Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 59

The scriptures read are Numbers 27-29, Psalm 49, and Luke 7.

Numbers 27. If there is no son, daughters may inherit from their father. A plan is laid down so land stays within a family.

God appoints Joshua to be Moses' successor.

Numbers 28-29. A recap of all the sacrifices and the holidays.

Psalm 49. A sobering meditation on death.

Luke 7. Jesus heals the Roman officer's slave at a distance. Jesus is floored by the faith of this Gentile. He understands Jesus' authority and power.

Jesus raises a young man from the dead out of compassion for his widowed mother.

John the Baptist sends a message. He is wondering if Jesus is the one everyone's waiting for. John, like others, might be expecting Jesus to be a more aggressive holy warrior-kind of Messiah. Jesus sends John's disciples back with the message that Jesus is a healing Messiah.

Jesus gives John a backhanded compliment. He's the greatest prophet but the lowest person in the kingdom of God.

A notorious woman bathes Jesus' feet with tears, dries them with her hair and anoints them with perfume. Her outsized gratitude comes from having many sins forgiven. Which Jesus does.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

I am the Gate/I am the Good Shepherd

The scripture referred to is John 10:1-16.

My hometown of St. Louis is called the Gateway to the West. That's because in the opening of the American West, St. Louis was often the starting point for many pioneers. But the word "gateway" bothers me. A gate is usually an entrance to an enclosure of some sort. You'll notice that in the Bible, the gate of a city was an important place where the town elders met and business was transacted. In modern parlance, a gate is where tickets to an event are taken. A gate is a place where people or things are screened and either admitted or not. There was no fence around the West. You could enter it from north or south of St. Louis. So how was it a gateway?

Lewis and Clark set out on their expedition to explore the West from St. Louis, as did many explorers, trappers and settlers after them. The main reason for this was that St. Louis was considered the Last Eastern City. To be sure there were settlements and forts further west, but, with its situation on the Mississippi River making it a transportation hub and its manufacturing base, St. Louis was the only place to get fully supplied and provisioned before reaching San Francisco. It wasn't the gateway into the West as much as out of the East and civilization. Were it the Middle Ages, maps of the land beyond St. Louis might well have borne the legend "Here be Dragons!"

A gate or door is an entrance, a point of transition from one place to another. On one side is (presumably) potential danger and on the other side safety. On one side an indifferent or even hostile world, on the other acceptance, love, comfort and maybe home. A door or gate is important, offering protection from prying eyes and from predators. On the other hand, one should not spend all of one's time indoors. A larger world exists on the other side, offering nature, society, variety, abundance. You need both in your life, exposure to the world and to other people and experiences as well as the care and security of the community, the workplace, and the home. You need to be able to go in and out.    

In John 10, Jesus makes 2 "I AM" statements. The first, found in John 10:7, is "I am the gate for the sheep." The second, found in John 10:11, is "I am the good shepherd." The 2 are related. In a way, the 2 are the same.

A good shepherd was the gate to the sheepfold. That is, he knelt at the entrance to the sheepfold, stopped each sheep with his crook and inspected every one of them as it came in. He would examine a cut or a sore, or get a stone out of its hoof if it were limping, or just give the sheep first aid before letting it enter the sheepfold proper. Often a shepherd would then sleep across the entrance to the sheepfold, making himself literally the gate or door to it. He was saying, in effect, "The only way to get at them is through me!"

Jesus is the entrance to the sheepfold. Through him we enter the church, the kingdom of God, the Body of Christ. He examines, repairs and heals us so we are fit to enter. And he protects his sheep, keeping them safe so we can get rest and refreshment there.

So, returning to the metaphor of the gate, the sheep, coming back at the end of the day, could expect care and safety as they entered the sheepfold through the loving hands and eyes of the shepherd. And the next morning, they would go out again into the world to find food and drink.

And so Jesus switches the metaphor slightly to "I am the good shepherd." Jesus emphasizes a few things with this metaphor. First and most obviously, the shepherd leads the sheep.  A shepherd had to know where there was good pasture for the sheep. He had to realize when an area was picked over and it was time to move on. He had to consider terrain and predator habitats and shade and sources of clean water and the best way to approach them.

In the same way, we trust Jesus as our shepherd to lead us to where there is spiritual sustenance. Our responsibility is to follow. Jesus says his sheep know his voice. There were lots of sheep in the countryside. In a very spacious grazing area, more than one flock might be in the same place. But the sheep knew the voice of their particular shepherd. When he called, they would separate themselves from the sheep of other flocks and follow, rather like ducklings following their mother.

Jesus says he calls his sheep by name. I must confess I wouldn't be able to tell one sheep from another. But someone who spends all his time with animals learns to tell them apart, notes their different markings, temperaments and personalities and often gives them names. We know from Nathan's parable of the poor man's lamb that shepherds could come to care for their sheep almost as if they were pets. Jesus cares for his sheep.

And this is what differentiates him from the hired hand. This is what elevates him from just any shepherd to the good shepherd. He is emotionally invested in the sheep. He will defend them from the thieves and robbers, who wish to exploit the sheep. He will fight off the wolves who come to destroy and devour the sheep, even at the cost of his life. It might sound odd to us, a man risking or even losing his life for a bunch of animals. Jesus' audience would know, though, that the sheep were a shepherd's livelihood, what supports him and his family. He would be as likely to risk his life fighting robbers as a shop owner would today.

But here is where the metaphor breaks down, as metaphors inevitably do. Jesus does not die for us for our meat or our wool or our monetary value. He emphasizes the relationship of the shepherd and the sheep throughout this passage. Later in John, we are told that Jesus was laying down his life for his friends. Jesus is talking about how he will lay down his life for others because he cares about them. He is contrasting his relationship with God's people to those who do not have their best interests in mind.

The problem of false and harmful leaders is found throughout scripture. Jeremiah and Zechariah condemn false shepherds; Jesus speaks of religious leaders who devour widow's houses; Paul's letters, the Book of Revelation, and the Didache, a very early church manual, all address the problem of false prophets and apostles. The problem is that people of faith are by definition folks who are trusting. Con men know this and often target them as easy marks. And what is worse is when the con man becomes a religious leader.

Greed is, of course, a very common motive. Lust is a very close second. The marks of a cult leader are that, in addition to exalting himself to a very high position of authority, as messiah or even god, and isolating his flock from other influences, he usually lives a very wealthy lifestyle, and uses his position to procure sex from his pick of his female followers. As Paul says, their god is their belly, that is, their appetites. And sadly, people let themselves be exploited. They buy into their leader's excuses that he deserves these indulgences or that the rules that bind others do not apply to them. That's why Jesus said, "by their fruit you shall know them" and why Paul and others emphasized the importance of humble Christian behavior on the part of leaders in the church. Paul's call to imitate him is another good test. A false leader won't let his flock imitate his behavior; only he gets to be act that way.      

This is not to say that a good spiritual leader is perfect. We are sinners too. But there is a difference between someone who is actually trying to follow Jesus and who stumbles at times and one who is intentionally abusing his position for his own gain. And then there are those seduced by the power and privileges that can go with such a position. The turning point comes when they realize that they love the power and perks and continue to indulge themselves or when they realize that they can get away with a lot and do so.

In Luke 12, Jesus talked of the slave who is entrusted with managing his master's estate while he is away. Among his duties is feeding and taking care of his fellow slaves. "Blessed is the slave whom the master finds at work when he returns," Jesus says. Jesus even says earlier of such a master, who finds his slaves alert and ready, "I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, have them take their place at the table, and will come and wait on them!" Jesus is obviously describing himself.

But, asks Jesus, what if the slave thinks that his master has been delayed and so begins to beat his fellow slaves and to eat, drink and get drunk. Things will go very badly for that slave when his master returns unexpectedly. Jesus said, "To whom much is given, much will be required." James, Jesus' brother, similarly says that teachers (and, I assume, all other leaders) will be judged by a stricter standard.

And that standard is Jesus, the good shepherd, who does not exploit his sheep but who is willing to die for them. He is the servant-leader, the one who is slave of all, who came not to be served but to serve. The perfect illustration of that is what he did before the last supper. Jesus stripped, tied a towel around his waist and began to wash his disciples filthy feet and then dry them, the lowest task a slave performs. After he was done, he said, "If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you, too, ought to wash one another's feet." Just like a shepherd, taking care of his sheep's feet.        

The best way to live the Christian life is to regard Jesus as our chief shepherd, regardless of whom we have as our temporary and assistant shepherd. And we leaders should remember that we are always his assistants and we are always temporary. Only Jesus is the eternal shepherd. Only he is the gate to security and good pasture and healing. And only he is the one who comes that we might have life and have it abundantly.

The Bible Challenge: Day 58

The scriptures read are Numbers 24-26, Psalm 48, and Luke 6.

Numbers 24. Balaam blesses Israel real good. It really ticks off Balak. And Balaam gives a Messianic prophesy.

Numbers 25. If you think God has been coming off a tad irritable lately, this latest screw-up by the Israelites might make you sympathize with him a bit, or at least, wonder just how dumb these people are. What part of an idolatrous orgy did they think was not violating God's law? After all this time, they just don't get it, do they?

The less said about Phinehas' aim the better.

Numbers 26. Another census. Interesting to check the numbers against those in chapter 1, to see which tribes have grown and which have shrunk.

Psalm 48. A paean to Jerusalem as God's city.

Luke 6. Wanna get religious people riled up? Break a religious rule in order to do a good deed. The contradiction frustrates the heck out of them.

Jesus picks his team. 2 Simons, 2 Jameses and a couple of Judases are among them.

The Sermon on the Plain. Overlaps with the Sermon on the Mount a lot. What's different is as interesting as what's the same. In addition to Beattitudes, there are Don't Be-attitudes.

As for similarities, I don't imagine Jesus made up all-new stuff every time he preached. He probably repeated key teachings and restated the same ideas as he traveled to different places. It's not like there were newspapers or video cameras that could let people in, say, Capernaum know what he said in Cana. So it's instructive to get different versions of his stump speech. Luke, as usual, emphasizes what Jesus says about the underdogs and outcasts, as well as his warnings to the well-off, stingy and self-righteous.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 57

The scriptures read are Numbers 21-23, Psalm  47, and Luke 5.

Numbers 21. Lots of military action. The other nations are the aggressors. Israel attacks when attacked. Still uncomfortable for modern Christians to read. But there's no U.N. to intervene, no peacekeepers to send in. That's why "the Lord of hosts" (ie, of armies) is a comforting image in the OT.

The fiery serpent on its pole is seen as a foreshadowing of Christ on the cross (John 3:14, 15).

Numbers 22-23. We get the first part of the bizarre tale of Balaam, a magician (?) or prophet, whom Balak the king of Moab engages to curse Israel. But Balaam will only say what God tells him to say, especially after the business with the angel and the sword and the talking donkey. BTW God doesn't continence beating animals.

Psalm 47. God as king over all the earth.

Luke 5. The calling of the Twelve begins. Jesus heals a guy lowered through the roof. He hangs around with the sinners. Hey, a doctor can always be found with sick people, right? A time to feast and a time to fast.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Imitating God

The scriptures referred to are Philippians 3:17-4:1 and Luke 31:31-35.

I took care of my littlest patient for almost 2 years, starting when he was 5 months old. And he is a real mimic. Unfortunately what he seems to have picked up from me is a mixed bag. He says "thank you" a lot, which is good. He loves hand washing, which I understand since babies are messy and nurses are supposed to wash their hands often. But he also imitates other habits of mine. He grunts like an old man when getting to his feet. And if there is a Kleenex box around, he will pull out tissues, hold them to his nose and blow a raspberry, presumably to echo what he thinks I sound like when my allergies are acting up. Still it's better than when he was crawling and imitating the dogs, down to eating from their bowls!

Children learn a lot by imitating others, especially their parents, babysitters and older siblings. They learn language that way and if we are not careful, pick up our bad habits. And in today's reading from Philippians, Paul asks his readers to imitate him and other exemplary Christians. This is a frequent theme in Paul's writing, going right back to the earliest letter we have. In 1 Thessalonians he says, "And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, when you received the message with joy that comes from the Holy Spirit, despite great affliction." He also talks of this in 2 Thessalonians, and 1 Corinthians where he writes, "Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ." And in Ephesians he says, "Therefore be imitators of God as dearly loved children, and live in love just as Christ also loved us and gave himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God."

Often people think the Christian life consists of following rules. And certainly there are rules. The Ten Commandments are basic parameters of  behavior for believers. Jesus' commands to love God and love others, including enemies, are foundational to those who wish to follow him. But as I recently mentioned, C. S. Lewis said following Jesus is more like painting a portrait than just checking off rules. Or if I may be so bold, it is like acting, of which imitation is one type.

I've been in plays, on and off, since elementary school, though my 3rd grade turn as a Thanksgiving turkey didn't garner me any Tonys or require method acting. But acting does require you to think about the character you are trying to portray. You have a script which gives you the character's words and actions. The director will give you further instructions on how to move and speak. From these you have to figure out what your character's reasons are for doing and saying what he does. What are his needs, his desires and his fears? How does he feel about the other characters? How does he feel about himself? Is he conflicted about others, or about himself and what he has done, is doing or considering doing?

And I submit that imitating Christ is very much the same. It is not aping what Jesus said or did, because, for instance, healing people on the Sabbath is not really controversial today, even if you did have the gift. To really answer the question what would Jesus do in today's world means understanding him. And to do that, we must read and inwardly digest his words.

One telling thing Jesus said about himself is recorded in Mark 10:"…even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve…" Jesus is the Son of God and yet he never plays that card to get privileges. We know that he and the disciples rarely got time to eat or to sleep properly. In fact, we know that Jesus was trying to find a private place for himself and his apostles to get some rest, when the crowd anticipated where they were going and got there first. And when Jesus sees them, he could have said, "Clear off! The Messiah needs some 'me' time!" But he didn't. Rather than be irritated because he and the 12 weren't going to be able to take a break, Jesus feels compassion for them and begins to teach them and eventually feeds them, all 5000 of them. In the same way, when a leper comes to Jesus, he says, "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean." "I am willing" Jesus replies and heals him.

Paul sees this as a key to understanding Jesus as well. In Philippians 2 he says, "You should have the same frame of mind among yourselves that was also in Christ Jesus, who, though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to cling to, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross!"

So we see that Jesus' needs are the same as any other human being: he needs food and drink and rest. But his desire is to serve others, to the point of self-sacrifice. But why? Is he just a pleaser, a person who wants to be liked so badly he'll do whatever others want? No, because he knows he is making enemies of the religious and secular leaders and he doesn't care. So why does he serve the poor, the sick, the disabled, the disreputable and the foreigners but not the powerful who could do him harm? Because, as Mark tells us, of his compassion. He sees the crowd as sheep who need a shepherd. The key word is "need." He is not interested in fulfilling their desires (we find out later they desire to make him an earthly king and Jesus disabuses them of that idea). He is interested in meeting their needs, both physical and spiritual. He is like a doctor, going to those who need him, not those who say they don't.

Is that why he's so abrupt with the Pharisees and the Herodians? Is he ignoring his own principle of loving your enemies? No, because, for instance, what he says in today's passage from Luke shows anger at Jerusalem's violence, sorrow at their willful rejection of him and yet an almost maternal love for the people. What could be behind all that?

One of the greatest challenges I had as an actor was playing the detective in an mystery called Ravenscroft. At the very beginning of the play I am interrogating the chief suspect in the murder, a governess at an isolated mansion. Throughout the play we get into heated exchanges, me trying to get answers from her, she being sarcastic and evasive. At the end of the play, I solve the murder and we become lovers. The play had other problems as well but for me and my leading lady the biggest problem was, as she put it, "why do we get together at the end?" And then one day as I was running lines by myself, it hit me. We know the governess reminds the detective of his dead wife. Some of her dialogue with the detective is oddly flirtatious. I called the actress and said, "What if we don't fall in love at the end? What if we fall in love in the very first scene?" We played it like that and the whole drama came together. Our clashes turned from me badgering her to give up incriminating evidence so I could arrest her, to me desperately trying to get her to give me something that would exonerate her. The arguments played more like lover's quarrels. So when I solved the mystery and cleared her, we were at last free to drop the roles of hunter and hunted and to show our love for one another.

What can you do when someone you love is on a self-destructive course of action? You warn, you plead, you scold, you do everything you can to get their attention and try to change their mind. It may not sound like love but the person obviously cares deeply what happens to the other. The opposite of love is indifference. Enemies can reconcile because they do care deeply about the same person or issue. The person who doesn't care about you isn't going to make the effort to clear up your differences.

And Jesus did make friends out of those who ought to have been his enemies. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were his followers, though they also belonged to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, which eventually condemned Jesus. And then there was the scribe who praised Jesus' summary of the law into 2 great commandments. Jesus tells him that he is not far from the kingdom of God. There is the Roman officer who understands Jesus' authority enough that he says he knows that Jesus can heal his slave at a distance. Jesus says he has greater faith than anyone else he's encountered. And most remarkably, Jesus manages by his manner to convert a robber on the next cross who earlier had been jeering him. He's the only individual we know who, based on Jesus' personal assurance, went to paradise after his death.
Just as an actor must learn or hone certain skills to portray some characters, like fencing if one is playing Cyrano de Bergerac, slight of hand if one is playing Houdini, or an instrument if one is playing a musician, so there are things we need to master to do justice to Jesus. Like getting to know scripture so well that one can recall an appropriate verse for just about any occasion. It's not just prooftexting. It's not wrenching verses out of their context to win arguments. Jesus saw the unity in the Bible, the underlying meaning. He was able therefore to get to the heart of a matter, rather than split hairs or argue technicalities.

Jesus also did not let himself get pulled into irrelevant issues, no matter how hot a topic they were at the time. So he did not get into the discussions about taxes, except to say both Caesar and God had claims in their respective domains. He did not try to be holier than thou on the matter of adultery when a woman's life was at stake. He didn't get into the trivia of washing hands or fasting or food laws. Saving lives, both physical and spiritual, and  mending broken bodies and relationships, both human and divine, were his top priorities and he stayed on message.

Of course, there are areas in which we shouldn't do what Jesus did. I don't think we should physically assault merchants, even if we find them hawking their wares in church. I don't think we should try healing the sick with a mere touch if we don't have the gift or try raising the dead without CPR or a defibrillator. Nor should we presume to give new commandments. There are things only Jesus can do because of his unique authority. Sometimes the appropriate question is not "What would Jesus do?" but "What would Jesus have me do?"

The key to imitating Jesus is serving others out of compassion. And it is not about pleasing them so much as meeting their needs, spiritual and physical. He is, through serving them, serving God. Because it is God's holy love he is showing, not desperate human love. It is love that does not care about making a person temporarily happy so much as making them eternally whole and healthy. Happy comes from the old word "hap" which means "chance." God doesn't settle for us being happy when we can manage it; he wants us to learn to be joyful in all circumstances.

But what if you don't feel love for others? Lewis said act as you do and eventually you will come to do so for real. And he's right. The body and mind affect each other. We usually smile when we feel good. But psychologists have found that it can work the other way. Smiling can help lift a bad mood. And we all know of actors who act as if they are in love and find themselves falling in love with their costars. It's not inevitable. I've never fallen for a costar. I think you have to be open to the possibility of it becoming real. Which is what you are trying to do if you are imitating Christ. I can tell you that, as a nurse, taking care of someone's needs does make you come to care about them. It wasn't hard with my littlest patient. I am no longer his nurse but my wife and I still see him nearly every week. And I have bonded with people who weren't cute and pleasant, people who were in fact quite prickly and demanding. I have come to care about inmates who have done very bad things. I'm not blind to their faults and their crimes. But I am called to serve whomever God presents to me and to proclaim the good news of redemption in Jesus. I sow the seed; the soil is God's responsibility.

I read a story once (I don't if it's historical or a fable) about how a group of poor boys were invited to dine in a palace in India. One clever boy imitated the table manners of the aristocrats who had invited them and so was selected to be the new rajah. We are told that in the new creation we will rule as vice-regents under Christ. Then we better start preparing by imitating his gracious manner of ruling by loving and serving.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 55

The scriptures read are Numbers 18-20, Psalm 46 and Luke 4.

Numbers 18. All about the priests and Levites. The priests get the sacrifices to eat, the Levites get the tithes (minus a tithe), but neither gets any land.

Numbers 19. A red cow's ashes are a necessary part of water used for cleansing when anyone is unclean.

Numbers 20. The Israelites are grumbling again. They want water this time. God tells Moses and Aaron to speak to a rock. Moses whacks it twice instead. The water comes out but now Moses and Aaron aren't going to make it into the promised land either. In fact, Aaron is not even going to be close to making it.

Psalm 46. An expression of confidence in God.

Luke 4. Jesus gets tempted and nearly thrown off a cliff. But can he heal!

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 54

The scriptures read are Numbers 15-17, Psalm 45 and Luke 3.

Numbers 15. It seems like another chapter on sacrifices (well, actually, it is) but if you read carefully, you find a couple of gems. In v. 15, "There shall be one law for you and for the resident alien; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the foreigner shall be alike before the Lord..." And if you've paid attention, you realize that this is a principle that applies to more than just sacrifices.

Oh, and provisions for unwittingly committing a sin. So God recognizes the distinction. Quit beating yourself up for accidentally walking out of the store with the toy in your hand when you were five and your mom not paying for it and not realizing it until you were driving home. You didn't intend to shoplift. God knows that.

Those Sabbath restrictions? God meant them.

Blue tassels are to be sewn to the corners of garments to remind folks not to break the commandments.

Number 16-17. Some people try to rebel against Moses and Aaron's leadership. They are toast.

Psalm 45. A royal wedding poem! Very unusual.

Luke 3. Luke gives us more of John's message. He tells people how their repentance should manifest itself: generosity to the poor, honest dealings, contentment with one's pay.

Luke does the ultimate genealogy. He traces Jesus all the way back to Adam and God.

The Bible Challenge: Day 53

The scriptures read are Numbers 12-14, Psalm 44 and Luke 2.

Numbers 12. Miriam and Aaron trash talk Moses and Miriam gets turned white. She gets better.

Numbers 13 & 14. A scouting party is sent to scope out the promised land. They are impressed. They cut down a cluster of grapes so big it takes 2 men to carry on a pole. (Which was the symbol of the Israel Tourist Board when I went there in the 70s.) Unfortunately the descendants of the Nephilim are there (remember them from Genesis 6?) and that freaks out the whole scouting party, except Caleb and Joshua. Their reports of the giants freak out the whole of Israel in turn and so God is ready to wipe them out and start a nation with Moses. Moses talks him out of that but God vows that the adults of this generation will not  set foot in the land of Canaan. So now they will have to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.

Psalm 44. The people are upset because they are getting beaten by their enemies. Why isn't God helping them?

Luke 2. Jesus is born. He is wrapped with strips of cloth and they use a feeding trough as a makeshift cradle. The shepherds are visited by a ton of angels (more singing). On the 8th day, Jesus is taken to the temple where 2 old people, waiting for God's Messiah, make a big fuss (ie, songs) over him.

Flash forward to a 12 year old Jesus visiting Jerusalem with his parents. They take off in a caravan, each thinking Jesus is with the other apparently. When the caravan stops for the night--no Jesus! They zip back to  town and look for him. They find him in the temple, impressing the heck out of the Bible geeks. Mary and Joseph are mad. He can't figure out why they didn't look there first. But he goes home with them and is obedient.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 52

The scriptures read are Numbers 9-11, Psalm 43, and Luke 1.

Numbers 9. The alternate time for celebrating Passover if you're ritually unclean or on a trip. Also following the Cloud.

Numbers 10. Bugles to signal the people. And Israel on the march.

Numbers 11. The people whine for meat. Manna isn't good enough. God blows a bunch of quail off course so the people have meat. Also Moses gets 70 helpers (or leaders). I love his attitude when 2 of the leaders are prophesying in camp. Joshua wants Moses to stop them but he says, "Don't be jealous for me. I'm not. I wish all God's people had God's Spirit." Foreshadowing Pentecost?

Psalm 43. Last part of the previous psalm. Read them together and it will be obvious.

Luke 1. Luke is my favorite gospel. And you get a few reasons why in the first chapter: a focus on underdogs and the poor and poetry/songs. Gabriel announces a couple of conceptions. Luke is the only evangelist to tell us that Jesus and John the Baptist are relatives. He's the only one to tell us about John before he started immersing people. Everything's set up for the arrival of Jesus.    

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

I Am the Light of the World

The scripture referred to is John 8:12 and chapter 9.

Longtime worshippers at both of my churches will remember the following event. I was scheduled to preach at our Easter Sunrise service. I set my clock radio to go off extremely early. What I didn't anticipate was a power outage taking place in the wee hours of the night. So what woke me was an awareness of a bright light shining on my eyelids. My first thought as I slowly came to consciousness was, "It's light outside." My next thought was, "IT'S LIGHT OUTSIDE!" To hold a sunrise service you have to start before sunrise. I woke my wife and we dressed quickly but when we arrived the service was ending and the Lutheran pastor was finishing the service, having had not only to preside over the Eucharist but to preach a sermon he thought I would be there to handle. I have used a battery-powered clock as a back up ever since.

It's a good thing, too, because when I started working nights again a few years ago, I made our bedroom very dark so I could sleep during the day. Anyone working nights will tell you it's very difficult to sleep for more than 4 or 5 hours during the day. Our bodies are conditioned to be awake while it's light. We are not nocturnal animals and one of the reasons given for the epidemic of sleep problems we have in the modern world is the invention of the electric light. In the old days, when the sun set, the limited light afforded by oil lamps meant that most people, especially in rural areas, went to bed earlier. They woke with the sun and lived most of their life in it.

We take light for granted. But it enables us to use our keenest sense, our eyesight, to its fullest advantage. Hearing can tell you a lot but you usually want to confirm the source of an unfamiliar sound with your eyes. If you feel a pain you usually look at the area to see if you can spot the cause. If it's in a place you can't see, you have a spouse or good friend tell you if they see anything. You seek out the source of a powerful smell, either good or bad,  and experiments show you can influence how people taste things by changing the color of a food.

So important is sight that we use it as a metaphor for understanding. When you grasp some abstract truth, you say "I see!" though the process takes place behind your eyes, not in front of them. In fact, the Hebrew word for "prophet" is "seer." So when Jesus says, "I am the light of the world," he is saying that he is what enables us to understand, specifically when it comes to spiritual things. C. S. Lewis once said, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun is risen; not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." That is the sense in which Jesus is the light of the world.    

My wife and kids know I'm very bad at visualizing things. Describing something unfamiliar to me will not always help me get a sense of it. I do well with the abstract but when it comes to the concrete, I need a picture or a very good diagram. Perhaps that's why I did well in geometry but trigonometry threw me completely. I couldn't see the relationships described in trig the way I literally could in geometry.

To many of the folks Jesus was addressing, his talk of spiritual things might as well have higher math. That's why he used parables, familiar objects and people in stories to illustrate God's justice and mercy, the nature of the kingdom and the problem of our sins. He even used his healings as parables. The chapter after Jesus declares himself the light of the world, he heals a man born blind. In the ensuing discussion with his opponents we get this exchange: "Jesus said, 'For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see with become blind.' Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, 'What? Are we blind, too?' Jesus said, 'If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.'"

How can the sighted be blind? A bizarre but revealing experiment involved having people watch a video of people passing a basketball among themselves. The people who volunteered for the experiment were supposed to count how many times the basketball was passed. During the video, a person in a gorilla suit walked into the middle of the game, beat his chest and sauntered back off screen. The viewers were so intent on counting passes that most of them did not remember seeing the gorilla. Many in fact did not believe that there was a gorilla on the video until they rewatched it. The same experiment was repeated with oncologists counting cancer cells. The gorilla was invisible to them as well. The point is that we see what we expect to see.

Jesus was the invisible gorilla in the Pharisee's way of seeing things. He did not fit into their conception of what a faithful follower of God should be. He didn't fit the popular conception of what the Messiah should be either. Looking for something or someone else, they were blind to what Jesus was really showing them.

When Jesus heals the blind man it was--you guessed it--the Sabbath. And the Pharisees were so fixated on the idea that all work was forbidden on the Sabbath, that the fact that healing was good and from God was completely overlooked. I'm not sure they even asked themselves if God really put a higher value on the Sabbath rules than on the healing of a man born blind. And we see this concern for rules above people occur over and over in religious history. A few years ago, a girl with a gluten intolerance is denied communion because a bishop says the wafers must be made with wheat. I guess I missed the part when Jesus said, "This is my body and here's the approved recipe." Before I was ordained, we had a woman coming to St. Francis who was gluten-intolerant. But our retired bishop had no problem consecrating some gluten-free crackers from the health food store so she could celebrate the Eucharist with her parish.

I performed my first baptism before I was ordained. I was in the process and regularly visiting a former patient of mine and his wife, sharing my sermons with them. She was dying of cancer and he was severely disabled. I knew without her as his caretaker, he would not last long. She was Roman Catholic but hadn't taken communion since they married because he was divorced and she was his second wife. Since I was a lay Eucharistic minister, I asked if they would want me to bring them communion. She then revealed that her husband had never been baptized. I asked him if he wanted to and he said "Yes." So I contacted the Suffragan Bishop and told him that I was the closest thing they had to a pastor and that I knew that any Christian could baptize someone who was dying and wanted baptism. But that applies to situations where the person will perish in minutes. Seeing as her death was imminent and his would likely follow on its heels, I asked if it was OK if I did the baptism months rather than minutes before his death. The bishop gave consent. So I performed the rite and afterward, gave both of them communion. She looked at her husband of many decades and said, "Now I'll see you in heaven." She died weeks later and he followed within months as I had anticipated. And I have no doubt she was right.

In both cases, the bishops involved saw that people mattered more than the letter of the rules. They did so because Jesus lighted the way. Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath." For Jesus, to let a person suffer because healing them was a technical violation of the law was a perversion of the spirit of the law. It is akin to letting someone die in the ER waiting room because they are unable to fill out the paperwork.

I've heard people in jobs that consisted primarily of dealing with the public say that their jobs would be perfect if it weren't for all the people. One thing Jesus cast light on was the importance of people. They are created in God's image and they are the reason he came and died. The way some folks in the church talk you would think the institution and its survival was more important than the people in it. C. S. Lewis points out that from a purely worldly perspective that looks as if it were true. Companies, institutions, governments and civilizations can last for hundreds or even thousands of years. But from a Christian standpoint, things are reversed. Human beings live forever, outlasting not only all human creations but this earth. Lewis reminds us that we live among immortals, beings who in eternity will either devolve into hellish horrors or become beings of light so glorious we would be tempted to worship them.

Because of that, we need to make the image of God in us visible in all we think, say and do. We also need to look for it in others, though it may be obscured by sin and the adaptations we all make to the ways of the world.

And as Jesus makes clear, before we look for the splinter in our neighbor's eyes we must make sure we aren't harboring a log or 2 in our own. We don't want the invisible gorilla in our life to be our own faults. Jesus' rule of thumb is to be more acutely aware of our own failings and more forgiving of others, the opposite of what we naturally do.

It's important to note, confess and ask God for help with our sins. it's important to being these sins into the light because they can reduce our ability be seen as his followers. I needn't cite any examples of  that. We've had numerous situations of Christians compromising the gospel with outrageously unChristian behavior lately.
Remember that in the same way Jesus declared himself to be the light of the world, he said, in Matthew 5:14, "You are the light of the world." We are is to reflect Christ's light. We mustn't do anything to dim or obscure that light.

In John 8:12, Jesus says, "The one who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." We don't generally stare at lights but use them to illumine other things, such as our path. And I daresay the "light of life" refers to Jesus' life. We look at how he reacted to situations, what he did when faced with the suffering of others, injustice and the abuse of power, and use it to show us the way to act in similar circumstances. We see him not only say "turn the other cheek" but actually do so when mistreated by the temple guards and Roman soldiers. We see him not only say "forgive your brother" but do so, letting Peter say he loves Jesus 3 times, mirroring his previous 3 denials. We see him not only say "love your enemies" but do so, asking God to forgive his executioners.

Light not only reveals our path but gives us direction. Before the invention of the compass, people navigated using the sun and stars, as the magi did searching for the infant Jesus. Especially important in navigating the northern hemisphere was Polaris, the North star. Jesus is the light that we follow as we travel through this life.

Besides that, light really does give life. Sunlight photochemically produces Vitamin D3 in our skin. Deficiency of this vitamin is associated with poor bone health and increased risk of multiple sclerosis, certain cancers, flu, tuberculosis and death. Most mammals need light to live. Most plants as well.

Light does something else. It helps us see beauty. It makes the sea and the sky turn colors. It spotlights flowers and reveals the intricate work of spider webs. It shows us the majesty of mountains. And the night sky would be nothing without the panoply of stars and planets. Small wonder painters and photographers go on and on about light. Light reveals the glory of creation.

We are creatures of the light, both physically and spiritually. We need Jesus as the light our life to help us find our way through the darkness of this world, to expose its dangers, and to lead us to the source of light and health and beauty. Isaiah 9:2 says, "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…" And we know his name.

The Bible Challenge: Day 51

The scriptures read are Numbers 6-8, Psalm 42, and Mark 16.

Numbers 6. The Nazarite vow made a person a kind of lay priest and so he would have to observe the same restrictions as a priest. The Aaronic blessing should sound familiar.

Numbers 7. The leaders of Israels present covered wagons and oxen for the Levites to use in transporting the tabernacle. And we get the offerings given on the first 12 days of the tabernacle's use.

Numbers 8. The Levites get purified. One interesting fact: they have a retirement age--50.

Psalm 42. This and the next psalm are actually one psalm. They are linked by their refrain "Why so downcast, my soul, why disquieted within in me? Have hope in God; I will yet praise him, my ever-present help, my God."

Mark 16. Mark's account of the resurrection is the shortest. In the oldest manuscripts, it ends at verse 8, with the women so freaked out, they don't say anything to anyone. The longer endings came later. Was the original ending lost? Did Mark not get to finish it? Or did he want us to provoke us to supply the ending ourselves and do what the first witnesses didn't--spread the word that Jesus is risen?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 50

The scriptures read are Numbers 4-5, Psalm 41, and Mark 15.

Numbers 4. The duties of breaking down and carrying the various parts of the tabernacle is divided about the families of the Levities.

Numbers 5. More rules, including a very interesting way of dealing with suspected adultery and jealousy.

Psalm 41. The prayer of a sick person asking for healing.

Mark 15. Jesus is presented to Pilate, crucified and entombed. Only women disciples are mentioned being there at his death.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Jesus is Lord

The scripture referred to is Romans 10:8b-13.

Did you know that you can get Kindle books even if you don't have a Kindle? You can buy and read them on your PC or laptop or notebook via the Cloud or on the Kindle app on your smart phone or tablet. The reason I mention this is that right now C. S. Lewis' American publisher Harper Collins has been offering a terrific sale on most of his books for E reader devices. I have downloaded his space trilogy, Mere Christianity, and the Screwtape Letters (with video and audio clips that can be played on the iPhone). I know this sounds like a commercial but bear with me. I have reread these books many times over the last 40 plus years and I am enjoying them again in a format I can bring with me everywhere. It has been a while since I read Mere Christianity and I still find it a wonderful introduction to Christian belief and behavior. And I love the way Lewis tries to set things out in a way that almost all Christians can agree on. For instance he points out that Christians agree that Jesus died for our sins. Where we tend to disagree is on our different explanations of how exactly his death saved us. Was it a ransom paid to the devil to liberate us from his rule, a prominent theory in the early church? Was it because God, the person offended by our sins, is a person of infinite worth and therefore only an atonement of infinite worth would suffice, a popular medieval theory? Was it vicarious punishment? Was it an example of love? Lewis says the divergent explanations are to help us understand the facts of the faith but they aren't necessary to faith. An explanation of something is not the same as the thing itself. You don't have to understand the process of digestion to get the benefit from eating a meal or comprehend the workings of the internal combustion engine to use a car. Lewis' very sensible advice is if the explanation doesn't help you, drop it.

Why do Christians argue about various doctrines? Setting aside the fact that human beings can and will argue about anything (if you've ever had more than one child, or been on a committee, you know this to be true), I think at least part of our theological disagreements are about different explanations of the same phenomena. The Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopal and other mainstream churches all recite the Apostles Creed. That's the most basic summary of the faith the church has come up with. Those are the essentials. So why do we have differences?

It is said that a man once approached the great Rabbi Hillel and asked him to teach him the whole of Judaism as the man stood on one foot. Hillel replied, "Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary." Very astute. And Christians, despite agreeing on the essentials, nevertheless argue because we interpret some of the things differently (Did God create by making living things appear magically or using a process like evolution?) or we practice them differently (Baptism by immersion or pouring? Infants or adults only?) or we emphasize different things (Faith and works: state their respective importance and relationship to each other in salvation.) It's not so much what we believe as how we believe it works that divides us.

In our passage in Romans, Paul seems to boil down the creed to a very basic assertion. "If you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Wow! Just 2 things? Confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God resurrected him and you will be saved? That's it?

Essentially, yes. But Paul chose his words very carefully and what he wrote has a lot of implications. Enough to fill a sermon. Which is fortunate for me.

Let's unpack this verse. "If you confess…" The Greek word translated "confess" means "acknowledge" or "admit." It doesn't just mean to say the words but to publicly declare something that is a deep conviction. Just as you should consider seriously before you confess to a crime, so should you think hard before confessing that Jesus is Lord. This is not something tossed off the tongue casually. It commits you.

"…with your mouth..." As we said, this is a public declaration. When I officiate at a wedding I tell the couple that the wedding vows--to stick with the other person through thick and thin, to love them for the rest of your life--are simply what anyone in love has already resolved in their hearts. At the marriage ceremony, we simply dress these resolutions up in their Sunday best and ask you to say them aloud before God and man. If you truly do feel that way in your heart, the vows shouldn't be too hard to say. You ought to want to shout them from the rooftops. (Which, by the way, has become a Valentine's Day tradition in Japan. Reserved Japanese men get up in front of a crowd and shout out their love for their wives. Which most American men might have trouble doing.) And the same goes with declaring your allegiance to Jesus.

"…that Jesus…" It seems obvious that Jesus has to be a part of this but there are some so-called Christians that are more in love with Christian ethics or Christian liturgy or certain ideas in Christianity than they are Jesus. Or they reinvent Jesus in their image. They make him a Democrat, or a Republican, or a vegan, or a hunter, or a free market advocate, or a socialist, or a symbol of White Power, or an anti-Semite, or a new age sage who imposes no restrictions on what you are permitted to do as long as you are true to yourself. But the Jesus you commit to has to be the one we find in the Bible. He doesn't fit into any categories we create. He is sui generis, a category all his own. He is the Son of God, our Redeemer, our Judge, our Advocate, our High Priest, our Sacrifice, our Prophet, our life, our Savior, our King. And more. If the Jesus you follow agrees with you on all of your opinions, he is not the real one. He is an idol created in your image. The real Jesus will comfort you when you are afflicted but will afflict you when you become too comfortable with the way things are.

"…is Lord…" Lord means 2 things to us as it did to the people of Jesus' day. It means a person who has power over you, a person you must serve. We don't have the kind of aristocracy in this country that used to and still exists in other countries. Unless you've hobnobbed with some upperclass Brits, you've probably never met a person with the actual title of Lord. But through most of history societies were arranged in hierarchies. The majority of people were peasants or workers who did not own their land but worked for a knight, a duke, a count, an earl or someone other person who was their lord. They in turn had a king or an emperor they called lord. And, of course, if you were a slave, your master was your lord. Your earthly lord had a great deal of power over you and your life. If he gave you an order or decreed something be done, you had to obey it.

Declaring Jesus as your Lord means you obey him. The disciples, such as Paul, had no trouble calling themselves slaves of Christ. That's a more honest translation than the traditional "servant," because they were not hired but their lives were bought by his spilled blood. As are we.

Another Eastern custom might explain this. If someone saved your life, you were beholden to them for the rest of your life. Jesus saved us from the consequences of our sins. If he hadn't we would have continued to spiral away from God, the source of all goodness, becoming less and less creatures made to reflect God's image and more and more creatures wrapped up in ourselves, our injuries and our slights and our desires and our envies and our resentments and our prejudices and our rages, devolving into hellish, infinitely small and dense spiritual black holes, taking in everything, giving back nothing, not even light.

That's what he saved us from. But if we let Jesus in, we must become larger souls in order to accommodate his fullness. We become nodes of God's light and love, reflecting and transmitting more and more of his grace to others. Because he saves us and transforms us, we are his and he is our Lord.

But Lord meant something else to the Jews. To avoid violating the commandment of misusing God's name, they didn't even pronounce the divine name when it came up in scripture, saying instead Adonai or Lord in Hebrew. So calling Jesus Lord is also confessing his divinity. He is not just a good man or a prophet or a teacher whom God adopted and adapted for his own purpose. He is God, entering into his own creation as a creature, to do what we should do but that only he can do. He is the king walking among his people incognito, the prince become a pauper, the ultimate undercover boss. Which means when we are dealing with Jesus, we are dealing with God himself, not some middle manager, or representative, or lackey. It means that we were redeemed not by some lesser person ordered or asked to sacrifice himself for us but by God himself taking on the consequences of our sins out of his love for us. It means when we look at Jesus, we are seeing God Incarnate. We are seeing God's nature in action and hearing God's judgment and God's wisdom and experiencing God's mercy and God's power and God's self-sacrificial love.

"…and believe in your heart…" It's all very well to say something out loud but do you really believe it, deep down in your heart? The Greek word for "believe" means not merely lending credence to something but relying upon it, putting one's confidence in it. So this is not like telling your friend you believe him when he tells you he saw something weird, something that does not matter, something that will have no effect on your life.

This is like your child is eating something at the mall and chokes and collapses and some guy runs over and says he's an off duty EMT and he can't get the obstruction out of your child's mouth but he says he can do a tracheotomy with his pocket knife, he's done them before, but he needs your permission and you decide to believe him and say "yes." Biblical belief in God is not that he exists but that you trust him with your existence.

"…that God raised him from the dead…" Jesus' resurrection assumes his death. But every good person dies. Some even die unjustly as Jesus did. But if Jesus stayed dead, he would be just another martyr for a cause, like Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr., or Polycarp. The disciples were discouraged and despondent over Jesus' death. There would not be a Christian faith if not for the resurrection of Christ. It showed that Jesus wasn't just a good man wronged but that he was who he said he was: the Messiah, God's son, the Lord, the giver of life eternal. A lot was riding on Easter. Had he not risen, the fishermen would have returned to their boats, the women to their families, the tax collector to his hedonistic lifestyle. Had he not risen, no one would have bothered to write down his sayings or chronicle his healings or note his ignominious death. Had he not risen a zealous Pharisee would never have spread the good news of God's love and forgiveness throughout the Roman empire. If Christ had not risen, we would still be in our sins.

But because he rose, men and women abandoned their mundane lives and spread the word. Plague victims were nursed. Empires were changed. Hospitals were built. Schools were built. Monastery libraries preserved the classics. Languages were recorded. Cultures were discovered and described. Modern medicine was introduced into third world countries. Slaves were freed. Alcoholics and addicts were treated. All of these things were done in the name of the God of love who died for us and rose to give us his life.

"…you will be saved." Not just given a verdict of "not guilty" but given a new life in this world that will become eternal life in the next. Not just forgiven but given a purpose for our God-given talents. Not just freed from slavery to sin but freed to serve Christ by serving others.                      

When you say "Jesus is Lord" and believe that God raised him from the dead, you have assented to the essentials of the faith. The only thing left is to remember that, as it says in James, "faith without works is dead." If Jesus is our Lord, we must obey him. We must love God above all and love our neighbors as we do ourselves. As it says in 1 John, "let us not love with word or with tongue but in deed and truth." And with that, we have the essentials of Christian behavior.

There is a lot more to the faith. And I'm not saying don't ask questions or seek understanding. But, believe me, read enough good Christian writings, and you will find plenty of explanations to help you understand our faith better. But the explanation or interpretation that helps you might not help another Christian. And the explanation or interpretation that helps him might seem errant nonsense to you. Just don't confuse human attempts to understand the faith for the essentials of the faith itself. They are the heart of the message, the gospel, the good news that spread like wildfire across the globe. Jesus Christ, not Caesar, nor money, nor fame, nor pleasure, nor any other thing or person, is Lord. He died out of love for us; God raised him out of love for us. Living out a life of active love for him and for all those he died to redeem is the only proper response. Everything else is commentary.

The Bible challenge: Day 48

The scriptures read are Number 1-3, Psalm 40 and Mark 14.

Numbers 1-3. First up, a census. What did you expect of a book called Numbers? Then we have the order in which the Israelite tribes marched. (With flags! I wonder if we know what the flag of each tribe looked like?) Then we get a separate census of the Levites, the priestly tribe, who fill in for the firstborn of every tribe, and take care of the tabernacle. They all have parts of the tabernacle that are their responsibility. Very organized.

Psalm 40. A plea for help from God with an honest admission that the psalmist's sins have caught up with him.

Mark 14. The last supper, the garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal, the first trial, Peter's denials. Even with the breathless pace of Mark's narration, this part is moving.    

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 47

The scriptures read are Psalm 39 and Mark 13.

Because you finished Leviticus, your reward is no Torah today.

Psalm 39. The psalmist is pondering the the brevity of life.

Mark 13. Jesus on the apocalypse is more notable for what he doesn't say: "antichrist," "Armageddon," or "rapture." What he does say is "don't be deceived," "be alert," "no one knows the hour." What's our role? We're the servants who have assigned tasks that we're supposed to be doing when the Master returns.

The Bible Challenge: Day 46

The scriptures read are Leviticus 25-27, Psalm 38 and Mark 12.

Leviticus 25. Everything goes fallow every 7th year. And every 50th year is the Jubilee year, when people get back their ancestral lands and Israelite slaves are freed. There's a lot in here about treating people properly, especially those who have fallen on hard times. Because ultimately the land is God's and all the people are his servants.

Leviticus 26. God paints an idyllic picture of what the promised land will be if the people keep his covenant and a chilling portrait of it if the people break God's covenant. If they confess, however, God will remember to keep his part of the covenant.

Leviticus 27. How to figure the monetary equivalent of things dedicated to the tabernacle. And now you've finished your 4th Biblical book and 2/3s of the Torah, the Pentateuch, the 5 Books of Moses.

Psalm 38. A man acutely aware of his guilt and wracked with pain and sickness and depression over it asks for forgiveness and healing.

Mark 12. Jesus tells stories and wins debates on stuff like taxes, the resurrection and the greatest commandments. And he gives kudos to a poor widow who understands giving self-sacrificially.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 45

The scriptures read are Leviticus 22-24 and Mark 11.

Leviticus 22. More on how physically pure priests must be. Cleanliness is next to godliness, according to this. Also the sacrificial animals must be flawless.

Leviticus 23. The Sabbath and the 3 major feasts: Passover, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of the Booths. Also this tidbit: when you harvest your fields, don't mow things all the way to the edges. Leave some for the poor and immigrants. If you don't read carefully, you miss these things.

Leviticus 24. Oil for lamps, the showbread and blasphemy. Also strict and equivalent justice for murdering another human being.

Psalm 37:19-42. I messed up and did the whole psalm last time. If you did as well, take a psalm break today.

Mark 11. Jesus enters Jerusalem in a big way but peacefully. What he does to the merchants in the temple is not so peaceful. He overturns their tables and when challenged by the authorities, he turns the tables on them.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I Am the Bread of Life

The scripture referred to is John 6: 48-59, 66-69.

Why do we give up things at Lent? Are we, as one Internet meme suggests, getting a second chance at keeping all those New Year's resolutions we've already failed at? Are we trying to exercise and strengthen our willpower? Are we trying to be holier than we usually are? Whatever the merits of those ideas, the ultimate purpose of Lent is to get closer to Jesus. Giving up stuff that gets in the way helps. So does taking up or fortifying spiritual disciplines that give us time to focus on Jesus and meditate on his words. As an aid to this, during these Wednesdays in Lent and on Maundy Thursday, I would like us to consider the 7 "I Am" statements made by Jesus and recorded in John.

John's gospel is usually acknowledged by scholars to be the last of the canonical 4 to be written. And even a non-scholar can tell that John's gospel is different from the other 3. I'm not going to go into all the differences, just the three that are primary. First, John doesn't cover things the other 3 gospels do but instead gives us a lot of supplementary material. For instance the other 3 gospels, which scholars call the synoptic gospels from the Greek word meaning "with one eye," all narrate Jesus' baptism by John. They tell us a bit of John's message, then tell us how Jesus came to John, was baptized by him and how, upon emerging from the water, he heard God's voice and saw the Spirit alight on him in the form of a dove. John the gospel writer, after finishing his theological prologue, goes right to the John the Baptist and what he said about Jesus and about the dove descending on him but nowhere actually says John baptized Jesus! It's like he assumes you know this. The same thing goes with the last supper. Only John tells us about the foot washing and he devotes many chapters to what Jesus said during and after the meal but John never gives us Jesus saying, "This is my body" or "This is my blood." Again, it's as if he assumes you know that part.

In the same way, only John gives us the aftermath of the feeding of the 5000, namely, that the crowd tried to make Jesus king. Only John tells us of the raising of Lazarus and how that was the tipping point when it came to Caiaphas and the religious leaders deciding to kill Jesus. If it weren't for John telling us about the 3 Passovers that took place during Jesus' ministry, we might have deduced from the synoptics alone that it lasted only 6 months.

So it looks like John took it upon himself to fill in the background and other important information about Jesus that the other earlier gospels hadn't covered. And this includes a number of long theological monologues. That's the second difference I want to point out. In the synoptics Jesus speaks in public mostly in aphorisms and parables. In John he uses extended metaphors and explicates them at length. The synoptics tell us Jesus explained things fully in private to his disciples. In John it looks like we have some of those longer teachings.

The third thing you need to know about John is his repeated use of the number seven. He structures his gospel around 7 signs or key miracles, 7 "I am" statements and 7 discourses. (Revelation is another book which is structured around the number 7.) In the Bible seven symbolizes totality or completeness. This begins with Genesis 1 in which God creates the world in 6 days and ceases on the seventh. The Sabbath is therefore made holy, that is, set apart for God's purpose. In John, too, we see Sabbath and creation imagery, especially around the resurrection.

John doesn't, however, lead you to believe that Jesus only did these 7 miracles or said these 7 discourses. In the epilogue he writes that Jesus did many more things, which, if catalogued, would be more than the world could hold. But he selected 7 things Jesus said and did that, to him, summed up who Jesus was and what he said.

So let's start with the first of the "I am" statements to occur in John. And I want to remind you that "I am," which is one word in either Hebrew or Greek, is a version of God's covenant name. When he revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush, God identified himself using a form of the Hebrew verb "to be." It is usually translated "I am that I am." Some scholars point out it could be translated "I will be who I will be" or even "I will be there" with the implication that he will be there for his people, for us. But traditionally, and especially in the popular Greek translation of Jesus' day, the Septuagint, it is translated "I am." And John is so sensitive to symbolism it is hard to imagine that he does not see these as statements of Jesus' divinity. We know Jesus' opponents certainly got the implication when he said, "Before Abraham was, I am."

The first "I am" statement we come across in John is the one that comes after the feeding of the 5000. In chapter 6, we learn that after being fed, the crowd searched for Jesus the next day in order to make him king. And at first when Jesus tells them of the bread of life, they desperately want it. Until he reveals that he is the bread of life and they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. John's readers would recognize this as a reference to the Eucharist. But the original hearers are just confused and grossed out.

This is before the last supper, so why would Jesus say this at this time?

Part of the reason could be the effect is does have. People turn away from Jesus. They don't get it and they aren't interested in sticking around to delve more deeply into this odd teaching. Now mind you, these folks knew Jesus had fed them miraculously. But when he offered them what they didn't want, some deep spiritual truths expressed as a difficult metaphor, they turned away. Jesus had diagnosed their problem correctly. They just wanted physical food and a political king. They weren't interested in being fed or ruled in a spiritual sense.

Another part of the reason is that Jesus is planting the idea of his body and blood as food and drink early so it doesn't come off as totally unprecedented when he uses it at the last supper. It is mentioned in this chapter that Passover was near. So a year before his death, Jesus introduces the idea of communion. John likes to underline how Jesus had everything under control and planned for.

So what was Jesus saying by calling himself the bread of life? He starts off by contrasting himself to the manna given in the wilderness during the Exodus. Moses didn't do that, he points out; it was God who gave and now gives bread from heaven. The people want this bread and ask what do they have to do to get it. Jesus says all they have to do is believe in him. Trusting in him means eternal life and resurrection at the last day. Because Jesus is himself the true bread from heaven.

The way Jesus and his opponents are arguing sounds odd to us but it's common in rabbinic discussions of the interpretation of scripture. And Jesus says that getting this point is decisive in following him. People who only see things from an earthly perspective aren't going to get any benefit from Jesus.

A lot of humor can be had at the expense of those who take everything literally. You see it in Plato, in Shakespeare, even in modern sitcoms. It is a key ingredient in most jokes about kids. I like the one where the family comes home from Ash Wednesday and the little boy goes up to his room. Then he comes out again and goes to his mom and says, "Is what the preacher said true? That we come from dust and return to dust?" His mother says, "Yes, that's true." "Well," the boy says, "you better look under my bed. Someone's either coming or going."

But in this instance in John, the effects of not being able to grasp any other meaning than the literal one is tragic. Rather than saying to themselves, "What Jesus is proposing is cannibalism. There must be another meaning to what he is saying," his listeners give up. Nobody, including the Pharisees, thinks of the upcoming Passover, where the matzo is so central that an alternate name for Passover in scripture is the Feast of Unleavened Bread. 4 cups of wine are drunk during the Passover meal and yet no one, including the religious scribes, thinks of Isaiah calling wine as the "blood of the grape." And then there's the lamb whose flesh is consumed and its blood smeared on the door to save God's people.

Even outside the context of Passover, bread and wine were the most basic food and drink there were. Bread was an early product of agriculture. It was nutritious, filling and portable if you were on a journey and had no time to stop and prepare a full meal. Wine was often drunk because you didn't always have clean drinkable water, preferably from a spring.

The poorest person there would depend on these staples for life. Jesus is saying that he is just as vital for eternal life. And merely looking at food and drink is not enough to nourish you; you must get them into you. In the same way, Jesus needs to be in you to nourish your spiritually. We see a lot of people who drape themselves with the trappings of religion but it's only skin deep. We see rappers accepting awards for songs demeaning women and glorifying violence who have huge gold crosses around their necks, and thank Christ for their win, but don't seem to have Jesus in their hearts. We hear politicians who always have the name of Jesus on their lips but exhibit scant evidence of him in their lives. We see motorists with Jesus fish on their cars but who still drive like hell. If we took these people at face value, we'd say they were Christians. But it's all surface. They don't seem to have let Jesus inside.

This weekend our ceiling fan and only light fixture in our living room shorted out. So I picked up another and was putting it together and wiring and hanging it when suddenly I could feel my energy just drain out of me as if someone tapped me like a keg and opened the spigot. And I realized I hadn't eaten for several hours. I stopped what I was doing, asked my wife if she was hungry and ran out to get food for us.

How often do we find ourselves running on empty spiritually and yet resist stopping and feeding on Jesus? I don't necessarily mean taking the Eucharist but praying, reading God's word, meditating on his love and faithfulness. Food is energy and so is Jesus. One of the most basic instincts we have, seen in a newborn who has never taken anything by mouth, is to ingest nutrition. Most of us never feel real hunger pangs but how often do we neglect to fill our hearts with the power we know is in Jesus?

So this Lent, if you wish to fast from physical food as a spiritual discipline, that's fine. But don't skip feeding on Jesus. Don't go a day without reading his words, listening to him, talking to him, asking his forgiveness and help, praising and thanking him. By all means, give up the junk food but don't skimp on the bread of life. And don't be like a spiritual infant and end up with more of Jesus on your outside than on your inside. Only with Jesus inside you will you get any real good out of him.

The Bible Challenge: Day 44

The scriptures read are Leviticus 19-21, Psalm 37 and Mark 10.

Leviticus 19. Miscellaneous laws. Some repeat what is in the Ten Commandments. Some expand them, many are new. There are laws that forbid mistreating the handicapped, showing favoritism in justice, standing by when your neighbor is in danger, taking advantage of the immigrant, and cheating in business. Respect the aged. Also the second greatest law: love your neighbor.

Leviticus 20. Mostly repeating and expanding previously given laws, including a recap of the sex restrictions. Interesting statistic: of the 613 laws given in the Torah, only 58 or 9% concern sex. Less than you thought.

Leviticus 21. Rules for who may be a priest and how he must behave. Tough standards.

Psalm 37. A wonderful acrostic psalm about how God is faithful and just and how the righteous need to trust him and not envy the wicked when they seem to prosper.

Mark 10. Jesus is tough on divorce, soft on children, hard on the materialistic, rough on those want to be top dog and merciful to a blind man.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 43

The scriptures read are Leviticus 16-18, Psalm 36 and Mark 9.

Leviticus 16. The Day of Atonement is still a major holiday for Judaism. Of course they no longer have a temple in which to make the sacrifices. They do however recite the ritual described in this chapter. Today Yom Kippur is observed with 5 prayer services, fasting and private and public confessions.

BTW the goat on whose head the High Priest puts the sins of the people and which is sent into the wilderness is the famous scapegoat. Azazel may be some demon thought to inhabit the desert or may come from the Hebrew words ez (goat) and azal (that goes away). It also may be related to the Arabic world for banish.

Leviticus 17. Life is in the blood so no drinking blood or eating meat the blood has not been drained from. Part of the kosher laws. Also all sacrifices must take place in the tabernacle. No sacrifices to goat-demons (Azazel?)

Leviticus 18. The sex chapter. Or rather whom not to have sex with. Basically, all incest is taboo. (12 types are listed). Don't commit adultery. Don't have sex with animals. Don't have sex with a woman during her period. Don't offer your children to be burned as a sacrifice to the pagan god Molech. And don't have sex with a man in the same way you do with a woman. 1 rule out of 19 and it gets all the attention these days. Most of these rules would still be approved of today, even by secular people. Discuss.

Psalm 36. Contrasting evil schemers with God's faithfulness.

Mark 9. Packed chapter. The Transfiguration. The glimpse of the kingdom Jesus promised?

Love the father who admits, "Lord, I do believe. Help my unbelief." We've all been there.

The disciples get caught discussing who is the greatest, like a bunch of rappers. Jesus says the greatest is the one who serves all the others.

Don't turn allies into enemies. Don't give the childlike a hard time. Don't let anything, even if it feels like a part of who you are, come between you and God.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Life is Not a Game

My son is really into games, not just video games, but role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. I remember when he was a teen and people would greet that revelation with concern. Weren't such games of the devil? To which I would reply, "The most diabolical thing about D & D is its marketing strategy, namely, creating games so complicated that a kid needed to buy an encyclopedia's worth of books to play them." (Not to mention numerous hand painted figurines and a ridiculous number of multi-sided dice.) My son never got into the more reckless diversions other teens do in part because he was so wrapped up in playing games. And he has learned a great deal about history and different cultures and moral alignments and obscure ancient weapons. He has developed into a very accomplished storyteller. He and his wife and friends still play, rather like the card parties of my parents' generation.

When I was a kid, I loved to play games: board games, hide and go seek, tag, even games shows. I am less into games today. I enjoy Trivia Pursuit because I have a real chance of winning (unless you ask me sports questions) and 221B, a Sherlock Holmes game where you solve short mystery stories by gathering clues running around a board game version of London. If you're into it for the fun of playing with others, if you aren't so focused on winning that you spoil everyone's evening by being an aggressive jerk or a sore loser, it's a good way to pass the time. But I'm not that into games because the rules are arbitrary and the goals (gaining so many points) are pointless in the real world.

What bothers me is how much people try to approach certain aspects of reality as if it were all a game. Criminal justice, for instance. We all know by now that being found guilty or not guilty in court has a lot to do with how smart your lawyer is at gaming the system by exploiting loopholes and technicalities and getting the other side's evidence thrown out. Truth is not really what either side is trying to establish. They are trying to win in court.

Politics is now played as a game. Filibusters and secret holds and procedural tricks are used to pass or more often, not pass legislation or confirm nominees to important but vacant posts. Each side is trying to score points with voters because it is all about winning elections, not resolving real issues or solving pressing problems or governing a city or county or state or nation.

Wall Street has become a casino for the rich, where all that matters is quarterly earnings, not the quality of a product or service nor the sustainability of a company--just the payout. In the financial meltdown, some companies did very well by betting against the risky financial instruments banks were selling. In fact, some hedge funds actually encouraged banks to create more of the subprime mortgage-backed securities, so that they could bet against them. Nobody cared about responsibly investing other people's money, much less the stability of the world's economy or people's livelihoods. It was, in the words of one insider, just a game of liar's poker.

A lot of people feel religion is nothing but a game. You get brownie points for going to church or making converts or doing good deeds and if you accumulate enough points, you land on the Heaven square and win. They also feel that the rules are arbitrary and the goal, being literally out of this world, is unimportant and uninteresting to them. Sadly a lot of churchgoers seem to know so little about their own faith that they also see Christianity as something like a game with rules you obey just because that's the way it was set up.

Buried in today's reading from 2 Corinthians with all this talk about Moses and veils is the whole purpose of what faith in Jesus is all about. There's nothing arbitrary about it. Paul writes, "And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit."

A lot of people think Jesus just came to tell us to love one another. Others may realize that part of his purpose was to die for our sins. But a smaller number seem to realize that what Jesus came to do was to give us his glory, that is, make us resemble him. Obviously the resemblance is not physical but spiritual, just as the residual glory of God that radiated from Moses' face and the dazzling brightness seen when Jesus is transfigured are facts that function as visual parables, if you will, for the spiritual splendor of God. When someone displays either physical or intellectual or creative or moral excellence, we tell them they dazzled everyone or just really shined at that moment. No literal light shown from their visage. But we all know what is meant. And we are to become more Christ-like, not in the beard and sandals department, but in the way we think, speak and act. In doing so we reflect his glory.

How do we come to mirror Christ's glory, his moral and spiritual excellence? Not by trying ourselves to achieve that pinnacle. You know happens if you try to climb Mount Everest by yourself? You die. The world's highest mountain peak is literally littered with the frozen corpses of those who tried and failed, some 100 years old. At those rarified heights, you need a massive amount of support--guides, gear, oxygen tanks, tents, and a whole support network. Just so, we cannot hope to come close to Christ without the support of the Spirit. And the Lord is the Spirit, Paul reminds us. So God is not only our goal but our guide, our path and our power to reach him.

In role playing games, to construct a character you use a sheet of paper and dice. To make a fighter, you hope to roll high numbers for his strength, his stamina, his healing ability, maybe his agility and strategy. If you go up against a dragon or a vampire or a mind flayer, you hope your fighter's stats are higher. They can be augmented by spells, armor or weapons with additional number values. Then you roll the dice to see who defeats whom and how many damage points you sustain. It all depends on the numbers and chance.

That's not how Christian character is constructed. It is not by chance but by God's design that we are given our abilities and talents. We are to use them and hone them but there is no yardstick by which to measure them. C. S. Lewis said that becoming more Christ-like is like painting a portrait. When you look at a budding artist, you can see how they are progressing but you can't score their use of color, shapes, shading, and composition. You just can tell how well they are capturing their subject. When they have achieved it, the portrait doesn't look awkward or forced or unnatural. You say, "That's him! You've captured his essence!"

Bean counters really hate the lack of metrics. Which is why churches are often seen as successful or not by the numbers of people who attend or who are baptized or how much money they raise. It's not that those things are unimportant but they don't necessarily indicate spiritual health or maturity. Einstein supposedly said that not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted. We don't have to look good on paper or be externally impressive to become more Christ-like. Jesus said that in the kingdom many who are first will be last and the last shall be first. For all we know the most Christ-like person in heaven might turn out to be an obscure janitor or a nail technician or a slave or an ordinary housewife.

Unlike a game, there are no extra rolls of the dice or double word score squares to advance you in reaching our goal of becoming more Christ-like. You do so by living each day of your life, taking the opportunities given you, or discerning opportunities when none are apparent. Jesus talked about how serving him meant feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned and other things that take long-term commitment. The primary command is to love and that is something that must be built up and nurtured over time.

In checkers any piece that makes it to the opponent's home row is "kinged" and suddenly transformed into a much more powerful piece. In real life such transformation is never that sudden. People may decide to turn their lives around in a moment of clarity but it takes a long time to shed old habits and take up new and better ones. I love Dickens' story "A Christmas Carol" where miserly Ebenezer Scrooge becomes a new man overnight but a more realistic picture of how long it takes is to change is to be found, believe it or not, in the fantasy movie, "Groundhog's Day." In a recent web article, a self-confessed geek tried to figure out how long Bill Murray's character Phil is trapped repeating the same day in February. Or, as I like to think of it, how long does it take him to change from the self-centered jerk he is at the beginning of the film to the caring, beloved community hero he is by the end of the movie. Using not only the repeated scenes from the film, but references to unseen events, plus estimates of how long it would take to learn ice sculpting and to play the piano expertly, the writer figured Phil was caught in his own Twilight Zone for more than 8 years. The film's director replied it would take much longer.
They are right. You can change direction in an instant but changing your attitudes and behaviors, conquering your fears, learning the difference between harmful desires and healthy ones, and developing your God-given talents takes a lot longer. And so Paul says we are transformed into the glorious image of Christ degree by degree. Like creating a masterpiece, it is a slow and painstaking process, one that doesn't have a shortcut. There is no paint by numbers version. It is a matter of observing, trying, and evaluating. In Christian parlance, reading God's word, emulating Jesus, and praying. And just like an artist has to be responsive to the inspiration of his or her muse, the work of becoming more Christ-like always involves responding to the Spirit of God. It is he who keeps us from slanting or exaggerating or underemphasizing certain features the way a bad artist does.

The point of the Christian life isn't keeping score on how good or how bad we do, much less on how other people are doing at it. We need to treat our mistakes the way an artist does--learn from them. Learn what doesn't work and what does. Learn what works in certain media. Painting is different with oils than it is with watercolors. Carving wood is different from carving stone. Showing God's love is different with different people and in different situations. Some people or situations need a soft touch; others need a firmer hand. Discerning which will work in a particular instance is a matter of experience and sensitivity to the Spirit.

As we become more Christ-like, another way in which faith is not like a game occurs to us. In a game, there is only one winner or one winning team. The point of points is keeping track of who's ahead. Being a good sport or being ruthless and taking advantage of others are equally good strategies if they lead you to victory. There are games where you can choose to hurt another player by making his card hand worse by trading cards with him or piling cards on him when the object is to rid yourself of them. In some sports, you can literally harm an opponent. You win by making others lose.

But for Christians you "win," so to speak, by making others into winners. You let anyone on your team who wants to join and follow the 2 main rules: love God with everything you've got  and love others as Christ loves you. So you can't throw others under the bus to benefit yourself. Jesus sure didn't look like a winner at the end of his mortal life. He looked like the biggest loser of all. But his self-sacrifice made it possible that no one need lose.

The world looks for winners and losers. It even admires winners if they were clever enough to game the system. But not in God's kingdom. God does not judge by who has the most points or the most money or the most toys or the most power. He judges by looking at the heart. He judges by whether you are becoming more Christ-like. Not more than others but whether you're more Christ-like than you were when you started out and if you are continuing that process. And it doesn't depend on your efforts so much as letting the Spirit work on you and in you.

Remember those parables where the people are left out of the wedding banquet because the bridegroom says, "I don't know you." He doesn't recognize them because they have let the image of God in them become totally effaced. But everyone who lets the Spirit restore that image is becoming more and more recognizable as the loving and lovable person God created them to be.

It's not a game. It's love. And in love, if you do it right, everyone wins.

The Bible Challenge: Day 41

The scriptures read are Leviticus 13-15, Psalm 35, and Mark 8.

Leviticus 13-15. Bet you didn't think that some of the longest Bible chapters you've read so far would be about pustules, running sores, skin diseases, fungus, bodily discharges and the like. As a nurse, I find it interesting and not at all off-putting, but some may be grossed out and others surprised that the Bible deals with such things. This is a community of people living in tight quarters before the invention of antibiotics or medicine in any scientific sense. Keeping infections from spreading through quarantine and washing was important. Heck, if we could get doctors and nurses to wash their hands more we could eliminate a lot of hospital infections. Sometimes simple is best. (BTW if you are reading an old translation, these diseases are called leprosy. It's not the same as what we call leprosy today. These sound more like psoriasis, eczema, and dermatitis.)

Psalm 35. The psalmist has many enemies. Part of this psalm sounds military but then it becomes about schemers. Yet when his enemies were sick, the psalmist felt bad and prayed for them. They did not reciprocate. So he turns to God for vindication.

Mark 8. Jesus feeds 4000 and no one gets it. The Pharisees want a sign (How about 4000 full bellies?) and the disciples get in a panic because they only brought one loaf of bread. Jesus can't believe they still don't see it. As Paul Newman says in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, "I got vision and the rest of the world needs bifocals!"

Speaking of which, Jesus heals a blind guy but it takes 2 tries to make him 20/20.

Then the big question. Exactly in the middle of Mark. Peter gets it "You are the Christ" and then proceeds to tell Jesus he's wrong about the death and resurrection part. Jesus doesn't promise them a rose garden. He's not going to skirt the painful necessity. He's heading right for it. If we're following him, we need to do the same.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 40

The scriptures read are Leviticus 10-12, Psalm 34, and Mark 7.

Leviticus 10. Big shock right up front in this chapter. Aaron's sons offer God "strange" fire (could also be translated fire "from outside") and they are burnt up. It sounds like they didn't use the coals from the altar but from somewhere else, thus breaking the meticulous instructions they were given. Also shortly after this, God forbids the priests to drink alcohol. No connection is made explicit but perhaps Nadab and Abihu were careless with the fire because they were not sober. Aaron is dumbfounded. But he and his other sons are still on duty so relatives have to handle the mourning duties.

Leviticus 11. The kosher rules begin. Certain animals can be eaten, others can't. Cows and goats are OK, but not rabbits, pigs or camels. Fish are OK but not, say, shellfish. Fine by me since science has confirmed that lobsters and shrimp are in the same family as spiders and cockroaches. Calling them "bugs" is prescience on the part of Keys folk. Certain insects are OK though, others aren't. Same with birds. Can't eat lizards and can't say that bothers me. Also no touching their dead bodies and their carcasses make things unclean. Again, a sensible rule. Why the food restrictions? Not sure but basically if it is acceptable as a sacrifice to God, it is acceptable to eat. There is some evidence that some of the unclean animals, like the pig, were offered to pagan gods.

Leviticus 12. Childbirth makes a woman unclean for a certain number of days. That means even her husband can't touch her. Nor during menstruation. I have read that Orthodox Jewish women like this. Gives them a break from horny husbands once a month. And the ritual baths of purification (not mentioned here) are like spa days.

Psalm 34. A psalm of praise but also an acrostic psalm, that is, each verse starts with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Great verses are 8, 9, and 19. 20 acknowledges that the righteous can suffer many misfortunes but God will protect them in the end.

Mark 7. There's one indisputable fact: you can keep all the kosher laws and still be evil. So Jesus says it's not what goes into you that makes you unclean; it's what comes out of you. The products of an evil imagination and heart make you unfit for God's presence.

Jesus heals a deaf mute and does a bit of pantomime to let the guy know what he (Jesus) is doing--clearing his ears and loosening his tongue. Jesus meets people where they are.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 39

The scripture read are Leviticus 7-9, Psalm 33 and Mark 6.

Leviticus 7-9. More sacrifice instructions and then Aaron and his sons are ordained and get started. Everything is done according to the meticulous instructions given.

Psalm 33. A psalm of praise for the Lord and his faithfulness. The psalmist rejoices in God's care for his people.

Mark 6. Jesus gets a mixed response from his hometown. Most of the people can't get past their knowing him since he was a kid.

Jesus sends out the Twelve as missionaries to preach and heal. In the meantime John the Baptist is beheaded for denouncing the adulterous relationship of Herod and his brother's wife. Herod guiltily thinks Jesus is John back from the dead. He liked to hear John preach in prison, though the things John said bothered him. But not enough to change his life or refuse to keep a stupid drunken promise.

The feeding of the 5000 is prompted by Jesus' compassion for the crowd. Peterson makes it clear in his translation that Jesus really did intend the disciples to feed the people. But they still don't understand the power they have.

Oh, yeah, and Jesus walks on water. The disciples don't get it. Are they slow or what?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 38

The scriptures read are Leviticus 4-6, Psalm 32, and Mark 5.

Leviticus 4-6. I love the fact that there is a way to absolve one for sinning unintentionally. That says sins are not arbitrary but real damage done to the community. And should one discover after the fact that he has done wrong, he needn't live with the guilt. By the way, tucked in this passage, at the beginning of chapter 5 is a civil law that if you witness a crime and don't come forward to testify, you are guilty. John Stuart Mill said, "Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing."

Psalm 32. The painful effects of unconfessed sin and the joy of being forgiven.

Mark 5. Jesus heals mentally and physically ill people, plus one who is dead!

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 37

The scriptures read are Leviticus 1-3, Psalm 31 and Mark 4.

Leviticus 1-3. Lots of priest craft right off the bat. Lots of details, some not for the squeamish or those who didn't grow up on farms. Bible scholars love this stuff. Your mileage may vary.

But a couple of points before you dismiss this out of hand. God is forging a nation that has lived for a long time in a foreign country with multiple gods. Strict monotheism is a hard concept to grasp (cf. the unpleasantness with the golden calf). So for the first time they are being given a concept of holiness, of things being set apart for God's purposes. And they are being given the means to expiate guilt when they fall short of God's and the community's standards. Communities need rules. And anthropologists have found out that nothing cements social ties like a moral matrix in which to operate and being asked to make sacrifices. This stuff is important to the Israelites even if it seems foreign to us.

Psalm 31. You know how sad songs paradoxically are just what you need when you are sad? Psalms about people in real distress work the same way. The psalmist is at a real low point. He pours out his heart to God. And in the end God hears and heals him.

Mark 4. The parable of the sower and the soils again. The good news for those spreading the good news is we are not responsible for who hears it and whether they do or don't respond properly. Spread the word!

A lot of Jesus' kingdom parables are about how slowly, subtly and unlikely is its growth. Since it grows in and among people, changing their lives, this is to be expected. Spiritual maturity is what God wants.

Jesus is so exhausted he is sleeping through a gale. The disciples wake him and he tells the weather to pipe down. He's short with the disciples, too. He's sleep-deprived and grouchy. I can relate.