Saturday, January 14, 2006

Three Things That Creflo Dollar and Advocates of 'Prosperity Gospel' Get Wrong

Some times, usually right after I look through our family checkbook and see the records of payments we've made on our house, our kids' college educations, and our cars, I do a little fantasizing.

I wonder what it would be like to be wealthy. Like Tevye, the lead character in Fiddler on the Roof, I paint scenarios in my mind about what I would do "if I were a wealthy man." I think of the trust funds I'd set up for my wife, kids, nieces, and nephews, of the good causes to which I'd contribute, of how my wife would no longer be forced to work both a full- and a part-time job, of donating money to organizations like Lutheran World Relief and the Boys and Girls Club, of how I would give to the cause of Jesus Christ in the world, and of course, of all the money I would give to our church.

Occasionally, I've even asked God to make these fantasies come true. But they haven't. Instead, my wife and I slog on, part of the comfortable but always scrimping American middle class.

Prosperity preacher Creflo Dollar, profiled in today's New York Times, might say that turn of events represents a failure in our faith. If only I had more faith, he and others of his ilk would say, I would have more money.

Proponents of the Prosperity Gospel claim that if Christians believe enough and give enough, God will give them prosperity. As Readeriam points out in her post on the Times profile, Dollar and others claim that for them, prosperity is more than just a financial matter; but these folks do talk an awful lot about cash! Believe in God, they say, and you'll have money.

Are the poor of the world, which includes among its number, Jesus Christ, the Savior we follow and claim to be God-enfleshed, deficient in their faith?

If we believed more, would those of us working to make ends meet be on Easy Street?

I readily admit to deficiencies in my faith. But there are also massive deficiencies in the "theology" of Mr. Dollar and other proponents of the Prosperity Gospel. I want to address just three of them here.

The first problem with it is that they completely distort how faith in Christ comes to us. Dollar and others turn faith into something we manufacture, rather than something that God, through His Holy Spirit, constructs within those who are willing to let Jesus Christ into their lives. "No one says, 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit," Paul writes in the New Testament (First Corinthians 12:3).

A person can invite Christ to be their God and Savior. The more open we are to Christ, the more faith God will construct in us. But faith isn't the result of our efforts. You can't, like the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz, who squinted his eyes and screwed up his face to sell himself on the idea that there were no such things as ghosts, sell yourself on the reliability of Jesus Christ. Instead, God creates faith within people who find trusting anyone or anything other than themselves foreign. As the New Testament book of Ephesians says:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
A second problem with Dollar's distortions of Biblical Christian belief is his teaching that to be prosperous, we need more faith. That's wrong. "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed," Jesus once told His disciples, "you could say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you" (Luke 17:6). In other words, what matters is not the size of our faith, but the size of the God in Whom we place our faith.

Even tiny faith in a big God can bring great results! A man once brought his demon-possessed son to Jesus. "If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us," the desperate father pleaded. Mark's Gospel goes on to relate:
Jesus said to him, “If you are able! —All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24)
That man's faith was small and deficient. But Jesus made his boy well.

A third problem is that Dollar's theology appears to ignore the will of God. News flash: God doesn't will for all people to be wealthy. While there were wealthy believers in both the Old and New Testaments and have been throughout the history of the Church, most believers haven't been rich. A term used for the vast majority of Old Testament believers, for example, was anawim, the humble poor. Jesus was poor, as were His earthly parents who, when they came to the Temple, couldn't afford to sacrifice a lamb. Instead, they offered the sacrifice of those of more modest means, a dove.

None of this is to say that God is opposed to people working to advance themselves financially. As several recent books by historians point out, Christianity was the indispensable foundation for the free enterprise system. That's because every Christian knows himself and herself to be a child of God, set free from the constraints of stereotypes associated with class, race, nationality, or gender. As it relates to Christian faith, Karl Marx got it precisely wrong: Christianity isn't an opiate of people; it's smelling salts for us: awaking us to our capacity to for things like inventiveness and productivity, as well as for fighting injustice and loving our neighbors.

The Christian works hard and prays hard for personal success, but also prays, "Thy will be done!" I have come to accept, however reluctantly, that God has not decided--at least until this point--for me to be wealthy. That means that I'm called to live responsibly within those means I have and to be as generous as my current income allows me to be, keeping in mind that I must pay my bills on time and take care of my family.

I may write more about this topic later. But for some great reactions to it, you might also want to look these posts by two of my favorite fellow bloggers: Readeriam and Pastor Jeff.

Questions We Shouldn't Be Afraid to Discuss

One of my favorite bloggers, Pastor Jeff, writes that riders on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in the San Francisco-Oakland area, offended by posters sponsored by a committee of the Oakland diocese of the Roman Catholic Church:
The posters feature pictures of women and ask the question: "Abortion: Have We Gone Too Far?" They point out that women can have an abortion for any reason at any time during pregnancy, regardless of fetal development or viability - which is the truth.

Apparently that makes them "misleading and manipulative," according to abortion rights groups in the area. And so, activists have the right to scrawl hateful religious epithets and destroy them.
Jeff goes on to ask:
How shallow are your arguments that they must be upheld by shouting down any opposition? It's hard to have a rational debate on abortion when simply stating the facts is unacceptable.
Good points!

My wife and I rode the BART a lot during our recent trip to San Francisco. Generally speaking, the BART was as clean as the subways in DC, also impressive for their pristineness. In addition, we found the people of SF to be Super Friendly.

But I did see one BART-borne ad defaced during our trip. It was one that asked riders to help them by reporting suspicious persons to a BART authority immediately. On that poster, someone had scrawled, "Bush is the terrorist!"

Here in the reddest part of a Red State, it's hard to imagine seeing something like that on a public transport vehicle.

But to me, the question of abortion is really not an ideological or partisan matter. Others seem to agree:
  • Bob Casey, a Democrat, is challenging Rick Santorum, the Republican incumbent, for the US Senate from Pennsylvania this year. Both are pro-life.
  • One of the most interesting bloggers and committed Christians around is Deborah White, a liberal Democrat (from California) who is also pro-life.
  • Feminists for Life is a group whose beliefs are precisely what you would expect from their name, but not what those mired in ideological cliches would imagine. They are ardent advocates of equality for women, equal pay for equal work, and so forth. They're also opposed to abortion.
  • The same is true for the group, Democrats for Life.
  • And Hillary Clinton, who has a pro-choice record in the Senate, has said that there are too many abortions done in this country and that too many people are resorting to abortion, almost as a form of birth control.
So, there is good reason for those who are pro-life and those who are pro-choice, for liberals and conservatives, for Christians and those of other faiths, and all of us, to wonder, "Have we gone too far as a country in embracing abortion? Are there too many abortions? Have we become cavalier about its effect on our views of life, of humanity, of the gift of sexuality, and such?"

It's clear that people who defend those who have defaced or torn down the posters from the BART vehicles aren't interested in discussing those questions.

When Jeff touches on the subject of freedom and the free exchange of ideas, he hits the nail on the head. People need to feel free to express their views without being shouted down, erased, or scrawled upon. That of course, is part of what is supposed to make this country so special.

Reflections on Fifth Day of Alito Hearings

I watched more of and got more from the fifth day of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings into the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court than of the previous four.

The first four days were the predictable sham dance performed for various constituencies and political reasons. What we heard yesterday was more authentic and less politically-charged. As a consequence, it better evoked not only Alito's character and biography, but his qualifications.

Back when Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s hagiographic account of the Kennedy Administration, A Thousand Days, was published, he and his book were the subject of a TIME magazine cover story. I remember that, though there was less skepticism about the purportedly saintly-attributes of JFK in the period immediately following his assassination, there were nonetheless those who questioned the appropriateness of what was perceived as hero-worship-as-biography.

Someone--forty-one years later, I can't remember who--was quoted as saying that if they had to choose between a biography that extolled a person and one that tore that person down, they'd choose the former. The point being that admirers, whatever faults their accounts might have, take the time to more clearly know the person about whom they write and try to understand their motives and beliefs. It then becomes the obligation of an informed reader to question and consider other perspectives.

I bring this up because in listening to Alito's former clerks, supervisors, and fellow jurists yesterday, we got a different view of him. It was neither the portrait of the fascist-in-robes painted by some committee Democrats nor the judge-in-white-robes presented by some Republicans. One was forced to ask, "What sort of person evokes this kind of loyalty and appreciation?" Not a perfect one, to be sure. But also not the monster that those who cherry-pick his record say he is.

I firmly believe that the ideology of judicial nominees is and ought to be decided when we cast our votes on the second Tuesday of November every Leap Year. It isn't headline news that presidents nominate judges who are broadly sympathetic to their views of the Constitution and of the law to the courts. Presidents who deliberately nominated persons in overt disagreement with their views of the Constitution and the law would be breaking faith with the voters who elected them.

Generally speaking, it seems to me that unless some previously unknown affinity for unconstitutional notions, an allegiance to an ideology of hate, or ethical problems are surfaced, judicial nominees, irrespective of party or ideological allegiance, ought to be confirmed. I think that Alito will be, though by a narrower margin than John Roberts enjoyed.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Of Demographic Strait Jackets, Prejudices, and Sloppy Thinking

Ann Althouse wonders how many Americans have cro-magnon sexist attitudes like those that Russian pol Vladimir Zhirinovsky expressed toward US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Zhirinovsky repudiated Rice, not on substance, but on the basis of her being "a single woman who has no children."

My feeling is that many Americans, men and women, in their sexist hearts, have the same feelings about Rice. But unlike Zhirinovsky, they thankfully don't have access to mass media.

But one must wonder what proportion of our feelings toward people in public life is substantive and how much of it is visceral or prejudiced?

How many qualified people are denied our votes or our support because we don't deem them attractive enough, or because they're female, or whatever?

And how often do we, like Zhirinovsky, pounce on irrelevant personal attributes in order to repudiate another person's point of view?

And how often, for that matter, do we jump on somebody's bandwagon just because we like the way the look or talk?

None of this is to said either in support of or opposition to Rice as Secretary of State or unlikely presidential candidate. My general impression of her, based first of all, on seeing her interviewed as a foreign policy thinker years before she came to work for George W. Bush, is that she's a bright person. But I do think that there's a lot of sloppy and prejudicial thinking behind our attitudes toward people in the public eye.

I suppose that if I did an honest self-appraisal, my finger might as likely point to myself as to others for thinking that's shallow, prejudiced, or illogical. I can unceremoniously stash people in my own categories of choice and am apt to keep them there until the Second Coming. I'm not proud of that. But it's the truth.

But people do break free of stereotypical thinking or their own visceral and demographic strait-jackets. My brother-in-law, a late-40-something, divorced father, who works in sales and does house restoration on the side, sports a "Condi for President" bumper sticker on his truck. His mother, my mother-in-law, in her late-70s, is horrified at the very sight of the sticker, not because she has something against women in high office, like many women her age that I know. It's just that she's an ardent LibDem. We have interesting conversations sometimes.

Fourth Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 1:43-51

Here are a few more insights into the passage for this weekend's worship celebrations, these garnered from the New Interpreters Bible. Since this will be the Gospel lesson not only at our congregation, but at most Christian churches in the world this weekend, I hope that these notes help people prepare for worship.

v. 45: By quoting Philip as identifying Jesus as "Jesus, son of Joseph, of Nazareth," John surfaces the tension in the varied reactions to Jesus. That He was a human being from a particular place was clear. But, as mentioned in earlier notes on this passage, John has already called Jesus "the Word made flesh," that is, God in the flesh. John shows us that one of the reasons that people rejected Jesus was their inability to accept that He was both "true God and true man." (See also John 6:42 and John 7:42.)

v. 46: As we've pointed out before, Philip doesn't argue with Nathanael's skeptical response to P's proclamation of Jesus as the Messiah. He just reiterates Jesus' earlier invitation to him when Jesus said, "Come and see..." (John 1:39).

vv. 47-50: The New Interpreters Bible's (NIB) commentary on the balance of this passage is really interesting!

(1) The conversation between Jesus and Nathanael is the longest one in which Jesus engages in the whole chapter, the NIB notes.

In fact, it's my observation that all through John, Jesus is recorded as having long conversations with skeptics and disbelievers. Think of Nicodemus (chapter 3), the woman at Sychar (chapter 4), Jesus' fellow Jews who repudiate Him (chapter 6), and Thomas. (chapter 20)

Why does Jesus spend so much time with skeptics and enemies? Because every human being is important. Every person is a child of God for whom Jesus came into the world to die and rise. Jesus wants to draw all people to Himself. He wants all to live with God forever.

This says something to we followers of Christ about how much time we spend with believers and non-believers. We Christians spend way too much time in the easy, insulated fellowship of other Christians. Self-righteous and insensitivity grow in such a hothouse atmosphere! Jesus deliberately spent time with people who either didn't believe in God or didn't believe that He was God-in-the-flesh.

Christians need to spend more time "in the world," not to beat people over the head with Christ or the Bible. That isn't what God calls us to do!

But God does call us, like Philip to be with others in order to invite our fellow members of the human family to "come and see" the wonderful Savior Who gives life and eternity to all who follow Him!

(2) I love this insight from NIB:
"Jesus reveals the most about Himself to the one who expressed skepticism and doubt (cf. the Thomas story, 20:24-29)."
A thought that crossed my mind is that in two of Jesus' resurrection appearances recorded by John, Jesus also reveals more to "doubting Thomas" than He does to faithful Mary Magdalene (check out John 20). Mary, on the first Easter, you'll recall, showed up at the tomb to anoint Jesus' body and was horrified to see that His body was no longer in there. When she sees the risen Jesus, her first response is to grab hold of Him. He tells her not to do that, apparently indicating that we cannot capture Jesus for ourselves. Yet later, when He confronts the skeptical Thomas, Jesus invites Thomas to touch His wounds in order to verify that Jesus really is resurrected.

I think it's generally true even today that Jesus will give more evidence of His presence and His power to honest skeptics, those who want to believe but have been unable to do so, than to those who give Him no thought at all. There is no more earnest prayer that we can offer than that of the man in Mark's Gospel who told Jesus with absolute honesty. "I do believe; help my unbelief."

(3) The word Israelite appears in John only in verse 47. NIB says that the reason for its use is "to convey Nathanael's model faithfulness."

The NIB also claims, I think rightly, that Jesus' words to Nathanael are meant to recall Psalm 32:2:
Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
(4) NIB's comments on v. 48 sort of "put me in my place." It says that speculation about the significance of the fig tree is "tangential to John's emphasis here." I agree, although I am intrigued by the symbolism in this Gospel so interested in symbolism.

What is important, NIB asserts, is that Jesus has a "supernatural knowledge" of Nathanael: "Nathanael correctly perceives Jesus' knowledge as an act of self-revelation and so comes to faith..."

This absolutely makes sense to me! The woman at the Sychar well told people, "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can He?" (John 4:29)

(5) NIB also points out: Nathanael's response to Jesus is more than witness ("This is..."). It is, rather, a confession ("You are..."). As I thought about this, I realized that the woman at the Sychar well witnessed about Jesus. But Nathanael confessed faith in Jesus.

(6) Jesus' words in v. 50 contain promise, not a rebuking condemnation, NIB points out. (They also make the Thomas connection, John 20:29).

(7) I've always called Jesus' words to Nathanael in v. 50 and those He speaks to Thomas in 20:29, Jesus' Al Jolson Response. Jolson was the song and dance man, first to appear in a talking motion picture, who told audiences, "You ain't seen nothing yet."

In these words to Nathanael, Jesus is telling this man who has just confessed faith in Him that this "is only the beginning point of his faith in Jesus."

How many Christians are stuck at the shallow starting point of faith and not living with Christ as the vital center of their lives each day? I suppose that we're all guilty of that. I know that I am...and probably most of the time.

But Christ wants so much more for us as believers in Him. He wants to have joy even in tough times and the capacity to do wonderful things that flow from a life of love for God and love for neighbor. But we settle for so much less than what Christ wants to give us. Jesus' promise to Nathanael is a promise for all of us. (More on this point in a moment.)

v. 51: (1) The phrase, "Amen, Amen" only appears in John's Gospel. The word Amen means truly. The double Amen appears twenty-five times in John's Gospel, NIB points out. This phrase, NIB says, marks what is said with solemnity and emphasis.

(2) Jesus' use of the second person plural, NIB says, means "that Jesus is speaking to a wider audience than Nathanael--i.e., also to the readers." So, the promise given to Nathanael is a promise for all who, like him, dare to follow Christ!

(3) Finally, NIB asserts that Jesus' words in v. 51 refer not just to Genesis 28:10-17, but also to Daniel 7:13. As Pastor Schein asserted (quoted here), it tells us that the "Son of Man" replaces the ladder. Jesus is the meeting place of earth and heaven, God and humanity, a time-bound world and eternity.

[Here are links to the first three passes at this lesson:
First
Second
Third]

Robertson Apologizes for Sharon Remarks

Regular readers of this blog know that I have been critical of Pat Robertson and his theology on more than one occasion. (See here, here, here, here, and here.)

But it should be noted that he has apologized for his recent remarks to the effect that Ariel Sharon's stroke of last week came because of God's displeasure with the Israeli prime minister.

Robertson has taken heavy criticism from Christians of many stripes for his remarks.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Greatest Hits of 2005: August Posts

I've been sharing links with the posts that either evoked the most response or that I personally most enjoyed in 2005. Here are the greatest hits from August:

What Katrina Should Tell the Whole World
Response to One Skeptic About Katrina
No Need for Dyeing, We're All Dying
Addendum to 'No Need for Dyeing, We're All Dying
Celebrating Thirty-One Years of Marriage: Ten Things I've Learned
Only Christians in Office? Wrong!
China and Saudi Arabia and Freedom
Parental Transitions: The Gain is Worth the Pain
The Need to Know History
Robertson's Comments on Hugo Chavez
Dylan's Contrary Courting of Fame
Now What? Powered for Christlike Living
Two Goals for Life
Garry Wills' Account of James Madison's Presidency
Map to Rightness with God
Growing in Interruptibility

Tears and Vying for High Office

If I were a Supreme Court nominee undergoing interrogation before the Senate Judiciary Committee, my wife might have left the room earlier in the process than did the wife of current real-life nominee Samuel Alito. But my wife's tears wouldn't be mostly engendered by criticism directed at her husband. In the main, she'd leave because of the posturing and absurdity of the whole process. She hates phoniness and pretense!

But the question is being posed on blogs and among pundits today: Do his wife's tears help Alito's prospects?

It may have caused Democratic senators to back off a bit, taking the edge off of an attack that, at times, appeared to be drawing political blood yesterday. (Particularly when another woman, Dianne Feinstein, was doing the questioning.)

Mrs. Alito's reaction was not planned or orchestrated, obviously. But I remember that Clarence Thomas' wife cried during his hearings as well. Her tears may have played some small part in Thomas weathering the Anita Hill controversy.

The fact that this question is being asked at all indicates that our society is still sexist enough that a woman crying pulls our heart strings.

Whether a male's tears still disqualify him for high office, as happened with Ed Muskie in his bid for the presidency in 1972, is unknown.

What might happen if a high-profile female pol like Feinstein, Hillary Clinton, or Christy Whitman cried?

I have a feeling that tears, except discreet trickles like those that ran across the cheeks of Bill Clinton at the Oklahoma City bombing memorial service, are still unacceptable in actual candidates or nominees for high office, irrespective of their gender.

The standard, right or wrong, seems to be that spouses may have tears, but if you vie, you may not cry.

Third (and Mini) Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 1:43-51

I've written here many times about my professor and mentor, Bruce Schein. In his book, Following the Way: The Setting of John's Gospel, he has this to say about John 1:43-51:
On the fifth day [after Jesus' baptism], as this small group starts out for Galilee, possibly having completed a business trip to Jerusalem, another citizen of Bethsaida, Philip, is called to follow Jesus. His name reflects well the influences at work in Bethsaida. Philip was also the name of the father of Alexander the Great who brought Hellenic paganism to the east in the first place. This bearer of a pagan name immediately goes to one who has a more suitable name for a follower of the true God, Nathanael, Gift of God. Nathanael's hometown, Cana, is part of the former northern tribal alliance, Israel, located in the largest of the northern tribes, Naphtali. The pride of one who lives beside the richest valley in the hills of the lower Galilee, the Asochis Plain, is felt in his sarcastic response to Philip. He wonders whether any good can come out of that tiny, half-forgotten village of Nazareth which is tucked up in the hills of the former tribe of Zebulun, a tribe evidently so weak that it could not take its rightful place [Genesis 49:13] in Phoenicia by the Great Sea [the Mediterranean Sea]. Jesus greets this skeptic quite appropriately, for truly he is an Israelite and straightforward at that. How does Jesus know him? He claims to have seen Nathanael under a fig tree before Philip called him. How fitting is his resting place, for the fig tree is a sign of hope. Only the fig and the grape have leaves broad enough to offer the weary cool shade during the beating heat of the day [Micah 4:4]. It is under the fig tree that one will sit at peace with his neighbors in the days of the new paradise [Zechariah 3:10]. Jesus' words kindle Nathanael's hopes and suddenly he sees before him the Bringer of that new creation. Here is the King of Israel!
Pastor Schein could be, by some lights, a bit fanciful in his interpretations of Scripture. (Although not so nearly as much as some of his fellow scholars sometimes seemed to think.) But given the connection I believe I now see between Nathanael and the Old Testament figure, Jacob (which I explain here), I find what he writes next interesting. (By the way, in saying that the party was walking as Jesus spoke the words in v. 51 to Nathanael and certainly, asserting that Jesus pointed to Bethel where Jacob received the vision of angels ascending and descending a ramp to heaven, Schein was engaging in what one might call either harmless speculation. Or perhaps sanctified speculation.):
His acclamation [that of Nathanael in v. 49] is not unequivocally accepted. As the newly-formed band of disciples leaves Bethany of Peraea and moves north toward the Galilee along the east side of the valley, Jesus directs their gaze across the Jordan River to the way leading up to Bethel. He points to the high ridge where Jacob-Israel [Jacob was given the name, Israel, by God] dreamed of heaven and earth united [Genesis 28:10-17]. In that vision, so the text may be understood, it is not the ladder to which the pronoun refers as that upon which the angels ascended and descended. Rather it is Jacob himself. Both ladder and Jacob are expressed by the pronoun he in the Hebrew text of Genesis. It is possible to understand Jacob as the connecting link between heaven and earth as the angels ascend and descend upon him. Jesus informs Nathanael that he will see more than a King of Israel. He will view the angels ascending and descending upon Him Who is the link between heaven and earth!

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Interesting Post on 'Out of Egypt'

It may not be a full-blown review, but Pastor Jeff has things to say about Anne Rice's new novel that have me thinking I might read it. Look here.

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 1:43-51

I'm continuing to look at John 1:43-51, the Bible lesson for this weekend's worship celebrations at our congregation. For an explanation of what these "passes" at the Bible lessons are all about, see here. I hope that lots of people will find these notes beneficial.

v. 43: (1) Jesus, it appears, is somewhere close to Bethany, which, according to commentator Raymond Brown, was about a two-day walk from the Galileean region from which Jesus came.

Bethany, I'll remind you, is to play an important part in the public ministry of Jesus. It's the hometown of Jesus' good friends Martha and Mary and their brother, Lazarus. It's Lazarus that Jesus will so dramatically raise from the dead in the thirteenth chapter of John's Gospel.

(2) Philip, Brown points out, is the third disciple of Christ named by John. The first two named are the brothers, Andrew and Simon Peter. While Philip appears in all four of the Gospels' lists of "The Twelve," it's only in John, Brown reminds us, that he has "any role in the Gospel narrative."

This is not the same Philip we meet in the book of Acts. The latter Philip is a layperson, one of seven called by the early Church called to oversee the practical administration of the church. This other Philip is also the one who, in a famous incident in Acts, tells an important Ethiopian official about Jesus and then baptizes the man in a desert wadi.

v. 44: (1) The fact that both Andrew and Philip have Greek names is indicative of a large Gentile (non-Jewish) presence in the area where they lived.

(2) An apparent difficulty this passage presents is that it says that Andrew and Peter lived in Bethsaida, whereas Mark tells us that they lived in Capernaum. Over the centuries, some scholars, troubled by this, have suggested that the two had been born in Bethsaida, but lived in Capernaum. Since this doesn't cut to the core issues of the text, I'm indifferent to the seeming contradiction. As Brown puts it, if one feels the need to harmonize the Gospels on this point, then the "born in Bethsaida, resident in Capernaum" solution is as good as any.

v. 45: (1) Nathanael appears in no list of the twelve apostles. His name means God has given.

(2) Jesus, son of Joseph, would fit the pattern of the normal, everyday way of referring to a person.

v. 46: "Can anything good...?" Brown believes that this may invoke a local proverb about the inconsequential village from which Jesus comes.

v. 47: Another rendering of "truly an Israelite" is "a genuine Israelite," according to the late German scholar Rudolph Bultmann. It carries the literal meaning of "one worthy of the name of Israel." When I saw that last night, you can imagine how it made my eyes pop out. That's because it tends to support the argument I made in my first set of notes on this Bible lesson that Nathanael is a kind of "patriarch of the new covenant." The old covenant (or first covenant) is the one that God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be their God and to make them His people. The new covenant (or the second covenant) is the one God has made with the whole human race that all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ will not perish, but live with God forever.

I particularly think this insight from Bultmann supports my view that Nathanael is an antitype of Jacob. Unlike Nathanael, Jacob constantly displayed guile. He also was the first person to be called Israel.

While the meaning of the name Israel is somewhat obscure, it appears to carry the notion of wrestling with God. Certainly the guileless Nathanael was wrestling with God, seemingly incapable of believing that a good thing from God could pass into the world via the podunk town of Nazareth.

(2) Having said so much about Jesus saying that Nathanael was an Israelite without guile, I should point out that Brown says that, in light of variant versions in the different early manuscripts we have of this passage, he's not sure that Jesus actually said that. Hmmm.

v. 48: Brown points out that in the New Testament's original Greek, Nathanael asks Jesus, "Where do you know me from?" This makes Jesus' response to Nathanael more sensible.

v. 50: Brown compares the words of Jesus here to his question of Martha in John 11:40. You can look at my first pass at this lesson to see how I think Jesus' encounter here with Nathanael relates also to His encounter with Thomas in John 20.

A Different Take on 'The Book of Daniel'

Says Jan at TheViewfromHer:
Of course, conservatives believe the show mocks Christianity. This is simply a waste of time. The show is a mockery of bad writing, as will be witnessed by thousands of viewers who will simply yawn and turn the channel.
Read the whole thing.

The First Time I've Seen the Phrase 'Toll Booth Accident'

See here.

Welcome Back, Mr. Asghar

Rob Asghar, always one of the most interesting writers blogging had put his blog site on hiatus. Now, Rob has returned. In announcing the resuscitation of his blog site, Rob says:
I should add a disclaimer that my thinking has shifted significantly in the wake of 9/11 and various church battles, as the intersection of theology and politics (or theology and church politics) has left me unable to hold to past rigid formulas of who is right and who is wrong, who is regenerated and who is reprobate, who is saved and who is lost, who is in death and who is newly alive.
I'm not exactly certain what Rob means in all that. But I do know that he always makes me think, even when I don't agree with him. So, welcome back to the blogging world, Rob! Here's a link.

Check Out 'The Daily Psalm'

Speaking of talented pastors and authors, one of my favorite bloggers, Mark Roberts, has started another new blog. It's called The Daily Psalm. Each day, Mark presents a reading from the Old Testament's collection of worship songs, along with some thoughts and an accompanying prayer. Check it out!

'The Day I Died' Sure to Be a Great Read

Steve Sjogren is a pastor, teacher, writer, cinephile, and friend of mine.

Several years ago, during surgery at a hospital in our area, a negligent doctor punctured Steve's aorta. Steve was briefly considered to be dead. The loss of blood he suffered caused him all sorts of difficulties, including, for a time, paralysis. His recovery was arduous.

But Steve is a guy of resilient faith and extraordinary perseverance. With the support of the congregation he founded here in the Cincy area, the creator of contemporary kindness evangelism has an international ministry, launching all sorts of important projects worldwide.

Steve has a new book out. Its title is simple and pointed: The Day I Died.

I haven't read the book yet. But Steve only knows how to write good books. I'm sure that this will be a great read. You can order it from Amazon.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Random Stuff from Our Acts Study, Part 1

On Tuesday nights, I convene Bible studies at our church building. This Tuesday, we began a new study of the New Testament book of Acts. In these notes, I'll be sharing some of the highlights.

A Mini-Overview:
1. Acts is the second volume of two books written by an author identified as Luke, sometime between 70 and 100 A.D. The first volume is the Gospel of Luke. Acts chronicles the advance of Christ's Church, as it sought to be faithful to His call to be His witnesses, in the early decades following His resurrection and ascension into heaven.

2. Acts shares many of the same emphases found in the Gospel of Luke. Several are particularly important: prayer and the Holy Spirit.

3. Historically, authorship of Acts has been attributed to the Luke who accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys. This notion is buttressed by the appearance of several clusters of passages in Acts in which the narrator switches to the first-person plural voice ("we") to describe missionary journeys.

4. The book is addressed to Theophilus, a name that means friend of God. Many scholars believe that Theophilus is not an individual, but a title for all who follow Jesus Christ. The term, friend of God, is used of Abraham in the Old Testament. According to Jesus, as quoted in John's Gospel, all who follow Him and do His commands are His friends.

5. William Willimon, in his fine commentary of Acts, identifies the purpose of the book in this way:
Acts is proclamation, not in the sense of evangelical preaching to convert unbelievers but catechetical proclamation to strengthen believers...
6. Luke is at pains to demonstrate the consistency between Old Testament Jewish faith and faith in Jesus Christ. The early Christians didn't see themselves as breaking with Judaism. Jesus, they believed, fulfilled the plan of God for the salvation of the world which God initiated in the first covenant with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

7. Because of Luke's sympathy with Judaism and his desire to demonstrate that the proclamation of Jesus as crucified and risen Messiah was consistent with Old Testament faith, Willimon believes that Luke was himself Jewish.

8. Luke portrays Christ and His Church as being inseparably intertwined. Paul talks about the Church as the "body of Christ." But Luke shows us through the lives of Christians filled with the Holy Spirit sent by Christ how Christ lives in His people.

9. Throughout the book, Luke tends to use the terms God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit interchangeably, taking the doctrine of the Trinity, one God in three Persons, for granted.

[Next installment: A consideration Acts, chapter 1]

Mummified Granny and the Denial of Death [Column Version]

[I write a column for a chain of suburban Cincinnati newspapers. This is the column version of my post on the mummified woman whose body was discovered yesterday.]

Recently, it was learned that the body of a Madisonville woman was kept propped up before a TV set in her house for two years.

News reports said that the woman, Johannas Pope, had earlier told her family members: "Don't bury me. I'm coming back."

"What was this woman's family thinking?" we wonder.

Yet, Johannas Pope’s insistence that she wasn't going to stay dead and her family's complicty with the fiction is just an extreme example of a common way of thinking these days.

Annually, Americans spend $18-billion on cosmetics and $40-billion on dieting, diet books, diet programs, and diet food. Something like 110,000 people have liposuction done each year.

We're a culture in the clutches of a mass denial of death and of aging.

The process of aging and of death are unpleasant realities, of course. But no matter how long our corpses set unburied, no matter how many times we try to wash the grey from our hair, and even if, as the result of numerous face lifts, we take on the bizarre visage of today's Joan Rivers, eyeballs stretched perilously close to the tops of our skulls, nothing can alter the facts that we age and we die.

The denial of death is really an expression of hopeless. When we deny death and aging, we become detached from reality for the sake of maintaining our grasp on a life that inevitably ends.

The denial of death also expresses our desire to be in control, to be little gods. "The aging process is giving me gray hair," we say. "I'll show the aging process who's boss!" It's a good thing for people to try to remain as healthful as they can throughout their lives. But nothing we do can mask the simple fact that much of life and death are out of our control.

But all isn't hopeless. The God revealed to us through Jesus Christ promises new life to all who turn away from sin and receive the life that He gives. "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (Second Corinthians 5:17) We have the promise that if we entrust our lives to Christ, we will live with God forever.

The follower of Christ isn't called to a denial of death. Christians accept death as a reality of life on this earth. They try to face it as graciously and as courageously as one of our number, Pope John Paul II, recently faced his death. He was as prayerful, productive, and faithful as he could be even as aging, disease, and death overtook him.

He was able to do that because of the hope of Christ. He put no stock in notions of coming to life again within this broken world or denying his mortality. He could die in peace knowing that He belonged to a Savior Who had gone through death and hell in order to bring all who follow Him into a better and eternal country.

A big part of faith is trusting God in the silence, ambiguity, and uncertainty of this life.

Until the risen and ascended Jesus returns to the world, aging and dying will be part of life here. We needn't deny it. We can, as several of the characters in C.S. Lewis' Narnian novels say, "take the adventure" that God puts before us in the certain hope that while we can do nothing to usher ourselves into eternity, the Savior Jesus to Whom we surrender can...and will.

Mummified Granny and the Denial of Death

The front page of this morning's Cincinnati Enquirer carried the headline, "Woman sat dead at home 2½ years: Family kept TV on for mummified grandma." Enquirer reporter Christy Arnold wrote:
Johannas Pope didn't want to be buried, believing that she would come back to life.

Pope died at her home here at age 61 on Aug. 29, 2003. A towel had been placed around her neck to keep her cool on that 87-degree summer day. She wore a white gown while sitting in a chair in an upstairs room, in front of a television that played as family members went about their lives downstairs.

She remained there, according to her wishes, for almost 2 years.

"Don't show my body when I'm dead," Hamilton County's coroner, Dr. O'dell Owens, said Monday when explaining Pope's wishes. "Don't bury me. I'm coming back."
The story, in turns, made me guffaw and grimace in disbelief.

What was this woman's family thinking? It all seemed so bizarre.

Yet, as I thought about it, the deceased woman's insistence that she wasn't going to stay dead and her family's complicty with the fiction is probably just an extreme example of a way of thinking that's increasingly common today.

A quick perusal of the web shows that annually, Americans spend $18-billion on cosmetics and $40-billion on dieting, diet books, diet programs, and diet food. Something like 110,000 people have liposuction done each year, with the numbers of men undergoing these procedures doubling in a recent three-year period.

This isn't a jaw about vanity, though. Nor am I condemning those laudable souls who try to stay in shape after their shape has begun to round and slide earthward.

My concern, rather, is that we're a culture in the clutches of a mass denial of death and of aging.

It can make us look silly. The other day at the mall, I passed an elderly woman, probably on the far side of 80. That she was walking strong and tall under her own power was laudable. But that her hair was a shade of red not known in nature was laughable.

The process of aging and of death are unpleasant realities, of course. But no matter how many TV episodes our dead granny sets before, no matter how many shades of crimson may be applied to our hair, and even if we take on the bizarre visage of today's Joan Rivers, eyeballs stretched perilously close to the tops of our skulls, nothing can alter the facts that we age and we die.

The denial of death is really an expression of hopeless. When we deny death and aging, we become detached from reality for the sake of maintaining our grasp on a life that inevitably ends. Johannas Pope, like the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs, thought that when she came back, all would be pretty much as it had been before. She would wake up to watch Bob Barker on The Price is Right. Or, maybe she thought that things would be as they were before, only better. No matter. Whenever any of us fall prey to the denial of death, we're living in a dream world.

This denial also expresses our desire to be in control. "The aging process is giving me gray hair," we say. "I'll show the aging process who's boss!" It's a good thing for people to try to remain as healthful as they can throughout their lives. But nothing we do can mask the simple fact that much of life and death are out of our control.

But all isn't hopeless. The God revealed to us through Jesus Christ promises new life to all who turn away from sin and receive the life that He gives. "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (Second Corinthians 5:17) We have the promise that if we entrust our lives to Christ, we will live with God forever.

The follower of Christ isn't called to a denial of death. Christians accept death as a reality of life on this earth. They try to face it as graciously and as courageously as one of our number, Pope John Paul II, so recently faced his death. He was as prayerful, productive, and faithful as he could be even as aging, disease, and death overtook him.

He was able to do that because of the hope of Christ. He put no stock in notions of coming to life again in this broken world or denying the reality of his mortality. He could die in peace knowing that He belonged to a Savior Who had gone through death and hell in order to bring all who follow Him into a better and eternal country.

A big part of faith is trusting God in the silence, ambiguity, and uncertainty of this life. Members of the church I serve as pastor and I are beginning a study of the New Testament book of Acts tonight. In preparation for it, I've been re-reading William Willimon's wonderful commentary on Acts. This morning, I've been reading about how the first two things the disciples did after the resurrected Jesus told them to be His witnesses in the world was wait and pray. They realized that the task was too big for them to handle on their own, so they waited for the Holy Spirit to power them, just as Jesus had commanded them to do. Writes Willimon:
...they wait as those who are still dependent upon the Father's faithfulness, those who have no control over the timetable of a beneficent God who graciously allows enough time to accomplish the work begun in Jesus.
Until the risen and ascended Jesus returns to the world, aging and dying will be part of life here. We needn't deny it. We can, as several of the characters in C.S. Lewis' Narnian novels say, "take the adventure" that God puts before us in the certain hope that while we can do nothing to usher ourselves into eternity, the Savior Jesus to Whom we surrender can...and will.

Meckler Produces Interesting Profile of Frank Lausche

The always interesting Michael Meckler has a profile of the late Frank Lausche. Lausche was a fixture of Ohio politics for many decades, one-time Cleveland mayor, later Ohio governor, and when I was young, United States Senator.

Lausche was a Democrat. But as the years wore on, he grew increasingly out of sync with his party. In his later years, he supported Republican candidates. Lausche's preference for the GOP toward the end of his life, Meckler points out, is partly reflective of the shift of many ethnic whites away to a more conservative politics.

But as Meckler points out, there has always been a strong Ohio tradition of more moderate and less ideological politicians in both parties. In that sense, Lausche the Democratic Senator who often voted against his party was only reflecting the usual aversion to ideology endemic to his state.

This tradition fits well with what is perhaps, the preeminent swing state, the place where so many presidential elections have been decided through the years.

Read Meckler's post and visit his blog often. It's always worth a visit!

Monochrome Blues?

Don't ask. Just read.

Guilt Deflection Moment

Deborah White posts an Annual Accountability Moment. Accountability for her, maybe...guilt-incitement for me!

And now for my Annual Guilt-Deflection Moment: While Deborah's goal for the stationary bike in 2006 is six-hundred miles, I've decided that mine will be goal is to be stationary on a bike for six-hundred hours this year. Fire up the buttered popcorn!

To Understand the Bible, Quit Trying to Tell It What to Say

Craig Williams is concerned about the way we read the Bible:
We seek comfort or guidance or help or bolstering [so] that we often fail to let the text address our lives as they are. Maybe the answer to our lives is to correct bad thinking about the Bible? or Jesus? or ourselves? But if we don't let the Bible speak clearly, by always "jumping the gun" with our own agendas, we will never know the agenda(s) of the Bible itself.
To understand the Bible, he suggests, we must "stand under" the Bible. Read the whole thing.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Tell Me...

what is your most dangerous idea? (Thanks to Richard Lawrence Cohen for putting me onto this.)

What Do We Want the Energy For?

An intriguing proposal for how to transform the US's current dependence on foreign oil: End use, least cost analysis.

First Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: John 1:43-51

In response to a challenge from my colleague, Pastor Tod Bolsinger, given to clergy participants at GodBlogCon in October, I've been trying to more deeply engage the parish I serve as pastor in the Bible passages around which our weekly worship is built.

Because I usually use Scripture lessons appointed in what's called a lectionary, widely used in churches of many denominations, I hope that it might be helpful to lots of other laypeople and pastors. (For an explanation of the lectionary and the Church Year, you might want to click here.)

Periodically each week, I try to post two or three "passes" at the lessons, each pass sharing some of what I've been learning or reflecting on as I've been studying.

This weekend's Bible lesson will be John 1:43-51:
43The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
And now some thoughts...

v. 43: (1) I don't know that I can recall another sentence in the Gospels that begins, "Jesus decided..." I'll have to check on that. But I have two thoughts about this curious occurrence:
a. Even within the context of a "Thy will be done" lifestyle, the very kind of life Jesus commends and lives, there is room for making our own decisions. The "will of God," I'm increasingly convinced, isn't a micro-blueprint for our moment-to-moment existences. God's will for us, I agree with Rick Warren, writing in The Purpose Driven Life, is fairly simple: to love God; to love neighbor; to serve in Christ's Name; to grow to become more like Christ; and to share Christ with others. (Reducing these five purposes to one word each, they are: worship, fellowship, ministry, discipleship, and evangelism.) Jesus lived for God's purposes, but experienced the same freedom that every follower of Christ has about how to live them in the micro-moments of life. So, Jesus decided to go.

b. I wonder what motivated Jesus' decision?
(2) Jesus calls Philip. Philip's name is Greek, meaning that while Philip was undoubtedly a Judean, he and his family were steeped in Greek culture.

Greek culture, of course, had been spread throughout the Mediterranean basin, not only by the Greeks, who had earlier conquered much of the known world, but also later by the Romans. After Rome conquered the Greeks, it adopted much of Greek culture, including the religious life of Greece.

Greek became the language of international commerce, government, and philosophy. It was the second language of much of the Mediterranean basin, in much the same way that English is the world's second language today.

Often, the New Testament refers to Judeans as "Greeks," precisely because the people so described had adopted the culture and the ways of the international Greek life.

Even the name Philip is significant. It means lover of horses. For Judeans, horses actually would have had several hateful connections. One would be to the horses and the chariots they drew when Egypt sought to recapture the ancient Hebrew slaves who were escaping them during Moses' day. When that happened, you may remember, the Hebrews exulted when God opened up the sea for them and then closed it back up, drowning the Egyptian "horses and their riders."

But there probably would have been a second negative connection. Israel's third king, Solomon, became fabulously wealthy and powerful. But he was also notably faithless, turning from God and allowing the worship of foreign gods among God's people. One symbol of Solomon's faithlessness is that he became a major breeder of horses and owned many of them.

Horses, for the Judeans then, represented enmity to God.

Yet, here is a man named Philip, his family hip-deep in Greek culture, who embraces Jesus as Lord. It's an early foreshadowing of the universal Lordship of Jesus.

(3) Brian Stoffregen points out that the Gospel of John is a book of signs. Signs, of course, point to things. Jesus, as the "Word made flesh" (John 1), is a sign of God's action in our lives. Jesus' baptism was a sign to John the Baptizer of Who Jesus is. Philip becomes a sign to Nathanael in our lesson. Even the book of John, Stoffregen says, is meant to be a sign when one considers John's words near the end of the Gospel:
30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
(4) "He found Philip and said to him, 'Follow me.'": A literal translation would be the awkward and grammatically questionable, "He finds Philip..." The verb to find is in what Stoffregen calls "the historical present." It's used in several places in this passage: here, v. 43, and v. 45. It may be a device, as Stoffregen suggests, to convey the immediacy of the action and the call that all believers in Christ to share Him in the everyday moments of their lives, right now, in the present.

v.45: Apparently, Philip's first act of discipleship is to go tell others about Christ! He tells Nathanael that "we" have found the One Who fulfills Old Testament prophecy regarding the coming of a Messiah and that His Name is Jesus of Nazareth. This echoes John's prologue (John 1:1-18) in which we're told that God has enfleshed Himself in a particular person, at a particular time, and in a particular place.

Generally speaking today, it seems that new Christians are discouraged from sharing Christ with others. This is foolish and faithless advice. As Philip's encounter with Nathanael will show, to be a witness for Christ doesn't mean that we have all the answers. It means simply that we invite others to "Come and see" (v.36) the Savior for themselves.

Sharing the Good News of God being for us doesn't involve being omniscient or making a sale. It's a matter of asking others to check out the One Who has changed our lives forever.

v. 46: I love this! Philip doesn't argue with Nathanael or try to steer him away from a skeptical reaction to Jesus.

This faithful act of evangelism is a rebuke to every Christian who has ever tried strongarming others into acquiescence to Christ's Lordship. Nobody has ever been coerced into the Kingdom of God! Philip shows how it's done. Near his death, Martin Luther observed, "We are all beggars." Someone else expanded on this metaphor for our dependence on God's goodness and grace by saying that evangelism is "nothing more than one beggar showing another beggar where they can find food."

Humility is the fundamental and indispensable element of all evangelism. Philip exemplifies this.

v. 47: Why does Jesus laud Nathanael for his guilelessness? I can only guess, but here goes. Jesus seems to be referring to Nathanael's skeptical reaction to Philip's claims about Jesus.

Jesus is saying, it seems to me, that the Nathanaels of the world are more respectable than the religious folk who wear pious faces, yet make no attempt to really live their faith. They're hypocrites. But Nathanael is forthcoming about his doubts. God can deal with people who are honest with God and with themselves.

v. 48: "Under the fig tree" is a mysterious phrase. Stoffregen says that in Old Testament times, spots under fig trees were considered places of contemplation. He cites Micah 4:3-4 and Zechariah 3:10.

It should also be pointed out that historically, many of the rabbis thought that the tree from which Adam and Eve plucked the forbidden fruit was not an apple tree, but a fig tree. That may have significance in this book that loves "signs."

vv. 49-50: Ultimately, the interchange between Jesus and the skeptical Nathanael reminds me of a conversation that Jesus has toward the end of John's Gospel with the perennial skeptic, Thomas, known through the centuries as Doubting Thomas. In Jesus' encounter with Thomas, the disciple encounters the risen Jesus and repudiates his former skepticism in order to worship Jesus as his God. (See John 20:24-29.)

As is true in this conversation with Nathanael, Jesus' discussion with Thomas ends with a kind of "You ain't seen nothin' yet" statement from Jesus.

I wonder if this wasn't intentional on John's part, bookending his account of Jesus' earthly ministry with two skeptics being convinced of Jesus' Lordship.

v. 51: Jesus tells Nathanael in vv. 50-51 that, "'You will see greater things than these. And He said to Him, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

This is so intriguing for several reasons:

First, because Jesus speaks of the heavens being opened. This is similar to what already happened for Jesus when He was baptized, as we saw in last week's Bible lesson, Mark 1:4-11. (See here, here, here, and here.) (However, it should be pointed out that the New Testament Greek's words for torn apart in last week's lesson and for opened in this one are two different words.)

Second, the you Jesus uses here in addressing Nathanael is in the plural form. It's as though Nathanael, the honest skeptic turned believer, is a prototype and stand-in for every Christian believer, a kind of patriarch of the new covenant God makes with humanity through Christ.

Nathanael isn't to be the last follower of Jesus to see the heavens opened. What we saw last week in the account of Jesus' baptism (and its twin account of His crucifixion) is that God wills that every believer in Jesus Christ will experience heaven opened to them. This is what Christ came to give to all who turn from their sin and follow Him as God and Savior.

Third, this notion of Nathanael as "a kind of patriarch of the new covenant" is buttressed by the similarity between what Jesus tells him His followers will experience and what was actually experienced by one of the Old Testament patriarchs. In Genesis 28:10-17, one of the Old Testament patriarchs of faith, Jacob, sees a vision of angels ascending and descending a ramp to heaven. He concludes that this is a place where heaven and earth meet. (For more on this Old Testament incident, see here.]

Unlike Nathanael, Jacob was a man of extraordinary guile, an inveterate schemer. So, in a sense, Nathanael is a New Testament antitype to Jacob.

Hopefully, there will be more to come here on this passage.

Greatest Hits of 2005: July Posts

A number of the July, 2005 posts on this blog elicited reader comments and hits. And some are my personal all-time faves. So, here they are, the greatest hits from last July:

The Pictures in Our Minds
Some Thoughts on Coldplay's X-and-Y
Are You Angry with the Anger?
The London Bombings: A Lesson About Life
The London Bombings: Freedom and Life Are at Stake
The London Bombings: ForgivenessUnderstanding the Suicide Bombers
Lesson from a Canceled Trip
The War on Terrorism is Not a War on Islam
Making a Declaration of Dependence
Medicine Anyone Can Administer
Hope for Hard Times
Explosions in Egypt: What is Going On?
The Dreaded Word in Church: Accountability
What We Need from Supreme Court Nominees
My Darfur Failure
Thoughts About Those Who Ask, "How Are You, Really?"

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Color This Hart Pink

Yes, she's profane and seemingly desperate for attention, but for some reason I have always been intrigued by pop singer, Pink.

I think it's because beneath her toughness is a person of great creative talent who also happens to have a tremendous voice.

If some of the pain she's experienced in her life sometimes is translated into artless Muzak-cursing, it also has led her memorable rock, soul, and ballad tunes. Her voice can move from city soul to soft tenderness.

Anyway, Pink got married today, to motocrosser Carey Hart, on the beach in Costa Rica. "We're spiritual, but we're not religious," Hart said.

They ought to check out Jesus. He thought more of being spiritual, by which He meant loving God and loving neighbor, than He ever did of being religious.

The Call to Discipleship: It Begins with Jesus

A famous preacher--Origen, back in the third century--once told the story of a city that received a gift. It was a huge statue, so massive that nobody could see it clearly or know for certain what it was. Finally, some people got an idea. “Why don’t we miniaturize it?” they suggested. And that, according to Origen, is exactly what they did. By making the statue smaller, the townspeople finally could look at it and say, “Oh! That’s what it really is!”

The Bible says that God did something to Himself through Jesus Christ. Jesus, Paul says in the New Testament book of Colossians, “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” And warming to his subject, Paul adds, “...in Him all things in heaven and on earth were created, all things visible and invisible...all things have been created through Him and for Him. He Himself is before all things, and in Him all things hold together...in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

In Jesus, God shrinks Himself down to our size so that we can say, “Oh! That’s what God is like!”

This is exactly what Martin Luther meant when he said that if we want to know what God is like, we just look to Jesus on the cross. There we see how God channeled His power and compassion into a sublime act of self-sacrifice that can save the sinner.

We’ve just begun a season of the Church Year designed, in fact, to help us all see God clearly. The season of Epiphany began on Friday. January 6 is always Epiphany Day on the church calendar. That specific day remembers the visit by the wise men or the magi sometime within the first two years of Jesus' birth. They were led to the house where Joseph, Mary, and the baby were living by a star that shone overhead. Epiphany, epiphane in the Greek of the New Testament, means “to shine upon.”

Throughout this Epiphany Season, as we consider how Christ calls us to be disciples--followers, we’ll be seeing again and again how Jesus authenticated His right to call us to follow by showing Himself to be God. The light of the world shines on us in Jesus and our call is to let His light shine in our lives, letting Him take control!

The Gospel lesson appointed for the first Sunday after January 6 is always about one of the strangest incidents recounted in the Bible: the baptism of Jesus by His relative, John. I say that it’s strange because the writer of our Bible lesson, Mark, has already told us that John was calling people to “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” But Jesus, the Bible repeatedly tells us, was completely and totally sinless. So why on earth is a sinless Savior undergoing a baptism designed for people turning from sin?

A little story may help us to understand the answer to that question. I'm ashamed to admit this, but here goes: I can’t swim and in fact, I have an irrational fear--check that, an irrational terror--of water. It’s stupid and frankly, as a Christian, I feel guilty that I’ve done nothing to face and conquer this indefensible fear. Nonetheless, it’s the truth that water scares me to death.

Once, when our son, now twenty-four, was a year old, we went to a pool party. Everything was going well. The burgers and hot dogs were on the grill, the kids were playing in the pool, the grown-ups were having those conversations that bore the life out of their children. And then, I don’t know how it happened, our son fell into the pool. Right next to where I was standing!

Frankly, at that moment, I didn’t give my fears a first, let alone a second, thought. Not certain of the depth of the water, I was about to go in after our boy when somebody already in the water picked him up and handed him to me. When I thought about it later that night, I realized that in spite of my fears, I would have jumped into that water if I’d had to do so. Now, there's nothing heroic or laudable about that. I suppose that it would be instinctive to everyone here to risk their life for a family member.

Even animals have this instinct. Pastor Gerald Mann tells about being in Africa on a safari. His guide was an unflappable English hunter. Once, they were concealed somewhere in the bush, observing a lioness when they realized that she had become aware of their presence. It was just a matter of time before she would be after them. “Now,” said the guide, “would be a good time to run!” They soon realized why the lioness was so riled up: She was protecting her young.

This instinct then is bred into the bone of sinful human beings like me and even of animals in the wild.

But God doesn’t operate on instinctive love. God loves the unlovable. He loves the Osama bin Ladens and even the Mark Danielses of the world! For God, love isn’t an emotion, but a commitment to do the most possible to bring sinful human beings back into fellowship with Him. God will go to the absolute depths in order to save people. And He’s anxious to spare not just the cute and cuddly from the sin and death that threaten us, but the whole human race.

Jesus waded into the Jordan River so that He could reach down to all of us, sinners all! No wonder the New Testament has six different accounts of Jesus’ baptism and only two accounts of His birth. Jesus’ baptism is more stunning and more important than Christmas, because in His baptism, Jesus demonstrated how far God is willing to go to reach out to us!

That's the first thing I want you to remember about Jesus' baptism by John.

But, here's another thing I want you to remember: Jesus’ baptism demonstrates that when we repent--turn from sin--and confess our need of Him, something wonderful happens. Mark writes this in our Bible lesson:
“...when [Jesus] was coming out of the water, He saw the heavens torn apart...”
The word for torn apart in the New Testament Greek is schizomenous. (It’s related to the word schizophrenia, which means a split personality or psyche.)

The college football season ended a few days ago with three great bowl games. Many times in those games, running backs or quarterbacks broke amazing runs resulting in first downs or touchdowns. Everybody cheered for the runners. But nine times out of ten, those runners only got big yardage because of some unsung lineman who blew a hole open in the defense.

To use a homely analogy, I would say that Jesus is our lineman! He blows the doors of heaven open for us.

Mark hammers this point home later in His book when, as Jesus dies on a cross, we’re told that the curtain in the Jerusalem Temple that once concealed the Holy of Holies, God’s presence in the world, was torn from top to bottom. Through His life and His death and His resurrection, Jesus opens eternity to us!

Our call to be Jesus’ disciples starts with Christ Himself. He enters our life and He tears open the doors to heaven for us.

Whatever good we do, however much we grow as people, will be rooted in our willingness, like the people who came to the Jordan River, to confess our sins, to repent, and to follow the lead of Jesus.

Jesus is God made plain to the world and if we follow Him, He’ll take us through today and lead us all the way to heaven!

[The story of Origen is found in A famous preacher--Origen, back in the third century--once told the story of a city that received a gift. It was a huge statue, so massive that nobody in town was certain what it was. Finally, somebody got an idea. “Why don’t we miniaturize it?” they suggested. And that, according to Origen, is exactly what they did. By making the statue smaller, the townspeople could look at it and say, “Oh! That’s what it really is!”

The Bible says that God made something similar happen through Jesus Christ. Jesus, Paul says in the New Testament book of Colossians, “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” And warming to his subject, Paul adds, “...in Him all things in heaven and on earth were created, all things visible and invisible...all things have been created through Him and for Him. He Himself is before all things, and in Him all things hold together...in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

In Jesus, God shrinks Himself down to our size so that we can say, “Oh! That’s what God is like!”

We’ve just begun a season of the Church Year designed, in fact, to help us all see God in this way. The season of Epiphany began on Friday. Epiphany is a Greek word that means “to shine upon.”

Throughout this Epiphany Season, as we consider how Christ calls us to be disciples--followers, we’ll be seeing again and again how Jesus authenticated His right to call us to follow by showing Himself to be God. The light of the world shines on us in Jesus and our call is to let His light shine in our lives, letting Him take control!

Today’s Bible lesson talks about one of the strangest incidents in the whole Bible, the baptism of Jesus by His relative, John. It’s strange because the writer of our Bible lesson, Mark, has already told us that John was calling people to “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” But Jesus, the Bible repeatedly tells us, was completely and totally sinless. Why?

A little story may help us to understand the answer to that question. I can’t swim and in fact, I have an irrational fear--check that, an irrational terror--of water. It’s stupid and frankly, as a Christian, I feel guilty that I’ve done nothing to face and conquer an indefensible fear. Nonetheless, it’s the truth: water scares me to death.

Once, when our son Philip, now twenty-four, was a year old, we went to a pool party. Everything was going well. The burgers and hot dogs were on the grill, the kids were playing in the pool, the grown-ups were having those conversations that bore the life out of their children. And then, I don’t know how it happened, Philip fell into the pool. Right next to where I was standing.

Frankly, at that moment, I didn’t give my fears a first, let alone a second, thought. Not certain of the depth of the water, I was about to go in after Phil when somebody already in the water picked him up and handed him to me. When I thought about it later that night, I realized that in spite of my fears, I would have dove into that water if I’d had to do so. That, I suppose, is nothing more than a parents’ instinct.

Even animals have such instincts. Pastor Gerald Mann tells about being in Africa on a safari. His guide was an unflappable Afrikaaner. Once, they were concealed somewhere in the bush, observing a mother lion with her cubs when they realized that the mother had become aware of their presence. It was just a matter of time before she would be after them. “Now,” said the guide, “would be a good time to run!”

The instinct to risk life and limb and danger for the sake of the people to whom we’re close is bred into the bone sinful human beings like me and even of animals in the wild.

But God doesn’t operate on instinctive love. God loves the unlovable. He even loves the Osama bin Ladens and Mark Danielses of the world! For God, love isn’t an emotion, but a commitment to do the most possible to bring sinful human beings back into fellowship with Him. God will go to the absolute depths in order to save people. And He’s anxious to scoop not just the cute and cuddly from the sin and death that threaten us, but the whole human race.

So, Jesus waded into the Jordan River so that He could reach down to all of us, sinners all! No wonder the New Testament has six different accounts of Jesus’ baptism and only two accounts of His birth. Jesus’ baptism is more stunning and more important than Christmas, because in His baptism, Jesus demonstrated how far God is willing to go to reach out to us!

Jesus’ baptism demonstrates too, that when we repent--turn from sin--and confess our need of Him, something wonderful happens. Mark writes in our Bible lesson:
“...when [Jesus] was coming out of the water, He saw the heavens torn apart...”
The word for torn apart in the New Testament Greek is schizomenous. (It’s related to the word schizophrenia, which means a split personality or psyche.) When the heavens were torn apart at Jesus’ baptism, He saw “the Spirit descending like a dove on Him. And a voice [the voice of God] came from heaven, ‘You are My Son, the Beloved; with You I am well pleased.”

The college football season ended a few days ago with three great bowl games. Many times in those games, running backs or quarterbacks broke amazing runs resulting in first downs or touchdowns. Everybody cheered for them. But nine times out of ten, those runners only got big yardage because of some unsung lineman who blew holes open in the defense.

At the risk of suggesting a homely analogy, Jesus is our lineman! He blows the doors of heaven open for us. Mark hammers this point home later in His book when, as Jesus dies on a cross, we’re told that the curtain in the Jerusalem Temple that once concealed the Holy of Holies, God’s presence in the world, was torn from top to bottom. Through His life and His death and His resurrection, Jesus opens eternity to us!

This is a time of year when we make all sorts of resolutions. "I'm going to lose twenty pounds," we say. Or, "I'm going to read the Bible every day. I'm going to serve my neighbor no matter how inconvenient it may be." We grit our teeth and snarl, "I'm going to be a joyous Christian, blast it all!"

The problem with this approach is that it begins with us. It's based on our faulty capacity to accomplish things on our own steam.

Our call to be Jesus’ disciples starts with Christ Himself. He enters our life and He tears open the doors to heaven for us. Whatever good we do, however much we grow as people, will be rooted in our willingness, like the people who came to the Jordan River, to confess our sins, to repent, and to follow the lead of Jesus.

Jesus is God made plain to the world and if we follow Him, He’ll help us become the best people we can be and take us all the way to heaven!

[The story told by Origen appears in Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion.

[The inspiration for the theme of these Epiphany messages has been suggested by the staff at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Minnesota.]