Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 116

The scriptures read are 2 Samuel 19-21, Psalm 96 and Acts 11.

2 Samuel 19-21. David's grief for his rebellious son Absalom is demoralizing the troops. Joab gives David a stern talking to and David regains popularity by reviewing the troops. But there is a breakaway group following a fellow named Sheba. Joab goes after him with his usual bloody tunnel-vision. But then a woman of the town where Sheba is holed up strikes a bargain with Joab: they'll throw Joab Sheba's head if he'll stop besieging the city. Done.

Then there's a 3 year famine taken care of by honoring some grudges between the Gibeonites and the descendants of Saul. And the Philistines start acting up. But David discovers he know longer has the stamina of a young warrior and must leave fighting to his men.Especially when it comes to fighting giants.

Psalm 96. "Sing to the Lord a new song"

Acts 11. Peter has to justify baptizing Gentiles to the church in Jerusalem but then it becomes an acceptable evangelism field. Antioch is doing very well at it. Barnabas is sent to oversee it and he brings in Saul. In Antioch believers are first called Christians.

The Bible Challenge: Day 115

The scriptures read are 2 Samuel 16-18. Psalm 95 and Acts 10.

2 Samuel 16-18. The rest of the story of Absalom's rebellion told in 3 breathtaking chapters of intrigue and action. David encounters allies and enemies; his spies and plants in Jerusalem work out as planned; Joab once again acts with bloody pragmatism. David's heartbreak over Absalom's fate is affecting.

Psalm 95. Praising God as king and remembering the ingratitude of the people at Meribah.

Acts 10. Peter receives an odd vision of a non-kosher all-you-can-eat luncheon and then is summoned to meet with a Roman officer who is a Godfearer. Peter preaches the good news to them and the Gentiles start speaking in tongues, the sign that the Spirit has been poured out on them. Peter and his followers see no reason why they shouldn't baptize the whole lot.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 114

The scriptures read are 2 Samuel 13-15. Psalm 94 and Acts 9.

2 Samuel 13. The nastiness erupts in David's family. Ammon longs for his half-sister Tamar and a friend helps him cook up a pretext to get his sister alone. He rapes her and David neglects to discipline his firstborn son. So Absalom avenges his sister--2 years later. Not sure who is worse: the rapist or the patient, calculating murderer.

2 Samuel 14. Joab, David's right hand man, resorts to a bit of theater to get David to allow Absalom to return to Israel. But David will not see Absalom. Absalom keeps asking Joab to arrange a face-to-face. When Joab refuses to do so, Absalom has his field burned. That gets Joab's attention and he arranges a reconciliation with David. But doesn't anybody notice how ruthless and unscrupulous Absalom is?

2 Samuel 15. Absalom is one clever politician...or a sociopath. As if there's a big difference. He undermines his father's popularity and then gathers a large group of supporters, announces his kingship and marches on Jerusalem. David and his men escape on foot. But he leaves spies behind.

Psalm 94. An appeal for God to execute justice upon evildoers. God is also the sheltering rock and haven of the righteous and oppressed. He gives "tranquility in times of misfortune....When I am filled with cares, your assurance soothes my soul."

Acts 9. Saul, on a witch hunt for followers of the Way of Jesus, encounters the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. He is struck blind but healed by a Christian, who reluctantly followed instructions he got in a vision to go to this enemy of Christ. He restores Saul's sight and Saul starts preaching that Jesus is the Son of God, totally confusing Jews and Christians alike. He has to escape assassins in Damascus and goes to Jerusalem. The Christians there distrust him until Barnabas vouches for him.

Peter tours the churches, healing and raising the dead. But Peter still doesn't anticipate the Spirit's next move.

(Personal note: There may be a break of a few days in my blog. I'm having surgery in the morning. Hope to be back online in a few days.)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 113

The scriptures read are 2 Samuel 10-12, Psalm 93 and Acts 8.

2 Samuel 10. The Ammonites and the Arameans attack David's army. Bad news...for them.

2 Samuel 11-12. David's wandering eye gets him in big trouble. He sees and lusts after Bathsheba, the wife of one of his loyal soldiers, Uriah the Hittite. After sleeping with David, she finds out she's pregnant. David calls her husband home from the front to get him to sleep with his wife but Uriah won't enjoy any of the pleasures his fellow soldiers fighting at the front can't enjoy. So David sends him back to battle with sealed orders to have him put where he will be killed in battle. The perfect crime.

Except God knows what he did. Love Nathan's little story, playing on David's shepherd background to make him condemn himself. Unfortunately, David and Bathsheba are deprived of the fruit of their adultery, their son. David's reaction is heartbreaking. Their second son, however, is Solomon.

Psalm 93. God is king and earth is firm, despite the powerful breaking of the waves.

Acts 8. Some acts of Philip. Saul's persecution of Jesus' followers has the unintended consequence of scattering the Christians all over, where they preach the gospel to new groups, non-Jewish groups. Philip preaches to some Samaritans and they become believers, including Simon a magician. He baptizes them in the name of Jesus. A delegation from the mother church in Jerusalem comes to confirm the conversions and lay hands on the converts, sealing them with the Holy Spirit. Simon tries to buy the power of the Spirit and Peter sets him straight.

Later, at the Spirit's urging, Philips converts an Ethiopian eunuch. So Philip baptizes the first Gentile into the Christian faith. Also under the Old Covenant a eunuch could not be a worshiping member of God's people. God is doing something new!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Help or Harm?

In the Batman movie The Dark Knight, Alfred tells Bruce Wayne, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” That came back to me this week after the Boston bombing. But I’ve also been thinking a lot about a quote from the Rev. Fred Rogers, better known as TV’s Mr. Rogers. He said that when he was a boy and scary things were in the news, his mother told him, “Look for the helpers. There is always someone who is trying to help.” And he said, “I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong.” This quote has gone viral on the Internet. I’ve seen it on Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, Tumblr and other websites.
One of Jesus’ best known parables is that of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. The crux of the story is that when confronted with a man beaten and left for dead, only a depised Samaritan was willing to help him. A priest and a Levite cross to the other side of the road to avoid possible ritual contamination. The Samaritan not only renders first aid but takes the victim to an inn and pays for his care.  Jesus concludes his story with the command, “Go and do likewise.”
 Another widely known parable is that of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. He tells of the final judgment and the criteria is whether one has helped those one encounters who are hungry, thirsty, foreign, naked, sick or in prison. A third parable, found in Luke 16:19-31, is that of the rich man and Lazarus, where the rich man goes to hell for not doing anything for poor, sick Lazarus.
In all of these parables, what Jesus condemns is neglect, or what we might call sins of omission, not doing what we ought to have done to help others. Nor does Jesus say you must help everyone everywhere. Just your neighbor, although for Jesus that means whoever you actually lay eyes on. The Samaritan hadn’t met the robbery victim before. In the parable of the sheep and goats, Jesus says, over and over, “you saw me…” hungry, naked, etc. The sore-covered Lazarus was at the rich man’s gate, so he could hardly miss him. Your neighbor is anyone you meet or see, especially if they are in need.
Jesus practiced what he preached. He helped anyone he encountered, anyone who asked, anyone who had an obvious need, whether it was blindness, or leprosy, or a crowd who was hungry. Another thing Jesus did was help them when he first encountered them, even if it was inconvenient, such as he was tired or hungry himself. He helped even if it was the Sabbath.
Today we think Jesus’ opponents were petty, but to be fair, observing the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. A good deal of the Old Testament emphasizes how the Jews did not obey God’s commands and brought a great deal of grief onto themselves. During their exile, lacking the ability to make sacrifices in the temple, Jewish scholars reorganized their religion around scrupulous observance of the 613 commands found in the Torah. This lead to the rise of the Pharisees. Zealous Pharisees, such as the apostle Paul was, thought that if they could get all Jews to observe all the Torah for just one day, the Messiah would come. Thus they could not take seriously any candidate for Messiah who would violate such a basic commandment. Why couldn’t he wait until sunset to heal people?
Jesus gives several reasons. He points out that no one would hesitate to pull a farm animal out of a well on the Sabbath. Should we not treat a suffering human being as well as we do a donkey? He points out that God still is active on the Sabbath. He excludes doing good from the category of forbidden work. It wasn’t like Jesus was taking orders or doing carpentry on the Sabbath. He was healing and helping, activities totally appropriate for a day set aside for God.
By doing so, Jesus introduces a method for determining what to do when 2 ethical principles clash: when in doubt, do the thing that concretely helps a person in need. And indeed, modern Judaism recognizes preserving life as a valid reason to supersede any other religious law, except those against idolatry and murder. A person who is ill is exempt from rules that would compromise their health. During the Holocaust, Jews who were being hidden from the Nazis by Gentile neighbors did not have to keep kosher.
The reason this has been on my mind lately is that people no longer look at Christians as helpers. We are seen largely as people who, at best, obstruct helpful things being done for others and, at worst, do harm or allow harm to be done to people. We are seen as people who stand in the way of scientific advances and certain medical techniques. We are seen as people who substitute proof-texting for common sense. We are seen as people who are not only judgmental but hypocritical to boot. When did this happen? When did we switch from those who help to those who harm?
I think it began when we started to put other things before people. We created a framework of religious rules and rituals and traditions that we began to revere above the wellbeing of humans. It’s not that these things are necessarily bad in themselves. But when one discriminates against other Christians because of the manner in which they are baptized, or the way they make the sign of the cross, or the date on which they celebrate Easter, one is elevating secondary issues over primary ones, specifically the commandment to love one another as Christ loves us. And there is no warrant to not help or indeed to harm those who are not Christians. Jesus healed Gentiles. Even if we consider them enemies, Jesus commands us to love them. Since we must love our neighbors and our enemies, we have no one left to hate.
In fact, one of the things that made the ancient Romans reconsider Christianity was the fact that Christians stayed in the city when plague struck and took care of the sick and dying even at the risk of their own lives. They looked at the helpers and thought maybe there was some worth in the beliefs that motivated them.
In my 30 years as a nurse, I can report that the majority of my colleagues are religious people, most of them Christians. And I have been surprised at how many of the officers and members of the staff at the jail are religious. Several of those in positions of authority are quite active in their churches. I know of several officers who read their Bibles during quiet times on their shifts. A number have asked me to pray for them as well. And they appreciate my ministry among the inmates, especially in listening to those who are distraught.
And of course religious people are over-represented in charitable and non-profit organizations, even secular ones. All major denominations have ministries that not only help in times of disaster but which help in everyday problems like hunger, poverty, justice, literacy, immigration, the environment, people with disabilities, the elderly, those in prison, etc. Many hospitals got their start as church ministries.
So we do help. But you wouldn’t know it by looking at the media, even in Christian media. Church scandals and harsh words by preachers aimed at other people are easy to find. Reports on the average Christian or a local church helping people week to week are rare. I think we need to do something about that. I think we need to think of outreach not only as our duty to our fellow human beings but also as a form of evangelism. We need to let people know that God is not just interested their souls but their whole lives. We need to let people know that Christian theology is not just nice thoughts about the afterlife but an outline of how to live a more Christlike life now, the necessary precursor to eternal life with God.
Now is the time when we build the relationships, develop the moral muscles, master the spiritual gifts that will enable us to live in the fully realized kingdom. Astronauts train rigorously before going into space. Divers do the same before engaging in deep sea exploration. We must do the same if we are going to live in the rarified atmosphere of God’s paradise.
 And because it is a kingdom built on love, we must practice that by doing loving things for those we encounter in this life. A good deal of love is doing helpful things for others, filling needs, compensating for their weaknesses, supporting, listening, bandaging wounds, offering a shoulder, clearing away obstacles, consoling and encouraging. Those are all ways we can help each other.          
If there’s one thing this week has shown us is that there are those here to harm and those here to help. And because the men behind the bombing were religious, this justifies those who say religion is bad for society. We need to counter that perception. We need to highlight the good we do, not to earn pats on the back but to display the fruit of the Spirit. Jesus said we will know people’s character by the fruit they produce. Paul contrasts the fruit of the spirit with the what the flesh or unredeemed human produces, things like enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissension, factions and more. When people see us exhibit such behavior, they figure they don’t want any part of the tree that produces those things. Conversely, if they see Christians exhibiting love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, they may think, “I want those things” and become interested in following Jesus.
To follow Jesus is to be on the side of those who help. It is to be on the side of those who feed the hungry, who give water to the thirsty,  who give clothes to the naked, who welcome the stranger, who visit the sick and imprisoned, who rescue those in danger, who teach those who do not know better, who guide those who are lost, who support those who cannot walk, who protect those who are weak, who alert those who are sleeping, who encourage those who are despairing, who comfort those who are mourning, who speak for those who are voiceless, who stand with those who are alone.
People flocked to Jesus because he healed and helped; they stayed to follow him because of his words. We seem to have gotten that backward. We try to draw people primarily with words. But do we back them with our actions? Do we give freely because God has given to us freely? Do we give to all who ask? Do we repay evil with good? Friday night I reposted a lot of things on Facebook thanking the first responders for all they did in Boston. They all got “Likes.” I also reposted the following, “Jesus said to pray for your enemies: There is a 19 y/o man just taken into custody who has injuries. You know what to do.” I have 260 “friends” on Facebook, a good number of them clergy and devout Christians. Not a single “Like.”
When Charles Roberts, before committing suicide, shot 10 Amish girls and killed 5 of them in a one room school house in 2006, the Amish community reached out to Roberts’ family. They visited and comforted his widow, her parents and her parents-in-law. 30 of the Amish attended Roberts' funeral and they set up a charitable fund for his family. Some actually criticized the Amish for offering forgiveness when no repentance on Roberts’ part was shown, but they cited Jesus’ example of forgiving those who crucified him from the cross. While it did not undo the tragedy, they saw it as a first step towards a better future.
The desire for revenge does not lead to helpful action. Forgiveness and reconciliation do. How much better would this world be if those enmeshed in long-standing conflicts could let go of the past and forego vengeance, and start anew? If no peace can be contemplated until all wrongs are avenged, then we will never see peace in places like the Middle East, or parts of Africa, or India, or some of our inner cities. Violence begets more violence. The first step is to break the cycle of tit for tat violence. Only then can helpful dialogue and action begin.
Everyone realizes that there is something, or several things, wrong with the world. We may disagree on some of those things but I think we all agree that disease and disasters and death are all bad things. We think that people should not starve and that children should not be abused or killed. We believe that poverty and illiteracy and addiction are things which devastate lives. We may disagree on the causes but there is a great deal of agreement on what can be done to help those who are suffering from or in danger of these things. We need to concentrate on doing those things. We need to stop trying to fix blame on people and instead fix the problems. And to do that we need to be willing to work with anyone who is focused on the common good, even if we don’t agree on every particular. Remember, Jesus said whoever is not against us is for us.
Remember, too, that we are called by the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life for many. He said that if we want to come after him we must disown ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. He said what we do to others, we do to him.
So again I say, there are those in this world who seek to harm and those who seek to help. Which side do you think we are on? Why don’t more people know this? What are we going to do about that?  

The Bible Challenge: Day 111

The scriptures read are 2 Samuel 7-9, Psalm 92 and Acts 7.

2 Samuel 6-9. David decides to build God a house. But God says he's fine. David's son will build God's house. God will instead build the house of David, a family who will rule Israel forever.

David's reply to God for this gracious gift is one of the most beautiful prayers in the Bible. He is overwhelmed by God's promise and cannot understand why God is doing this to him.

David the warrior is unstoppable, defeating all his enemies. But he is tender to the lame son of Jonathan, his friend. He gives to that son, Mephibosheth (say that 5 times fast), all of his grandfather Saul's lands and has him take all his meals at the king's table, with David.

Psalm 92. A liturgical psalm, written for the Sabbath, that praises God and how he makes the righteous flourish.

Acts 7. Stephen recaps the history of his people from Abraham to the exile, emphasizing how they have strayed from God. Outraged members of the Sanhedrin stone Stephen but not before he sees a vision of Jesus at God's side and prays, like Jesus, for the forgiveness of his executioners. We also meet a young man named Saul, who watches the coats of those throwing the stones and who approves of Stephen's murder.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 110

The scriptures read are 2 Samuel 4-6. Psalm 91 and Acts 6.

2 Samuel 4. When are people gonna realize that David does not reward king-killers? Unless you consider death a reward.

2 Samuel 5. David is approached by the other tribes and is finally anointed king over all Israel.

David captures Jerusalem and makes it his city. (The enigmatic reference to the water system probably refers to the well shaft that connected the city with the spring in the valley. Either David cut off the water supply or his men may have chimneyed up the shaft to get into the city.) Zion is on a hill and therefore a good place to defend. No doubt David secured the water supply and the tunnel to it after making Jerusalem his.

2 Samuel 6. David fetches the Ark of the Covenant to consolidate the secular and spiritual power of Israel in one place, Jerusalem. Bit tricky getting the Ark there. Don't know why he didn't have Levites carry it as it was designed to be moved.

David gets carried away dancing before the Ark as it enters the city. Michel, his first wife, thinks he's flashing the ladies on purpose. There goes that relationship. But David has plenty of other women. Unfortunately.

Psalm 91. God protects the one who trusts him. Another beautiful and memorable psalm. Satan quotes verses 11 and 12 to Jesus during his temptation in the wilderness.

Acts 6. Tension develops between the Greek-speaking and Hebrew-speaking believers--all Jews at this point. The Hellenists think their widows are being discriminated against in the distribution of food to the poor in the church. The Apostles decide to delegate this ministry to a group of men whom the laity elect. Thus we get the creation of deacons, the first order of ordained ministry to emerge in the church. Synagogues had a similar office that dealt with taking up offerings and giving it to the most needy members. Among these deacons is Stephen who inspires envy and jealousy. So he is accused of what sounds like a combination of what Jesus and later Paul would be charged with: tearing down the temple and throwing out the law of Moses.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 109

The scriptures read are 2 Samuel 1-3, Psalm 90 and Acts 5.

2 Samuel 1. David learns of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan and makes up a lament. We get a reference to the Book of Jashar, a book that no longer exists. There are a number of these mentioned in scripture.

2 Samuel 2. David moves to Hebron and is crowned king of Judah. Saul's remaining son Ish-Bosheth is crowned king of the rest of Israel by Abner, the commander of Saul's army. Joab leads David's army. War breaks out between the houses of David and of Saul. Abner kills Joab's brother.

2 Samuel 3. David gets busy fathering 6 sons by 6 different women. This will turn out to be unwise.

Abner decides to sell out Ish-Bosheth to David. But after negotiations with David, Joab waylays Abner and kills him in revenge for his brother's death. David has to deny he had anything to do with this and makes Joab and his men lead Abner's funeral and make loud laments. But not as loud as David, who writes a song about Abner. The people of Israel accept David's innocence.

Psalm 90. A beautifully written reflection on man's mortality.

Acts 5. A husband and wife sell their land, keep some money back and give the rest to the church, apparently telling everyone they gave all the money. When they are exposed they drop dead. That gets everyone's attention.

The chief priest has the apostles arrested. But an angel releases them that night and they appear in the temple the next day preaching the gospel. When rearrested, Peter tells the Sanhedrin, "We must obey God rather than men." They almost kill them but famous rabbi Gamaliel gets up and gives some wise advice: if this is a human movement, it will eventually fall apart, But if God is behind it, you can't stop. In either case, don't kill them. So they are whipped and released and the apostles consider this an honor.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 108

The scriptures read are 1 Samuel 31, Psalm 89:19-52 and Acts 4.

1 Samuel 31. The sad end of Saul's troubled life and reign. His sons, including Jonathan, are also killed. Truly tragic.

Psalm 89:19-52. The psalmist reminds God of his promises to David and his line. Obviously there is no descendant of David on the throne. This must have been written during or after the Babylonian exile. Christians would see Jesus as the answer to the psalmist's anguished questions.

A doxology ends this section of the psalms.

Acts 4. Peter and John are arrested for preaching  and healing in Jesus' name. They are let go with threats against them should they do it again, but they are not intimidated. They pray for even more boldness.

The early church members are selling their property and putting it in a common purse, which is distributed to each member according to his or her need. Sounds like communism. Was it inspired by the Holy Spirit?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 107

The scriptures read are 1 Samuel 28-30, Psalm 89:1-18, and Acts 3.

1 Samuel 28-30. The only ghost story in the Bible! Saul is desperate and though he's cleansed Israel of all mediums, when God won't answer his prayers, he finds a witch at Endor and has her call up the spirit of Samuel. Samuel gives Saul the bad news. He will lose the battle and he and his sons will join Samuel in death. Creepy! Saul is devastated.

Meanwhile it looks as if David is going to fight on the side of the Philistines against Israel. The Philistines don't trust him and send him home. David returns to Ziklag to find it burned and all the inhabitants gone. The Amalekites have taken all the people as prisoners. This chapter is as suspenseful as anything on TV. Will David catch up with the Amalekites? Are his wives still alive? Read and find out.

Psalm 89:1-18. Praising God for his faithfulness and justice.

Acts 3. Peter and John heal a lame beggar who proceeds to boogie and praise God and draw attention. So Peter uses the opportunity to preach. He, by the way, says the Jews and the leaders of the people did not know what they were doing. There goes a major justification for anti-Semitism among Christians.

BTW Peter calls Jesus the Prince of Life. Not a common title for Christ.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 106

The scriptures read are 1 Samuel 25-27, Psalm 88, and Acts 2.

1 Samuel 25. The man who anointed David king dies and David, still on the lam, can't go to his funeral. Instead, we get a story about a fool named Fool (Nabal--seriously, what kind of parents name their kid Fool?) who not only doesn't want to help David out for guarding and not molesting his sheep but who insults the man reputed for killing 10s of thousands of Philistines. Luckily his wife Abigail has a good head on her shoulders and gives provisions to David and his men just as they were about to turn her hubby into a dead fool. When Nabal finds out what she's done he has a heart attack and dies anyway. David marries Abigail. Oh, and he's married some other woman as well. Remember God's warning that kings tend to accumulate wives? David's eye for a pretty face will get him into trouble some day.

1 Samuel 26. David shows his daring by slipping into Saul's camp and stealing his spear and a water jug from where the king slept. David is trying to show he is not a threat to Saul but he still doesn't trust his moods.

1 Samuel 27. David goes and settles in Gath with the Philistines!!! Running into Goliath's family must have been awkward so he moves to Ziklag. Thank God he doesn't make it the capital of Israel later. I don't think I would like singing "Ziklag, my happy home."

Psalm 88. A cry of near despair from a desperately ill person. And no note of hope at the end!

Acts 2. The Day of Pentecost, a harvest festival, arrives and the Spirit of God is poured out on the disciples. The Jewish pilgrims from every part of the known world hear them preaching but each in his local language. Then Peter gets up and preaches the basic gospel message: Jesus is the Messiah. He was crucified but God raised him again. Turn your lives around, get baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and receive the gift of God's Holy Spirit. 3000 respond. This community listen to the apostle's teachings, worship together, eat together and share their resources. The church is born!

Monday, April 15, 2013


The scriptures referred to are Acts 9:1-20 and John 21:1-19. 
I’m only speaking as an amateur, but what an actor really loves in a part is a character with an arc. That is, you want a character who changes over the course of a play, movie, TV show, etc. You want him or her to be different, if only somewhat so, at the end than he or she was at the beginning. You want the character to be wiser, or deeper, or more conflicted, or less conflicted. Even if he is a villain, you want him to have learned something or revealed something about himself. In Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman’s character, Raymond, was, by nature of his autism, unable to change. Tom Cruise, as his brother, Charlie, was the one to had to change, from a callous jerk to a man who not only learned to love his brother but to love him enough to let him go back to an environment where, Charlie realizes, Raymond would get better care. It’s a subtle performance with no big moment where his character suddenly reforms, just gradual change.
Of course, sudden change is fun for an actor. Scrooge’s total transformation on Christmas Day, if done right, should be both believable and delightful. And indeed we see both kinds of change in real people. Most people change over time, such as George Wallace, who seems to have sincerely changed from racist to a man who tried to make amends to the people he used to despise. Some make a dramatic 180 degree turn, such as St. Francis, the rich dandy and would-be warrior who gave his father's expensive clothes to the poor and tried to negotiate an end to the Crusades.
Today we see both kinds of change in 2 key men in the history of Christianity. In our passage from Acts, we read about Saul’s Damascus Road experience.  We first meet Saul at the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Saul was a zealous Pharisee, who believed the Messiah would return if every Jew would follow the law for just one day. Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah in his mind and the idea that faith in Christ was sufficient to save a person was an affront to him.
Now this heresy had spread to Damascus, a major city 60 miles north east of the Sea of Galilee. Located on 2 major highways, connecting Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean  and the city with Arabia, it was often a staging area for armies. And the perfect place to spread the contagion of Christianity to the rest of the world.
So Saul sets out with letters from the high priest to the synagogues of Damascus that will give him authority to bring any Christians he finds there back to Jerusalem as prisoners. At this point, remember, all Christians are Jews. And Damascus had a Jewish population of up to 18,000.
The trip there from Jerusalem is 150 miles, almost a week’s travel.  As Saul approaches his destination, a bright light flashes around him from heaven. Saul falls to the ground. And then he hears a voice. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Putting together all of Paul’s accounts of the event, his companions seem to hear the voice but not the content. Perhaps it sounds like thunder to them. Saul understands the voice and asks, “Who are you, Lord?” At first that sounds absurd. If he is unsure who is speaking, why is he calling the voice’s owner “Lord?” But the word could also mean the equivalent of “sir.”  Then comes the reply, which will change forever Saul’s life. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Saul gets up from the ground, blinded by the light. He is taken by his companions into the city, where he fasts from all food and drink for 3 days. While he is there, the Lord appears to a man with the quite common name of Ananias, one of the Christians Saul would have brought back to Jerusalem in chains. He is told that that not only is Ananias having a vision, he is also a subject of a vision by a man named Saul of Tarsus. Jesus wants him to heal Saul. Ananias has heard of this persecutor of the church and is not anxious to meet him. But the Lord has plans for Saul, his chosen instrument to spread the name of Jesus to the Gentiles and to kings and to the people of Israel. So Ananias goes to the place when Saul is staying. He greets Saul as a brother in Christ, lays hands on him and Saul can see once more—physically, that is. Saul lost his spiritual blindness on the road to Damascus. Soon he is proclaiming in the synagogues the faith he was trying to destroy, that Jesus is the Son of God.
Saul’s story is a conversion story of sorts, although he would not say that he had changed religions. He just saw that Jesus was the fulfillment of his Judaism. Peter’s story, in our passage from John, isn’t even close to a conversion story. For Peter, the change is more subtle.
It’s after the resurrection and Jesus appears to the disciples and teaches them for about 40 days. He seems to come and go, as if he is weaning them gradually from his physical presence. During one of the intervals where Jesus is with his Father, Peter and 6 other disciples decide to go fishing one last time. And they have a miserable night. No fish. Then someone asks how they were doing and tells them to try the other side of the boat. They do so and soon their net is so full they can’t drag it back into the boat. It was this, I’ll bet, that clued John in as to who was the helpful guy on shore. He probably remembered another time when they had fished all night in vain. Jesus had come by in the morning and used the boat as a pulpit, where he could comfortably preach to the crowds without being mobbed. Afterword, Jesus told Peter to push out into deeper water and put out his nets again. Peter did so reluctantly and suddenly had so many fish his nets were about to burst. Jesus told them they would be fishing for people next.
John says to Peter, “It is the Lord!” Peter realizes the same thing. He throws on his tunic and throws himself into the sea, swimming for the shore 100 yards away. They haul in the fish and Jesus cooks them breakfast. And after that Jesus talks to Peter.
For once Peter is not his usual boisterous, boastful self. Jesus asks Peter if he loves him “more than these”, meaning either the trappings of his career as a fisherman or, more likely, meaning more than the other disciples do. Remember that at the Last Supper, Peter claimed that even if all the others fell away from Jesus, he would not. And yet he denied Jesus 3 times. When asking, Jesus uses the Greek word agapao which is love apart from that of family, romance or friendship. It is benevolent, charitable love, the love with which God loves us and with which we should love God.
When Peter replies, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,” he uses phileo, a Greek word which means to be a friend to someone. After denying Jesus at the High Priest’s house, Peter cannot claim having a high, noble love for Jesus. He can only say he loves Jesus like a friend. Jesus’ reply: “Feed my lambs.”
 Jesus asks again using the nobler word for love and Peter again can only say he is Jesus’ friend. Jesus says, “Shepherd my sheep.”
Jesus asks, “Simon, son of John, do you love me like a friend?” This time he uses the word Peter prefers. Peter is hurt that Jesus asks again. ”Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you!” To which Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”
It was too painful for Peter to realize at the time but Jesus was helping him. He had denied Jesus 3 times when given the opportunity to say he did know and follow him. When we look back on the last time we saw someone just before their death, our biggest regret comes if we said something harsh or hurtful. Peter’s last words in Jesus’ hearing before his crucifixion was “I do not know the man.” Now Jesus gives Peter the opportunity to tell Jesus that he loves him 3 times. Whatever happens from this point on, Peter knows he has made his true feelings for his Lord and friend known.
When we look at these turning points for these two men, it is interesting to compare and contrast them. Saul’s trajectory was truly turned by 180 degrees. His direction was changed, though his zeal was not. Once an enemy of Jesus, he became one of his greatest ambassadors.
Peter had not set out to be an enemy of Jesus but a follower. He had stumbled badly. He had failed out of fear. He didn’t need to be turned around so much as helped back onto the path from which he had strayed. While Saul’s change was a reversal, Peter’s was a return and restoration. Both changes were painful.
There is a reason people don’t like change. It is painful, whether just slightly or a lot. Some familiar things are lost. Change schools or jobs or towns and you lose daily, easy contact with certain people. Routines are upended, discarded, replaced. When we moved here, my son complained about the “viscosity” of the light. I’m not sure what he meant exactly, but things looked and probably felt different. There is comfort in familiarity. The unfamiliar is disconcerting...and dangerous. You can navigate the familiar easily. The new may have hazards you haven’t yet discovered. You need to be alert and learn your way around things.
For Saul this was obvious. He had switched sides. What he thought was bad is good now. What he thought was good is bad. He thought he was serving God but he now realizes he was fighting him.  Now he can serve him. But how? Paul tells us in Galatians that after his Damascus experience, he went to Arabia, no doubt to get away from everything familiar and sort out the new situation he was in. He had to rethink everything he thought he knew about God, sin, righteousness, faith, obedience, and especially Jesus. He had to find out what his place was in this brave new world where the old rules no longer apply. Saul was literally looking at the world with new eyes.
For Peter it must have felt different, weird. In a way, things were going to be sorta like they used to be, but kinda not. Jesus was back and Peter was with him. And yet things had changed here too. This was not Jesus, the man called by God to proclaim new life. This was Jesus, once dead and now alive, changed, possibly not human, or more than human. It’s like meeting a friend from high school except he didn’t get bald and fat since then but lost the baby fat and is slim and handsomer than he was--times 1000. All the gospels indicate that Jesus was not immediately recognizable after his resurrection. It’s like the disciples had to look and say, “Oh my God, that is you! You look great!” Except no one had to say, “What happened to you, man?” They knew: he was dead and now he’s alive. That changes a person.
But just like seeing that old friend who’s better than ever, you realize that you haven’t got more awesome since high school. In Peter’s case, he knows he’s gotten worse. He denied Jesus, ran off and didn’t dare show his face at Jesus’ public execution. Now Peter had done and said stupid things before. But this was worse. He let his friend down and just when Jesus needed him the most. So Peter is feeling guilty and awkward. He wants to forget all that and just pretend things are still the same. But they aren’t and deep down, he knows it.
For Peter, this isn’t about getting familiar with a whole new world. It’s more like going back to your home town after having failed spectacularly, after a scandal and disgrace, after getting out of jail or like returning home after having an affair. This is about how do you navigate what used to be familiar when you’re the one that doesn’t quite fit. Perhaps Peter’s desire to go fishing once more was his way of trying to recapture his life before he met Jesus and had everything turned upside down. Or the early days, when they were great friends and Peter hadn’t betrayed him.
In these situations, it helps to have a guide. In both of these cases, that guide is the risen Christ. For Saul, Jesus tells him he’s heading in the wrong direction. For Peter, Jesus tells him that he still wants him to shepherd his sheep. For Saul, Jesus is saying “Welcome aboard.” For Peter, he’s saying, “Welcome back.” But like a good guide, Jesus doesn’t say “This will be a piece of cake from now on.”
Most people only make changes when they have to. Usually they have to get to the point where not making the change is getting too painful to bear, and any pain the change creates will still be a relief from the worse pain of not changing.  Jesus, to be fair, never pretends that change is painless. He tells Ananias regarding Saul “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” He tells Peter the manner in which he will go to his death. He acknowledges that following him will take them through some rough terrain. He isn’t promising that it will be easy; just that they will make it.
To paraphrase The Princess Bride, change is painful. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something. Want to lose weight? Eat less and exercise more. Want to learn a new skill? Spend 10,000 hours studying and practicing. Want to give up a bad habit? Change your lifestyle and maybe even your friends. Want a new life? Expect pain. Then attach yourself to someone who’s done it. Someone like Jesus.
Saul went from trying to kill new believers to crucifying the old man within and allowing Christ to make him a new creation. So much so that he stopped calling himself Saul, after the first king of Israel who came from his tribe of Benjamin, and started calling himself Paul, which means “little.” Perhaps this was his middle name. And perhaps it was a reminder to Paul that he was the last of the apostles to whom the risen Christ appeared and commissioned as well as, by Paul’s own estimation, the least of them.
Peter went from a guy who couldn’t confess to knowing Jesus to a guy who when explicitly told to stop preaching Jesus said, “We must obey God rather than human authorities.” Both he and Paul braved threats and imprisonment. Paul was whipped and stoned. Peter faced death for his faith, crucified head down. Paul met his death with his head on the chopping block. Both went to their deaths confident that beyond it lay a bigger change that would be, ironically, less traumatic. And that’s because this would not be a change in their perception or their direction but their arrival at their destination. Their journey would be over. They would be where they should be.
Paul, in prison, contemplating his probable execution, wrote, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” He was not the same man who went charging up to Damascus, breathing murderous threats against those who followed Jesus. He had changed. He has become one of them and led many more to Christ. Whether his earthly life continued or his heavenly life began, he knew he would be either be serving Christ or in the presence of Christ and that was all to the good.
And in his first letter, Peter writes, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ…” This coming from a man who lied to save his skin when Jesus entered his suffering. But Peter had changed. And the cause of the change is hinted at in an earlier verse, when Peter says, “Above all, love each other dearly, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” Here he uses the word meaning not friendship but agapao, the word for higher love.  That’s what changed him: Jesus’ love covered Peter’s sins. As he writes at the end of the letter, “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen and establish you.” And the whole time, I bet Peter was thinking of that conversation after breakfast on the shore, when, in spite of what had happened, Jesus offered him again his love and his friendship and his trust in him to feed his sheep.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 104

The scriptures read are 1 Samuel 22-24, Psalm 87 and Acts 1.

1 Samuel 22. These chapters are starting to feel like they are resorting to movie and TV tropes and yet, because the Bible predates them, God should be demanding royalties from them. Last chapter David tricks a priest out of sacred bread and Goliath's sword, like a conman, then pulls a Hamlet (pretends to be crazy so the king of Gath doesn't kill him), Now he's Robin Hood, living in the forest of Hereth and gathering a band of misfits and outlaws. And Saul has gone full-blown Sheriff of Nottingham, killing all the priests of God in Nob. One, Ahimelech, escapes and joins David as his friar Tuck. David drops his parents off with the sympathetic king of Moab to protect them.

1 Samuel 23. David, the good outlaw, rescues the town of Keilah from the Philistines and then has to flee Saul. Saul almost catches David and his band of men when he is called away to fight off some Philistines. This whole section has the feeling of a breathless chase scene, like the super-posse sequence in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  

1 Samuel 24. David and his men are hiding in a cave and Saul picks that cave to use as a latrine. While he's doing his business, David creeps up and cuts off a piece of Saul's robe. When Saul leaves, David goes to the mouth of the cave and calls to Saul. He shows him the piece of his robe to prove he could have killed Saul but didn't. Saul bursts into tears and admits David is right and Saul is wrong. It really seems like Saul is suffering from bipolar disease. His story is tragic in the classical sense.

Psalm 87. A difficult psalm to translate, so I'm going with Peterson's idea. Jerusalem, God's chosen city, is the talk of the known world. Famous folks are born there and known even among the Gentiles. It's the source of God's blessings.

Luke1. The sequel to his gospel. It seems to have been planned as a 2-part work. We don't know who Theophilus is but my favorite theory is that he was an official of the Roman Empire and that Luke-Acts was written as a brief for Paul's defense before the Emperor.

Jesus ascends and the disciples go back to Jerusalem. First order of business: elect someone from their ranks to fill Judas' spot. (We get a different story of Judas' demise here than in Matthew. They can be harmonized. If Judas did hang himself and his body wasn't found in the hot climate of Judea, decomp would progress, gases would bloat his corpse and Luke's scenario would then kick in. If you have questions, watch enough C.S.I. episodes and you'll learn the gross truth.) The lot falls on Matthias, someone who was with Jesus from John's baptism and witnessed his resurrection. It's likely Matthias was one of the 70 Jesus sent out to heal and preach. The ranks of the apostles filled, they are waiting for the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 103

The scriptures read are 1 Samuel 19-21, Psalm 86 and John 21.

1 Samuel 19-21. Daring Jonathan finds a kindred spirit in fearless David. This is one of the most beautiful pictures of friendship in the Bible. But Saul is rapidly learning to hate David because of his popularity with the people and his military successes. Part of this might be Saul's escalating mood disorder.

I notice Peterson cleans up the nature of the "evidence" that David brings back to prove he's killed 1000 Philistines. They were their foreskins, surely the weirdest and grossest bride price ever paid. Saul probably thought David would get killed before he got to that number. I imagine the Philistines fought harder when they knew what was at stake.

Saul seems to fluctuate wildly in his feelings about David. One moment he's trying to skewer him; the next he's marrying him to his daughter. After one spear chucking and ducking, David hotfoots it to Samuel while his wife Michal pulls the old "idol under a sheet with the goat's hair wig" switcheroo. (An idol in a royal household? And one the size of a man? Sounds like Saul isn't keeping his religion as kosher as he should.)

Then Saul sends men to get David at Ramah with Samuel. But they run into a bunch of prophets and end up speaking in ecstasy. Saul sends another squad and the same thing happens. Then another but they too end up  in a prophetic rapture as well. Then Saul goes himself and--you guessed it--he gets "prophetized." In fact, he ends up naked and prophesying. (I want this as a superpower!) Unfortunately, the whole "Saul among the prophets" saying takes on a mocking connotation at this point. This does not look good for the king.

David and Jonathan dream up a ruse to see if Saul is serious about killing David. David's sure about this but Jonathan is giving his dad the benefit of the doubt. Read the passage for the particulars but David and Jonathan's last farewell is very touching. Of course in those days (and it's still true in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures) guys were freer to express their affections to each other, much like women do with their friends in our culture. If they dramatized this today, they'd have 'em punch each other in the arm and say, "Love you, bro," while shuffling their feet awkwardly. Real men show their emotions. Read Homer.

Psalm 86. A person asks God for help, confident that God will do so. Verse 5 is used in the Jewish liturgy for the High Holy Days.

John 21. A night on the Sea of Galilee (Sea of Tiberias is an alternate name) yields no fish. Then Jesus, on shore, tells them to try the other side. Suddenly it's a fish bonanza! Same boat, same guys, same place but listen to what Jesus says and you get different results.

Jesus does a kind of reconciliation ritual with Peter, balancing out his 3 denials. And we get the origin of the rumor than John would live till Jesus returns. Given that John lived well into his 90s you can see how people began to believe this.

John wraps up his gospel with the fact that, while he's supplied a lot of the details the other gospels hadn't, there's stuff Jesus did that even he hasn't recorded. There aren't enough books to cover it all. Good way to look at the Bible: what it gives us about God is essential and true but not exhaustive. There's more to learn. And we learn it by following Jesus.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 102

The scriptures read are 1 Samuel 16-18, Psalm 85 and John 20.

1 Samuel 15. Saul goes up against the Amalekites but lets his men keep some plunder. That's the last straw and God rejects him as king. Samuel nevertheless grieves for Saul.

1 Samuel 16. God tells Samuel to go to Bethlehem and anoint the next king. Samuel goes to a guy named Jesse with a lot of sons. But every one he presents, God rejects. Turns out Jesse didn't call his youngest in from the field, where he was shepherding the sheep. That's the one God wants. People judge based on externals; God looks at the heart. (There is a tradition that David was a ginger, though.)

As soon as the God's Spirit enters David, it leaves Saul. Saul gets depressed and one of his servants knows of this young harpist named...David. Saul likes him. So David plays his harp when Saul is in one of his depressive moods. Kinda ironic; kinda sad.

1 Samuel 17. A really big Philistine named Goliath (How big? About the size of this guy here) starts trash talking the Israelites. He offers to settle the whole matter between the two peoples if an Israelite will just go mano a mano with him. No takers.

David is bringing provisions to some of his brothers who are in the army. He hears Goliath's trash talk and is unimpressed. Some of the troops tell him whoever takes down Goliath gets a reward and the king's daughter, to boot. David is interested. Besides he's taken on bears and lions while protecting his sheep. He's even killed them bare-handed. Is David inflating his resume a tad? Is he bragging a bit?

Saul tells David why he can't go up against the giant but David is determined. Saul puts his armor on David but Saul's a big guy himself and David can't move in all that gear. He just takes his staff, sling and some stones. He's gonna need stones to go up against giant Goliath of Gath.

You know the rest. Zip! Bam! Chop! Goliath just got shorter. Saul asks Abner to get the info on this kid and his family.

Psalm 85. An appeal for God to forgive his people and restore the nation. Best lines: "Faithfulness and truth meet; justice and peace kiss. Truth springs up from the earth; justice looks down from heaven." Remember, justice and peace are often at odds. To obtain justice, you sometimes have to disrupt the carefully kept peace. To keep peace, justice is sometimes ignored. But in God's kingdom, the two come together.

John 20. John's account of the resurrection is not only the most detailed but is a beautifully told story. John ignores the other women and focuses on Mary of Magdala, a woman who was very ill when Jesus healed her (he cast 7 demons out of her). So Mary feels very indebted to Christ and is clearly very upset by the disappearance of his body.

Her grief is palpable and so is her joy. I like Peterson's translation of "Don't cling to me" rather than the traditional "Do not touch me." She is so happy she can't let go of him. He's saying, "I'm still here! Ease up."

P.S. Note the carefully constructed Biblical symmetry. A man and a woman in a garden, a new creation...ring any bells?

Another famous story: doubting Thomas. I don't think Thomas' problems were intellectual so much as emotional. He was the one who said, "Let's go to Jerusalem and die with him." I think he can't let himself believe that deeply again, not on the word of grief-crazed women and friends. Only when he sees Jesus, big as life, can the relief of belief come flooding back into his own life.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 101

The scriptures read are 1 Samuel 13-15, Psalm 84 and John 19.

1 Samuel 13-15. Some rousing tales of war, as well as of Saul overstepping his role as king, taking on the role of priest at times. His rashness almost gets his son Jonathan killed.

Jonathan comes off as a daring warrior with a practical mind his father lacks. We also meet for the first time a loyal warrior named Abner who will figure into the story of David's kingship

Psalm 84. A beautiful ode to God's temple, possibly sung by pilgrims coming to Zion. Nicely done pastoral image of a swallow nesting next to God's altar.

John 19. Pilate lets his soldiers have fun with Jesus and then proposes releasing him. The crowd will have none of it. (The crowd is probably a put up affair. It's the Day of Preparation and the average Jew was at the temple getting his lamb slaughtered for Passover. For more on this and Pilate's caving in, click here.)

Fascinating to compare John's account with those of the other gospels. Once again he supplies missing details. Only he records that the sign above Jesus said "King of the Jews" in 3 languages and that it triggered another irritable exchange between Pilate and the religious leaders. Mark tells us that Pilate was surprised that Jesus died so quickly and asked for confirmation. John tells us of the method of confirmation.

So Joseph lays Jesus' body in the new tomb and that should be that.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


This topic comes from our Sermon Suggestion box.
If you had to bet what environment on earth would not support life, you could do worse than guessing someplace at the bottom of the ocean, where there’s  crushing pressure and no light, near a thermal vent on the sea floor where the water is boiling and the area is filled with dissolved minerals and noxious chemicals. And you’d lose that bet. There are in fact myriads of creatures which thrive in this environment. There are bacteria which live on the otherwise toxic chemicals spewing out of the earth’s mantle, using a process called chemosynthesis. There are creatures that feed on these bacteria and 8 foot long tube worms that feed on them and in which the bacteria live. There are crabs and millions of shrimp who feed on the tube worms. There is apparently no place in our world where life cannot and does not exist.
If God is so prolific in populating the creation we see (although we did not see the sea vent ecosystem until relatively recently), how about the creation we do not see? According to the Bible, the spiritual realm is filled with angels. Unfortunately, most of what you know about angels is probably wrong. They are not the spirits of people who have died. They are not fat, cuddly, flying babies. They are not winged humanoids. They don’t live on clouds, carrying harps. They don’t have glowing rings floating over their heads. Most of those images come from classical art and cartoons.
Both the Greek and Hebrew words for “angel” mean the same thing: messenger. The primary function of angels is to communicate God’s message. In the heavenly court, they behold his face and praise him. On earth they are his ambassadors, listening to and carrying out his word (Psalm 103:20). As such, they are his servants.
Angels' first appearance in the Bible might be as the audience or heavenly court to whom God is speaking in Genesis 1:26: “Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness…” But they are definitely referred to in Genesis 3 where God sets the cherubim to guard the Tree of Life after the expulsion of the first humans from the Garden of Eden. That seems to be the primary function of cherubim. They are guardians and their name possibly means “mighty.” They are depicted on the lid of the Ark of the Covenant, which held the stone tablets, a bowl of manna and the first priest Aaron’s flowering staff. The ark was kept in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The curtains of this inner sanctum also depicted cherubim and in Solomon’s Temple, there were 2 cherubim carved of olivewood and covered with gold, 10 cubits or 15 feet high with 7 ½ foot wings. Ezekiel sees a vision of them supporting God’s throne, or perhaps serving as his living throne,  and his description of these creatures is terrifying and disorienting, perhaps indicating how hard it is to describe them in words.
From what we see, there are hierarchies of angels and various functions, though the Bible never lays these out in any systematic way. The elaborate angelology you might read about in some sources is often derived from the period between and after the 2 Testaments and in the Middle Ages. But there is Biblical evidence for a few distinctions. There are angels and archangels, there are Cherubim, of course, and the Seraphim, which Isaiah saw in a vision. They have 6 wings and fly around God’s throne singing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Their name means literally “the burning ones.” The Seraphim and Cherubim are the only angels with wings.
Aside from these 2 types, the angels whom people encounter look human. They often have to say, “Be not afraid,” perhaps because they are dazzlingly bright. Most are not given any individual characteristics. Three, however, stand out.
One is Michael, one of only 2 named angelic beings. His name means “Who is like God?” He is an archangel, described as a great prince by Daniel and appears to be the defender of the people of Israel. He is described as fighting Satan, expelling him and his angels from heaven. In Catholic iconology, he is depicted as armored and fighting the dragon from Revelation.    
The other named angel is Gabriel. His name means “strong man of God.” He appears 4 times in the Bible. Twice he appears to Daniel to interpret a vision and to give a prophesy. In the New Testament, he announces the conceptions of John the Baptist and then Jesus. 
The third angel who is an important figure in the Bible is the Angel of the Lord. This angel is so close to God that he acts as his personal agent and spokesman. He speaks not only for God but as God using the first person singular. The line between him and God himself is blurred, leading some to see him as a theophany or manifestation of God. Alternately some think he is the pre-Incarnated Christ, though this could only be true for his appearances in the Old Testament, obviously. Or he might be Gabriel, who describes himself as standing in the presence of God . Isaiah calls the Angel of the Lord “the angel of his presence.” Whoever he is, the Angel of the Lord is so close to God that in dealing with or speaking to him, one is essentially dealing with or speaking to God.
One last category of angels that people are interested in are guardian angels. The term never appears in scripture but the concept seems apt, especially to angels like Michael who guards Israel. But Jesus says something interesting in Matthew 18:10, “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.” Many take this to refer to guardian angels, assigned to each child, or perhaps “little ones” means those with childlike faith. This might account for the story in Acts 12, in which Peter is unexpectedly released from prison and people are so skeptical that when Rhoda the maid says she’s seen Peter at the door, they insist it must be his angel.
If some of the information on angels seems sketchy it is because they are messengers of God and not gods themselves. The Bible generally stays ruthlessly on message and focusing on the trivia of angels is rather like getting a communiqué from the President and being more interested in the messenger than his boss or his boss’s message. What if the shepherds at Christmas had been proclaiming what a great sight the angels were but, if asked what the angels said and sang, replied that they were less interested in that and hadn’t paid attention?
Angels are interesting but their messages are what is crucial. They reveal God’s will at key events in the saga of his working out our redemption. The Angel of the Lord calls to Moses from the burning bush and commissions him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. From this message we learn that God hears his people cry out under oppression, that he is a God who is there for those who call upon his name and obey him, that he has a plan and prepares those he calls to carry it out. Gabriel announces Christ’s conception to Mary. From this we learn that Mary’s son Jesus is God’s son. Angels announced Jesus’ birth to the shepherds. From this we learn that God has provided a savior from the line of David, a Messiah who was nevertheless born poor. Angels spoke to the women who came to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. From them we learn that Jesus is risen. In Revelation an angel reveals the Bride of the Lamb, the new Jerusalem, where God will dwell with his people, where God will wipe the tears from our eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning, pain or crying. That outlines most of the good news.    
Angels are also, as it says in Hebrews, “ministering spirits.” They protect God’s people, such as ushering Lot and his family out of doomed Sodom, and protecting the rear of the Israelites fleeing Pharaoh’s army. Angels feed Elijah in the desert as he flees from Queen Jezebel’s wrath. They minister to Jesus after his 40 days of temptation in the wilderness and at Gethsemane as he prays in anguish before the events of his passion.
The Holman Bible Dictionary summaries the work of angels under 3 categories: proclamation, protection and punishment. As part of the latter function, they carry out God’s judgment on the wicked, such as on Sennacherib’s troops besieging Jerusalem, or on Herod Agrippa 1 for his arrogance, or as the angels dispensing plagues in the end times do in the book of Revelation.
Now because the Bible doesn’t use special words for angels but the regular words for messenger, there are instances where a human being carrying a message is called by the same word used for angels. And it is in that sense alone that we can be angels of God. We can proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, God’s son, our Savior and Lord. We can minister to others like they do.
I do think we need to refrain from their function of punishment. Unlike the first two functions, there seem to be no shortage of people willing to punish other people for their sins or perceived sins. In fact, neurologists have found that people get pleasure out of punishing those they feel are bad. Too much pleasure, judging by the tone some people take when describing, with almost loving detail, the evils others commit and the punishments they deserve. It’s best we leave the judging to Jesus, as it is his job, and we concentrate on our job of proclaiming the good news and ministering to the needs of others.
The updated American Sherlock Holmes series “Elementary” just introduced a Mrs. Hudson, the housekeeper. For us fans, it was a nice touch. But though a character in the books, she is not, strictly speaking, essential to the stories. One other important character, who has only been portrayed once in all the hundreds of TV, movie and radio dramatizations of the Holmes stories, is Stamford. He’s the acquaintance who introduces Watson to Holmes. And he has only ever been shown in the first episode of the updated British series called “Sherlock.” To be fair, he never appears in any of the printed stories except the first, either. Someone had to bring the two main characters together. But it is what those two do together that is the essence of the saga.
Angels are like Stamford. They have functions to perform in serving God. But, like Stamford, they are not at the center of the drama. To get too hung up on them is to skew one’s perception of the main story, which is that of God’s love for us. The very best Best Man and Maid of Honor know not to draw too much attention to themselves at the wedding. It’s all about the lovers, the groom and the bride, committing themselves to love each other faithfully. The groomsmen and the bridesmaids are just happy to be part of it. As are the angels at the wedding of the Lamb and his bride. Because, as scripture tells us, rejoicing is another thing angels do and do well.

The Bible Challenge: Day 100

The scriptures read are 1 Samuel 10-12, Psalm 83 and John 18.

1 Samuel 10. Samuel anoints Saul and tells him what will happen to him the rest of the day. When Saul encounters a band of prophets, playing music and prophesying, he is filled with God's Spirit and finds himself prophesying along with them. That convinces Saul.

Samuel calls the nation together, makes a show of selecting Saul and declares him God's choice as king. That is, after someone hauls Saul out from behind a pile of luggage, where he was hiding. Still not used to the idea.

1 Samuel 11. Saul wins against evil king Nahash of the Ammonites. The people officially crown him king.

1 Samuel 12. Samuel rains on everyone's celebration.

Psalm 83. A prayer asking for help against the enemies of Israel and God.

John 18. John gets arrested, having given himself up and asked that the disciples be let go. Peter spoils things by cutting off the ear of the High Priest's servant. Only John tells us his name is Malchus. John also tells us that  a relative of Malchus was one of those who asked Peter if he didn't see him with Jesus. That makes Peter's denial understandable if not excusable.

Jesus' first round with Pilate. Again John provides the accurate observation that the religious leaders would not go into the Antonia Fortress so as to avoid ritual uncleanness. Pilate sounds particularly testy in John's account. Having to go out to hear the charges from the religious authorities probably doesn't help.

Jesus makes a key point: were his kingdom earthly, his followers would fight for him. Too bad later generations of so-called Christians, keen on killing for Christ, didn't listen to the man himself.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 99

The scriptures read are 1 Samuel 7-9, Psalm 82 and John 17.

1 Samuel 7. Samuel gets Israel to turn from other gods to the Lord. They finally win a decisive battle against the Philistines, while Samuel prays. They retake lost territory. Things are good under Samuel the judge.

1 Samuel 8. So the people want a king. Well, Samuel is getting old and his sons are no better than Eli's. God tells Samuel to go ahead and anoint a king. But read the people the warning label. Kings have a lot of power. Expect to feel that power impact your lives. The people still want a king, just like the other nations. Samuel refrains from saying, "And if the other nations jumped off a cliff, would you?"

1 Samuel 9. God arranges a "meet-cute" between Samuel and Saul, soon to be the first king of Israel. Saul is a tall and handsome man. He gets invited to a feast at the shrine. The next morning Samuel wants to talk with Saul.

Psalm 82. God gives the other so-called gods a dressing down. The issue: giving justice to the poor and the powerless. Any god that doesn't believe in justice is as mortal as man. The Lord alone is the truly just judge.

John 17. Jesus prays for his disciples and the church. And the point he keeps coming back to is being one: being one with each other, and with Jesus and with the Father, in the same way Jesus and the Father are one. Jesus last prayer for us before his death is that we be one. How're we doing on that?

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 97

The scriptures read are 1 Samuel 4-6, Psalm 81 and John 16.

1 Samuel 4. There is this problem with sacred things: people think the power is in them rather than their sacredness comes from God. They become magical items and people think that have power in and of themselves. Near as I can tell, the Israelites think that having the Ark of the Covenant with them in battle will automatically give them the victory. Instead, the Philistines, afraid of the Ark, fight harder--and win. And capture the ark. Eli's sons are killed and the news of the loss of the ark literally kills Eli.

We learn the meaning of the name "Ichabod": the glory's gone. Bummer of a name.

1 Samuel 5, 6. The Philistines never saw Raiders of the Lost Ark so they can be excused for not knowing what a bad idea it is to mess with God's Ark. Still, death, tumors and rats? They are getting off easy, in comparison to the Pharaoh of the Exodus.

They decide to send it back in an unmanned cart pulled by 2 cows. It works. Some yahoos from the Israelite  town Beth Shemesh decide to peek under the lid. Big mistake. It's not magic but it is dedicated to God and only Levites and priests are to touch it. As Israelites, they should know this.

Psalm 81. A hymn of praise for God on a festival with a dollop of reminder to follow the Lord only.

John 16. Jesus is going away but that's good; his replacement is the Holy Spirit, who will lead them into all truth.Things will be hard for a while--like childbirth. And like childbirth the entrance of new life eclipses the memory of the pain.

In direct contradiction to the "Accept Jesus and your life will be a breeze" kind of theology, Jesus promises that we will experience trouble in this world. We can draw courage from the fact that Jesus has overcome the world.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 96

The scriptures read are 1 Samuel 1-3. Psalm 80 and John 15.

1 Samuel 1. In his intro to the books of Samuel, Peterson points out that David (c.1000 BC) lies midway between Abraham (c. 2000 BC) and Jesus (c.6 BC), each a pivotal character in God's plan.

We start with another barren woman, who prays to God and is given a blessed child. The woman is Hannah. The child is Samuel. In thanksgiving, she dedicates him to God, giving him to the priest Eli, serving at the shrine at Shiloh, as soon as he is weaned.

BTW, a clue that Eli is not the best priest: he couldn't tell the difference between a woman praying silently and a woman who's drunk.

1 Samuel 2. Hannah's prayer foreshadows Mary's Magnificat.

Eli's sons are corrupt and God decrees that Eli's family will lose their position as a priestly family.

1 Samuel 3. The word of God comes to Samuel in a wonderfully told, slightly comical vignette. But what God tells Samuel about Eli's family is sobering. Eli takes the news surprisingly well.

Samuel is now an up and coming prophet.

Psalm 80. A plea for God to restore his people. Israel is compared at length to a vine.

John 15. Jesus compares himself to a familiar plant  in the next "I Am" statement: "I Am the Vine." (For more on that , click here.) The main thing is to stay intimately connected with Christ and love each other.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 95

The scriptures read are Ruth 1-4. Psalm 79 and John 14.

Ruth 1-4. This wonderful little pastoral romance washes away the bitter taste of God's people descending into anarchy in Judges. Ruth really bonds with her mother-in-law. Even after both are widowed, Ruth, a foreigner, sticks with Naomi as the older woman returns home. There she meets Boaz. The rest reads a bit like a prototypical romance, complete with complications that get worked out. And there's a twist ending. It turns out this pleasant little romance was all part of God's plan to give Israel a great king.

Psalm 79. A lament for the fall of Jerusalem.

John 14. In the upper room, Jesus tells his disciples that he wil be leaving them to prepare places for them with his Father but he'll be back. And they know the way. "I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life." (For more on this, click here.)

And if you've seen Jesus, you've seen God. Jesus is the very image of God. When we look at Jesus, we see what God is like, in a form we can comprehend, a person living in time and space like us.

Jesus promises the Holy Spirit, referring to him by a Greek word with no single equivalent in English: Encourager, Character witness, Advocate. Peterson uses Friend. Another inadequate word.

Then it's time to get going. Next stop: Gethsemane.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 94

The scriptures read are Judges 19-21, Psalm 78:40-72 and John 13.

Judges 19. This is the most disgusting story in Judges. It shows how low the country has sunk. What starts out as boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back, turns to some kind of horrifying story of callousness, gang rape and the worse way of calling attention to an outrage ever.

Judges 20. The bloody internecine war that followed. The Benjaminites fall for the old "chase the retreating enemy leaving your city undefended and running into an ambush" gambit.

Judges 21. As a result of the war there are no Benjaminite women left. Since the rest of Israelites swore not to let their daughters marry them, the tribe of Benjamin is in danger of dying out. The other tribes come up with two pretty bad ways to remedy the situation.

The book ends with the much repeated refrain, "At that time there was no king in Israel. People did whatever they felt like doing."

Psalm 78: 40-72. The psalmist recounts the plagues of Exodus, the rebellions of the Israelites, the rejection of Ephraim and the choosing of Judah, Zion and David.

John 13. The last supper recorded in John's inimitable way: no actual mention of the institution of Communion. John instead focuses on Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. For more on that, click here.

The announcement that "One of you will betray me" plays out much as in the other gospels with a few more details from John.

Jesus gives a new commandment. No longer is it sufficient to love your neighbor as you do yourself; we are to love one another as Jesus loves us. He's raised the bar. Especially once the disciples see just how much Jesus loves them.  

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 93

The scriptures read are Judges 16-18, Psalm 78:1-39, and John 12.

Judges 16. Samson's poor taste in women finally gets him into trouble. Delilah nags the secret of his strength out of him. You would think he'd get suspicious after all the times she tries to weaken him. Cutting his hair does the trick and he gets blinded by his enemies. But the Philistines bring him out to put on a show and he brings the house down! (To see the ruins of an actual Philistine temple with 2 pillar bases, click here.)

Judges 17. A tale about how totally apostate the people of Israel had become. A son steals from his mom. She vows to God to make a small metal god. A Levite becomes the priest in this guy's private chapel filled with idols. People are doing whatever they want.

Judges 18. 600 men from Dan seize the guy's gods and his priest and conquer a city, setting up their own shrine with the guy's god. Exactly what God warned about.

Psalm 78:1-39. The second longest psalm in the Bible. A recap of the Exodus, God's mighty deeds, and the sins of the Israelites.

John 12. Mary, sister of Lazarus, thanks Jesus by anointing his feet with costly perfumes. The remark of how the smell filled the house sounds like a memory on someone's part.

The triumphal entry with the palms. 5 days before Passover and Jesus' death. John is very conscious of exact times.

Reading John so soon after the other gospels I'm getting these echoes of their accounts. John was definitely aware of them when he wrote his account. He ties the facts and sayings into what's going on more tightly.

"I am the light coming into the world." How did I miss that "I Am" statement?

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 92

The scriptures read are Judges 13-15, Psalm 77, and John 11.

Judges 13-15. Samson is the Hebrew Hercules: powerful but tragic. We start with the angelic announcement of his birth to a barren woman and her husband. Samson is freakishly strong but a bit of a fool when it comes to women. His damage to the Philistines is almost incidental. Until they kill his would-be wife. Then it's carnage.

There's another side to this story. There are a lot of tricks and riddles and plays on words. The tale almost winks at us because whatever scheme the Philistines come up with, it goes very badly for them in the end.

Psalm 77. A person who has hit bottom gains hope from God's mighty deeds in the past.

John 11. Jesus raises Lazarus. When his sisters send word of Lazarus' illness, they call him "the one you love." Could Lazarus be the Beloved Disciple?

Another "I Am" statement: "I Am the Resurrection and the Life." (For more on that, click here.)

After this, Jesus is too popular for the religious leaders' comfort. They plan to get rid of him before his followers revolt and bring Rome down on their heads.