Turn On the Power!

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Acts 1:1-11 NIV

Next Sunday is Pentecost, a celebration of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the church. Our scripture this week is about setting the stage. We see in this passage how unprepared the disciples were and how Jesus was preparing them for an event that would be almost as earth-shaking as the resurrection itself.

It starts by securing faith in the physical resurrection. Jesus “gave them many convincing proofs that he was alive.” Appearing, teaching, even eating, and for 40 days. Moses was 40 days on Mount Sinai receiving the Law. Jesus was 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism. And now the post-resurrection Jesus spends 40 days with the disciples.

“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Without the Holy Spirit, the disciples were still looking for some political or financial benefit to everything they had been through. They still didn’t understand that Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world, as He said to Pilot (John 18:36). Today, we’re still looking for Jesus to restore the kingdom to Israel.

Jesus wanted the disciples to keep their eyes on the ball, which was spiritual, not political. “It is not for you to know,” He said, “… but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This sentence is an outline of the whole book of Acts.

Some people want to call it “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” That doesn’t work for me. It tells about the Actions of the Apostles in establishing the early church. Their work is done, but the Acts of the Holy Spirit continue to this day.

As an aside, let’s consider what they did after Jesus ascended into heaven but before the Holy Spirit came down. They decided to name a replacement for Judas, rolled the dice and picked Matthias – and that’s the first and last we hear about Matthias. Did you ever think maybe Paul was supposed to be the replacement? It doesn’t matter, but I think it’s important to remember that the Bible reports things that happened even if they weren’t supposed to happen like that.

Let’s not forget the meaning of the word “Acts” It is about things done, and it doesn’t sugar-coat the story. What are the Acts of the Apostles? Peter goes to the Gentiles, against every religious principal he has been taught, but Paul tells us later that Peter still had not gotten over his tendency to look down on them. (Galatians 2:12-13) The early church fought over which widows deserve church charity, and who would do the visitation. (Acts 6:1) Paul and Barnabas split up over John Mark. (Acts 16:37-39) Paul gave a sermon so long that a young man fell asleep and fell out the window. (Acts 20:9-10) There’s a lesson for all of us there. Yours is, “Don’t fall asleep during the sermon.” Mine is,” Try to stop talking before they start nodding off.”

I do notice the mistakes and wrong turns that people make in the Bible, and here in the book of Acts. It matters to me because I know that if God can use them, God can use us, too. I also know that if you try, you will make mistakes, but God will find a way to bless those mistakes. Peter didn’t like Gentiles, but he did go to the Gentiles. They fought over widows and shut-ins, but they did take care of widows. Paul and Barnabas split up over John Mark, but they covered twice as much ground that way, and Paul did take Mark back into his good graces. (2 Timothy 4:11) Yes, Paul did preach too long, but at least he was preaching!

The ending of our passage today should give us a lot to think about. First, Jesus was taken out of their sight. And for us, it is not important what Jesus looked like, how tall He was, what his complexion was like. These are things we will never know and don’t need to know. But the disciples kept looking, trying to get one last glimpse, when the angels said, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven will come back in the same way … “

Jesus is coming back, but that doesn’t mean we should spend our time looking into the sky, trying to figure out the times and seasons. Our job is to act! Until we receive the Holy Spirit, we are to prepare, pray, and gather together, just like they did in the Book. Then, when we receive the Holy Spirit, we are to get on with the business of building the church. We are to go and make disciples, go and care for widows and shut-ins, go and preach.

Jesus told many parables about the Landowner leaving town and coming back. Good things happened when He caught the tenants working and taking care of His business. God is the landowner, and we are the tenants. It isn’t enough to adore the landowner, to say good things about the landowner, to watch for the landowner coming home. The task is to take care of the Landowner’s business!

You know how I love bouncing around in Bible translations. The Message translation is not my favorite – but Eugene Peterson, who wrote The Message, is first a pastor, then a Bible scholar. His introduction to the book of acts is a good summary of what I’m trying to say:

“Because the story of Jesus is so impressive … there is a danger that we will be impressed, but only impressed. As the spectacular dimensions of this story slowly (or suddenly) dawn upon us, we could easily become enthusiastic spectators, and then let it go at that. … The story of Jesus doesn’t end with Jesus. It continues in the lives of those who believe in him.”

The key word is “Acts,” which is doing the work of God. There is not a lot in the book about worshipping Jesus, but there is a lot about working in the power of the Holy Spirit. Next Sunday is Pentecost, celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit. We will know that Spirit is in us, that the power is turned on, when we see ourselves doing taking care of the Landowner’s business, daring to do things that we know we can’t do except by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, pray for that Spirit to turn on the power in our lives. Amen.

Abiding in Christ

For most of my adult life, I was not a practicing Christian. I have made no secret of that. From my early teens into my thirties, I was a cult chaser, a new-ager, a rebel against the faith of my fathers. When I became a father, I returned to Christianity – but I still wasn’t very active in the faith. It was 25 years ago when the news of the day finally drove me to read the Bible, cover to cover. My life was never the same. This is that Bible – a simple King James Version, $10 brand new.

Now, I know that the King James is not the favorite translation of many people in this church. The language is dusty, the translation sketchy, and the motivation of the translators was to justify the Anglican Church status quo. But it does contain the unvarnished Gospel, and that is what changed my life.

So I beg your indulgence as I use this Bible for today’s message. My scripture is John 15:1-5. I invite you to read along in your favorite translation:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.

Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.

Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.

Your New International Version reads a bit differently. I’m not talking about the ye’s and the –eth’s. Today, I want to focus on the word “abide.” In the NIV and other translations, it’s “remain”. NIV is a great translation, the one I usually use. But “remain” implies an effort, something I hold onto, as when we remain steadfast. “Abide”, on the other hand, sounds like resting, remaining still. It’s a subtle difference, and it might be all in my head, but “remain” or “stay” sounds like something I do, whereas “abide” feels like somewhere I am, or something God lets me do.

The faith is confusing is you take scripture in bits and pieces. Paul says it’s faith, not works, that save us, while James says that faith without works is dead. It sounds like a conflict, but it isn’t. I think that Paul would agree that true faith is active and alive, motivating us to do God’s will. I also think James would agree that we are saved not by works, but by faith in Christ. I think we need both perspectives to understand what Jesus was about.

We all know about the many times Jesus told His disciples what to do. He instructed them, and us, to take action in order to demonstrate our love for one another. But here, we see where Paul got his doctrine of faith not works. Here, the apostle John remembers that Jesus said we should simply abide in Him.

The branches do not try to bear fruit, and nobody asks for pruning. We don’t do the work of bearing fruit. Rather, it is the natural result of being well connected to the vine. Paul obviously knew these sayings of Jesus because he talked about our being grafted into the vine.

Abiding in Christ means staying connected, resting in Him, and letting Jesus do His work in our lives. Jesus said the work of God was to believe in Christ, and here, He says that we will bear fruit by simply abiding in Him.

This was the Gospel that saved my soul. I was a workaholic, all about performance, always trying to get better, to do more, and never satisfied with myself. I thought I could never be good enough to enter heaven. I kept looking for that narrow road. But when I finally read the Bible for myself, I found that narrow road. It is Jesus, plain and simple. It is abiding in Him, plain and simple. It is loving Jesus, learning Jesus, and being satisfied with Jesus. The Gospel is simple. Jesus is the Gospel. He called himself the gate to the sheepfold. He said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” I had been fighting to find another way, when all along, Jesus was saying, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Can it be more obvious than that? Jesus Christ, the One we call Savior and Lord, the Son of God, says, “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Matthew 7:14) But He also says it is an easy yoke and a light burden. Few find the narrow way not because it is difficult, but because it is narrow.

I stuggled to have faith, and I could not force it on myself. I let go and let God, abiding in Christ, and my faith began to grow. I worked to please God and found no peace; I settled into God’s arms and found acceptance and joy. I discovered that Jesus told the truth, and that Paul understood it. The key to bearing fruit is remaining attached to the vine. The key to the Christian life is abiding in Christ.

Obvious, we in the West are hooked on performance. We set high standards for ourselves and hold others to high standards as well. Sometimes, intentionally or not, we preach that salvation comes through effort, through good works, or even through the hard work of holding specific doctrines and beliefs. When we do, we are wrong. It is not about performance; it is about love. It is not about generating activity; it is about bearing fruit, and that only comes from abiding in Christ.

I appreciate that some people reject Christianity outright. I believe that it is usually because of those who are miserable in the faith, holding others up to standards that they themselves can’t live up to, either. Jesus knew that we can’t save one another by judging one another. In fact, we can’t save one another at all. All we can do is abide in Christ, and share the joy of that experience with others.

So to those who are working so hard to please God, I say give up. God’s will is that you fall in love with God’s son, because Jesus reminds us that God is love; God wants our love; and God wants to share God’s love with us as we share that love with one another.

You think it can’t be that simple? It really is that simple. If you don’t believe it, read the book for yourself, and remember that the cornerstone is not Moses, or Paul, or Abraham. The cornerstone is Jesus. It won’t make sense until and unless you abide in Jesus.

May you simply abide in Christ.

Regarding Scripture Translations

I love the King James Version of the Holy Bible. I also love the New International Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the Good News Translation, the New Living Translation, and The Message. But I first read the King James Version, and I love antiques, to the KJV has a special place in my heart.

Some say the KJV is the Gold Standard of scripture, and others say it is the only legitimate English translation. Still others say it is a deeply flawed and outdated translation that has no place in the church today. I think we can benefit from knowing a variety of translations, but the KJV is foundational to our language and our culture. There is much to recommend the KJV. But we have to accept that, in addition to its arcane language, the KJV also has an intentional bias imposed by King James VI – that it should better support the Church of England’s structure and its restriction of authority to ordained male clergy.

Many in the KJV-Only crowd say that modern translations have softened the message, tending to deny the Deity of Christ or the specific church doctrines surrounding His birth, ministry and resurrection. I do not believe this has been done intentionally, if at all. More to the point, I think that all subsequent translations have so honored the KJV as to promulgate its misogyny and other flaws that are not so prevalent in the original languages.

However, as evidence that the NIV has not intentionally softened anything, I note a passage in which the NIV has “hardened” church doctrine while remaining faithful to the historic manuscripts.

According to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, the Greek word “archegos” can be translated “prince”, “author”, or “captain”. In Hebrews 12:2, both the KJV and the NIV translate the word as “author”, as in Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith. In Hebrews 2:10, the word becomes “captain” in the KJV but “pioneer” in NIV. In that verse, the KJV says that Jesus is the Captain of our salvation, thus being in charge of it. The NIV is saying that Jesus is the Pioneer of our salvation, as in the first to discover it. That is the kind of softening that leads the KJV-Only crowd to reject the NIV.

However, at Acts 3:15, the KJV translates “archegos” to say that Peter called Jesus is “the Prince of Life.” In this instance, the NIV translates it as “Author.” Thus Peter called Jesus “the Author of Life,” indicating that Peter already agreed with John 1:3 – “Through him all things were made(NIV)/All things were made by him(KJV).”

For all the complaints about the NIV (from the KJV crowd), I’ve never heard a complaint about this passage. I think it is because the NIV translation is more supportive of the Deity of Christ than is the KJV translation. Even so, I see nothing in these various passages to indicate which meaning – prince, captain, author, perfecter – best represents the intent of the original speaker or writer. If we take their shared meaning, which I might translate as “primary driver”, we lose the royalty of Prince, the authority of Captain, the pre-eminence of Author and the immediacy of Perfecter.

It is a shame that we cannot have all these meanings without having to select one for English translation. In the original language, there is no requirement to narrow it down. All of these possible meanings are existent in the word “archegos”. Sometimes a word represents a feeling or sentiment in one language that simply has no equivalent in another language. Language is a synthesis of the shared history, mythology, art and education of a given culture. We don’t share those things with ancient Greeks, Romans or Hebrews, so the best we can hope for from many words is an educated guess.

This essay will probably have readers who insist that the KJV is a perfect translation, and others who think that it is outdated and seriously flawed. The truth, I believe, lies somewhere between those two opinions. I think we should accept that the shortcomings of modern translators were probably shared by KJV translators as well.

I am grateful that God has enabled so many translations of scripture to exist, by inspiring people of goodwill to take on the task of translation. But in doing so, I think God has also revealed the imperfection of all people, in every generation. In this digital age, we have every resource we need to consider various translations, the original languages, the cultures and sects that generated each translation, and the hazards of expecting one language to replace another, whether of a different culture or of a different time.

Rather than elevate or vilify any translation, we should consider more than one and pray for insight to find the truth. More importantly, we should accept our own flawed view of God’s Word and that of others as well. We are encouraged to have mercy and to love one another – and that’s a message common to every translation.



Oh, Save!

The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the king of Israel!” 

Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:

“Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey’s colt.”

At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.

— John 12:12-16

This account of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem quotes Zechariah 9.9. The Septuagint, a Greek Bible translation that was common in Jesus’ day, says, “Behold, a King is coming to you, Just, and a Savior. He is meek and riding on an ass, and a young foal.”

People who knew the details of this prophecy surely understood the details. Zechariah was written during the many battles of Alexander the Great. This was the fall of the Holy Land to what would become the Greek Empire, later to be taken over by the Romans. The King’s entry on a donkey was appropriate. The very next verse refers to the war-horses, but entry on a donkey was a sign of a peaceful entry.

“Your king is just (or righteous),” unlike many of the traditional kings of Israel, and he was a Savior (or “having salvation” NIV). The very phrase “Jesus Saves” originates from verses like this. The word “Hosanna” is Hebrew for “save”. The cry of “Hosanna” was like crying, “Save us!” In Zechariah’s time, the King would save the people from the bloodshed so common under Alexander the Great. In the New Testament, people likely considered this salvation as liberation from Roman occupation.

After Jesus was glorified, the disciples understood this and other prophesies. But given that the Roman occupation continued and grew worse, they must also have understood that this salvation was spiritual, not political. Jesus saved them not from the troubles of this world, but from the troubling sins and doubt that curse every human.

For the most part, the New Testament writers are giving account of a journey, in which Jesus’ companions change and His nature is revealed in people and events He encounters along the way. Jesus goes from Bethelehem to Egypt to Nazareth to Capernaum through Samaria to Jerusalem and ultimately to Galgotha. We see the journey from infancy to childhood to submission to John, then on to His ministry as Messiah and Savior of the world. And in these encounters, as Jesus blesses a Gentile leper, a Roman centurion, a Samaritan adulteress and a condemned thief, we learn that Jesus came to fulfill the prophesies of Israel, but to bless and save all of humankind. Or, as Zechariah 9:10 proclaims, “He will proclaim peace to the nations.”

We shouldn’t get too cocky about those in history who expected Jesus to be a warrior or a literal king. Jesus enters our lives on a donkey, low and humble, with more fanfare than force. We have our own expectations of Jesus. We may expect Him to grant us riches, or perfect health, or some advantage over nonbelievers. We expect Jesus to make a path for us, when scripture says instead we should be clearing the path for Him.

So what good is peace in the midst of war and conflict? What is healing in a body that remains vulnerable to disease and age? How are our enemies defeated when to the naked eye they appear to remain in power? What is salvation, anyway?

In Romans, Paul had much to say about this “body of death” in which we live. We sin against our own better judgment. We are easily led astray. We fail to follow Jesus then cry that we are lost. Most of our wounds are self-inflicted, the result of a flawed human nature straying from God’s will for our lives and our world. It does little good to save us from war, poverty and suffering if we continue to harm ourselves and others by taking the wrong path and making bad decisions.

It is from that Body of Death that we are saved. We are saved from our own tendency to make wrong choices that hurt us and others. We are saved from the condemnation that we deserve for making those choices. In short, we are saved from ourselves. We die to self and live for Christ, and in doing so, we follow the only One who was without sin.

As we understand the humility of Christ, the peace of His reign and the nature of His kingdom, we start to lose our expectations of comfort in this life. The mature Christian is revealed not in our freedom from suffering, but in our integrity and faith in the midst of suffering. If we expect a material advantage from the Lordship of Jesus, we are as wrong as those who expected Him to conquer the Romans and drive them out of the Promised Land.

Once, when a brother asked Jesus to tell his brother to divide the inheritance, Jesus said, “Who made me judge over you?” Jesus did not come to mediate between fallen people – for all of us have fallen short. Rather, Jesus came to make us new creatures, and in doing so to make us a new family in God through Jesus.

The followers of Jesus are not divinely blessed with an advantage in this world. The advantage comes from Jesus saving us from the Body of Death, inspiring us to die to self and live for Him. These advantages are freely offered to everyone.

A caged bird might still be a bird, but it does not fly. When we clip its wings, we remove a part of its essence. Some of us see Christianity as a cage, a set of rules telling us, “Don’t fly. Don’t taste. Don’t touch.” But what if the cage is our own fallen selves, our tendencies to face the bars when we could as easily turn and fly through the door? Jesus came to set the captives free! We are held captive to our own appetites, misunderstandings, temptations and greed. If the Son has set you free from these, from that cage that we build around ourselves, then you are free indeed.

Jesus descends from the Mount of Olives, meeting us where we are in this dark valley of death and sin. He is humble, riding on a donkey, but He is righteous, and His offering to us is salvation. Jesus weeps over our stubborn Jerusalem hearts when we fail to see the great gift He offers. He also rejoices with all of Heaven over each sinner who accepts the gift with repentance and thanksgiving.

Save us from what? You know from what! From ourselves, and from the lie we have learned from this fallen world. As we enter Holy Week and march to Resurrection Sunday, I pray that we might all die with Christ and rise with Him into that newness of life He came to provide.

From Out of Nowhere

Jesus is the ultimate outsider – adapted by foreign cultures, rejected by His own, at conflict in His day with Pharisees, Sadducees and Zealots – translate as the radical, establishment and rebellious branches of Judaism. And with every new generation, Jesus is adopted by traditionalists and progressives alike, each convinced that His true teaching agrees with theirs.

Jesus is a religious outsider. According to Hebrews 5, Jesus is “a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” The first mention of any priest in scripture is a reference to Melchizedek, King of Salem (“peace”) and Priest of the Most High God (“Elyon El”). Melchizedek came from out of nowhere. “Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, resembling the Son of God, [Melchizedek] remains a priest forever.” (Hebrews 7:3)

The people of His day expected the Messiah to be a King, not a Priest. Melchizedek was both, the first of his kind and honored by Abraham, father of Israel and many other nations. Through Joseph, Jesus’ lineage was accepted as in the house of David. With the virgin birth, that lineage is cast into doubt. And Jesus could not be a traditional priest because he was not a Levite, the priestly tribe. “For it is clear that our Lord descended from Judah, and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests.” (Hebrew 7:14)

Wrong place, wrong time, wrong people, friend of sinners and the outcast. In Him the Gentiles place their hope. Jesus was, and still is, the ultimate outsider.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, boys could be expelled from school for wearing their hair too long or growing facial hair. In response, we all pointed to Warren Sallman’s “Head of Christ”, the iconic Jesus image with shoulder-length hair and that perfect beard. The painting sold more than 500 million copies, and that Jesus was also featured in other Sallman paintings. With that, our parents were forced to admit that “we don’t actually know what Jesus looked like”. That, in turn, opened the door to even the even more radical possibility that Jesus was more Middle Eastern than White.

Still, each generation tends to see Jesus as looking like themselves – in opinion and morality, if not physically. In 1939, German theologians established the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Religious Life. It’s purpose was to remake Jesus in the Nazi image, the perfect Aryan who started Christianity to oppose Judaism. The notion turns history on its head, and yet it isn’t so different from many anti-Semitic, Aryan groups that exist even today.

In Matthew, Jesus sent out the twelve disciples, saying, “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Matt. 10:5-6) But the people Jesus healed were largely Gentiles and Samaritans. And at John 12:21, the Greek visitors seeking Jesus during the festival was taken as a sign that Jesus’ ministry was nearly done. (“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” 12:23)

This outsider status of Jesus has spiritual significance. None of us can claim to possess Jesus; we are either grafted-in Gentiles to a Jewish Rabbi or descendants of His people who rejected Him. Jesus does not mimick our looks, our politics, our morality, nor anything else about us. He possesses us, not vice versa, and He is the cornerstone to which we must square our lives – not vice versa.

It is tempting to remake Jesus into our image. But Jesus knows no political party, because the parties hold the moral high ground like the gambler holds cards – some good, some not so much. All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God – and Jesus is the standard by which that is determined.

This outsider status is also a tool for evangelism. “But you were raised Christian; I wasn’t.” Jesus was not raised Christian! “If I was blessed like you, I’d be a Christian, too.” Jesus was a blessing, but few people would describe Jesus as “blessed.” “I just don’t fit in; I’m not like you.” Jesus was not like anybody. He was unique, from out of nowhere, after the order of Melchizedek.

In short, Jesus comes from somewhere else, from outside of our world, our opinions, our viewpoints. We are equally challenged by the life of Jesus, and we all fall short. We can’t use Jesus to control others – indeed, we can’t use Jesus at all! Rather, Jesus uses us to forward His kingdom. We pray for God’s will, not our own, and we see Jesus as the ultimate example of one putting God’s will above His own.

Jesus comes from out of nowhere. When we embrace that concept, we empower the Gospel story to bring eternal life to whoever believes, from all nations, cultures and generations. Remake Him like us, and we take Him away from those who are different. A Jesus who is more like us is less like Jesus. God forbid that we should compromise the Gospel to fit our agenda, regardless of which direction it leans.

Lectionary, Prop 25: The Witness of Mercy

Proper 25, for 10/24/2010
Our sins are bigger than we are, but God is bigger than our sins. When we deny our own weakness, we withhold the credit due to God for God’s mercy in accommodating that weakness. That’s the common ground of passages in the lectionary for Proper 25.

Joel 2:23-32

The threshing-floors shall be full of grain,
the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
I will repay you for the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent against you.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
and praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has dealt wondrously with you.

If ever there was a passage for the recession, this is it. The early and latter rain has been poured down, as before, and the threshing floors shall be full of grain. The hardship came from the hand of God, according to this passage, and so does the restoration. Hang in there, Joel seems to say, God’s restoration is coming!

Then afterwards
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Why does the prophet emphasize male and female, young and old, slave and free? He wants to make sure that no class or gender tries to claim exclusive right to the revelation about to be revealed. Doing so is a revelation in itself — that God will strike this patriarchal, stratified society with revelation unbounded by presumed privilege. It is a gifted revelation, distributed by God as God sees fit. It is a lesson some quarters of Christendom have yet to learn.

Psalm 65

When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
you forgive our transgressions.

Some translations say, “Our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out.” It is a concept so common in scripture and human experience that it is immortalized in the 12 steps of AA: “We admitted we were powerless over our addictions and compulsive behaviors.” Over and over, scripture points out that not only are we more capable when we rely on God, but our very inability to overcome on our own brings glory God. Our weakness, and God’s tendency to compensate for it (a.k.a, “mercy”) will bring us to God when all else fails. It is, in effect, a mechanism through which God keeps us in touch.

You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.

The parallels here to the Joel verses may in fact be the connection that brings both sections into the same Proper. We should all marvel and thank God for the earth’s ability to produce food and its relatively hospitable environment. We are no more self-made people than residents of a manmade planet. God’s on testimony makes this God — the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus — “the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.”

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

At first glance, this would seem to be the obligatory epistle passage, with little connection to the other passages. Whether or not Paul himself actually wrote this epistle, it is certainly the intent of the writer to represent Paul’s farewell to Timothy.

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Paul has won the race not through accomplishment, but by keeping the faith. I tried, he said, and that’s enough because Christ’s prize is to be given to “all who have longed for his appearing.”

After a summary list of persons who have been supportive and those who have not, Paul shares the assessment of the prophet and the psalmist, that God steps in where human effort fails:

At my first defence no one came to my support, but all deserted me. May it not be counted against them! But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and save me for his heavenly kingdom.

Luke 18:9-14

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Jesus spent much of his recorded ministry pointing to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Yes, they were pious in many wonderful ways — by human standards — but no one is justified through boasting to or about God. It is surely a prime example of taking the LORD’s name in vain. It points to the “faith not works” theology that Paul would later embrace, and it’s a good fit. Jesus gives a pious man pious words, and fits humility to one already humbled by society — then declares the latter to be justified where the former is not. We may long for some perfect fit of pious deeds and humility, but Jesus makes it clear that the path of righteousness is humble reliance on God’s mercy.

Lectionary, Prop. 24: Reboot

Lectionary text for Sunday, 10/17/2010

Jeremiah 31:27-34

Stray thoughts, false leads, ceremonies that have lost their meaning, files of information that may never be used — it’s the confetti of life. It gums up the brain, the computer and the church. Proper 24 turns the Rock of Ages into fertile ground, soft soil where new faith can grow and take root. It acknowledges the foundation of history but leans on a present, living relationship with God to reboot the rhythm of faith.

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

After the exile to Babylon, Jeremiah foresees a day when Judah and Jerusalem will get a fresh start, a new covenant, without the baggage of sin and error that was the downfall of the ancestors. This new generation will no longer be dependent on the history of Exodus to validate their faith. Instead, they will have their own relationship with God, a law written on their hearts, more readily available than stone tablets and parchment scrolls.

The story of new beginnings is as old as the exile from the Garden, the tower of Babel and the great flood. The spirit of new beginnings was co-opted by Jesus, the apostles and Paul to describe a faith freed from the traditions and restrictions of the past, based on a new revelation directly from God. The history of God shows strength and stability, but the presence of God shows life and relationship.

Faith that is based on history alone becomes gummed up, burdensome, sluggish. But the history of our faith, the Holy Bible, is filled with examples of new beginnings, restarts, reboots, that keep our faith fresh and alive.

Psalm 119:97-104

I do not shrink from your judgments,
because you yourself have taught me.

Wisdom becomes relevant when it is internalized. The psalmist doesn’t simply know the law, but loves it, because he has been dwelling on what it means in his life. “Oh, how I love your law! All the day long it is in my mind.” In this psalm, the law is indeed written on the heart, and not merely on parchment. It is beloved for its Source, received not as a burden, but as a gift, and a life is enriched by its application.

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

Here’s a troublesome passage, but only because of how it has been abused. The usefulness of scripture is in its application, but it is a narrative in motion. The eternal truth of Scripture is unchanging, but that Scripture itself is an illustration of change. Laws that applied to one generation are superseded and retired in the text itself. The prophets lambast the people for following the letter of the law to the detriment of its spirit.

For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.

Teach the truth of Scripture and the history of Law. Teach also the life of the narrative, the constant flow of human error and Divine grace, the lesson of God’s displeasure with those who use God’s law to usurp God’s mercy. “Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves and you hindered those who were entering.” (Luke 11:52)

We are all tempted to tickle the ears of the listeners and readers, going along with what we know are their preconceived notions of scripture and faith, or joining the cynics in dismissing it lightly. The cure is to pray persistently, as in the Luke passage, and to covet the passion of the psalmist to not merely know, but also lovingly apply God’s truth in our own lives.

Luke 18:1-8

Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?

We may give up on religion, but let us never give up on prayer. How often we are tempted to throw up our hands and just go along, never mind making sense of the Text, just wrap it in clever words and fill in the sermon blank! As Disciples of Christ, we have a duty to “be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching” — as the Timothy passage states. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith in our lives?

There is a divine interconnectedness in Scripture that connects Lectionary passages in ways that the Lectionary assemblers might never have imagined. In the Luke passage, Jesus tells of an unjust judge who is willing to ignore the law but cannot ignore the persistent widow crying for justice. The Old Testament passages salute the Law, but more importantly underscore the internalization of Scripture. Finally, in the Gospel passage, Jesus seems to say that passion and desire have the power to move God even when the Law is ignored.

Scripture is the living word of God; Jesus is the word of God made flesh. Life implies change. The unchanging Word even documents change as being a good thing in the life of faith.

Even as Scripture anchors our faith, let it also illustrate that newness, forgiveness, and freshness are the hallmarks of Christian life. Let’s thank God for new beginnings, clean slates, and the divine reboot.

Lectionary, Prop. 23: Finishing School

Many pastors use the Revised Common Lectionary to select their texts for a given Sunday sermon. The Lectionary takes us through most of the Bible over a three-year period. I usually select one passage and center on that as the Sunday sermon. But with apologies to Bob Cornwall, a blogger at [D]Mergent from whom I stole the idea, here are my first impressions of the Lectionary passages for 10/10/2010:

Jeremiah 29:1,4-7

Jeremiah was considered a traitor in his day. When everyone around him was screaming with nationalism — my country, right or wrong; God is on our side; We’re God’s favorite; etc. — Jeremiah saw reality and spoke the truth. Jerusalem was bound to fall to Babylon, but that didn’t negate God’s blessing to ordinary citizens. Now that you’re exiles and immigrants, he said, you can still thrive in your exile — and your host nation can be blessed as well. Live your lives, Jeremiah said — get married, have kids, plant gardens, and seek the welfare of the city where God has sent you for exile.

Like Babylon, our nation also enjoys the blessing of its immigrants. They are doctors and vets, farmers and gardeners. If God has sent them here, it was probably not to suffer, but to live ordinary lives — to bless and be blessed.

Psalm 66:1-12

You let enemies ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water;
but you brought us out into a place of refreshment.

I find it odd to hear complaints of how Christians are “persecuted” in America. Clearly, in this nation, we have won the culture war. The civil rights movement might never have succeeded without the leadership of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose title forced the white Christian power structure to see that blacks had as much right to the ancient Hebrew stories as did Gentile European immigrants. Can it be that spiritual development requires that we experience the pain of the oppressed? Can it be that God actually lets us live under oppression if that’s what it takes for us to understand? God does sometimes “let enemies ride over our heads.” Or, as the psalm also says, “For you, O God, have proved us; you have tried us just as silver is tried.”

More likely, I think that these things just happen as a part of the human experience, almost at random, but God’s grace can redeem them, turning hard times into a refining process.

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Paul reminds Timothy that Christ has room to talk about suffering. “If we have died with him, we will also live with him.” He might as well be addressing the blogosphere directly:

Remind them of this, and warn them before God that they are to avoid wrangling over words, which does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

It is interesting that Jesus was neither Samaritan nor Roman. He was here privileged caste, there oppressed minority; his words are valid to people in either position. The trick is to demonstrate Godly behavior wherever one falls today on the social spectrum. No surprise that Christ both brought down the powerful and elevated the downcast. He was no respecter of persons, sharing healing and instruction with the righteous and unrighteous alike.

Luke 17:11-19

It’s the story of Jesus healing 10 lepers, and only one returned to offer thanks:

And he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Again, the outcast, the immigrant, is proven righteous not by standing, but by gratitude and humility. Initial blush reminds me that all are fed by the beans in the field, but who stoops to harvest them? Who is grateful for the job, and humble enough to do it? But isn’t everyone blessed as a result?

I detect a common thread in this week’s lectionary scriptures. God lets us go through the fire and water, but God also brings us to places of refreshment. It’s a refining process. Suffering refines us. The place of refreshment is our opportunity to demonstrate refinement — as we deal with those who are going through their own refinement process.