially on this first Sunday that we are people of faith and we are called to trust and rely on God, no matter what the world looks like; no matter what sorts of abuse or dismissing we might experience. This year, hope is an apropos theme to begin Advent; a reminder that we are called to trust God no matter what. Because we trust Him, we have assured hope that He will vindicate our faith.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

On The Gospel - Humanity

The glory of YHWH is humanity fully alive. This sentiment, ascribed to Irenaeus and echoed by Dallas Willard is a succinct statement of the greater enterprise. The Creator crafted human beings in His image and established them on the planet, in the midst of the greater creation on purpose. That purpose? Full life, right here, right now. The gracious God of creation loves to bless; loves to be gracious. Creation itself is the playing out of that essential goodness.

We are told that people are made in the image of God – you are that image of Divinity. Many theories of Christianity tell us that the image has been marred, in some cases beyond recognition or reclamation, but these theories are wrong. As the Genesis writer reminds us, the reason God requires life for life for any creature that murders a human is that people are the image of YHWH. We are told this in chapter nine, well after the description and affects of the Fall. Adam’s failure – and Eve’s – has not changed the reality that YHWH continues to see people as His image. We are then told over and over that even though people fail in their fidelity and trust of YHWH, He repeatedly returns to rescue them.

YHWH won’t give up on His initial desire to populate a planet with people who live as His image with each other, the rest of Creation, and Him. The glory of God can accurately be said to be His ability to accomplish that plan despite humanity’s intransigence. A similar argument is used by Moses when He suggests to YHWH that wiping out Israel and starting over would cause YHWH to be ridiculed by other nations, because He had brought Israel out of Egypt and couldn’t accomplish what He said He would. Isaiah puts these same sort of thoughts in YHWH’s mouth. It is He, and not some other god or idol that will accomplish what He has said He would. This we are told, will result in praises by those who see it.

The result of YHWH accomplishing His intent? He will be acknowledged as the God, rather than one among many, dumb idols. But this is not all; the enterprise isn’t about God glorifying himself for His own glorification. Rather, the intent is not complete unless the people that YHWH leads by the hand actually become His people. Individually and collectively, they are to become fully the image in which they are made.

These two aspects – YHWH being able to grow a people, and that people being fully His image are intimately woven together in YHWH’s mind. It would be easy for the God of existence to protect Israel against all comers, defeating all challengers and threats simply by declaring them to be nothing and wiping them out with a mere thought. But YHWH doesn’t do this in history. He does repeatedly do this but eventually Israel fails to live as His people. It is this failure that leads to YHWH withdrawing His protection. If YHWH will accomplish His intent and accept praise for it, the two must exist together. YHWH can cause one to happen, but He cannot force His people to truly be His people. This, they must desire to do and accomplish even in the face of impending doom at the hands of their enemies.

Do we see hints of this image life in Christian writings? This is precisely the reason we have lists like that in Galatians chapter five. Why are these characteristics or traits described as the fruit of the Spirit? Because those who live in step with the Spirit will – must – live those attributes. Those led by the Spirit live into the likeness of Jesus; they become fully the image in which they are made.

This is what will bring YHWH glory and praise – a people who live His Life; the life they are made to live. The glory of YHWH is truly humanity fully alive as His image. This is another way of describing salvation, or life with God. It is impossible to reject this life, this becoming, this trust in YHWH and at the same time be saved. Asserting that salvation is something other than joining with God in the Life He offers in this world, is na├»ve and reveals a misunderstanding of YHWH’s intent for humanity and the Creation itself.

You are called to be the very image of God in the world; there is no better honor and there is no better way to glorify YHWH. This is what He asks; this is what He has intended all along. Be all you can be.


Saturday, November 07, 2015

On The Gospel - Coming to God - The Response

Our coming to God - the opportunity and invitation is at the free and unencumbered will of YHWH. Sometimes this opportunity looks like an over-powering presence of God in the life of Israel - He leads them from Egypt, He raises Cyrus to release Israel from Babylon, He sends her Redeemer into her midst without asking. But, and this is key, every time YHWH inserts Himself directly into Israel's history, His action demands a response from Israel; from those who would be His people.

YHWH does lead Israel from Egypt, but is Israel who must walk; must not complain; must not shrink back. YHWH does raise Cyrus to facilitate Israel's return to Judah but is Israel who must once again walk and rebuild. YHWH does come to Israel as her savior in the first century, but is Israel who must recognize and follow Him. There is no coercion in absolute terms used by YHWH to who Israel back to Himself. Yes, being blinded while riding a donkey seems a bit overwhelming, but the rider was neither compelled to enter the city, pray for three days, or respond to the person sent to him.

Throughout Jewish and Christian Scripture there is a partnership proposed by YHWH. When He is prepared to redeem and restore, He offers His desire that He will be their God and they will be His people. This being His people is sometimes understood to be YHWH's possession, something owned by and treasured by YHWH; an object of desire and value that is crafted, shaped, and nurtured by YHWH. Being His people carries another implication related to but separate from a possession or object of attention. This is most readily understood as an enlargement of the Genesis declaration of being made in the image of YHWH. Adam is made in the image of God; he is the image of YHWH and Israel too is intended to His image. The people of God are each and corporately the image, expression, and demonstration of YHWH in the world. At least, they are supposed to be and this is also included in the desire that Israel would be the people of YHWH.

It is these two expectations - they would be His possession, and that they would reflect His image that routinely gets Israel in trouble. She worships other gods and her behavior better reflects that of Molech or Ba'al than YHWH. These equate to her sin, her adultery and her infidelity to YHWH.

And this describes the response expected from the invitation of YHWH - that those who would be His people would let Him be their God and would shape themselves to be like YHWH in their lives and corporate existence. They would carry and be the image of YHWH among the nations, drawing others to Him by their faithfulness to, and blessings from YHWH. This expected response has not changed either for Israel specifically or for those who would be His people from among the nations. The redemption of the world in Jesus is not coerced; it can be not accepted by Israel and others. If accepted, the expectation is shaping, transforming, and living as the image of God on earth - individually and collectively for communities of faith; for the church at large.

This response, to be a truly faithful response, is voluntarily demonstrated by those who would join with YHWH. God does not wrest your will and force compliance with arbitrary rules. Rather He declares the "year of the Lord's favor" and offers you return to Him, to being the very image in which you are made and intended to live. The best description of this image is seen in Jesus' faithful and self-giving life in the first century. It is best described in words as divine Love, embodied in humans and lived out as Jesus lived it among believers and non-believers in the world.

This is the response expected by YHWH - that we would (re-)join Him in His Life and His work in the world to bless and entice all persons into that same Life enjoyed by those who would be His people.

Next: On The Gospel - Humanity

On The Gospel - Coming To God

Throughout the Jewish Scriptures, and with echoes in the Christian writings there are direct statements, reminders, and urgings given to the people of God about YHWH's desire to have His people truly be His; reminders that YHWH would rescue, would redeem, would restore His people to Himself and greater blessing. This is always in the context of YHWH's prerogative and is based on two aspects of divine Love - steadfastness and mercy. There is nothing in the narrative that suggests either that YHWH is constrained by an outside force to remain faithful to or redeem Israel. His movement is both uncompelled and entirely willfully free. YHWH redeems Israel because He wants to; because of who He is and for no other reason.

YHWH often complains about Israel's unfaithfulness, depravity, and intransigence toward Him. The basis of these complaints is repeated as based upon Israel's very existence as a nation. It was YHWH who chose Abram, who uttered the promises, who had previously rescued, blessed and warned Israel. It was YHWH who selected and formed them into a nation, and enriched them as they left Egypt; it was He who calls them both His possession and stiff-necked and obstinate. The relationship, to say the least is somewhat conflicted.

And yet, YHWH wants to remain faithful and obligates Himself to be Israel's redeemer, her savior, her avenging angel against her enemies. In Isaiah 40-55 YHWH argues that He knows the future not because He has a crystal ball and is outside time, running up and down an imaginary timeline as He pleases. No, in these chapters, YHWH knows what will happen in the future - the things He promises and the things He warms about - because He is going to make them happen. In these same chapters YHWH contrasts Himself as God and Jewish idols. It is here that He uses a bit of sarcasm when He observes that a man cuts a log, burns half of it to make bread, and then sets the other half up on end and declares it a god. Israel had been worshiping "ashes." Or again, YHWH almost mocks those who have idols so large that to move them almost defeats their mules and donkeys laden with them - that the idols cannot move on their own and are a burden to Israel. The contrast then becomes that rather than Israel having to carry her idols, YHWH carries Israel.

Coming to YHWH is secondary in the larger scheme of things, possible only after YHWH has made Himself known, has created, has blessed, and has redeemed Israel. It is YHWH who moves first in the grand enterprise; it is He who offers the invitation to true, blessed Living. Because the invitation must come from YHWH that we are told that we cannot earn it; we are also told that it is given freely.

This invitation then, this redeeming is not so much from prison per se, but as a restoration. This is more a dusting off, a standing up, a washing, a blessing of oil. This is the work of a go'el, a family member who has the responsibility to redeem a relative from dire straits, from poverty, from hunger - because they are family and nothing more.

This is the work of YHWH in saving the world - faithfully redeeming no matter how many scrapes Israel gets herself into by her own unfaithfulness.

Next: On The Gospel - Coming to God - The Response

Saturday, October 31, 2015

On The Gospel - Sin

Sin. Such a small word but with huge ramifications and not really understood. There are various definitions of sin available for various purposes ranging from "missing the mark," to "breaking the Law." All the available definitions are appropriate in their contexts but all are themselves a bit off the mark.

If we are made to be cosmic, world-class, YHWH-image Lovers, then sin it seems at its core, is not-Love. In other words, anything that is done (intentionally) against the wellbeing of the other, against the building up, the glorifying of the other is not-Love or sin. To get a better picture of sin, we can look at its opposites in YHWH's revelation. We are told that the fruit of the Spirit is akin to a laundry list of good character attributes. We might start in Galatians 5, but that is not the only place we find the fruit of the Spirit. So then, patience, kindness, gentleness, even self-control are descriptors or evidence of the sort of Love we are after. Their opposites then are our first place to start looking for a definition of sin. Impatience, meanness, hardness, and yes, even lack of self control or dissipation are sin descriptors.

These things though are not sin because they some how violate a list of positive behaviors or attributes, but because they do not arise from a fully-formed Love. They are less than, incomplete, adulterated forms of real life that do not reveal an inward state of full Love. These then, the attributes or characteristics of not-Love are the basic, broadest, and most profound definitions and evidence of sin.

When we read of the Law of Christ, we are to understand "the law of Love," or "what Love demands, propels, causes." There is not a list of things in this law but rather an expectation of having been formed into the likeness of Jesus, the fullness of YHWH and therefore the very expression of divine Love. Murder isn't a sin because it has been listed as such but because it fails to reflect Love for the person killed. Adultery is not sin because it has been listed as such but because it fails to reflect Love for the person to whom we have already committed ourselves, or for the person with whom we commit adultery. Gossip, which shows up in the middle of more "serious" sins, is not sin because it is listed among those others, but because it fails to reflect Love for the person spoken about.

Lists of sins have their purpose and that is to remind us that our oft-too-human desires are not reflective of Love. Those lists those can never be exhaustive of all the ways - all the behaviors - we might reveal an imperfect Love for those around us. No, the measure of sin is that place from which it arises. Anything that arises from not-Love is sin.

This is good news and bad news. Good news that we aren't tied to lists of either good behaviors or bad behaviors by which we will be judged; we are truly freed from such things in absolute terms. The bad news - or perhaps the inconvenient news - is that we can't claim to be not-Loving just because we've managed to not kill someone. This, the problem the Pharisees and their buddies had. They thought that because they had the Law itself; that they even perhaps kept a lot of it, that they were therefore righteous, or sinless. What they had forgotten, much like the rest of us do from time to time, is that it isn't the finite thing we do or avoid that makes us righteous or sinful, but the place or character from which that behavior arises.

Not-love then, becomes the definition of sin and how we can determine what is pleasing or not pleasing to YHWH. Stated as a negative, it allow us to focus on the positive - Love. When we focus on becoming and behaving as Love in this world, we have less chance of being not-Love, and we can know in ourselves that what we are is either Love or not-Love.

Next: On The Gospel - Coming to God

On The Gospel - Love

John tells us that YHWH is Love and Jewish Scripture reiterates that that He as and extends steadfast love toward people, especially those who He has called to be His people. This love though is not what we often call love. It isn't romantic, emotional, or even familial love as we know them and yet, it is all of them. To have divine Love is to express that Love and to do so willingly and fully. Love, even as we experience it in its specific essence is self-giving for the good, the benefit, the building up of the other. Love in its positive, self-giving aspect is to glorify the other person.

When we say that we are to glorify YHWH, we mean that we are to laud, to give ourselves for Him, to point others to His Love, mercy, and kindness. We glorify YHWH by the ways we live, the reasons we give for what we do, the value He has in our lives and the potential He has in others' lives. YHWH's complaints about Israel is that she has not done this, routinely. She not only has other gods she adores, worships, and runs to for help, but based on the way His people treat each other, who would want to be a follower of YHWH?

Why indeed and yet this enticing peoples to YHWH was part and parcel of Israel's purpose - to bear the message of YHWH and embody His divine Love among herself. Israel was supposed to have a sort of flashing neon light above her that read, "This is the wonderful, loving way to live on the planet." Yet what her sign read was, "We aren't really any different than you are, so no big deal."

Israel did not love and this was her biggest challenge.

It is our biggest challenge.

Divine Love is freely given - to all persons and all peoples. God made Man(kind) and there is nothing in the history of the world that indicates that He has stopped loving Man(kind). Freely given is a key consideration when it comes to love. Love by definition is concern about another's wellbeing, another's full development and full life. Love in the final analysis cannot be compelled, it cannot be coerced, it cannot finally, be commanded. Love must be chosen by the lover, regardless of the response of the beloved. No one wants their partner to "love" them because a third party is making their partner "love" them. It would be clear that their "love" was not true love, but was forced and essentially simply going through the motions. This sort of love would quickly be seen to be hollow and worthless. 

And yet we are commanded to love. Commanded because that is the expectation and it is a command we can choose to ignore. We are also told to become transformed, but that transformation is into the character and likeness of Jesus, who is Love. It makes sense to tell our children that we want them to grow up to be good people, but we speak about being good people as something that would be constituently who they would become. We do not speak necessarily about "being good," or "being have" in public or toward others, but about the character from which would arise those good behaviors, that view of life and others that would move our children to love those around them.

In the same way, we are expected to become those in whom Love is a constituent aspect, those who love because Love is who we are. We become those who choose to Love others as a matter of course, as simply what we do. At some point, we might say that we "can do no other," not because we literally cannot, but because not-love doesn't occur to us. It was popular a few years ago, and still appropriate to say that we become "little christs," living in the world. It is as appropriate to say we become "little gods," loving others and the world as YHWH does. We don't become divine in the sense of essence, but we come to so embody the Love of God that we move about our lives as YHWH did as Jesus of Nazareth.

The good new of YHWH, or the Gospel of Jesus Christ is more than "you can be saved." It is rather, that we can be restored to who we are made to be; we can return to God and live the Life of YHWH right here. We participate in the work of God and we participate in His essence when we receive the Holy Spirit. We are called to become cosmic Lovers, rather than ego-centric sinners. We are called to be who Adam was made to be.

God offers us, and calls us to become Love, the most fulfilling way to live imaginable. It is the most fulfilling because it is precisely who you are made to be; how you were made to live. Every primary religious belief system and modern psychological theory tell us that to embody the fruit of the Spirit and to live as God has intended us to live, is the most desired and the most emotionally healthy way to live.

This should not surprise us, and we should embrace it as the good news - the gospel it is.

Next: On The Gospel - Sin

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On The Gospel - The Image Or Character of God II

Israel was intended to be the image of her God in the world, the bearer of blessing and good news for all the nations. Her history with YHWH was at best an inconsistent witness to this image. The Law, the leading of YHWH, His protection and blessing of Israel was not for her alone, but as a witness to the entire world of what faithful discipleship to YHWH could mean for every country.

Every country, every nation could be caught up in the gracious mercy and blessings of YHWH if they would simply heed what Israel was supposed to have demonstrated - what she was supposed to have become. Israel was to be the very embodiment of YHWH and as such become a priest for the world until the world itself could become one with YHWH.

Being the image of YHWH wasn't a secret; we are told in Genesis that YHWH made Man(kind) in His image. There have been various ideas about what being the image of YHWH means, including being spirit beings or having souls; being able to use logic and critical thinking; to have an independent and effective will; and even being creative beings. All of these miss the mark, but that last comes closest to the implication of being an image of YHWH. To be the image of the Creator God is to be imbued with the same character, the same values, the same drives as the Creator.

The character of God is revealed repeatedly in the Jewish Scriptures and is again revealed in the Christian Scriptures as well. Perhaps the greatest characteristic of God is Love. This love causes graciousness, mercy, and believe it or not, humility to be manifested by YHWH. It is these same characteristics expected of Israel. YHWH is also faithful and so was Israel supposed to be. To be a creator implies the giving of oneself; one's energy, one's creative process, one's blessing if you will to the thing created. Love, or giving of self for another is the primary characteristic of YHWH and it is in this character aspect that we come to understand what it means to be the image of the Giver of Life.

But YHWH is not always loving, patient, and gracious toward Israel or any other nation for that matter. Certainly the character of YHWH also includes anger, vengeance, and violence toward even those He uses to accomplish His purposes. We cannot avoid admitting that yes, it does seem that this God of Israel's is not always depicted as we have described Him, as Love. Isaiah gives us some insight into this seeming dichotomy when it is revealed that YHWH uses punishment that fits the crime to discipline Israel and other nations. This discipline is intended to bring her and them back to YHWH if they would but see that life with Him would be so much better.

It is this better life that YHWH wants to give all nations; all the people on the planet. He has made not only Israel from nothing, but the world itself, including all other nations. He is the crafter of existence and from the beginning of Man(kind) His intent has been to bless, to nurture, to shape all people and all peoples into the very likeness that His image points toward.

This alignment of image with the character of YHWH is the underlying reality of the fruit of the Spirit. Why does living with YHWH result in these things listed in Galatians 5, if not because they represent the character and image of YHWH and therefore the core, inherent character of all persons. This is what YHWH meant when He dared make Man(kind) in His image; He would make creatures that carried His character and then grow most fully into that image. As Paul says, we become the likeness of Christ who has demonstrated nothing if not the characteristics reminiscent of the fruit of the Spirit, leading us (back) toward our very Creator's character and the full blossoming of what lies inside ourselves.

The image of YHWH then is not about being spirit, not about being able to think logically, not any of those other things primarily although aspects of the image may indeed match those ideas. Rather to be made in the image of YHWH is to carry within ourselves the character of our God; He who created the entire race out of nothing. If we can say that YHWH is Love, then we can say our make up and our calling also is to be Love as expressed through the fruit of the Spirit and similar attributes. If Israel's calling was to remain faithful and embody the life lived with YHWH, so too is the calling of every person.

That with which YHWH began - the mutual nurturing of Man(kind) with one another and the rest of creation - remains the goal. The ultimate purpose is to return all peoples and all persons to YHWH as faithful vessels who live the very sort of Love as does YHWH. This planet is not exile; it is not punishment to live this life. Living a YHWH-life on this planet is precisely why you are here. We are not "just passing through," but rather placed here intentionally to enjoy the best life possible and entice others to that same life.

The character of God then is Love in its fullest and deepest manifestation. This Love was demonstrated by the loving faithfulness of YHWH toward Israel even when she did not deserve it, and it was demonstrated in the life of Jesus. Micah tells us that YHWH wants His creatures to act justly and love mercy; and remain faithful to Him. Nothing has changed about that expectation. That is the expectation not because YHWH has arbitrarily decreed that it should be, but because that is precisely how YHWH made you to be.

Next: On the Gospel - Love

Thursday, October 22, 2015

On The Gospel - The Image Or Character of God

A cursory reading of the Jewish Scriptures reveals that YHWH is concerned about two primary topics. The first is Israel's fidelity to Him. It was YHWH who called Abram and YHWH who called Israel from Egypt. Finally, it was YHWH who had mercy on Israel and brought her from exile in Babylon. There are a number of reminders of these realities throughout the Jewish Scriptures. He has been faithful to Israel and He expects she would be faithful to Him. Fidelity then is one topic that is recurring in Jewish Scriptures.

The second recurring topic is the kind of people Israel was supposed to be. The expectation is that they would reflect their God, His character in their relationships with each other. Of particular importance to YHWH is the behavior of Israel's leaders - her kings, prophets, judges, and other organs of the state. The behavior of the populous is as important, but the maladies affecting Israel are routinely placed at the feet of those in power.Two recurring themes fidelity and character. When YHWH sends Israel off into captivity and then on His own initiative, elects to redeem her, to reconcile her to Himself, the constant refrain is that Israel will once again be faithful to YHWH and will be shaped into people who reflect His own character.

What is this character that Israel is to reflect? Micah gives us a hint when he offers, to act justly and to love mercy. Justly here does not mean justice in a legal, objective sense, but fairness coupled or tempered with mercy. To treat someone justly does not mean to execute justice and throw them in jail. It means to bear with them, to not take advantage of them. It means to give them their due. Justice we are told was often perverted in Israel to the benefit of the powerful and sly. As a result, the poor were taken advantage of and abused by the very people they should be able to trust. They were not being treated justly. Mercy then tempers and shapes our treatment of others in the direction of healing, of reconciliation, of life. Mercy foregoes my prerogatives for your benefit.

Isaiah's description of the fasting that YHWH likes is not simply self denial, but self denial that issues in the benefit of others. Mercy and justice. These two are the common themes when YHWH complains about Israel's character. It seems that YHWH could almost bear with the high places but for the failure of Israel to assume His character in their lives with each other. The greatest surprise for YHWH is not that Israel would worship Moloch, but that they would feed their children to him.The abuse of others, the lack of YHWH character in His people seems the greater form of infidelity. Having been created as a nation at His discretion, that He has demonstrated steadfast love for her should have resulted in their steadfast love for each other. It resulted in their abandonment of Him and the further deterioration of their own lives and character. There seems to be no limit to our possible depravity when we focus on ourselves and on gaining more and more for me and mine.

Those who would be the people of God are expected to assume YHWH's character and this is the measure of whether those people are indeed His people. The honoring and worship of YHWH is expected by Israel as a starting point; as a basic understanding of Him as the God for His people. But this acknowledgement isn't sufficient. We are reminded that even the demons believe but we are not at all assured that those demons are "saved." Acknowledgement of God or even destroying the high places is not what God is after entirely. Rather, after we acknowledge God, it has always been necessary to live like Him - as His image and likeness.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

On The Gospel - The People of God II

YHWH has come for those who would be His people. He has come to rescue, to recover, to reconcile first Israel and then all of humankind to Himself. He has done this more than once in the history of the world. YHWH has come for His people out of His own initiative, not because those He seeks to find are guiltless or morally deserve His rescue, but as an act of grace. This grace, freely offered by YHWH and arising from His steadfast love for Israel and all people, is freely exercised. Paul will tell us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Before we had faith, before we repented, before we had come to our senses, YHWH effected the death of Jesus for the entire world.

The intent of this reconciliation offered first to Israel and then to the nations, is the same intent - to form and shape a people of YHWH who would be the name by which they are called. This people would both be faithful to YHWH and embody His character among the nations and each other. Their lives and message would be their calling, their burden, and their blessing for the world. These people would be a sort of incarnation; they would embody their God in this world. YHWH offers through His people, real life lived fully as images of Himself with and among each other. The glory of God is truly human beings fully alive.

But we have become distracted and have built religious institutions, complete with structure, rules, and set liturgies and we have called these the church. When Jesus promised to build His church, it wasn't one of these Sunday morning institutions to which He referred. He was referring to the very thing YHWH has always been after namely, a people who would be the name by which they are called. A people faithful to YHWH as their God, their strength, their protector, their defense, their example and master. A people who would embody the very character and image of YHWH as a wise, merciful, just, and faithful God, and be His people.

This then, rightly is the people of God, a people and all people who are faithful to and disciples of YHWH and Jesus, who have rescued them and given them life right now. They are not defined primarily by religious doctrine, ecclesial structure or rules, historical institutional continuance, or a culture-bound denominational name. They are defined by how closely they reflect the character of their God. As YHWH has told us, His people will be known by their love - for each other and for the world. These people are the only true people of God and it is this people that YHWH has been after since the beginning.

Monday, October 19, 2015

On The Gospel - The People of God

Christians are not fond of the designation, “People of God” and it hardly ever appears in connection with the church or Christianity in general. This is unfortunate because our loss of this name has helped play havoc with our identity and understanding of God and salvation wrought by Jesus. Salvation, despite repeated claims that it involves some sort of personal relationship with Jesus, is all too often understood as a legal exchange wherein God moves your attendance peg from “Lost” to “Saved.” There may be some aspect of salvation that approaches that concept, but it is far from being the primary definition or even consideration for salvation. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The People of God is not a designation of a group as much as it is a descriptor of the people in that group. It describes a few things which are interrelated. First, it describes possession yes, but more a connection. These people described in the Jewish Scriptures enjoy a particular relationship with YHWH not shared by other peoples. These, we are reminded by Paul, have been given the oracles of YHWH, they have had the prophets among them and they have enjoyed YHWH’s protection, rescue, and leading.
They don’t wear the name as much as they are the name.
This naming having inherent meaning is experienced throughout the Jewish Scriptures and play prominent roles in Isaiah, the naming of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Esau, and Israel. Names are important and they carry the essence of their meanings.
The connection with YHWH is not the only import of the name People of God. Another aspect is the quality or character of these people. They are to embody the character of YHWH in their lives. If YHWH is gracious, they are to be gracious. If YHWH is longsuffering, they are to longsuffering. If YHWH is merciful, they are to be merciful. If YHWH is fair, they are to be fair. These characteristics furthermore are not to be evident just among their internal relationships with one another, but they should be reflected in their dealings with others – those who are not the People of God.
We might say again that they don’t wear the name as much as they are the name.
Israel has consistently failed to meet the double standard of fidelity to YHWH and transformation of her character. Isaiah will tell us that the entire nation is corrupt from the head to the foot. Israel has failed to grasp that it is YHWH that has formed her and wanting to form her; and she has failed to live among herself and other nations as a people transformed into the very character of her God.
YHWH repeatedly uses the goal to encourage Israel, that He will be her God and she should be His people. This is Israel’s purpose as the People of God: to manifest the character of YHWH and fidelity to YHWH to all peoples. She will also carry in her existence the anticipated blessing for the entire world; the very thing that intrigued angels and that the creation itself waited and waits to experience.
The church, or Christendom in general is not a replacement for Israel, but the blossoming of the People of God. At least, that is what the church is supposed to be. Having been sought by and returned to YHWH through Jesus; having seen the very character of YHWH among people as depicted in the life of Jesus; having seen the fidelity expected through the passion and death of Jesus, the church is an expansion of Israel just as has always been the intent. Israel, the Gentiles, and even Barbarians are invited into the People of God as a result of the faithfulness of Jesus. Christianity cannot fully understand her calling without understanding the historical narrative that has described for us in the Jewish Scriptures the desires of God.
The church is not primarily exclusively a saving organization, but a larger and more expansive and inclusive manifestation of Israel. The church has been blessed to be a blessing. She has been given the oracles of God and she derives from the Chief Prophet who was also the Son of God. She like Israel is to carry the message and to manifest the character of God among the nations. She is to be faithful to YHWH no matter what tempest she may be experiencing.
The People of God then, collectively and individually are to both carry and be the message of rescue, of reconciliation, of the offer of return to a loving, merciful, and just God.

Next, The People of God II

Sunday, October 18, 2015

On The Gospel - History of the Gospel

This post is the second in the series, On The Gospel
The first century events that have come to be known as the gospel of Jesus Christ are not the first time God has come into the world. Called the Old Testament in Christian circles, the Jewish Scriptures are often over looked. In fact, the history of Christianity has had its share of what looks like anti-Judaism, perhaps best exemplified by Marcion who rejected both the Jewish Scriptures and a number of what would become New Testament books because they were too Jewish. While this seems odd to some Christians today, the impact of thinking like Marcion’s has resulted in an avoidance of the Jewish Scriptures or at least their sidelining in favor of a much restricted study of the New Testament documents, with Paul’s epistles forming the central teachings of the Christian community.

The Jewish Scriptures provide the history of the Christian gospel and it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that we cannot fully understand the gospel unless we appreciate the revelation contained in the Jewish Scriptures. The Jewish Scriptures provide the story, the narrative into which the Christian gospel fits. It is somewhat misleading to say the Christian gospel because the gospel is actually God’s gospel, effected by the incarnation and death of Jesus. Jesus’s life comes as the ultimate gospel, the ultimate Good News, but its core message hasn’t changed since Creation and is repeated and rehearsed throughout the Jewish Scriptures. In this sense, the gospel doesn’t represent a difference in God or His plan in the world. The book of Isaiah contains what is sometimes called the Gospel of Isaiah. This comes before the midpoint of the book when Isaiah reports that eventually YHWH will not only return Israel to Judea, but He will also welcome other nations into the people of God. The return of Israel will include the nations of the world. As ancient as Isaiah is however, it isn’t the first we have heard of God’s concern for either Israel or other nations. The founding promise of Israel, that to Abraham includes blessing for the whole world. Abraham was blessed, we’re told, to be a blessing for the world.

YHWH forms Israel from nothing, He retrieves her from Egypt and from Babylon. Throughout the Jewish narrative, YHWH pleads with Israel to be faithful to Him as He has been to her. Infidelity to YHWH is couched in two ways. The first is clearly when Israel insists on worshiping other gods, complete with household statuettes and idols placed in the high places. This infidelity is one of the categories YHWH complains about when withdrawing his protection from His people. The other category of infidelities too often listed by YHWH to be ignored by those who would be His people is the mistreatment of other Jews and even foreigners. Often, these two categories are listed in tandem as God pleads with Israel or presents His case against her to what is the entire creation.
Even so though, YHWH with every accusation, offers a way of return. YHWH even tells us that He will keep a remnant and will rescue that remnant, returning it to Himself in His time. YHWH will also tell us why these assurances of rescue are included. That answer also has two categories of reasons. The first is the faithfulness of God. The phrase comes to mind, if Man is faithless, YHWH is faithful. YHWH has chosen Abram and Israel to be His people and YHWH will remain faithful to that covenantal promise even if Israel rejects Him through infidelity. If we aren’t careful, that faithfulness might come to seem like a cold, dutiful burden that YHWH maintains because He has to. To make sure we don’t become jaded and cynically dismiss this divine faithfulness, the other category of reasons is also provided. Not only is God faithful, He is faithfully loving. YHWH’s steadfast love commits Him not just to fidelity, but loving fidelity to Israel no matter what.

When YHWH removes His protection from Israel, He always intends to restore her to Himself. It is important to understand here that when Israel cries out to YHWH, when YHWH decides she has suffered enough from affects of her own infidelity, YHWH comes to her. This even though she does not deserve this rescue; even though nothing can eliminate her past infidelity. Even so, YHWH remains faithful and He moves at His time to rescue and restore Israel because He loves her.
This is good news for Israel; it is gospel. It is the gospel found and narrated in Jewish Scripture. It is the gospel for which modern Jews are waiting. When YHWH comes to rescue Israel, He will also restore her purpose in the world to bless the world and to welcome all peoples to her God. This then has been the purpose of Israel. She is not to simply or only be the People of God for her own sake. Rather, she is to carry the message of God among the nations, for the nations. Her life with YHWH was intended not only to carry that blessing, but to model the life of God’s people for the nations. Part of that modelling was to trust YHWH no matter what, to entice the nations to trust Him themselves. What YHWH offered was the best life possible on earth; a planet of people living lives as followers of YHWH.
YHWH’s faithful loving kindness throughout the Jewish narrative forms the history of the gospel and tells us that a gospel theme of rescue and salvation is not unique to the Christian era but is rather a continuing theme in YHWH’s relationship with Israel and the world.

Next, The People of God

On The Gospel

This post is the first in a short series looking at the gospel and its relative simplicity.
On one hand, the gospel is rather simple. The gospel is simply that God loves you.
There it is; it is that simple.

God loves you.
There are a number of concepts and realities bound up in that phrase but that truth is the basic, life-validating truth we call the gospel. Those concepts and realities are characteristics of the context of the gospel events related in the Gospels of the New Testament.

The coming of Jesus as YHWH incarnated, to live among us and to die for us is surely the quintessential coming of God into the world, but it isn’t the only time God has come for His people. Christianity, rightly so, has focused on this coming and dying of Jesus as its central event. We are told that it is Jesus who has reconciled people to God; that it is His death that gives life.
Christianity though isn’t settled on all the specifics of this or actually how all those concepts and realities shape the gospel. Surprisingly, Christianity doesn’t agree on whether or not YHWH loves every person. In the United States, there are more than two hundred Christian denominations. This number though is suspect because the definition of denomination is a rather loose one and there is no official listing of denominations in the United States. There may be a few less; there may be considerably more. Some of these denominations are separated from their close cousins by both major and minor differences over salvation, sin, church structure and governance, and worship styles. Clearly, the gospel isn’t perceived as all that simple.

To study Christianity formally, one often studies a variety of systematic theologies that divide Christian theology into a series of topic areas. These topics traditionally include God, Man, Sin, Salvation, Jesus, Heaven, and End Times. These studies are often accompanied with arcane theological terms, studies in ancient language syntax and idiom, and often comparative ideas of other theological opinions. These works can be highly academic and seemingly irrelevant to real life. Not a few newly branded seminary graduates have entered the pastoral ranks intellectually separated from those on the pews. This has been common enough that Helmut Thielicke wrote a short little book entitled A Little Exercise for Young Theologians. The academic system suffers from the same divisions as does Christianity itself. The numerous denominations have their own preferred or even required seminaries; not any well established and credentialed seminary will do. Prospective clergy need to attend the right schools. This of course simply serves to continue denominational divisions and complicate understanding the gospel.
So much for all those systematic theologies.

The gospel isn't complicated enough to require so many theologies, seminaries, or denominations. Let's not forget that Jesus was speaking to ancient peasants for the most part; being rejected by the sophisticated political and religious leaders who had developed their own complex systems of living the righteous life.
No, the gospel isn't that hard to grasp.
God loves you. Come home.
Next time, The History of the Gospel

Friday, August 07, 2015

We Haven't Watched the Videos

When I first heard the reports that the White House had not watched and didn’t plan to watch the Planned Parenthood videos, I was somewhat amazed. I mean, who hadn’t watched the videos or read the transcripts? Seemed somewhat far-fetched to me. Then I thought that maybe this was the Administration’s way of buying time and deflecting any need for initiative. Maybe, I thought, this was another of those, “the President first heard of [fill in your favorite crisis] when he turned on the news,” or some such. They probably only watch CNN and that network didn’t exactly trumpet the contents of the videos, so maybe the whole thing just slipped passed them between the latest Trump joke and blaming Bush for ISIS.

Could be.

Then I realized that it must be somewhat hard to explain to those two girls that their parents nor the federal government considered them real people before they left the hospital. I wonder how that realization comes about – that you were entirely optional to them; not even a person. Just a bag of parts that could just have easily been birthed and then summarily killed at the whim of your mother? Because after all, she is her own woman and can do what she wants with her body. Do what she wants with those non-persons inside her – or even on her breast following delivery. At any point prior to cutting that cord, their mother could have asserted her right to kill them.

And it would have been a legitimate exercise of mom’s feminist identity.

Oh we wouldn't have expected her to kill you herself. No, the idea of a woman choking the life out of a suckling child would have been and still is too barbaric for us. Rather, we would have provided specially trained medical professionals to kill you for her. We think it's cleaner, more antiseptic to have doctors crush your skull, suck your brain out of your head, or tear your body apart while your central nervous system screams in pain.

That's legitimate, that's legal, that's acceptable.

Why we even call that "health care."

So it isn’t really any wonder the White House claims not to have seen the videos. Oh sure, the girls would be told that now – now mom and dad love you, and that would be expected to make them feel better – safer even.

Good thing girls, you made it out of the hospital.

Your parents, Senators Boxer and Warren, Ms Clinton, everyone that works at Planned Parenthood, and the federal government as a whole – and many states think it is entirely appropriate that you may not have.

Because you weren’t real until you escaped.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Growing Up

Perhaps one of the most unsettling realizations for disciples is that being a disciple does not require much of the trappings we have come to associate with being a disciple.

Structure and objective, concrete rules provide psychological safety and their stripping away causes confusion and anxiety. And so we cling to them and assign them value and gravity for their own sake, crafting intricate explanations for their existence and the critical places they fill in our personal and common lives.

We come to believe that these are constituent parts of being a disciple and so perpetuate their existence and necessity, defending them against detractors of all sorts.

If we could let go of them without going crazy, we could see and live the true simplicity of being a disciple. We could learn and experience life as a disciple, coming to realize that discipling is about life; real life lived day by day.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Channel Crossing

I wonder what it was like for a 19 year old, or a young father of 23, or maybe even a grandfather crowded into a landing craft with no roof, wearing thirty pounds of gear, being tossed up and then sideways by the water, hearing but not being able to see the explosions, the machine guns, smelling the diesel and the salt, and hearing the muffled prayers and Hail Mary's around you in the close quarters.

And then to hear and feel the craft's bottom scrape against and stop atop some hidden sand, stopping with a surge of bodies trying to stay themselves inside this now very small topless box.

To hear but not quite see the ramp of a door that has been in front of you the last several minutes, disappear in front of you, exposing a view of several meters of water and then a narrow ribbon of beach.

To hear "let's go!" and be part of the collective push out into the now exposed air, to step off the ramp and sink ankle, knee, neck, or deeper into the water, struggling to balance, to breathe, to gather your bearings.

To see the bullets in the water, the explosions only heard before, on the beach and in the water. Those last few meters of water must have seemed an eternity.

The beach, your goal, turns out not to be the sanctuary you imagined. More bullets, coming faster and closer as you haul and strain to get your salt water soaked body to safety. You finally see the bodies, if you hadn't seen them in the water, some barely on the sand and others who made it farther before dying in France.

Afraid to go forward, with nowhere to return, you consider digging a hole right hear to wait until the chaos abates. If you are still enough, maybe the gunners won't target you.

But you can't. That's not what solders do. This isn't about your survival. This is about mission, about taking those cliffs. This is about living or dying with your squad, your platoon, your company; those guys who mere minutes ago were packed into that boat.

And so you move. If you die here today, you die. With any luck, you won't feel it. For these guys around you, wherever they are now; you owe it to them. Try to find where the bullets are coming from, is there a pattern to them, and some place to which you might run. In a water and now sand soaked uniform and gear.

And so a little prayer, a push off the ground with your hands, and your labored knees and legs - a short run through sand and another fall. Hoping the gunners haven't seen you, that you will somehow run between or around the bullets and explosions.

It seems this will last forever; that you will collapse before reaching the base of the cliffs and the expected safety of their shadow.
So these soldiers, why did they do this? Why did Britain, the United States, Canada, and others sacrifice their soldiers, their neighbors, their sons, husbands, and fathers on this and similar beaches today?

Because they knew that liberty sometimes has to be protected with blood; that there is real evil wrought by tyrants, despots, and narcissists who have been given, or who have taken power.

It will take a few more months but they will find that not only did these maniacal fanatics want their own empire, but that they had kept their populations in fear by selecting groups of people to kill in various ways, in heinous ways, in despicable ways.

Yes, sometimes liberty for others requires the blood of their fellow humans. This is the cost required of the family of Man. To avoid this sacrifice when it is needed in the face of tyranny is irresponsible, dastardly, and an abandonment of our common existence on this planet. It is arrogant and shallow.
Worse, if it can be worse than arrogant negligence, is that it is breaking trust with the soldiers who died today, liberating people they did not know.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Memorial Day

A day to remember.

To remember smiles, loves, lives.

To remember sacrifice.

To remember lives given for us.

Young men, mature men, and older men.

And women.

Sons, and dads, and granddads.

And daughters, and moms, and grandmoms.

Husbands and wives.

To remember lives given for us.

Flags, and flowers, and salutes.

Bagpipes and bugles.

And Taps.

Tears, and hugs.

And deep breaths.

To remember lives given for us.

To remember lives given to us.

To hold, to cherish, to love.

To release, to let go, to lose.

For something greater, something deeper.

For me, for you, for us all.

To remember lives given for us.

To remember sacrifice.

To remember smiles, loves, lives.

A day to honor.

A day to remember.

Pentecost Power

In the Western Christian tradition, Pentecost marks the reception of the Spirit by Jesus' disciples following His ascension. He had told them to wait in Jerusalem for the promise of the Father, which would include power. Jesus had told them that He would go to the Father but that He would not leave them as orphans. Rather when He had gone, He would send the Spirit who would remind them, empower them, and give them words to say when they needed them.

Once they had received the Spirit, they were to be His witnesses and messengers to the entire world. This then is often considered the beginning of he church, but it isn't really. He church, or the called out people of God, had been in existence for sometime. Rather, this day is the empowering of the disciples to now fully and boldly proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to all comers, and to take the message to all peoples.

Part of the church's mission is to tell the world of the Life God wants for them, secured and exampled by Jesus. This message is to be proclaimed not in a truncated, even if accurate, "Jesus died for you" message, but a message that includes the blessings available right now. This is no pie in the sky message but one that assets that God has broken into our reality not with just a message but with Life.

This message though must be proclaimed by people who are living that Life as the called out people of God. A people who are living the blessing they seek to lure others toward. Jesus will tell them that people will know that they and we are experiencing the Life we tout by our love for one another. It will be apparent to ourselves when we can look at ourselves and our group and find the fruit of the Spirit in ourselves and each other.

That empowering then is not just so we will know what to say when in front of magistrates, but so that we can become lovers of each other and of the same things that God loves. And what does God love, but the world. We are then charged with loving each other, which can be difficult on its own, but we are also called to love those outside our group as well - all those sinners our God loves but we try to avoid.

Pentecost reminds us then that God has empowered us to be lovers of people. We don't have the option of saying that we just can't love that person because off what they have done, or the Life they are living. We can't say that because God has empowered us to do just that - love them.

On this Pentecost then, let's remember the coming off the Spirit, yes, but let us admit that the Spirit is given for a reason. Let's accept our charge to both tell and live a life of love and so entice each other and outsiders to accept the Life God offers.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Jeremiah 30-31 provides the hope – the promise that YHWH will come to claim Israel as His; He will call them and collect them from the far ends of the earth. Here, in this book of doom and certain destruction and exile – which Israel have to endure – are these chapters full of promises of redemption. In these two chapters it is clear that YHWH, despite bringing judgment on her, has every intention of gathering her back together.

Why? Because He has promised to be God, and He will be. He is steadfast in an eternal sense, never losing sight of her no matter what. If you’ve ever raised kids, you know this place. Sometimes the frustration and disappointment is such that in the moment you’re ready for the cops to come get this kid. But even then, underneath, and certainly after the smoke has settled, it’s OK. Having the kid with you is more important than focusing on the poor behavior. Good parents don’t give up on their kids, even when it might seem the parents aren’t paying attention right now.

God has declared a covenant and He will remain faithful to it even if Israel isn’t. He will always accept her back when she wants to come back. We often emphasize that last part – “when she wants to come back,” but in these chapters, that isn’t the criteria. God wants her back and will come get her in His timing, not hers.

In these chapters, the actor is God, not Israel. Things will happen to Israel – bad and finally good things – but neither of them are dependent on her wants or behavior. When God is ready, He will come and find her.

It is in this context that YHWH says He will forget her iniquity, her sin. But the order isn’t, cleansing first and then finding, but gathering first and the forgiveness is a consequence of having been gathered. There aren’t any hoops for Israel to jump through. This is YHWH who wants her, and to have her He will forget her iniquity. Much like a parent does. The child is your child and has a place with you.

This has always been the arrangement, actually. God has chosen, built, nurtured, and protected Israel simply because He decided He would and promised to do just that. Israel does receive punishment for idols and abuse of each other; and Korah’s folks get swallowed up for disobedience. Even so, YHWH remains faithful to His covenant.

Jesus will come to Israel to collect her, to return her to YHWH without worrying about her status. Yes, there are some expectations of her – as there always have been as the people of YHWH. Living in conformance to His image, faithful trusting in YHWH rather than other countries and powers, even being satisfied as having YHWH as her king. But – and this is important – these are consequences not prerequisites of God coming for her.

That’s the point of knocking on the door, of being ready when the bridegroom comes, and even of a fruitless fig tree. YHWH has come for us! Let’s be His people! This is Jesus’ message. Not, fix yourselves first and then maybe YHWH will accept you; no, He has come and wants you back. Do you want Him?

For Israel, this is where John’s repentance comes in. Not as a prerequisite for God’s desire for you, but the result of your wanting to be with God. God won’t compel you, but He does want you. Do you want Him?

Monday, March 16, 2015

Fourth Sunday in Lent

This Sunday's sermon text was the short story of the firey serpents in the wilderness. This is another in the long litany of Israel's failure to fully trust her God and her God-given leaders, in this case Moses.


Prior to this chapter we have had the story of Moses getting fed up with the whining and in turn whining to YHWH about the whiners. Moses wants to know why God has saddled him with these people. He argues that he didn't ask for this, he didn't birth these people, so why in the world is he being expected to be responsible for them?!

God's response is a rather benign, "OK, pick yourself some helpers and let them help."

Later, YHWH will Himself become fed up. So much so that he says to Moses, "Tell you what, how 'bout I wipe these folks out and start over with you as the Father of the Nation?"

Moses is being offered Abraham's place! We might think that Moses would jump at the chance, given his previous complaining, but he doesn't. Instead, he appeals to YWHW's reputation. "If you wipe them out then the other nations will think that you couldn't pull off what you set out to do. You said you would bring this people out of captivity and make them a great nation, and now you would start over? What are the neighbors going to think?"

So YHWH relents.


And so we get to our text. The Israelites, acting like people - like you and me - have just started out on their desert, foot-borne journey around Edom. Edom you see, had decided to not let Israel trudge through their country. Even though Israel had sent messengers saying, "we will stay on the main road and walk straight through; we won't bother anyone."Edom, even though they are extended family, is not dummy. 600,000 Israelites mucking around on your main highway is going to cause some interference with normal commerce and who knows, they may decide to start a fight. 

So, despite being cousins, the Edomites refuse permission.So Israel walks. And while she does so, the folks complain again about being brought out of Egypt to die in the wilderness with no food and no water. But they have food - that manna stuff. I guess even if the manna is miraculously given by your God, too many days and weeks of it would take the shine off. 

And so they complain.

And complain.

If God was ready to suggest wiping them out earlier, He takes no time punishing them now. He sends serpents into the camps and people start dying. So many that the people come running to Moses, admitting their sin of complaining, and begging him to pray for them so YHWH will stop the plague of snakes.

Moses, instead of haranguing them, does pray for them. Moses is "the most humble man on the planet" we're told at one point. His prayers and friendship with YHWH are so special to YHWH that much later, the Prophet is told not to waste his breath praying for Israel. To make the point as strong as possible, YHWH says that "even if Moses prayed for them," He wouldn't hear the prayer.

Moses is one guy you want praying for you when you need prayer.

YHWH's response is not to drive away the snakes but to have Moses make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Then, if anyone was bitten by a snake, she could look at the bronze snake and they would live.

Pretty odd, huh? Didn't YHWH just tell them not to make graven images, or idols? So what's this all about? Earlier, YHWH did tell them not make images or idols. Some commentators see here two prohibitions. The first is not to try to confine YHWH to some sort of created being. YHWH is too big, too wonderful, too expansive to be represented by an image of one of His own creatures and so images purported to be of Him are disallowed. We might ask just why Israel would do such a thing, but they did. Even as the Law was being given, Aaron fashioned a calf, claiming it jumped out of the fire, and introduced it to Israel as "the god that brought us out of Egypt." So apparently this prohibition was well founded.

The other prohibition is about making idols and worshiping them. Idols to Ba'al, Ashteroth, Molech, and the rest, as bulls, trees, and whatnot are not to receive worship from Israel. And so two prohibitions - don't try to define YHWH by some creature image, and don't make for yourselves other gods entirely and worship them.

This serpent on the pole fits neither of those categories and is therefore presumably not a violation of the prohibition. At least Moses doesn't argue the point and he was the guy that received the Law - twice.

But Israel is made of humans, and she fails just as we do. Just as humans have throughout history. Some how Israel manages to keep track of this serpent and the next we hear of it is during Hezekiah's reign. Hezekiah is a "good" king and he immediately begins to destroy idol worship in Israel, breaking down the high places and destroying idols. One of those idols is this serpent of Moses.' Having received a name, Israel was making offerings to it and worshiping the thing these centuries later. Interesting how we humans will take things meant for our good and turn them into harmful and sinful things all the while thinking we are doing "right."

But the story doesn't end there. John is going to bring the serpent to our remembrance in chapter 3 of his Gospel. Here John says that just like that serpent, Jesus will be raised and those who look to Him will live. God has redeemed even this serpent that had been profaned by the very people it was meant to help.

That is at least one of the parallels of this story. Jesus, sent to purify the people, is himself profaned by those people - just as by us - and yet is redeemed by His Father and grants us Life. The stone that has been rejected has become the cornerstone of our Lives in God.

How do you respond to the blessings God gives you? Do you take them and then complain they aren't good enough? Do they become profaned through your pride and complaining? This Lent, review your gratitude and attitude. Give thanks for what you have and put off accumulating and upgrading.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Third Sunday of Lent

The Ten Commandments are the epitome of "the Law," and the Law we are told was done away with when Jesus arrived. No more Law, just the grace offered by God through Jesus. Often then, we simply avoid or read over these sorts of passages, relegating them to a bygone age that is no longer applicable to the church.

We are wrong to do so. The Exodus version of the Law comes shortly after Israel's escape from Egypt. But not just that. It comes after complaints and the provision of food and water by God, and after the battle with Amalek. During this battle, Israel gains the upper hand as long as Moses' hands are held up. If he lets them down, Amalek gains the upper hand. This is an odd arrangement, but it is intended to demonstrate that it is Israel's God that wins this battle. And it must be because Israel is not a cohesive nation. She is simply been led out of captivity and fed in the wilderness; she does not have fully trained army and cannot defeat Amalek on her own. She needs God for sustenance and military security.

It is time for her God to form her into a real nation, a cohesive people with an identity. A people who will truly be the people of her God; who will in at least some concrete sense, be His incarnation among the nations. He begins this process here, by giving what appear to be rules.

But these are not real rules for rules sake. These expectations are given to Israel for two reasons which may in fact be reduced to one. The first reason is that this God, YHWH, is the God who has brought Israel out of captivity, who has fed her, provided water, and has now defeated her first enemy in the wilderness. He has done all this because of his steadfast fidelity to Abraham to form a people, to bless them, and to use them as a blessing for the world.

The list begins with YHWH reminding Israel that it is He who has formed her and brought her out; who has nurtured her and continues to nurture her. She shall have no other gods before Him precisely because He has done these things for her. She can appropriately do no other and it is right that she pay homage to YHWH.

The directive to remember the Sabbath is not arbitrary but here is based on YHWH's own resting. Work and then rest is fitting for people and this rest will remind them whose people they are. Later the reason for keeping the Sabbath will shift to remembering that YHWH has brought them out of slavery, out of Egypt. The Sabbath becomes not just rest from work, but rest from slavery - an entry into rest. In the New Testament, this rest becomes the freedom and rest we find in God. Remember the Sabbath because it represents YHWH's rest. This is not a worship day although it will become that in Israel. The Sabbath is for you, not YHWH and it represents your entrance into His rest.

There is another aspect of the Sabbath. It is necessary that no one and no thing work. You are not allowed to work and you are not allowed to let - or direct your servants, children, or even your livestock to work. The mention of livestock here reminds us that the Noahic covenant applies to "all flesh" including animals. YHWH's concern is not just for Man, but the greater creation. 

The remaining rules are not flat arbitrary rules either. They are all based on the need to form a people, and a people who will live as the image of YHWH. All of these rules reflect a people who care for others, who refrain from taking advantage of their neighbors. Why do we not murder? Because we cannot so hate or take advantage of our neighbors.Why do we not covet? For the same reason. Why do we not commit adultery? Because our God is steadfast and if we are to be His image, so must we be. The same considerations support the other specific rules.

We find then that these rules reflect the values and character of YHWH and if we are to truly be His image, they must reflect our values as well. These are not rules either for God or for us. Rather they are expressions of who is our God, and who we are expected to become. Israel then is intended to become YHWH's people, to incarnate His image in this world.

And this is the calling of all disciples of the Creator.

To be Him in this world.

When we read these commandments then, we read them not as arbitrary rules but as expressions of who our God is and who we are made to be. Our calling is the same as Israel's - to be the incarnation and presence of YHWH among the nations.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Second Sunday of Lent

Second sunday in Lent -- we are a quarter of the way through this period of reflection and reorientation. How are you doing?

The text for this Sunday from the Jewish Scriptures comes from Genesis 17, YHWH's reiteration of His promise to Abram. Abram and Sarai have been waiting for a quarter century and have made at least two mistakes along this journey. So YHWH decides the time has come despite these less than faithful episodes and He is prepared with three new names. Abram will be called Abraham and Sarai will be called Sarah. He doesn't ask them to try on these new names to see if they like them. He just announces them.

The third new name? God's. Maybe because of their doubting, God here says his name is El Shaddai - God Almighty. Usually we think of a mighty god at the head of an army, or causing earthquakes, or striking people with plagues. Not here. Here, this mighty God is going to use His might to keep His promise and grant a child to an old man and a barren old woman. El Shaddai will demonstrate His might by being able to keep His promise.

Abraham is told he will be the father of nations, of kings, of decendants like the stars and the sand. In fact, YHWH uses the past tense - I have made you the father of a multitude. When YHWH says something, it's as good as done. There is no doubt because He is El Shaddai. Abraham is not the only one to receive a blessing this day. Sarah receives a similar blessing. From her will come princes and kings and nations. YHWH specifically mentions and blesses this old barren woman in the same language He has blessed Abraham. Sarah will be a full participant in this endeavor,

God is faithful. Would you like proof? Look in the mirror and what do you see? The fulfillment and ongoing fulfillment of that promise. You are the result of that promise -- you are one of those stars, one of those grains of sand. And what more, you are part of the blessing for the world. Carriers of news of the kingdom of God, dispensers of grace, lovers of all.

Not only are you the issue or result of the promise, but as a blessing for the world, you are that promise. During Lent is a good time to remember that and to put ourselves back on track. Give it a shot.

Friday, February 20, 2015

First Friday in Lent

Lent can remind us of our mortality and sober our thinking and attitudes that we allow slack during other parts of the year. But the realization of our mortality need not be morose or defeatist in its affect on us. Indeed, if noticing our own mortality helps us to stop and refocus on God, we can instead rejoice, grasp, and look forward to the Life immortal that He has given us and promised forever.

Acknowledging our mortality prepares us to let go of impermanence, of deterioration, of illness and even of death. We can let go of death as a threat, as something to be feared and avoided at all costs. Rather, we can accept it knowing that it is but a beginning.

A beginning to Life, real Life that will have no end. A Life with and in God in an even more perfect manner than we can experience in our current bodies.This anticipated transition, of becoming and not ending, has formed the basis of faith for more than one disciple in the history of the church. It has consistently brought forth praise and even a bit of frustration or disappointment. Paul we know was torn between going to be with God, or remaining on earth. For him to have lived would be Christ; for him to have died would gain.

Gain that cannot be realized if we hold on to mortality and avoid falling into Life with God. This Life is the promise, but it comes with death as the door. Don't rue your mortality; anticipate with gladness the resurrection. As someone has said, "it's Friday, but Sunday's coming!"

This Lent, practice letting go of some stuff, of some plans, of some ego need. This Lent, reach out for Life.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

First Thursday of Lent

While in therapist school one of the exercises involves crafting your own timeline. You are asked to include major milestones, family members, significant events, and whatnot. This timeline isn’t just a history rehearsal, but is carried into the future – projected milestones and deaths of important people and family members. The idea is to review the people and events that have shaped your history, and then to “look into your future” and anticipate other shaping events. Writing down the actuarial expected dates of others’ deaths can be eye opening, revealing both their mortality and the relatively nearness of that mortality.

This interest in mortality is not limited to therapy students however. The Christian tradition, especially the monastic schools also appreciate acknowledging and accepting death – one’s own. This has a number of affects. One is that we must face our mortality and grasp it as real. No matter how well we may feel at the moment, or how well life is working for us right now, we will die. We will not be able to avoid it. This realization is intended to help us let go of our own plans; our own egos that seek to live forever. In remembering that we are mortal, we can both acknowledge that we are not God and our lives are relatively short.

We have some choices to make. Knowing our mortality, we can go for the gusto and leave behind only those things that will perish and fade – money, houses, cars, stuff. Alternatively, we can let our mortality move us toward more permanent endeavors – other people, dispersing grace, growing into the likeness of God, showing compassion. These will not fade but will last far past our own deaths.

During Lent we have a chance to reflect on our own mortality, to correct our direction, to pursue values that actually mean something. We don’t have forever; many of us don’t have much time at all. When we come to our moment of death, what will become of us? What will become of you?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Word Became Flesh

John's writings have common threads whether we speak about his epistles or his gospel. Certainly, one of those is love - the love of God for the world, and the expected reciprocal love of God by people. Perhaps the most famous of his statements is that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son for the world to save it. But there is another thread common among his writings but it is not overly explicit. That is a corrective narrative against what appears to be the beginnings of what would become what we call Gnosticism. Specifically, a dualistic view of Creation.

This view, arising from Greek influences argued that the physical world was corrupt and imperfect; destined for destruction. On the other hand, this view held that the spiritual life, or that of the mind was that which was to be perfected and leave the coarse physical reality behind. This view infiltrated the church such that some would teach that what we did in or with our bodies was of no consequence. Our bodies would die and decay and were inherently not good, but corrupt. Because of this, disciples could participate in any number of illicit and sinful behaviors because it wouldn't matter. What would matter is their understanding and acceptance of Jesus. These beliefs about Jesus would perfect their minds, the important aspect of humans and this is what would cause them to be accepted by God. The affect then was that as long as you believed the right precepts, you could conduct your physical life in any way you'd like. John is not the only writer with this concern; it is actually quite common throughout the New Testament.

A correlate of this dualistic view of physical and spiritual being was voiced as an objection to Jesus having been really and actually Deity incarnate. Since Jesus was flesh and God is spirit; because flesh was inherently bad and spirit good, Jesus could not have been Deity incarnate. He only appeared to have a body, or his body was real but his mind had been taken over by the spirit of God. However we might slice it, the argument would have gone, Jesus of Nazareth with his physical body was not God.

This view of dualism is in the background of John's writings, and he wastes no time denouncing it in his Gospel. We are told up front that from the very beginning, the Word was with God and the Word was God. John will not hold any punches with this topic. He declares that this Word was Deity.

Later in this reading John will tell us that this Word became flesh and lived among us; that he had seen Him and could witness to Him. This enfleshed Word John will identify as Jesus in a few paragraphs. His point - that Jesus of Nazareth was this Divine Word who took on flesh and lived on the earth. For John, there is no question. He will tell us in chapter 20 that he writes his gospel so that we will believe that Jesus is this Divine Word that existed from the beginning of time. For John, dualism doesn't exist; physical flesh and spiritual Divinity in fact coexisted as one person.

We find also in this passage that this Word was both life and light. Life we are told because through Him all things have been made.He is life because He is Life itself. He gives and He sustains our lives. It is this Life that became flesh and walked among us. And yet not even His own people recognized or received Him. The very Life of the entire Creation was also the Light for all people. Light as a guide; Light as something that reveals reality; Light as something that shows forth. The Word was this Light and those who had their eyes open and their hearts not seared saw this Light and came to it. The Light illumines the truth that the life He lived among us illustrated and modeled the Life that He is and that He offered.

Those who received Him, who saw the Light and who saw the Life for what it is, these He welcomed into the kingdom of God as children of the Father. John says this becoming children was not dependent on physical descent, but on belief that this enfleshed Word was indeed Life and Light This sort of belief is not simple acknowledgement; not simply a mental conclusion. No, this belief is often better described as trust. Trust that throws all in with God and joins Him in Life and work. This joining is such that God's desires and values become our desires and values. We come to understand and to own these for ourselves. Often we hear an allusion to disciples "reflecting" God to those around them. It seems to me that this does not quite meet the parallel. Rather it is that disciples are to be more like glow in the dark material. We live in the Light so that we absorb its energy and it becomes our own. When we turn off the light, we glow from within ourselves, emitting that energy and Light that we have absorbed as our own. We never become the Light, but the real Light we emit is our own.

These ideas are important for John as he both argues that Jesus is the Word and that we come to Him through trust that His way of Life is really for us. The Life He led allowed Him to say that if His disciples had seen Him, they had seen the Father. There was no distinction necessary between Jesus in the flesh, and the Divine Word. Similarly, John argues the same for disciples. We are both flesh and Spirit and this informs our ways of life. It rules out immoral living while holding to Spiritual truths. The two go hand in hand for John. 

This Life; this Creator God came to live among us. 


If we perceive the Light and receive it and join it in trust, we are children of God; both flesh and Spirit.


Live into the Life and Light of God, and glow with a minor light which becomes your own.

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