Friday, May 31, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 151

The scriptures read are 2 Chronicles 4-6, Psalm 122 and Romans 13.

2 Chronicles 4. The building and furnishing of the temple but in a much more concise account than the one in Kings which lovingly examined every detail. If you absolutely can't bear to read about it again, how about seeing a CGI 3D rendering that is interactive? Click here. (How did I know there was a 3D version online? I didn't. I figured it was just the kind of thing some Bible geek would do, so I Googled it and Bing-o!) (No offense, Bible geeks. I am one, too. I just don't have the computer skills to do such a thing.)

2 Chronicles 5, 6. The Ark of the Covenant gets moved into its new home, the temple fills with the cloud that signifies God's presence and Solomon prays a beautiful prayer. He prays for the worshippers, sinners, the defeated, the disaster survivors, the foreigners, and the whole rebellious people of Israel. I wonder if anyone has adapted this prayer for a modern liturgy? (Or if there's a church built to look like the temple? I googled it and struck out.)

Psalm 122. Another song of ascents full of familiar verses.

Romans 13. Obey your government and pay your taxes. It's right there in the Bible. Don't argue with me; argue with God if you have a problem with this.

Love your neighbor, keep alert and put on the Lord Jesus Christ. That's what Christianity is really about: becoming more like Jesus every day. As C. S. Lewis said, it's more like painting a portrait than following a set of rules.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 150

The scriptures read are 2 Chronicles 1-3, Psalm 121 and Romans 12.

2 Chronicles 1-3. Solomon asks for wisdom and starts building the temple. I have to say, this account seems brisker than the one in Kings.

Psalm 121. A famous psalm, expressing confidence in God's protection.

Romans 12. Having laid the theological foundation, Paul teases out the practical and ethical implications of God's grace. It starts with offering yourself totally to God to be used for his purpose.

Paul explains our unity and diversity using the analogy of the body with his many different parts, each of which has a function. We are the Body of Christ.

Which means being loving, to the point of blessing and helping even our enemies when they are in need. Leave the final verdict on anyone to God. Don't pay evil back with more evil; that just doubles the evil out there. Instead, react to evil by doing good in return. Let your enemies burn with shame for how they've treated you.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 149

The scriptures read are 1 Chronicles 28-29, Psalm 120 and Romans 11.

1 Chronicles 28-29. David's farewell speech, complete with blueprints for the temple presented to Solomon (hint! hint!). Then the people reenact Solomon's enthronement and anointing.

Psalm 120. As a reward for finishing the longest chapter in the Bible (psalm 119), here's a short psalm. It is also the first of the Songs of Ascent, which might refer to the believer ascending to God or the pilgrim ascending Mt. Zion to go to the temple. This one is a plea that God save the worshipper from those with deceitful tongues.

Romans 11. God has not given up on his people, Israel, but it did create an opportunity for Gentiles to get to know God and become part of his people. God is a very generous God.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Bible challenge: Day 148

The scriptures read are 1 Chronicles 25-27, Psalm 119:145-176 and Romans 10.

1 Chronicles 25-27. A breakdown of the singers and musicians in the temple. Asaph should ring a bell; his name is on a lot of the psalms.

Then we get the security detail, down to who guarded what gate! Then we get the bean counters and bookkeepers.

Next we get the military commanders and troop strength, the tribal administrators, the supply officers and the king's counselors.

Psalm 119:145-176. The psalmist keeps switching back and forth from asking God to rescue him from his enemies to declaring his adherence to God's rules.

Romans 10. Paul talks about how easy it is to have a trusting relationship with God if you just stop trying to do it all yourself. You don't have to hike up to heaven and drag Christ down to earth or mount a rescue mission to hell for him. But not everyone's got the message. How could they if we don't tell them?  

The Bible Challenge: Day 146

The scriptures read are 1 Chronicles 22-24, Psalm 119:113-144 and Romans 9.

1 Chronicles 22. Here Chronicles is showing its value, supplementing these stories we've already read in the books of Samuel and Kings. I don't remember David stockpiling supplies for building the temple. God told David he couldn't build it because of all the blood on his hands but David is making sure Solomon will, with all the building materials he needs and a pep talk to just do it!

1 Chronicles 23, 24. A breakdown of the Levite families and their respective responsibilities, plus the rotation of the priests.

Psalm 119:113-144. The psalmist is alternatively denouncing evil, asserting his righteousness and asking God for greater understanding of his words and law.

Romans 9. Paul turns to wrestling with the fact that the majority of his fellow Jews have rejected Jesus as Messiah. This passage takes careful reading. Paul asserts that God can do what he chooses to do--and then he focuses on God choosing to have mercy. Some people take an unhealthy interest in persons being designated vessels of wrath. But nowhere are Christians told to be agents of that wrath. Remember the whole first part of Romans is how we've all sinned, Jews and Gentiles, and fallen short of the glory of God. We all deserve justice and that would not be pretty. No one deserves mercy. Yet it is offered by God to all who are open to accept it on faith. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Three Dimensional God

I went to Wheaton College, one of the centers of Evangelical Christian scholarship. I liked the fact that my professors were not afraid to say, on really tricky questions, “I don’t know.” They would present the arguments for different sides of a controversy, like evolution or the tribulation and let you decide for yourself. Part of this may have come from the fact that the college had professors and students from a wide range of denominations:  Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Plymouth Brethren, Reformed, Congregational, Mennonite, Assemblies of God, Church of the Nazarene, Eastern Orthodox, etc. We all agreed on the essentials of the faith but each had distinctive doctrines within our traditions. Thus it was that I had a professor who would not affirm the Trinity. He said that we know from the Bible that the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God and that there is one God. But the Trinity, he said, is a hypothesis for reconciling these facts. The word itself was not found in scripture and he would not go beyond what the Bible said.
I personally think the Trinity is a good hypothesis which affirms what the Bible says about God being one while preserving the paradox of there being 3 divine persons. It is an excellent working hypothesis that has served the church well for 2 millennia. All of the objections to it tend to be attempts to simplify it and remove the paradox. “It hard to understand so let’s chuck it.” Most scientists would not treat, say, light this way. Light appears to be both a wave of radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum and also a particle, a photon. The only way to eliminate the paradox is to ignore part of the data. They can’t do that so they have come to approach the problem this way: when you examine light as a wave, it does in fact yield data consistent with it being a wave; when you examine it as a particle, it yields data consistent with it being a particle. While hard to reconcile, the two approaches are each scientifically useful and more importantly yield true results.

The Trinity works much the same way. Now most people see God as out there, above us, creating the universe around us. They have trouble seeing the intricate organization of the universe on every level, macro and micro, as the result of random forces. In fact, there are cosmologists and mathematicians who point out that the 13 billion years that the universe has been around is not enough time for the estimated 10 to the 78th power atoms to have gone through  all the combinations to have arrived at the present configuration by random chance. Especially when we factor in the anthropic principle, that is, that there are several features to this universe that seem fine-tuned for the emergence and sustaining of life. If any of those constants were altered, even slightly, life would be impossible.

That the evidence points to a creator is the basic position of the theist. But little more can been deduced from this. We do not know if the creator is favorably disposed to us, hostile to us or indifferent. We really can’t know without the creator speaking up.

We Christians believe he has done that in the Bible. As many as 40 people wrote of their encounters and conversations with God over a period of thousands of years and these were collected in 66 books. Based on its evidence, God is anything but indifferent. He loves us. And in order that we may love him back, he has given us the power to choose. But we have chosen badly.
At this point, God would be justified in washing his hands of us. But he has not. Starting with one man, Abraham, God has worked very hard to teach him and his descendants what he is like and what he expects from us. He has done this by not only speaking to and appearing to certain individuals but in regards to some extremely receptive persons, by entering into them through his Holy Spirit.

Those religions which do not see God as someone or something out there often see him as in everything and in the believer as well. Christianity sees God as both outside of creation and yet inside us. The Spirit, depicted in our passage from Proverbs as God’s Wisdom, works with God in creating the universe and sustaining it. He gives life and renews it. And to those receptive to him, he speaks and encourages and strengthens and equips us to do God’s work, as we said last week.
His being in us is crucial because in our present rebellious and damaged state, we are incapable of following his instructions for making ourselves better. Some do better than others but none of us gets it exactly right.
C. S. Lewis uses the picture of how a parent or teacher will put their hand around that of a child to help him or her form letters with a pencil. You could think of the Spirit as God putting his hand around ours to help us shape our lives properly.   

So, as with light, we have a paradox. God is both out there, our originator, and he is in us, sustaining, renewing and shaping us. But into what is the Spirit shaping us? We need a model, rather like the handwriting examples posted above the blackboard in the classroom, showing us what a proper Q looks like. So, too, God provides us an exemplar, a model, a goal to work towards. But, as we see in the Bible, even a very good human being can stray. A mere human could not be the perfect model of how we should live. So God will have to do this himself as well.
Jesus is God in a form we can understand and relate to. He is, as J. B. Philips put it, that vague creator God, that vague Spirit we feel within us, focused in terms of time and space and human personality. The Bible tells us that we are created in the image of God. Well, in Jesus we see that image unmarred by arrogance, lust, laziness, greed, rage, envy, gluttony and other sins even saints are afflicted with. Jesus shows us what God is like and also what we, in his hands, can become.

In addition, because Jesus is God made man, he understands from personal experience our problems and pains. He understands loss of a loved one, family troubles, financial troubles, being misunderstood, being tempted, being persecuted, being lied about, being betrayed, being abandoned by friends, physical suffering, dying and death. When we go to him in prayer, he knows where we are coming from. It’s always better talking to someone who knows from firsthand experience what you are going through. And the help of someone who been there and done that is invaluable.
Seeing God as a Trinity, as three divine persons who are yet one, also helps us understand how God is love. Love is something a person has for someone else. If God were a single person, then before the creation of anything else, he could not be love. And creation could then be seen as the act of a lonely God.

But if, from eternity, God is the Father loving the Son loving the Father in the unity of the Spirit of that love, then creation could be the result of the overflow of that love, as children should be the result of the overflow of the love of the parents.
We experience God in different ways: as utterly other than us, as a voice and power within us, as Jesus, fully human as well as fully divine. Christianity acknowledges all 3 to be real and encourages believers to experience God in all 3 persons. At the same time, it discourages trying to see the three as separate entities because God is profoundly one.

And the real takeaway from all this goes back to what Jesus prayed on the night before he went to the cross. In John 17, in regards to his followers, Jesus asks his Father “…that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one…” Historically, Christians have talked a lot about unity but put much more effort on being distinct, especially because we are convinced that we are right and other Christians are not right or not quite. The unity of the Trinity, 3 distinct persons so united that they act as one, is what we should be shooting for, however. The rest of that quote from Jesus goes”…so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Think about the reasons so many have left the church or do not even consider joining it or believing it. Prominent is the persistent lack of love we have shown for each other. We preach God’s love but we don’t display it consistently, especially love towards Christians of other churches, much less those within our own denominations who disagree with us on a hot button issue.
The world will not believe us, our ministry of reconciliation will come to naught, if we cannot find it within ourselves to love other Christians with whom we disagree. The whole world is torn by people who disagree with one another and therefore cannot get along with each other, not even to deal with problems which threaten both sides. Few people say, “Wow, I really want to be a part of Congress” because Congress is a dysfunctional group that cannot agree on the most basic issues and seems to relish fighting over problems rather than fixing them. A few years ago, I heard a report on NPR that certain congressmen sabotaged funding for fighting cancer in kids so as not to let a political opponent have any victories to take back to his constituents. They believe Vince Lombardi’s motto that winning isn’t the most important thing; it’s the only thing. And if you can’t win, make sure no one does.  

If the Church appears to be a group, or a collection of groups, who similarly appear to prefer squabbling over issues rather than solving them, how attractive do you think it will be to outsiders? If we emphasize the condemnation of sinners rather than proclaiming the good news of God’s forgiveness and renewal through Christ, who will find that an inviting environment?  If we are defined more by what we are against than by what we are for—namely, serving the God of love who commands us to love everyone else, whether neighbor or enemy—who will see that as a compelling call to action? When people tried to draw Jesus into pronouncing on hot button issues like taxes and whether adulterers should be stoned, he shifted the focus onto more central issues, like how much we owe God and who is fit to condemn sinners. When asked if a man’s disability was due to sin, he said it was an opportunity to glorify God by helping and healing the sufferer. Jesus did not let himself get sidetracked by unnecessarily divisive issues. He remained focused on God’s priorities and people’s needs.
And unity is both a major priority of God’s and a real need for human beings. Not only has God managed it in the Trinity (though that is not really a fix on his part but the fundamental nature of God) but he has made us in the image of that unity in love. God intends us, whether couple or family or church or community or kingdom, to mirror that unity in love of individual persons. The Trinity is a slap in the face of the contention that unity requires uniformity or that diversity precludes unity. Not only can many be one but being one doesn’t negate our existence as unique individuals. In fact, true love would not be possible if we could not become one yet continue to be individuals.

Of course, all analogies break down, especially when we use them to explain God. God’s unity is more organic than that of humans coming together as a couple or a group. And the persons or the Trinity are not 3 masks or roles God appears in. Each divine person is distinct: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; God, God made human, God in humans; Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Like the facets of a diamond, each is true but none is comprehensive, each is valid but none is exhaustive. Each is a window into the heart of the love that created and powers the universe, but it takes many more facets to make up the whole, so many that you can never take in all of them at once, but even a partial view of our ginormous and gracious God dazzles and overwhelms us. 'Cause if he didn’t he wouldn’t be God.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 145

The scriptures read are 1 Chronicles 19-21, Psalm 119:73-112 and Romans 8.

1 Chronicles 19, 20. David's battles. I was arrested by the first line in chapter 20: "That spring, the time when kings usually go off to war..." (Eugene Peterson's The Message) It's still true. Armies rarely fight when the seasonal weather is likely to hinder them. Still it makes it sound like tourist season or the like.

1 Chronicles 21. In this version it is Satan not God who incites David to take the notorious census. At this point in the Bible, everything is seen as coming from God, good or ill, even if indirectly. Satan is possibly seen as God's instrument, as in Job, so that in a sense, this can be said to happen because of God permitting it. The Jebusite's threshing floor becomes the site of the temple.

Psalm 119: 73-112. The psalmist knows that God made him. He is persecuted but trusts the Lord to rescue him. At verse 105 we get the famous lines: "Your word is a lamp to my feet, a light for my path."

Romans 8. A magnificent chapter in which Paul lets everyone see how great is God's grace. And I am wishing for a different translation than the Message. Peterson makes small lines gleam. But this glorious chapter feels a little flat in his paraphrase. The main message can be discerned but the older language of other translations absolutely sings through this whole chapter: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ...For I consider that our present sufferings cannot even be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us...If God is for us, who can be against us?...Who will separate us from the love of Christ..." Breathtaking!  

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 144

The scriptures read are 1 Chronicles 16-18, Psalm 119:33-72 and Romans 7.

1 Chronicles 16, 17. A recap of David bringing the Ark to Jerusalem but with the addition of some verses of Psalm 105. Then we have the story of how David wanted to build a temple but God says  he will build up the house of David instead.

1 Chronicles 18. David fights and defeats his enemies.

Psalm 119:33-72. The psalmist continues to thank God for his law.

Romans 7. Paul gives a revealing portrait of wrestling unsuccessfully against temptation. Everyone can identify with this moral struggle.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 143

The scriptures read are 1 Chronicles 13-15, Psalm 119:1-32 and Acts 6.

1 Chronicles 13. The Reader's Digest account of David's early days and his bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.

Psalm 119:1-32. This is the longest psalm and chapter in the Bible. It is an acrostic psalm, with each section beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet; it is also a meditation on God's law.

Romans 6. Paul uses a lot of metaphors to describe how our old life is dead and gone but living in Christ frees you from all that. He says baptism is like being buried with Jesus and coming out from the water is like being raised with Christ. Your sins were killed on the cross. And the result is freedom--freedom from slavishly following the desires of raw human nature, free to love God back after all he's done for us.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 142

The scriptures read are 1 Chronicles 10-12, Psalm 118 and Romans 5.

1 Chronicles 10. A recap of Saul's death, with an explicit moral to his life story.

1 Chronicles 11 & 12. David and his mighty men get a recap and roll call.

Psalm 118. A very upbeat psalm with some great verses, like 6, 22 and 23, plus the rousing opening.

Romans 5. How Christ enters into getting us out of the sin we're in. And a contrast between Adam, who got us into this mess, and Jesus, who gets us out of it and into God's eternal life.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 141

The scriptures read are 1 Chronicles 7-9, Psalm 117 and Romans 4.

1 Chronicles 7-9. 3 more chapters of genealogical lists with a few tidbits (Ephraim's sons are cattle rustlers!). In chapter 9 we get to those who returned from exile in Babylon. I promise you: we start getting narrative in the very next chapter. Blessed is he and she who hold on to the end!

Psalm 117. Shortest psalm and shortest chapter in the Bible. A reward for slogging through the first 9 chapters of Chronicles.

Romans 4. Paul is arguing that things are set right for us with God because they set right by God. This is grace, pure and simple. Paul cleverly goes back to Abraham and finds the verse in Genesis where it says that Abraham trusted God and God credited that to him as righteousness. Then he points out this was before Abraham was circumcised. So Abraham is the spiritual father of not just the Jews but Gentiles who turn to God. A good relationship with God is not about rites and rituals but about trusting him or as Peterson puts it "embracing" what God did for him. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Study in Spirit

The scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, Romans 8:14-17 and John 14:8-27.

Contrary to popular belief, and even to what he himself said, Sherlock Holmes did not use deductive reasoning often. Deductive reasoning is reasoning from general principles to tease out specifics. It is what is usually done in math. If I know that all the angles in a triangle must add up to 180 degrees, then I can deduce the degrees of any angle in a specific triangle if I know what the other 2 angles are. Holmes rarely worked out the solutions to mysteries that way. What he usually did was use inductive reasoning, that is, collect as much data as one can and then formulate a hypothesis that explains them all. That’s why he made precise observations of things at the crime scene. He could use them to build up a picture of the criminal. His next step was to test his hypothesis to see if it is correct. In A Study in Scarlet Holmes know that the first murder victim was poisoned. When he finds a box with 2 handmade pills at the site of the second murder, he figures they must be poisonous. He cuts one in half and mixes it into milk to give to an ailing dog his landlady wants to put out of its misery. The animal continues his labored breathing while Holmes gets increasingly anxious about his theory. Then he gets a flash of inspiration, cuts the 2nd pill in half, gives that to the suffering beast and it stiffens and dies. Holmes then modifies his hypothesis. The murderer offers his victims a choice of pills and leaves ultimate justice in the hands of God.

Science uses both methods of reasoning. In the hard sciences, which are math-dominated, principles like relativity are explored logically and predictions are made on the basis of them. Then experiments are performed to see if what should happen according to the deductions does in fact happen. In other cases, such as geology, sediments, fossils, and formations are studied and a picture is built up of how they must have come to be that way. Volcanic lines of undersea mountains led to the theory of tectonic plates and continental drift. A worldwide layer of iridium at a certain strata of sediment led to the hypothesis that a huge meteorite, the source of the iridium, hit the earth. And the timing of that impact coincided with a massive die-off of many species, including the dinosaurs.
Theology uses both methods as well. Take the principle that God is just. That means we can know certain things about how God regards murder, cheating, theft, dishonesty, oppression and other social sins. That’s deductive reasoning. But if we check the data, we see that God does not always fully punish those who act unjustly. Right off the bat, Adam and Eve are told that disobeying God regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil means "in the day that you eat it you shall surely die." But they do not die. Looking at how he treats other sinful people like Jacob, Moses, David, Peter, Paul, etc. we see that God does not mete out strict and swift justice all the time. Is he therefore unjust? Or should we use this new data to modify our hypothesis? That is, that God is not merely just but also merciful. That we can arrive at by inductive reasoning.

Pentecost is the celebration of God pouring his Spirit out onto all believers. And the peculiar thing is that the Spirit of God is most vaguely understood of the persons of the Trinity. So I thought we could do a little inductive reasoning to build up a picture of who the Spirit is and what he does.
In our account of Pentecost, we see the Spirit manifested as the sound of a violent wind and as tongues of flame resting on each Christian. In both Hebrew and Greek the word for “spirit” is the same word used for wind or breath, both of which are powerful but invisible. The symbolism of the tongues is fairly obvious in the light of what happens. Fire in the Bible symbolizes both illumination and purification. So we are being signaled that God’s Spirit, while invisible, is powerful, giving the ability to communicate God’s word or prophesy, to enlighten and to purify the hearers.

To Jews, this would be familiar since they thought of the Spirit primarily as the “Spirit of prophesy,” bestowed on prophets and leaders, like the judges. But God is doing something new. He is sending his Spirit not merely to the elite but to all who receive Jesus as Savior and Lord. We are told that there were about 120 believers who met together, possibly in meeting rooms that were available at the temple. When the Spirit fills them they start to speak in other languages. Jerusalem is filled with pilgrims there for the harvest festival of Pentecost, one of the 3 major religious feasts of Judaism. And falling about this time of year, it was one of the easiest to get to because the late spring weather made travel less hazardous. That’s why there were Jews from every part of the Roman Empire nearby.
It must have been a cacophony but each person was able to pick out his native language. Still, the phenomenon was strange and some onlookers wanted to dismiss it as the exuberance of a bunch of drunks. So Peter gets up and addresses them in a language all of them knew, either Aramaic or more likely Greek. This is not drunkenness, he says, but the fulfillment of prophesy, spoken by God’s Spirit long ago.

Let’s turn to our passage from Romans to see what more we can learn of the Spirit. In chapter 8 Paul has been contrasting living according to our natural inclinations or flesh and living by the Spirit. In verse 11 he writes”…and if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead has made his home in you, then he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your own mortal bodies through his Spirit living in you.” If God’s Spirit is living in us some things follow. As he says in verse 14, “…all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” Just as we say things like “Henry Ford was the father of the mass produced car” the Bible also uses the term father for “person who originated something.” We don’t use the term “son” in the same way these days, though, to mean “one who follows in the direction or spirit of an endeavor.” The Bible does, however. Jesus Christ is the Father’s only begotten Son; that is, coming from him and of the same kind as him. Jesus, you could say, is God’s natural son. But others in the Bible are called “sons of God”, such as angels, and holy men and women, because they followed in the Spirit of God. Occasionally, a Davidic king was called a “son of God.” But just as God poured out his Spirit on all believers in Christ at Pentecost, so, too, by virtue of having the Spirit of God within it, we are children of God. We are God’s adopted children, made his out of his love.
Paul continues, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” What does he mean by “spirit of slavery”? Based on the context of what he had written just before today’s passage, it would be slavery to sin and death. And the fear would then be fear of sin, of what we can do when we are led by our baser nature, and fear of death. If we let our natural inclinations rule us, death is what awaits us. But if we are led by the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the grave, we have no need to fear death. As it says in our Psalm, “…you take away their breath and they die and return to dust. You send forth your Spirit, and they are created; and so you renew the face of the earth.” The Spirit is the source of life and resurrection. As we say in the Nicene Creed, the Holy Spirit is the giver of life. God puts the giver of life inside us!

There is a comic book coming out in October called “Death Sentence.” 3 people develop a genetic mutation that gives them superpowers but also gives them just 6 months to live. The point is to explore what people might do with great powers and a limited amount of life. Our position is almost the opposite. We may not be able to fly or lift buildings but we have eternal life. Having the fear of death lifted from us frees us up to do great things for God. Sadly too few Christians really live as if they believe Christ conquered death. They let earthly considerations such as “What will others think of me?” or “This is too risky!” or “This makes me uncomfortable!” get in the way of following Jesus and doing the right thing. Just this last Friday law enforcement officers honored those who have died in the performance of their duties. Most cops will not die in the line of duty. But they know that when they take their oath to become cops, such a death becomes a real possibility. In the same way, when we decide to become Christians, Jesus said we must disown ourselves, take up our crosses and follow him. The cross is an instrument of death. Most of us will never be called upon to lay down our lives for Jesus but we must remember that it is a distinct possibility. Yet at our baptism or confirmation and every Sunday here we say we believe in “the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.” Death is to us not an end but a change, like having our baby teeth come out and our adult teeth come in. What is lost is small, what is gained is better, and our life, supplied by the Spirit, the giver of life within us, goes on regardless.
So lead by the Spirit, we lose that fear. What do we gain? “…you have received a spirit of adoption.” We become children of God, with all the rights and privileges that go with it. In the Greco-Roman world Paul lived in, adoption meant all past debts and relationships were cancelled. The adopted child was now  exclusively defined by his new relationship with his father, whose heir he became.

Paul goes on to write, “When we cry ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” “Abba” was the Aramaic equivalent of “Papa.” It bespeaks the intimacy with God we enter into when we become his. Just as Jesus called his Father “Abba” in the garden of Gethsemane, we can now think of God as our loving Father, whom we can speak to with a close and intimate love.
And Paul continues, “…if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…” Imagine that: we are joint-heirs with Christ! He will rule as the firstborn but we will rule as well. When God’s kingdom comes, when his will is done on earth as it is in heaven, we will be kings and queens in that kingdom. Of course, we will not lord it over each other because of our king Jesus’ example of washing his followers’ feet. We will be servant-leaders, loving each other as Christ loves us.

Paul adds, “…if in fact we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” Again he is talking of self-sacrificial love, love that gives all rather than takes all. Because in the topsy-turvy kingdom of God, giving of yourself, taking on the pain of others, is more glorious that taking as much as you can and letting others suffer if necessary.
Finally I want to turn to our gospel and see what Jesus says about the Spirit: “…I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth.” Again he says, “…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.” The Greek word translated “Advocate” here was a legal term. It meant something like “character witness,” a person who will speak up for you against accusations, an intercessor. It also meant a person who gives you strength and encouragement. It meant counselor and consoler. So Jesus is telling us that not only will the Spirit be our teacher but he will be on our side when we are under pressure. He will strengthen and encourage us and stand up for us.

So from our inductive study of these 4 passages we find that the Spirit is powerful. He gives us enlightenment, teaching us everything we need to know about God and reminding us what Jesus told us. He gives us the ability to communicate the good news about God in Christ. He relieves us from the fear of sin and death because he is the source of life and renewal and resurrection. He makes us children of God, giving us an intimate relationship with our heavenly Father, and makes us his heirs. He backs us up, strengthening and encouraging us, interceding for us, consoling and counseling us.
So why do we have such a vague idea of the Spirit as opposed to the other persons of the Trinity? I think, as C. S. Lewis suggests, it is because the Father and the Son are, in a sense, outside us. The Father is God above us, our goal. Jesus is God beside us, leading us. The Spirit is God within us, illuminating our minds, purifying our souls, setting our hearts on fire. We have a hard time picturing him as we would our own mitochondria, T-cells and DNA. He is God working behind the scenes, repairing and doing maintenance, lining up the equipment we need, reminding us of what we need to do or say or think about, doing what needs to be done, most of the time quietly. And occasionally, when called for, at a Pentecostal moment of time, making a ruckus, blowing away the cobwebs in our Christian life, fanning the flames of our love for God and prompting us to speak out for Jesus like we’ve never done before. 

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 139

The scriptures read are 1 Chronicles 4-6, Psalm 116 and Romans 3.

1 Chronicles 4-6. The roll call of the families of Israel continues, interrupted by the occasional fact or family story.

Psalm 116. Gratitude for healing or a rescue by God.

Romans 3. Jews or Gentiles, we're all in the same boat: we're all sinners in need of what God has done in Christ. Don't spout any nonsense about our sins being a good thing since they provoke God to be even more gracious. That's like saying disease is good because it spurs on medical research and gives doctors a chance to shine.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 138

The scriptures read are 1 Chronicles 1-3, Psalm 115 and Romans 2.

2 Chronicles 1-3. A recap of the whole cast of characters so far. At least the Hebrew ones. And notice that the last batch in chapter 3 are born during the Babylonian Exile. So life goes on. These genealogies might not be your cup of tea but certain cultures love these parts of the Bible. To them, who you came from is very important.

Psalm 115. The Psalms have been called the Hymnbook of the Hebrews. This psalm feels very much like a piece of liturgy. I find myself trying to divvy it up into parts: the priest would say this, the worshipers that, and the chorus of Levites this.

Romans 2. Paul is spelling out the problem. In the last chapter, he gave it to the Gentiles for how sinful they are. Now it's the Jews' turn. Having the law and then sinning is almost worse than being a pagan. You know better. You also need to know that nothing you do that alters your outsides is going to impress God. An altered heart is another matter.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 137

The scriptures read are 2 Kings 25, Psalm 114 and Romans 1.

2 Kings 25. The ignominious end of the temple in Jerusalem. Zedekiah revolts against Babylon only to be holed up as Nebuchadnezzar besieges the city. When Zedekiah and his army sneak out, they are caught. Zedekiah sons are killed before his eyes, which are then gouged out. A mere deputy is sent to loot the temple, break up its pillars, the bronze sea and all the things Solomon had crafted which we read described so lovingly in 1 Kings. Then he burns the temple, the palace and has the walls pulled down so she can never be properly defended. They take more people to Babylon--and kill them. A puppet is set up but he is assassinated. To this day, Jews remember the destruction of the temple on Tisha B'av. It also commemorates the Second Temple's destruction by the Romans. Observant Jews fast for 25 hours and read Lamentations.

Psalm 114. Nature reacts to God and the Exodus of his people from Egypt into the Promised Land.

Romans 1. We just read about Paul making it to Rome. Here's the letter he wrote, just before his trip to Jerusalem. Anticipating a more pleasant trip than he got, he wrote this to introduce himself and his theology to a thriving church he had never actually visited, though he has lots of friends from there. We'll meet them in the last chapter but 2 give us insight into the way this letter is written. Aquila and Pricilla were Jewish believers in Jesus from Rome. When the Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from the city, it probably split the church in Rome. Gentile believers worshiped apart from Jewish believers. Aquila and Pricilla (Acts 18:1-3) end up in Corinth where they meet Paul. (Corinth is also the probable location from which he wrote this letter.) We know from this letter they are back in Rome. (Claudius is dead and Jews are allowed to return.) The recombined church's natural tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians has become exacerbated. Paul probably knows this from Pricilla and Aquila. And he's dealt with such divisions before, because it is he who has been called to be an apostle to the Gentiles. So how is Paul to preach the gospel to 2 different audiences and at the same time encourage them to Christian unity, a major theme in all his letters? He shows that they are all in the same boat, all equally in need of salvation through Christ. So he will throughout the letter switch from addressing Jews to Gentiles and back.

The key verses, his topic sentence one might say, are Romans 1:16-17.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 136

The scriptures read are 2 Kings 22-24, Psalm 113 and Acts 28.

2 Kings 22-24. Josiah becomes king and after hearing the book of the covenant of God (either the whole Torah or maybe just Deuteronomy) really cleans up Jerusalem. All pagan objects of worship are removed from the temple and all worship of foreign gods is ended. And he reinstitutes the celebration of Passover for the first time since Israel had a king!

Unfortunately, Josiah dies in battle against the pharaoh Neco. The remaining kings of Judah are a bad lot and eventually God lets Babylon take the city. All the top people and skilled workers are taken into exile. King Nebuchadnezzar installs a puppet king named Zedekiah. But the puppet revolts.

Psalm 113. Praising God especially for his support of the underdogs of society.

Acts 28. The use of "we" shows that Luke was among those shipwrecked. The natives are friendly and help the castaways. But when Paul has no ill effects after being bitten by a venomous snake, the Maltese think Paul is divine. When Paul starts healing people, everyone flocks to him.

Paul makes it to Rome, stays in a private house with his guard and for 2 years conducts an active ministry. Then what? Does he get acquitted and fulfill his plans to go to Spain? Or is he executed by Nero after those 2 years? Why do we not get any account of Paul's martyrdom? I can only conclude that Paul was still alive when Luke finished the Book of Acts. Perhaps he wrote his gospel and its sequel as part of the documents for Paul's defense. Anyway, we've finished the narrative portion of the New Testament.    

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 135

The scriptures read are 2 Kings 19-21, Psalm 112 and Acts 27.

2 Kings 19. Hezekiah takes his concerns to the prophet Isaiah (yes, that one) who tells him that God will not let Sennacherib harm Jerusalem. And when the king of Assyria sends a follow-up letter, Hezekiah himself goes to the temple and prays. God's word via Isaiah really takes Sennacherib down several pegs. God follows that with an attack on the Assyrian troops and their king hightails it back to Nineveh, where he is assassinated by his sons.

2 Kings 20. Isaiah tells Hezekiah that his current illness will be fatal but once again Hezekiah prays and God hears his prayer and sees his tears and gives him another 15 years. The sign is the shadow on the sundial going back 10 degrees.

Once well, Hezekiah makes the mistake of showing the messengers from Babylon everything of value. This will come back to haunt his descendants.

2 Kings 21. Manasseh is the worst king ever. God's had it. He will let what happened to Samaria happen to Jerusalem: sacking and exile.

Psalm 112. In praise of the person who has a healthy respect for God and is generous to the poor.

Acts 27. A very exciting narrative of a doomed voyage to Rome. Paul foresees the shipwreck but God assures him that all the people will be saved. Still it's a nail-biter.  

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 134

The scriptures read are 2 Kings 16-18, Psalm 111 and Acts 26.

2 Kings 16-17. Ahaz of Israel actually sacrifices his child by fire, the very sin God warned about back in Deuteronomy. And he makes all kinds of changes in the temple, while stripping it of precious metals.

The big news is that God has had it with the northern kingdom of Israel. He lets the Assyrians capture it, deport the cream of society and moves people from other parts of their empire into Samaria. These eventually become the Samaritans, who were so hated in Jesus' time.

2 Kings 18. Hezekiah becomes King of Judah. He reforms the religious practice of the people.. He even destroys the bronze serpent of Moses because people were worshiping it.

The new king of Assyria lets everyone know that God will not stop him from punishing Hezekiah. But can he back those words up?

Psalm 111. A short psalm praising God and using every letter in the Hebrew alphabet to start the lines of the poem.

Acts 26. Paul gets to tell his story before Agrippa--and he's almost converted. Paul expands what Jesus said to him on the road to Damascus. Or maybe he's teasing out the implications. Paul could be freed, Festus and Agrippa agree, had he not invoked his right to be tried before the Emperor.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 132

The scriptures read are 2 Kings 13-15, Psalm 110 and Acts 25.

2 Kings 13. God may come across as real hard on his people but when Jehoahaz asked for a softening of their punishment, God listens. He is after all fair. He warns everyone what the rules are. They break them and the consequences God predicted happen. Nobody is unaware of the score. But he also responds to repentance and even baby steps towards him.

Elisha dies but first there is an object lesson for the king. The king flubs it, of course.

Some time after Elisha's death, a dead man tossed into his tomb comes back to life after his rolling body touches the prophet's bones. Odd coda to Elisha's life.

2 Kings 14. Amaziah, little known good king of Judah, metes out justice on his father's assassins but not their kids. The text tells us that each person pays for their own sins, not that of their parents or children.

Sadly, Amaziah is feeling his oats after defeating the nation of Edom and challenges Jehoash, king of Israel. Amaziah gets trounced and Jerusalem is sacked as well. Assassins take out Amaziah eventually.

Jeroboam 2. Not a good king but God is merciful to Israel anyway.

2 Kings 15. A leper-king in Judah and a string of assassinations give us a list of short reigns in Israel. The Assyrians make their bow. Keep your eye on them.

Psalm 110. A psalm with Messianic overtones, quoted by Jesus.

Acts 25. New governor, same accusations against Paul. The new governor Festus doesn't see any crime that will stick to Paul but appeasing his subjects, considers moving the trial to Jerusalem. Paul, tired of all the politics, appeals to Caesar, his right as a Roman citizen.

Festus still doesn't know what to tell the Emperor about Paul's charges. When King Agrippa visits, he asks for help with the case, so Paul is called to plead his case before another political leader.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

What Your Mom Taught You

If we were turtles, I don’t think we’d have a Mother’s Day. A sea turtle lays eggs, buries them and then goes back to the sea. When they hatch, the baby turtles are on their own. They have to dig their way out of the sand, go the right direction to get to the sea and not get eaten by birds or sea creatures. We honor our mothers because, generally, they not only bring us into this world, they bring us up. We are more helpless than turtles, both at birth and for years to come. Mom is your protector, provider and teacher. She not only wants you to survive but to live well and to act right. But each has her own style of doing so.

My mother was a nurse, so this confluence of Nurses Week and Mother's Day is fortuitous. One thing you learn when your mom is a nurse is that boo-boos don't get kissed; they get triaged. If mom couldn't see bleeding, severe bruising, broken bones, a blue-ish tinge to your extremities or lips, or imminent blacking out, she couldn't see why you were making a fuss. As Head Nurse of the Recovery Room, she saw people with real problems--people who had to have major organs and limbs removed, hearts unclogged, eyes put back in, brains sliced into, and worse. With such a high bar to clear, it was hard to impress her with your garden variety childhood owies.

On the other hand, nothing could make her panic. She wasn't a "scream and cry or faint at the sight of blood" kind of mom. She evaluated the trauma, cleansed and bandaged the wound. You got good care and a sense that not every hurt was an emergency. She knew when to apply first aid and when to go to the hospital. The only time I remember going to the ER as a kid was when I was in car accident and needed an eyebrow stitched up.

Aside from having some unerupted adult teeth removed for orthodontic reasons, getting those stitches was the most surgery I've had until recently. A lot of this I can attribute to my mom. I was raised to think about the probable outcome of any contemplated behavior. After hearing Mom’s tales of lung cancer patients over the dinner table, the cigarette a kid would offer me might as well have been a cyanide capsule for all the allure it held for me. (BTW, if you have a squeamish stomach, don't join nurses for lunch. To us the grossest thing you can imagine is just shop talk.) I didn't start a lot of bad habits because the consequences were graphically emblazoned on my mind.

I suppose I must have internalized the basics of triage in this way. Some things are matters of life and death, some are serious but not fatal and some are truly trivial. The trick is figuring out which is which.

Another thing I learned was if you had a question, look it up. My mom read so voraciously that she went to one local library, checked out the limit of books a patron could take home in a week, and then went to another one and did the same. If medical problems had discoverable answers, so did most everything else. And these were found in books, which in turn were written by (one hopes) experts.

One of my favorite books was The Book of Survival by Anthony Greenbank. With chapters like "Too Hot," "Too Cold," "Too Wet," "Too Dry," "Too High," "Too Low," "Too Lonely," "Too Crowded," and the like, it pretty much covered every kind of disaster one could imagine. As with the chapter headings, he made the advice he gave for what to do in case of a fire, or a plane crash, or a dog attack short and memorable. In the forward he said he didn't expect the reader to have the book with him when he needed it. He just hoped they had studied it enough to remember the main points when a situation arose. Most of all, you needed to be in the right frame of mind; that is, to make a really determined go at beating the odds and surviving. It gave me hope that there was a solution to nearly every situation and simultaneously gave me worst case scenarios against which to measures my little bumps in the road and maintain a sense of perspective.

In our passages from Acts 16, Paul and Silas have already undergone a bad time. Angry that Paul's exorcism of their slave has left them without a way to exploit her for money, the owners drag the 2 missionaries before the authorities when they are stripped and beaten with rods. Then they are thrown into the local jail.

I always tell my patients that your body doesn't know the difference between being stabbed and having surgery, except that after the latter you were sewed up. A wound is a wound and it hurts. The first 3 days after surgery are the worst, with the first day post-op the most severe when it comes to pain. The body parts involved are going to swell and ache. Paul and Silas aren't even at that point. What they endured left them in need of medical attention. How they can be functional after being beaten with rods is beyond me. God's Spirit is truly with them if they can sing after that.

An earthquake hits, the wooden beams barring the doors fall off, the doors all fly open, the stocks come off the prisoners’ feet. The jailer wakes, sees the state of the prison and realizes that his life is over. Losing all of his prisoners would have meant having to take their punishments and probably execution. When he sees all the cell doors open, he figures he's lost the whole prison population. The jailer may have been a retired soldier, but whatever he was, he decides to take the honorable way out. He pulls his sword and is about to do away with himself when Paul calls out, "Don't harm yourself!" The jailer calls his guards to bring lights and he sees that everyone is still in place. He brings Paul and Silas outside and asks, "What must I do to be saved?" He's a smart man. The earthquake is miraculous, not just in what it does--open all the doors and cause the stocks to fall apart--but in what it doesn't do, like make the roof cave in. This is a surgical strike of an earthquake. He figures Paul and Silas are favorites of God and thanks to the persistent yelling of the slave girl, he knows that they are preaching a way of salvation. He has just faced death. He has a life or death question and he is going to the experts for the answer.

Paul and Silas say, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” That is the most basic statement of what is required to become a child of God. Often we complicate it and add more requirements and elaborate it but this is the barebones essentials. This is not to say that Paul and Silas left it at that. We are told that they spoke the word of the Lord to the jailer and his family. That means they explained who Jesus is, what he has done for us and what our response should be.

The jailer’s response certainly bespeaks sincerity. He switches from jailer to nurse. He washes the men’s wounds. They in turn wash away the sins of him and his family, baptizing them. Then he takes Paul and Silas into his home and feeds them. He is both grateful and joyful in his new faith.

Bishop Frade once remarked that shepherds don’t make more sheep; the flock does. His point was that we often expect the clergy to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to making new Christians. But they can only do so much. Church members dispersed throughout the community have many more opportunities to tell various people the good news about Jesus. Sadly, they don’t. At the recent Synod Assembly, we were told that a study found that the average Christian had never lead anyone to Christ. The average Lutheran does invite a person to his church—once every 22 years!

I’m not suggesting we just bring up Christ out of nowhere all the time. Paul and Jesus went to synagogues and other places where they thought people wanted to talk and learn about God. Another thing they did was let people know who they were and what they represented, so when someone needed to talk to them, as did Nicodemus, they could seek them out. Do the folks at work or in your neighborhood know you are a Christian and a helpful, non-obnoxious one at that? If so, they may come to you with questions about God.

Otherwise we can look for a good opportunity. We can’t all wait for earthquakes but we can be prepared for any time a person is interested in Jesus. This takes some triage, some ability to gauge the seriousness of the situation and the appropriateness of presenting the gospel. If someone is on the verge of death, they need first aid or CPR, not someone to read them the Four Spiritual Laws. If someone shows up at work or school with evidence of physical abuse, they need support and encouragement to get help and report the abuse, not theology. But along with providing them with immediate help, you can let them know that you are praying for them. And you can do practical, helpful things for them.

And what will you say when asked about God or Christ? You’ve heard the gospel many times expressed in many different ways in this church. But can you summarize it? There are many good books on the subject. Some of my favorites are Paul Little’s How to Give Away Your Faith and Know What You Believe, and C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. There are no doubt many more recent ones. The basic thing is to understand who Jesus is, what he said and what he did. A lot of that comes from simply being familiar with the gospels.

In fact it is important to be more familiar with the Bible that most nonbelievers. Unlike Jesus and the apostles, our task is not so much telling people who have never heard of Jesus about him as dealing with folks who think they know all about Christianity and have rejected it. They have lots of questions, from naïve to informed, that you need to have at least a basic understanding of.

In my jail ministry, I get a lot of frequently asked questions concerning matters that may or may not be central to the gospel but which people wonder about, such as why does God seem so angry in the Old Testament and so loving in the New? Again there are lots of books that deal with these questions. Lee Strobel, Alister McGrath and Peter Kreeft have written many books on such objections to Christianity. There are websites like,, and that tackle many of the questions people ask about Christianity. There is a free smartphone app called Logos Bible that offers many good books such as Hard Sayings of the Bible, written by scholars for lay people. All it requires is an ability to read and grasp the basics. You will rarely encounter a skeptic who has truly thought these matters out for themselves. The more sophisticated the question, the more likely they have cribbed it from some clever writer and consider it unanswerable. It isn’t.

But you know what? Most people will listen to your story. Tell them what Jesus has done for you. Tell them how your life is different, better, richer, more meaningful. Tell them how God got you through a tough time. Most people will not contradict your experience. Remember, you are just to plant the seed. God gives the growth.

But if someone does come to Christ through you, don’t be like the sea turtle. Be like a human mother. Nurture the newborn Christian. Get them to become part of a church. Because it’s hard to be a Christian alone, not just because of the temptations, though there is or should be an element of a support group about a church. It should be a bit like Sinners Anonymous, a group of folks who realize they are powerless to redeem themselves and who have given their lives over to God. But the main reason you need to be part of a church is because Christianity is about love. Learning to love all kinds of people can’t be accomplished by yourself; you need other people to practice with and on. The fact that they are trying to do the same thing should help. Nurture is one of the main things the church should provide. That’s why some have called it Mother Church

I’m sure that Paul and Silas introduced that jailer to Lydia, and the other believers in Philippi. He would need the love and support of other Christians, especially if he was to continue to work as a jailer. I hope it made a real difference in how he treated his prisoners.

The jailer may even have been one of those to whom the letter to the Philippians was sent. How did he feel hearing Paul’s thoughts as he sat in another prison, contemplating his probable execution? Did he wish he could be Paul’s jailer again, to make sure the apostle was treated properly? Did he pray for another surgical earthquake and that this time Paul would run? Did he realize he never would, because that would mean leaving a jailer to die in his stead? Paul did not fear death. For him, to live is Christ and to die is to gain more of his presence.

Following Jesus or not is a life or death decision. Because it requires a heart transplant. Christ needs to take out of you the heart of stone, the one that is the source of your evil thoughts, words and actions, and give you his own. The new life he offers us is his life. Sometimes our whole life has to be shook up, we have to wake up from our petty hurts and complaints, before we realize just how essential that choice is.

And those of us already living his life need to bone up on what it means and how to communicate it to others when they are ready to hear it. I saw a Facebook post that said, “Every time a baby is born, so is a mother.” We who spread the gospel, the good news of God’s grace and forgiveness and transformative redemption, need to be ready to take in these newborn Christians, give them a spiritual home, feed them so they can grow to be spiritually mature followers of Jesus. Which means, like a lot of parents discover, we have to grow up ourselves.

At this point in my life, I think I can safely say I turned out O.K. And a lot of that is due to my mother who loved me, took care of me, taught to distinguish between what is essential, what is important and what is neither, and gave me the tools to look for answers when I didn’t have them. So I thank God for the gift of my mom. And I thank her for doing such a good job. Like lending me a copy of the Screwtape Letters when I was a kid, something that led to my second life, my life in Christ. Which led me to this place where I am privileged to share that life in a family called by God, who occasionally admits in scripture to loving us like a mother, wanting us not merely to survive but to live well and to act right.

The Bible Challenge: Day 131

The scriptures read are 2 Kings 10-12, Psalm 109 and Acts 24.

2 Kings 10. The bloody beginning of the reign of Jehu. I sometimes think that parts of the Old Testament like this are enacted parables for those folks who prefer a more macho God who kicks butt and takes names and is pure justice, uncontaminated with mercy. If you've ever wanted God to just get rid of all the bad guys, no exceptions, this is what it would look like. Piles of heads, rivers of blood. Not the peace of well-being but the peace of the grave. Or do you prefer the tack he takes with Jesus: a Kingdom of God, based on forgiveness and love and voluntarily becoming a citizen?

2 Kings 11. The boy king, hidden from the evil usurper. George R.R. Martin, Alexander Dumas, Thomas Malory, you owe the Bible some royalties.

2 Kings 12. Joash turns out to be not a bad king. He straightens out temple finances and makes sure the offerings given for its renovations actually go to that project. On the other hand, he loots the temple of all gold to give it to Hazael king of Aram to make him go away. In the end he is assassinated on a stroll, age 47. Sad end for the (once) boy king.

Psalm 109. Attributed to David, this psalm asks God to curse the psalmist's enemies with the same actions that they treat the writer. May they know what they do to others feels like, a very poetical justice indeed. After reading about David and all of the various kings' enemies and palace intrigues, you understand why the psalms dwell on prayers to God about enemies. Read about any ancient, medieval or Renaissance royal and you realize it is not always good to be king. It is a precarious perch. (Right, Mary, Queen of Scots?)

Acts 24. Paul gets to state his case before Felix. But as a politician, Felix just lets things go on and on without resolution. Paul is safe but not free. But he is getting to tell people, high and influential people, about Jesus.

The Bible Challenge: Day 130

The scriptures read are 2 Kings 7-9, Psalm 108 and Acts 23.

2 Kings 7. Elisha predicts the famine will end tomorrow. Then we go on this weird little adventure with 4 lepers who find the camps of Aram abandoned. They start to loot the place, a not unexpected reaction, but later decide to share the good news with the king. And this odd interlude ends with a skeptical attendant to the king getting a form of rough, yet poetic, justice.

2 Kings 8. More material I wish the Bible miniseries had dramatized: Elisha's chilling meeting with and prophesy about Hazael, the king's right hand man. The account of the king's suspicious death is very brief and yet unsettling.

A couple of quick kings of Judah are disposed off. The Davidic rulers are getting very chummy with the king of Israel, even intermarrying. The influence on the kings of Judah is all to the bad.

2 Kings 9. The fall of the house of Ahab and his wife Jezebel's horrifying death. Very Game of Thrones!

Psalm 108. Praising God and reminding him of his promises after he seems to have rejected his people.

Acts 23. Paul's meeting with the Chief Priest and the Sanhedrin starts badly. Then Paul does something clever. Perhaps inspired by the fact that he's had some speeches of his interrupted when he said something controversial ("resurrection" in Athens, "Gentiles" the day before), he notes that the council is made up of the skeptical priestly class, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees, who are  more open to the supernatural. So he says this whole dispute is about his belief in the resurrection. The council erupts into religious quarrels and the Roman soldiers get him out of there fast.

A plot to murder Paul is hatched with 40 fanatics vowing to kill him. Paul's nephew gets wind of it, tells Paul who in turn sends the young man to tell the commander. Because Paul is a Roman citizen, they can't let him be assassinated so they send him to Felix the governor in Caesarea. It's interesting that they transfer the prisoner at night, something we still do. I scoff at those TV dramas that show prisoners transferred in broad daylight on a known and broadcast time. There's inevitably an escape attempt by his cohorts, which is why, in real life, it's not done that way.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 129

The scriptures read are 2 Kings 4-6, Psalm 107 and Acts 22.

2 Kings 4. Elisha has a soft spot for widows and barren women, just like his God. He multiplies oil for one and promises a child to the second. When that kid gets sick, Elisha works mightily to restore him to life. Later he nullifies poison and multiplies loaves.

2 Kings 5. An arrogant general and a greedy servant both learn lessons.

2 Kings 6. More impressive miracles. Then a horrific story from the famine. The king's had it with Elisha and God.

Psalm 107. If people get to the end of their rope and call upon God, he rescues them. Lots of emphasis on God's care for the needy. "He fills the hungry with all good things." Jesus' mother must have been familiar with that line.

Acts 22. Paul speaks in Hebrew. Good start. He emphasizes his Jewish heritage and training. That goes well. He tells of his conversion. The crowd is still quiet, rapt. Then he mentions Gentiles and the mob explodes.

Paul just misses getting tortured by mentioning his Roman citizenship. The captain arranges a meeting of Paul with the High Priest and Sanhedrin the next day. That should go well.

The Bible Challenge: Day 128

The scriptures read are 2 Kings 1-3, Psalm 106 and Acts 21.

2 Kings 1. The new king of Israel isn't very bright. Not only does he send messengers to a foreign god (Baal-Zebub; sound familiar?) but he arrogantly sends men to arrest Elijah when the prophet gives him a prognosis not to the king's liking. Only after 2 groups of 50 soldiers get zapped from heaven, does the captain of a 3rd group approach Elijah humbly. The king still doesn't like what the prophet says. But then he dies, so his opinion doesn't really count, does it?

2 Kings 2-3. Elijah makes a big exit and Elisha inherits his spirit. Elisha reels off a bunch of miracles. And some people still don't learn: never make fun of a prophet.

Elisha has water flood the wilderness. And apparently, he uses music to inspire him!

Psalm 106. A psalm about the Exodus but this time emphasizing the sins of the people. Obviously written during or after the exile because the psalmist asks God to gather his people from among the nations.

Acts 21. More foreshadowing that Paul's trip to Jerusalem is not going to be a vacation. But Paul is running into a lot of Christian friends, including "Philip the Evangelist, one of the Seven." What Seven? None of my commentaries even deal with this. Still, Philip seems to have settled down where we last left him in Acts 8, 20 years ago. He has 4 unmarried daughters who prophesy. So women are allowed to speak in church. (Paul himself says women can pray and prophesy, as long as their heads are respectably covered [1 Cor 11:5], so his prohibition in 1 Cor. 14 is rather limited, possibly to disrupting the service by asking questions.)

Ironically the crisis over Paul happens when he is doing something to show he hasn't abandoned Judaism! And it's a mistaken idea that gets the mob started. The Roman soldiers actually rescue Paul. Before they can take him away, he asks to speak to the crowd...

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 127

The scriptures read are 1 Kings 22, Psalm 105 and Acts 20.

1 Kings 22. Ahab starts a war that looks like it will be easy. His tame prophets all tell him "Go," but he should listen to the minority report. Ahab comes to his end, not by white whale but by errant arrow.

Psalm 105. A great companion for 104. Poetic retelling of the Exodus, with emphasis on God's covenant.

Acts 20. Paul is doing what he realizes is a "Farewell" tour. He preaches so long he not only puts a guy to sleep, he puts his lights out. But Paul uses CPR (Christian Prayer Resuscitation) and Window Guy lives to see the dawn.

Paul's goodbye speech is touching. He knows something is going to happen in Jerusalem and he won't be back. Also the first time I remember reading of Christians praying on their knees.

The Bible Challenge: Day 125

The scriptures read are 1 Kings 19-21, Psalm 104 and Acts 19.

1 Kings 19. Coming off his triumph over the prophets of Baal, Elijah is a nervous wreck. It doesn't help that Queen Jezebel is out for his blood. Elijah goes into the desert to the mountain of God for an iconic encounter with God who comes to him not in a Micheal Bay/Hollywood way but as a gentle whisper.

1 Kings 20. God may not be happy with Ahab but nobody does that to his people. Then Ahab blows it.

1 Kings 21. Jezebel reveals how evil she is in a nasty trick to seize a guy's land. Great tense showdown between adversaries, Ahab and Elijah.

Psalm 104. Marvelous poem of God as creator and how harmoniously creation works. Full of wonderful metaphors.

Acts 19. The powerful effect Paul's ministry has in Ephesus, both for good and not. Love the way a town clerk disarms the riot by basically telling the folks that if they have any legitimate complaints, they must present them at the next regularly scheduled town meeting. Now go home.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Bible Challenge: Day 124

The scriptures read are 1 Kings 16-18, Psalm 103 and Acts 18.

1 Kings 16. It's too bad the recent Bible TV program was a mini-series. If they dramatized this stuff, they would rival Game of Thrones or even the Sopranos. We have palace coups and a king who dies by self-immolation. And now we get to Ahab and his wife Jezebel, who sacrifice their children to Baal.

1 Kings 17. Finally a good guy: the prophet Elijah. He predicts a drought and is fed by ravens. He stays with a widow and foreshadows Jesus' multiplying food (in an albeit less spectacular way) and his raising of a dead child.

1 Kings 18. Elijah shows up the prophets of Baal when God sends fire from heaven. And then rain, ending a 3 year drought.

Psalm 103. "Bless the Lord, O my soul." And a beautiful list of how God blesses us follows.

Acts 18. In Corinth, Paul meets the husband and wife ministry team of Aquila and Priscilla, who are never mentioned separately. They are also in the tentmaking trade like Paul. Paul finally concentrates his ministry on the Gentiles because his fellow Jews in Corinth are extremely resistant to his efforts.

Paul drops Aquilla and Priscilla off in Ephesus and there they set an eloquent preacher named Apollos straight on a few matters. If you know the rest of the New Testament, you know we are visiting lots of places to whose churches Paul would later write letters (Philippians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Ephesians). And Aquila and Priscilla later return to Rome and Paul greets them in his letter to the Romans. Things like this make me want to try reading the Bible in chronological order next year.

The Bible Challenge: Day 123

The scriptures read are 1 Kings 13-15, Psalm 102 and Acts 17.

1 Kings 13. God sends a nameless holy man to Jeroboam (actually to the shrine where he is worshiping) to predict the coming of King Josiah from David's line and the ending of Jeroboam's dynasty. But in these days even holy men don't pay strict attention to God's instructions and he never makes it back home. Israel is a messed up nation.

1 Kings 14, 15. Jeroboam's heir dies. And we get the first of many references to a book called the Annals of the Kings of Israel. After the next paragraph or two about Rehoboam we are told the rest of his exploits are recorded in a book called the Annals of the Kings of Judah. They don't seem to be the books of 1 & 2 Chronicles. Could you imagine the excitement if archaeologists ever find these or any of the other lost books the Bible mentions? As it is, these phrases indicate that we are not getting the whole story but just the bits the writer needs to illustrate his point. Which is: worship other gods and your country, whether Israel or Judah, suffers. Judah produces the occasional good king. Israel never does, partly due to the constant usurping of their kings and would-be dynasties. Under David's descendants, Judah manages to fare a bit better.

So the book starts to live up to its name and we begin to get a dizzying number of kings of both the northern and southern kingdoms. Just the good bits of each king's story is told before the reader is directed to read more in one of the lost books.

By the way Shishak is a real Pharaoh and his sacking of Jerusalem and looting of the temple is a startling fact.  We know he did sack a lot of cities in Israel and Judah but his triumph over Jerusalem is not mentioned in the  monuments proclaiming his victories. At least none of the ones we've found so far. Archaeology and history are always works in progress.

Psalm 102. A psalm that seems to be about a sick man's pleas but may obliquely be referring to the sacking of Jerusalem.

Acts 17. Paul continues to see lots of converts but also stir up lots of controversy as he evangelizes Thessalonica (recipients of his earliest preserved letters) and Berea (where they fact-check Paul against the scriptures and seem satisfied with what they find). He ends up in Athens where he discusses the gospel with Greek philosophers. Some are intrigued, some dismiss him. We get an example of how Paul broaches the subject when among pagans who don't know the Hebrew scriptures. He quotes popular playwrights. It falls apart when he mentions resurrection because the Greeks considered humans as spirits imprisoned in bodies. Why would they want to be embodied after death, even with a new and improved body like that of the risen Jesus?