the ongoing challenge of Scripture and life

 

…the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.

Job 42:7b; NRSVue

Scripture is so full, and we all know that life is. If there isn’t one thing, there’s another. Always something. 

Job is a great case in point. Avoid one way of looking at the book. Go to Jewish tradition and elsewhere. Even the way it’s translated is not set in stone. Job is just a great example of what is more or less true in all of Scripture. It points us to Christ, but the way it does is noteworthy.

Getting back to Job and the passage quoted above, Job is commended for challenging God. Job’s friends are rebuked, even humiliated (according to the NRSV heading) for stating the conventional doctrinal orthodox understanding of life, faithfully applying it to Job’s situation, indeed tragedy. There was nothing else to be said.

But Scripture and life is not like that. It is so much more open ended, not some closed system which we can set in stone in some kind of systematic theology. We’ll wrestle in life yes, but in Scripture too, and even with God if our faith is active and real.

Scripture is important but is never an end in itself. It mirrors real life and is meant to help us on. The point of Scripture and having to wrestle with it, is to lead us to Christ and to begin to understand all of Scripture in that light, really in a way that we can’t ever fully comprehend and capture. And so, the challenge goes on.  In and through Jesus.

 

scripture does not interpret scripture, but Christ interprets scripture (when it’s all said and done)

The Diatessaron by Tatian is at least the best-known earliest attempt to harmonize the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I think it was the evangelical scholar Mark Strauss who wrote that all attempts to harmonize the gospels are uninspired, unlike each of the four gospels which indeed are inspired by God.

That thought should help us begin to understand the importance of letting each passage and book of scripture be read as is, to stand on its own, to get the message it’s conveying before comparing it with any other passage or book. Bibles which have heavy cross references are helpful only if you keep this in mind and put it into practice, otherwise I think they’re unhelpful. The NRSVue at least in the electronic version now available (before hard copies are available hopefully by mid-August) have nice cross references added, but only to the extent that it helps one with the present passage, proper background for that at least so far in what I’ve seen.

Some like to say that the Bible is 66 books in perfect harmony, and that only God could have done that. What instead ought to be said is something like the Bible is 66 books (and I would like to add the apocrypha/ deuterocanonical books to at least be read seriously alongside it) that are disparate and often contradictory, but find their fulfillment, correction, and final meaning in God’s revelation in the good news in Jesus. Also some like to say that Genesis 1 and 2 are one creation account, and the NIV translates it so that it appears to be the case. But a more literal translation helps us see that we are likely looking at two creation accounts, each written to bring out something important, and not meant to be meshed together.

The point here is that we need to let each passage and book stand on its own, turn it over and over again in its own context. And do the same with the rest of the Bible. In the end I’m thinking that what we find is God helping many disparate strands somehow come together in Jesus and the fulfillment Jesus brings. Every single passage and book of the Bible is inspired on its own, telling us something important for us, for our understanding. In the end every part is to be seen in the light of Christ, his coming and all involved in that, his death and his resurrection, and all that follows.

So be careful with the idea that scripture interprets scripture. Only Christ interprets scripture, and we need to let each passage say precisely what it’s saying on its own and let the light of Christ shine on that. In and through Jesus.

how not to panic

thus says the Lord GOD,
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
“One who trusts will not panic.”

Isaiah 28:16; NRSVue

There are any number of things which can cause panic and distress in this life. There’s really no end to that. It’s a given.

God’s people were not abiding by God and God’s covenant with them, so Isaiah was prophesying to them from God to help them find their way back to God. And the promise Isaiah laid out here is in terms of countering the experience of unbelieving, unfaithful Israel.

God wanted their attention to be drawn to his revelation given through God’s servants and centered in Jerusalem in the temple with the ordinances given. All to turn their attention to God, so that their hearts might be undergoing full renewal in God. All of that is fulfilled in Christ. Christ is the foundation and precious cornerstone. And we’re told that the one who trusts will not panic, from the Hebrew the idea being to be in haste or in a hurry in that panic.

When I feel panic, I’m ordinarily in a hurry to solve the problem, or find the solution. Not referring to necessary times of moving swiftly in certain situations. But talking about often unexpected situations we meet, not knowing what to do.

But the promise here is those who trust won’t panic. No matter what we’re up against, we need to hold our ground and trust. Trust in God and God’s revelation in Jesus along with all the promises that are yes and amen in Jesus.

So when we’re tempted to panic or we fall into that, let’s get back to this stance of faith. I’m preaching to myself. Trust in God, in God’s revelation given to us in scripture, in Jesus. And refuse to act in haste, to be in a hurry. Instead to act in trust so that we really by God’s grace begin to enter into the experience of faith. In and through Jesus.

when the Bible is made boring (a mortal error)

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

Luke 24:13-32; NRSVue

There are few things worse, if anything than making the Bible boring. But I fear it’s all too regular an event. Though at the same time I’m confident that most of the time most of the churches avoid the worst of this. Yet I fear that what our Lord reprimanded and corrected here is all too common with us.

When the Bible becomes an end in itself, it becomes a dead letter. Yes, there is much wisdom in the Bible which is helpful, even if one stops there. Beautiful sayings and poetry as well, especially from the King James Version. But unfortunately the way the Bible is taught in even some major circles is “as boring as hell.” Hell understood as an existence in which people have their way apart from God really ends up boring in that all goodness and love are gone, since everything is turned in upon itself and becomes something other, even antithetical to love for God and neighbor. There’s nothing worse than understanding or being taught the Bible in such a way that it is boring.

The Bible becomes completely alive when we realize what it is for. It is to point us to Christ and the good news in him. And all of it is to be read in that glorious light. That is what Jesus was pointing out to these two disciples who were befuddled over what had happened when Jesus had been crucified, the one who they thought was the Messiah. And here he was, standing before them, though they did not recognize him until later when he broke bread in their home. But Jesus pointed out to them that scripture was written in such a way as to find its fulfillment and might I say even correction in him.

Scripture is alive. Avoid like the plague pressing whatever theology you have into it. The best theology worthy of the name comes out of letting scripture be what it is, rather than making scripture conform to it. The latter is dangerous, even deadly. And I wish people would quit thinking that expository preaching is the only way to go. It’s not only not the only way to go but I think often (not always) lends itself toward a misreading of scripture. Scripture is all about where we live and the life to be found in Christ. Again, not to say that we shouldn’t comb every corner of it for insight. But even when doing that, we should try to see every detail in light of God’s revelation in Jesus.

when beset with disappointment

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Luke 1:5-7

God’s people had already waited so long, living at home like exiles since they were ruled by a foreign power. Not only did they not really have their own king regardless of whatever pretending Herod did and more to fill that position. Though God was supposedly their King, the promises of Scripture had not been worked out. And Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were old and childless, which for couples in those days was a blight, commonly thought to be a sign of a lack of God’s blessing in their lives.

I wonder if disappointments that we’re experiencing help prepare us for what God wants to bring in, that God maybe wouldn’t be able to do otherwise apart from such disappointments. Or at least we can say that God chooses to use such emptiness to fill it with the promise of God’s goodness. But fulfillment in this life is only partial, and comes with plenty of trouble. I’m thinking now of the birth of John and what follows. They did not live to see the ministry of their son, who adapts to living in the wilderness, perhaps having contact with the Qumran community (Dead Sea Scrolls), but with a message all his own from God. And we know all that follows. Certainly God’s work in moving hearts, but also in John’s death at the hands of Herod.

We live with disappointment at times, unfulfilled dreams, perhaps even promises in our minds. It seems like all is not what it was cracked up to be. But that’s when we look to God anew to fulfill what only God can bring about. That is what Advent is all about. We anticipate, preferably together God bringing to pass what God would do, and whatever part we might have in that. Certainly in the case of Elizabeth and Zechariah, they played an important role, which all considered, certainly had some formative affect in their son, John the Baptizer’s life. We can anticipate something that though not groundbreaking like that was, follows from it, of course through Jesus’s life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension. God has something in the works for us as well, even if it is hidden from human eyes. God is at work, and our longings will be purified and fulfilled. In and through Jesus.

what is God like?

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

John 14:8-9

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…

Hebrews 1:1-3a

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

1 Corinthians 2:2

When we think of God, what comes to mind? Do we think of a God of judgment, ready to catch us in our latest misstep or sin? Do we think of God as an angry wrath-full God, with whom sinners should be on more than edge, even shuddering? Or maybe we think of God as something like a complacent Teddy Bear who doesn’t care and with whom everything is fine. Or maybe God is just something we haven’t given that much thought to. Perhaps we chalk it down to mystery, and just don’t know.

We find out that Jesus is not only the promised Messiah, but that he fulfills time and time again prophecies which are attributed to God as if he were God or God was in him. And we find out that indeed it’s all of the above.

Jesus spoke about the Father again and again, particularly so in John’s gospel account. So for Thomas to inquire about just who this Father really is in a way is not surprising. I can picture myself doing the same, and in my imagination see myself in Thomas at least to some extent. But Jesus seems surprised and makes it clear that when Thomas and the others, and all of us see him, they see the Father.

We might well say that Jesus is God’s final word. He is after all “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14).

That doesn’t mean we don’t take into account all of what Scripture says about God. But it also means that we interpret all of that in light of Christ, who comes both to fulfill it, and as its fulfillment. And how he did that was more than a surprise, not anticipated at all. They expected God to send the Deliverer to a faithful Israel who would overthrow the Romans, the pagans, the godless, and set up a kingdom which would rule with an iron rod over all the nations, all of this according to the Pharisees, and one of their own, Saul of Tarsus (later to become Paul) with resurrection power.* So it should be no surprise at all when Christ comes and does completely different than that, that people wondered. Yes, there was no way to ignore him and what followed, but it just didn’t add up with their understanding, their interpretation of Scripture.

And then at the end, Jesus is hung on a Roman cross, thus under God’s curse (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). So there was no doubt that something was amiss here.

Oddly enough though, I believe that’s where we understand at least the heart of God and I believe who God is by looking at the cross and Jesus hanging there. God shows God’s self by becoming one of us in the Incarnation, faithfully lives and teaches and acts to help us, and then suffers the worst death of that time, the death of the cross. Suffering physically in an excruciating way, emotionally and spiritually over the feeling of being rejected by humans and abandoned by God. And all out of love. And all who put their faith in him are forgiven and receive new life, because in Christ’s death and resurrection, we are taken into a new existence by the Spirit, into the new creation beginning even here and now in and among us in Christ. A life for us now which paradoxically in resurrection power means taking the way of the cross, becoming more and more like Jesus in his death, and therefore more like God was and is and forever will be (Philippians 3:10; Hebrews 13:8).

And the last book of the Bible, Revelation, is the climax of all of this. Jesus is called the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, thus “lion” once in that book, and how? By being a lamb (28 or 29 times) right up to the end, on the throne with God. Coming with his robe dipped in his own blood with his faithful, the victory through his own death and the sword coming out of his mouth, in other words the word of his mouth, what he says. That’s how he unexpectedly fulfills God’s promises (Revelation 19:11-16).**

How do we understand God? Who is God? I believe we see it in a man hanging on a Roman cross some 2,000 years ago. And all else must be interpreted and seen in that light. Otherwise just like the Jews of old, we’ll indeed miss it, as I believe many are today.

In and through Jesus.

*See Tim Gombis’s most helpful book, Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry.     

**See Michael J. Gorman’s most helpful book, Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation.

the one constant

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Hebrews 13:8

Scripture points us to Jesus, and God’s fulfillment of all things in and through him. One might want to say that Scripture is the constant, and it’s certainly central in all traditions of the Christian faith, of the faith itself, as we might put it. But it points beyond itself to Jesus.

This doesn’t mean for a moment that we shouldn’t pay close attention to all the details in Scripture, because indeed we should. Pre-Christ, during his time on earth, and post-Christ we might say, meaning after his ascension. Jesus made that clear:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,[a] not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

Matthew 5:17-18

And what is accomplished includes everything. The church should be the light in Jesus which both exemplifies the beginning of that, as well as speaking out on it by those who are pastors and theologians and lay people who learn from such and are so gifted.

Jesus is the one forever constant, and God’s will fulfilled in him. To bring us into the fullness of God the Source of All Being, the Eternal Word, and the Holy Spirit. To right all wrongs and make all things new.

And the church is central to the beginning of this now. In and through Jesus.

blessedly slowing down to gather one’s thoughts (and more)

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

Ecclesiastes is one of those books of Scripture which has always fascinated me, but also on which I struggle to get a handle on. The writer, mostly “the Teacher”- Qoheleth, takes us through a whirlwind of life experiences “under the sun,” with the conclusion that in the end none of it really satisfies. The book makes it clear that we should give ourselves fully to whatever our lot is, and enjoy the simple gifts of God. With the conclusion in the end that when all has been considered we’re to fear God and keep God’s commandments, with the realization that we will be held accountable for the choices we make.

All of us live in experience, even when we’re trying to understand Scripture texts. If we approach that correctly, it seems to me that it all has to do with life, yes life “under the sun” as we read in Ecclesiastes, as well as life in the context of God’s kingdom come in Jesus, present now, and to be consummated into its fullness on the renewed heaven and earth in the life to come. To want to escape from experience is not a good place to be. Instead we need by God’s grace to begin to get a grip on reality, on the true basics, we might even say basic basics. And set ourselves to live in that.

Fearing God is perhaps the most basic starting point of all. It’s simply the realization that God is the “Source of All Being,” the “Eternal Word,” and “Holy Spirit.”* We owe our existence and everything else that is good to God. And with that privilege to us humans indeed comes responsibility.

Jesus fulfills what none of us can accomplish ourselves, so that we can slow down, and blessedly let God catch up with our feverish, often misdirected steps. So that we might gather our thoughts so that we can begin to settle down on what is most important and what will bring us life. Out of the whirlwinds of the world and of our own making. Into the grace and peace of God. In and through Jesus.

*From morning and evening offices in Voices Together hymnal. 

what new world is opening up for us today?

“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Acts 2:36-42

When Jesus came, he opened up an entirely new world for any who might listen and be open. Israel was moved by story, and Jesus and the story he brings by his life and teaching, death and resurrection, really does upset the apple cart. It essentially turns the world as understood by the people of his time, specifically Jesus’ own people, Jewish, it turns their world upside down. Instead of a Messiah who would conquer by conquest, or by God thundering out of the sky to destroy the enemy, this Messiah would be condemned and nailed to a cross, the sure sign to them that he was no Messiah at all. On top of that, under God’s curse no less (Deuteronomy 21:23). But we know the end of the story. On the third day God raised Jesus to life. Then after forty days of appearing to his disciples and other believers, he ascends into heaven at the right hand of the Father. And through him, the promise of the Father, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the day of Pentecost. Then Peter speaks, pointing to a fulfillment of Scripture with a story which you can find hints of in the Hebrew Bible, but nevertheless is new. And an entirely new world is completely opened up, now within the apostles grasp because of the coming of the Spirit. And Peter articulates that.

The reaction from faithful Jews present who were living according to the story of Judaism in which they were raised, and we can say for all intents and purposes were largely faithful to God, or at least their understanding of God and God’s will is nothing short of shock and stop. They are ready for change, an adjustment of course which would be abrupt and radical. The story in which they had been raised was now seen to be incomplete. The story of Jesus brought a sense of fulfillment, but also even displacement of the story which they had understood, in which they had been raised. This doesn’t mean for a second that the story in the Hebrew Bible was not important for its place and time, nor that it no longer had anything to teach God’s people. It just meant that what it pointed to was fulfilled in Jesus. In God becoming human in Jesus in complete identification with humanity, so that humans could be identified with Jesus and find the new story which he brings, in which they’re forever to live, beginning even now, the only story that never ends.

For me this is most helpful. We don’t live according to any of the world’s norms, nor even the norms of God’s people of old except where those correspond with the new vision Jesus brings. We see everything along with all of life in terms of Jesus. And that brings nothing less than the beginning of an entirely new world opening up to us. One we get to be participants in as followers together of Jesus. That doesn’t mean that all is great or easy afterward, that we’ll have it all together, as we see clearly from the New Testament. It does mean that there’s an inevitable movement of the Spirit through the church to bring God’s light and love into the world in and through a cross-shaped, love-for-all life. The beginning of so much to come even in this life. In and through Jesus.

Correction in Saturday’s post, Jesus’ freedom proclamation (Juneteenth in the United States): “May the Lord help us, and lead us to see how we white folks can help people of color to live as equals among us, most importantly how people of color can help us in this.”

Three books I referred to which influenced this post, all highly recommended: Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible by Willie James Jennings. Acts by Beverly Roberts Gaventa. The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel by Justo L. González.

 

Augustine: Love, and do what you will.

The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.

1 Timothy 1:5

The whole point of what we’re urging is simply love—love uncontaminated by self-interest and counterfeit faith, a life open to God.

1 Timothy 1:5; MSG

Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will. If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good. …

Augustine

Augustine’s quote is taken to mean that one can do whatever they feel like and want to do if they love God. But that’s not precisely what Augustine meant, and can open us up to misunderstanding. His point in the context of his sermon was that whatever we do is to be done out of love. Love for God and love for neighbor flowing together. As revealed in Christ in his fulfillment of God’s will. And then everything we do if done in that way will be good.

I think a good way to assess our actions and thoughts, indeed the fruit of our lives is to ask ourselves whether love for God and for our neighbor is our motivation and animating impulse, what moves us. If so, then we’re living in God’s grace as God intends for us in Christ. If not, then we’re living in something else, foreign to that grace. Sometimes we may simply be struggling to accept God’s love and then live in that love at all. God understands those times. We should still try to love, even when the sense of it is far removed from us. But make no mistake, the God who is love as John points out elsewhere and Paul as well, wants us to live in love, in everything we think, do and say. In and through Jesus.