Archive for November, 2011

Luke on John…kinda anyway

Today’s lectionary reading is taken from Luke 1:5-17. In this passage we hear background that precedes the birth of Christ as we are told the story of news reaching John the Baptist’s father Zechariah about his (John’s) pending birth.

Luke is the only one of the 4 Gospels that discusses John in the Baptist in this detail. The other Gospels talk about him and he plays a significant role in each, but not until adulthood. From this perspective, John’s portrayal in the Gospels (other than Luke’s of course) is not unlike Mark and John’s (the gospel here not the person) portrayal of Jesus…skipping the birth and going right into the stuff that happened in adulthood.

Personally, I’m a fan of Luke’s inclusion of this information. The parallelism between John and Jesus is certainly apparent in many ways (more on that in a moment). Additionally, it also lends a little bit of support to the fully human aspect of Christ to catch a glimpse into his family. For reference, John and Jesus were cousins…at least somewhere along the line. Elizabeth (John’s mother) is described as a cousin (or at least a relative) of Mary (Luke 1:36).

The first parallel (at least in my opinion) between Jesus and John occurs when we hear that Elizabeth is barren (verse 7). Bear with me for a moment as I explain. Mary was not barren, but being a virgin, she was…in a manner of speaking…physically unable to have children. Now when I say that I mean that without having had sex it is impossible from a natural standpoint for her to have conceived rather than saying that she was literally unable to have children. I hope that is clear.  Either way you look at it, neither woman should be having kids.

The next parallel…both births are hailed/foretold to a parent by an angel. It’s announced to Zechariah in verse 11 and to Mary later on in verse 26.  The name of both boys is announced by the angel…so apparently there is no disputing what either one will be named…though in John’s case we see that’s an important point as Zachariah’s forced silence is only broken when he announces (by writing it down) that his son’s name will be John.

Now, another connection, though admittedly not really a parallel occurs right at the end of this passage in verse 17… [He will] make ready a people for the Lord. Here we see John’s mission…to prepare the way…and additionally we see right here at the get-go that while he is important he is not the Lord…something that John himself will remind the people later on in chapter 3.

There is another point that I would like to present, though admittedly it’s more of something that I find humorous.  We see in verse 12 that Zechariah is terrified at the presence of the angel (Gabriel in this case, one of only 2 angels ever named in Scripture) while he is in the Holy of Holies. Considering the practices at the time, Zechariah’s fear is understandable…to stand in the presence of a heavenly creature (usually God, but do to pretty much every angel’s first words of “do not fear” it would seem to apply to them as well) is to risk death.  The priests took this so seriously that on the day of Atonement when the high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies (the one day a year anyone went in there) they would literally tie a rope around the legs of the high priest so that if he died, they could pull his body out of there. I’ve always gotten a kick out of that mental image.

One last point that I’ll highlight. This story is evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit before the death and resurrection of Jesus. So often we hear that the first time the spirit was really active was at Pentecost following the ascension…but there are moments where we see the Spirit popping up. Severs 15 is one of them. John is full of the Spirit…a little later on at Jesus baptism (later on in terms of scripture…actually about 30 years passed between this event and the baptism).  Now that in itself raises another question that I’ll leave you to ponder…did Jesus “send the spirit” from Heaven out to everyone that believed the truth? Or was it only in very special cases that the Spirit was active prior to Jesus’ ascension?

Peter Works With the Gentiles

First off, my apologies for the absence of posts for the past week. The Thanksgiving holiday combined with prepping a sermon for this past Sunday had me tied up the tail end of last week…and yesterday I slacked because it was my day off from work…but here we go.

Today’s lectionary reading is found in Acts 11:1-18.

Here in the earlier section of Acts, much of the narrative action centers around the disciples, and particularly Peter. This particular section is interesting to note as Peter is interacting with Gentiles. It is well known that he tended to work more directly with Jewish believers while Paul worked with Gentiles, but as we see here, that was not an exclusive situation.

In this reading Peter is actually forced to defend himself with the community of believers in Jerusalem for his acceptance of Gentiles. He takes some hits regarding Jewish law, particularly dietary, or possibly just laws dealing with clean-ness (verse 2-3). Peter’s response includes a vision that he had received. Ironically, this vision had to do with dietary restrictions as well, but interestingly enough Peter applies it to the acceptance of believers that are not from the Jewish background.

We also hear Peter attest to the fact that he received a message from the Holy Spirit indicating that no distinction should be made for anyone (verse 12). Personally I’m encouraged by this passage. As mentioned earlier, Paul tended to be the one to work directly with the Gentiles, but here we see a connection with Peter as well. Though the two apostles would butt heads later on, we see here that they have some common ground to work from.

Finally, there is one particular phrase from this passage that I find very relevant, particularly from the perspective of trying to apply our own interests onto what God plans out. Verse 17…”who was I that I could hinder God?” All to often I think we get in the way. It’s not intentional. In fact our intentions are often good, but that doesn’t mean that we are correct in doing so. I’m reminded of the sermon that I preached this weekend. It focused on King Saul. I talked about how his good intentions often blinded him to the fact that he was disobeying God. This is particularly evident in 1 Samuel 15 when Saul defeats that Amalekites but fails to destroy them completely as God had instructed. Saul chose which part of God’s instructions was “valid” and what wasn’t. In short…he was hindering God.

A good lesson to be aware of.

Father Forgive Them

Today’s lectionary reading comes from Luke 23:34-38. This is a portion of Luke’s account of the crucifixion. More specifically, it is the small portion (only 4 verses after all) where Jesus’ clothes are divided by lots and the soldiers and other people mock him saying that he should be able to save himself.

On a personal note, I feel that I must share something that has me shaking my head at myself. The church that I’m serving as Intern Pastor does not follow the lectionary, so admittedly, my exposure to the lectionary has been minimal (in truth non-existent) for the past 3 months with the exception of writing this daily reflection. If you are familiar with the layout of the lectionary, it is of course 3 years, labeled A B and C respectively. For some reason, I had it in my head that we had just wrapped up Year B this past Sunday (hint, with this Sunday being the start of Advent it’s also the start of the new church year).  Therefore, in my head (jilted though it may be) we were entering into Year C.

Now here’s the really strange part…one would think that if I was following the lectionary for year C I would be utilizing the texts for the first week of year C…I haven’t been.

I’ve actually been using the correct ones.

So either this was a momentary brain hiccup today, or someone was watching over me to keep me on track. Not sure which, but what the heck.

Now back to today’s reflection.

My main reaction is two-fold on this short passage. On one hand we see the incredible grace of God offered through Jesus Christ. Here he is, literally hanging on the cross, and he’s asking for forgiveness of the sin of those that put him there.  Some scholars will argue that he’s actually praying for the forgiveness of the whole world at this point, referring to everyone’s sinfulness. This is certainly a possibility though at first glance it would seem that he’s speaking about those in the immediate vicinity.

My second thought stems from the mocking that’s occurring at this point. Verse 37…If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.

Is this simple mocking, or are the people actually asking for a sign. Maybe, just maybe, if Jesus had saved himself from the cross at this point, some of the people would have believed in him.  Granted, this is only speculation on my point, I have no evidence to back it up. Rather I’m offering up a potential to get you to think. We never know how people will react in any given situation and it’s not like we haven’t seen times when Jesus has been asked for a sign before. I guess that my own reaction to this train of thought pulls in Jesus own words to Satan at the time of his temptation. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Maybe that’s why, on a small scale anyway, Jesus didn’t give in to this temptation either.

Perhaps it would be better to focus on the fact that being on the cross convinced at least 2 people. If we continue reading from here we see the account of one of the two criminals asking Jesus for deliverance into Heaven. Also, the centurion proclaims Jesus’ innocence.

As we look back, perhaps it is easy to offer our hindsight perspective on the death of Jesus. But at the time, it was no easy thing. Maybe in the end all we can say is thank you Jesus.

Just What is Babylon?

Today’s lectionary text comes from Revelation 18:1-10.

Yes friends, we’re still in Revelation today. Perhaps my comment yesterday about it being a confusing book was foreshadowing to the fact that we’d be back again today…though admittedly, it came a surprise to me as well. I don’t look ahead, but reference the texts day by day. Low and behold, we didn’t travel very far scripture-wise since yesterday.

The entire 18th chapter of Revelation is called “The Fall of Babylon.” Now, many scholars have long debated just what “Babylon” is supposed to be referencing. Personally, I found a printed comment in the Lutheran Study Bible (see it’s page on Amazon.com here) that signifies that John was actually speaking about the Roman empire here. That makes sense considering the time frame that John was writing revelation…sometime late in the 1st century. Wikipedia says somewhere between about 65 and 95 CE. The Roman Empire was still kicking along pretty strongly at that time.

But that being said, it can also be noted that Babylon can be referencing any major world power that people place their trust in. After pondering on this passage for a few minutes, I’m reminded of the Israelites, constantly trying to place their trust in something other than God. On a personal note, I’m preaching about the rise and fall of King Saul (the first king of Israel…featured heavily in the book of 1 Samuel). God didn’t want the people to have a king, because God is all the leader that the people need, yet they clamor to be like all their neighbors…but I digress.

Best get back to Revelation.

The language of this passage is clearly announcing judgment on Babylon…and therefore whatever “kingdom” or “organization” John was referring to. Some evidence of this judgment can be seen in the following: “Her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (verse 5),  “therefore her plagues will come in a single day…for mighty is the Lord God who judges her” (verse 8), and finally “alas the great city…for in one hour your judgment has come” (verse 10).

All that being said, there is hope to. God does not forget the individual. “Come out of her, my people” (verse 4). God is giving the people a chance to leave prior to judgment. There is a chance for individuals to take their trust away from the things of this world (government, organization, etc) and place it back in the Lord. For only God is eternal…everything else will fade away.

If Revelation is truly about the end times, then perhaps we read these words and think about the final judgment. Perhaps we imagine God’s wrath raining down upon the sinful world and those that have chosen to turn their backs on him. As I mentioned earlier, I find it helpful to view this as a parable of sorts…reminding us that the apparent “power” in the world pales in comparison to the power of God.

Revelation 15

Today’s lectionary text comes from Revelation 15. Technically it is verses 1-8 but that’s the entirety of the chapter, might as well just call it what it is.

A disclaimer before I start, I’m open with the fact that, like many other people, Revelation confuses me. On one hand we have tons of imagery that is seemingly about the end times. On the other hand, I’ve also heard that the imagery is actually aimed at the progression of the early church (though don’t ask me where I heard that because I’m blanking on it).

Needless to say, Revelation is…for lack of a better term…heavy. We know that the Apostle John received this revelation and recorded it…late in his life.

Herein chapter 15, we see a reference back to Moses and the deliverance of the Israelites from the Egyptians in Exodus. This happens when this batch of angelic beings start singing the song of Moses. We read in verse 3 that this short snippet of song is also aimed at the Lamb, who we associate as being Jesus. At first glance, it may seem to be a little strange to reference Moses and the exodus here in Revelation, but we get a clue as to why it’s here in verse 2. “Those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of it’s name…”

It would seem that John is witnessing some sort of army or force…something which has defeated the beast. Now typically we think of the beast as being Satan. There are debates as to whether or not these are one and the same. However, if we look back a couple of chapters to #13, we see that “the beast” whatever it may be, has dominion over the earth at this point (13:7). It is attacking “the saints.” Therefore, when it is defeated by this force that is visible to John in chapter 15, the saints have been “delivered.” So we begin to understand why the reference to Moses and deliverance from the Egyptians is applicable, and the song begins to make a little more sense.

If we look a little farther into the chapter there is another, slightly obscurer reference to the same time period of Israel’s history. In verses 5-8, there are a few references to the temple of the tent of witnesses…which seems to be in Heaven. However, in verse 8, we read that the temple was filled with the smoke of the Glory of the Lord. Sounds a bit like the pillar of smoke which comes down to rest upon the tabernacle while the people were wandering in the wilderness.

All in all, as I read this particular chapter of Revelation, I do find portions confusing. The whole setting and imagery is, to say the least, daunting. But thankfully, we are able to make some connections between this writing and our own Old Testament history. Sometimes, it’s those little connections that are the best place to start.

John tries to answer a question from yesterday

Today’s lectionary reading is back to John, this time in chapter 3:31-36.

Now, my first thought on this text is that it seems very intentionally aimed at Christ the King Sunday, which is of course tomorrow. This is apparent from the opening verse, “the one who comes from above is above all.” Clearly this is talking about Jesus because who else (humanity-wise here) other than Jesus came down from Heaven? While this is an important point for John to make, I’m really reminded of a fairly central theme that emerges through John’s gospel.

Little side disclaimer, a lot of my personal train of thought when it comes to John is shaped by one of my seminary professors…Karoline Lewis. I’ve been in class with Karoline twice, for both my 1st and 2nd year preaching classes…see her Luther Seminary profile here. You need to be in class for about 1 lecture with her before you find out that her PhD focus was John’s gospel, and her influence has come in very handy for me many a time before.  okay…side disclaimer finished.

Getting back to John 3, or at least John in general. A theme emerges throughout the gospel of light and darkness. Jesus is the light in the darkness of the world. Light is life, darkness is death. Darkness is death because sin is death…and sin and darkness are inter-linked. Now, take into account that I’m really generalizing here, but in a nutshell, for John sin boils down to a very simple thing.

Sin is disbelief in Jesus as the savior of the world. Period. Those that believe are in the light (of Christ) and those that don’t believe are still in darkness. Stop page…end of story right there.

Now, this is very black and white and it is supported here in this portion of chapter 3. Verse 36 spells it out very clearly. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” Pretty cut and dry here for John.

Now, as I read that, I’m reminded of the reflection from yesterday from 1 Corinthians and my mental wrestling match with whether or not the entire world IS saved through Christ. While I still believe that Christ IS capable of the salvation of every man woman and child for all time, when I read this passage from John it does seem that there will be a distinction. Although everyone can be saved (John 3:16, just a few short verses before this passage), not everyone WILL be saved.

Interestingly enough, at my church we are on our way through a year long trip through the Biblical narrative, no small feat I can tell you that much, and we’re “living” through the Old Testament right now. Been there since September and will be for several more months. Sometimes the Old Testament is hard to digest. It seems that God has a much more judgmental, wrathful, vengeful nature and that is difficult to reconcile with what we read in John 3:16. For God so loved the world…well if He loves it so much than why is He so prone to judgment against the world?

Well, sin is still an afront to God. That’s the long and short of it. God will not tolerate sin. That judgment that was so evident in the Old Testament is still there, but Christ received it. That’s what makes him the savior. Salvation from God’s wrath is what he achieves for us. It’s nothing we do. We don’t earn it ourselves (and yes that’s a very Lutheran perspective talking), but it is a free gift.

God’s grace is a wonderful thing…it comes through Christ…the light in the darkness…believe it my friends. Believe that it is yours today.

My take on Paul’s take on the resurrection

Today’s lectionary reading is found in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28.

In this particular section of Paul’s writings, we see a brief discussion on how humanity joins with Jesus in the resurrection…at least in the end. Now, granted, there aren’t a lot of details here, but Paul does highlight what I consider to be important points about how this whole sin/humanity thing is connected.

And in a personal note, I find it personally uplifting today to read about the notion of personal resurrection following a lousy night’s sleep and an EARLY alarm to make it to town by 6:30 to join into the Men’s Bible study from my internship site. Good stuff, but a tired Scott.  Okay…personal note over.

As I read the opening verse of this particular passage, I’m left wondering just how Paul arrives at this statement. He’s talking to believers, so shouldn’t they know that Christ raised from the dead…oh and this is verse 20, just so we’re all on the same page. Though now as I think back to the class I took on Paul’s letter’s I remember that 1 Corinthians was written to dissuade the believers in Corinth away from some false teachers that have come through since Paul last visited. Perhaps some of them have presented the notion that there was no resurrection…that’s certainly a possibility and would make the presence of this verse make a little more sense in terms of context.

That being said, I find verse 21 to be key. Since death came through a human being…aka Adam and Eve in the garden… the resurrection of the dead also comes through a human being. Make no mistake, Paul fully buys into the humanity of Jesus. Verse 22, in which he names both Adam and Jesus is a key verse into the common (at least in theological circles) notion of calling Jesus “the second Adam.” This is an example of humanity going full circle. Sinfulness is a reality, but here we see that we join with Christ in his resurrection. This brings to mind a good point in what “eternity” might look like. We think of going to Heaven somewhere up in the clouds when we die, but here in this passage we see that we do, in fact, join in the resurrection. This is what we mean in the 3rd article of the Apostles Creed when we say “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” Not only do we profess that Christ rose again, but we also profess that through Him, we will rise as well.

Now that being said, this passage also raises yet another interesting debate. Verse 22. For as all die in Adam (due to the sinful nature…wages of sin is death and all that jazz), so all will be made alive in Christ. I just took a look at the Greek, which I am known to do from time to time for the purpose of clarification. The Greek does support the notion of “all.” Specifically the translation could read “all people live.”

Now, the debate in question refers to whether or not every single person is saved by Christ’s sacrifice. More specifically it raises the question of whether salvation is limited to professed believers or if, in fact, all of humanity is saved here. Though I didn’t read Rob Bell’s controversial book “Love Wins” it’s my understanding that this is the topic that he’s discussing in the book.

Now personally, I’m on the fence here. On one hand I think of the passage “I am the way the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” To many, this passage indicates that Christ does a bit of sorting. Perhaps this idea is supported in the Creed when we hear “He will come in glory to judge the living and the dead.” On the other hand, I’m also reminded of the passage “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” By saying the world, I can see a definite sort of inclusive-ness…namely that Jesus was big enough for the whole world.

Now, to clarify my own gray area (if that is in fact possible), yes I think Jesus was big enough. His sacrifice was big enough to wipe out all sin of/for all time. But am I convinced that everyone goes to Heaven…well, I’m still hazy there. Still in the mental wrestling match on that one. All I will say is that I’m glad that the responsibility of being the final judge does not fall on me. God can keep that one because I know I’d mess it up.

All that being said, I’m going to come back around to the discussion of 1 Corinthians again. The last bit of good news that really jumps at me is in verse 26. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Death is an unknown that, admittedly, unnerves me. I’ve got questions about it. I’ve lost some people in my life and I wonder about their final fate…but I do take heart in knowing that Christ beats death…I don’t have to fear death, because whenever that day comes for me…I trust that Jesus has my back.

Today that’s enough.