Saturday, December 22, 2007

Third Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 23, 2007)

(General Comments, continued)

(11) Matthew 1:18-25: Matthew's Gospel opens (1:1-17) with a geneaology, tracing the fourteen generations from Abraham, patriarch of Biblical faith, to David, Israel's greatest king, and then from David to Jesus, who though not descended from human parents in the usual way, was placed under the custodial parentage of Joseph in the town of Nazareth.

After this, comes our Bible lesson.

(12) Only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke give accounts of Jesus' birth. Luke does so, largely, from the perspective of Jesus' earthly mother, Mary. Matthew, on the other hand, tells it from the vantage point of Joseph.

Verse-by-Verse Comments: Matthew 1:18-25 18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
(1) The term "Messiah" comes from the Hebrew. It means simply, the Anointed. It was used of Israel's kings, because they were anointed with oil as a sign of their being set apart for their work and of God's expectation that they would rule justly, in accordance with His will.

Over time, the term came to be associated with a particular King. The Messiah was the subject of much Old Testament prophecy especially in Isaiah.

Christos, in English, Christ, is the Greek translation of Messiah.

Matthew makes clear at the outset of his narrative that he regards Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.

(2) Even while engaged--or betrothed, men and women in first century Judea who had entered this relationship were considered married, whether their union had been consummated and they had begun to live together or not. This is why Joseph would consider divorcing Mary.

In this era in which sex has become meaningless, it's difficult to imagine how scandalous it was for an unmarried woman to become pregnant. It indicated a cavalier contempt for God, Who reserved sexual intimacy for a couple who were married, a closeness reserved for their enjoyment, for celebrating their commitment to one another, and for creating children.

Naturally enough, Joseph, who knew that he hadn't had sexual intimacy with Mary, would have assumed that she had been unfaithful to him.

(3) The most important phrase in this passage is "from the Holy Spirit." The Spirit moved over the waters in Genesis 1 and life came about. The Spirit gives life. This makes sense because in the Hebrew of the Old Testament--ruach--and the Greek of the New Testament--pneuma, the word spirit means breath, wind, or air. In the second creation account in Genesis, God breathes His spirit into a clump of dust and gives life to the first human.

The Spirit brings life into being where it seemingly cannot exist. The Spirit did this in the womb of barren Sarah in the Old Testament. Now, Mattthew tells us, He did it again, causing an embryo to appear in the womb of a virgin.

19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
(1) Under Old Testament law, Joseph would have been within his rights to have divorced Mary. As punishment, she likely would have been taken just outside the village and stoned to death. Joseph couldn't do this to her, although he still felt violated. He would, he told himself, end their arranged marriage "quietly."

20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
(1) Joseph's plan was commendable. But God had other ideas.

(2) Joseph dreams like his Old Testament namesake, the son of Jacob. This Joseph will receive several messages from God in dreams. The best book I've read on this subject of dreams is by the priest and Jungian psychologist, Morton Kelsey.

(3) Angel, which translates the Greek word, angelos, means messenger. The angels are messengers from God. The best book I've read on the subject of angels is by evangelist Billy Graham.

21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
(1) The name Jesus, Yeshua (Joshua) in Hebrew and Yesus in Greek, roughly means, Yahweh Saves. Yahweh, the Name by which God identified Himself to Moses, means I AM and carries the notion that God is the foundational being of the universe: I AM WHO I AM. Theologian Paul Tillich used this name for God to speak of God as our "ground of being."

(2) The Messiah comes into the world to save us from the consequences of our sins, which are succinctly summarized in Romans 6:23, along with what God does for us in Christ:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
(1) Although we're told that the child is to be named Jesus, the prophecy from Isaiah is cited by Matthew. It foretells the birth of a child to be called Emmanuel. But, given that Jesus is "God with us," I take this to be an apposition, a sort of descriptive nickname for Jesus.

(2) The prophecy from Isaiah was originally applied to a king's son born hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. The term, rendered as virgin here, is, in the Greek of the New Testament and of the standard Greek translation of the Old Testament, produced many years before the birth of Jesus, the Septuagint, is parthenos. It can be translated as virgin. But can also be rendered as young maiden.

24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
(1) Joseph did as directed by the angel, taking Mary as his wife.

(2) This passage, along with others which speak of the family that Joseph and Mary subsequently had together, disprove the notion that their other children were produced by the Holy Spirit. In short, Mary and Joseph were a normal married couple. They had sexual relations.

The point of the virgin birth is not that sex is somehow dirty. God created sex. It's a good thing and only dirtied when we use it in the wrong ways.

The point of the virgin birth, then, is that the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ was a creative act from God through which He entered our lives, accepted our punishment for sin, and through Christ's resurrection, made it possible for all who believe in Him, to live with God forever.

[For more on this passage, you may also want to look here and here.]

Friday, December 21, 2007

Second Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 23, 2007)

[To see what these "passes" are about, go here.]

(General Comments, continued)
(7) Romans 1:1-7: These opening verses of Romans, like the beginnings of Paul's other letters now in our New Testament, conforms to the usual conventions of Greek and Roman letter-writing in the first century. (Greek was the Mediterranean basin's second language, much as English is today, which is why the New Testament was written in Greek. As Rome subsumed Greece and all the Mediterranean region--and beyond--under its imperial dominion, Greek and its conventions were adopted by the Romans.)

Letters didn't begin, as ours do, with the name of the addressee (ie, Dear Joe...), but with the name of the sender.

The sender's name was usually followed by an apposition. Paul pays particular attention to this because, as we'll see, Romans was written as a letter of introduction to the small band of believers who had little or no familiarity with him.

The addressee was usually mentioned at the end of the opening line of the letter.

(8) This introduction is long, running to seven verses. And it's a single sentence. Although Paul can compose lengthy sentences, this is even longish for him!

(9) But if you pay close attention to these verses, you'll see that in it, Paul summarizes the argument of the entire letter.

(10) The letter was written by Paul--actually dictated by him to a secretary known as an amanuensis, sometime after 57AD. Paul's purpose in writing it, as mentioned above, was to introduce himself to the small Roman church. There, he would serve them and encourage them in their faith, then take a collection for the purpose of supporting his ministry in Spain, where he would carry the Good News of Jesus.

Most scholars agree that the Roman church was composed of Jews like Paul, with few Gentile members at the time. This may explain why, in later chapters of Romans, Paul wrestles with the spiritual well-being of other Jews who did not believe that Christ was the Messiah.

[More tomorrow, I hope.]

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

First Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 23, 2007)

[Each week I present several looks at the appointed Bible lessons for the upcoming Sunday worship services. These passes will be more abbreviated than usual, because I'm not preaching this Sunday. Instead, our children will be presenting the annual Christmas program on that day.]

This Week's Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

General Comments:
(1) This is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. Advent, as mentioned previously, is a word that means coming or appearing. In Advent, we not only remember how the world awaited the appearing of the Messiah in the centuries before Jesus' birth. We also remind ourselves that we await His return on what the Bible calls, "the Day of the Lord." The crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus will come back, judge the living and the dead, and establish His Kingdom in its fullness. (Of course, Advent is also the time when we "wait" to celebrate Christmas each year.)

(2) Isaiah 7:10-16: Throughout Advent, our Old Testament lessons have been drawn from Isaiah. This passage comes from that section of the book thought to have been written sometime between 740 and 700 B.C. Chris Haslam writes informatively of this passage:
Assyria, under Tiglath-pileser III, is intent on expanding westwards. The kings of “Aram” (vv. 1, 2, 5, 8, Syria) and of Israel (also called “Ephraim”) have formed a coalition to resist the advances of their common enemy. They have tried to convince “Ahaz” (v. 1), king of Judah and of the “house of David” (v. 2) to join the alliance; he has refused. Now they seek to put a puppet king on Judah’s throne. God has commanded Isaiah to “meet Ahaz” (v. 3) as he inspects the water supply vital to Jerusalem’s defence. Isaiah tells him: “take heed ... do not fear ... these two smoldering stumps of firebrands” (v. 4) who have “plotted evil against you” (v. 5). “If you do not stand firm in faith” (v. 9, trust in God) but rely on human counsel, you will be defeated.

God now speaks again to Ahaz: ask any “sign” (v. 11), any confirmation of my promise delivered by Isaiah – any at all in all creation. (“Sheol” was the subterranean abode of the dead.). But it seems that Ahaz has already made up his mind (v. 12) so, through Isaiah, God gives to the “house of David” (v. 13) not a “sign” (v. 11) to convince Ahaz, but one which speaks to future generations. God will keep the promise he made to David (through Nathan): “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me” (2 Samuel 7:16). “The young woman” (v. 14, most likely Ahaz’s wife) is pregnant; David’s line will continue; she will name her son “Immanuel” (meaning God with us). (This son was Hezekiah.) In a devastated land (paying heavy tribute to Assyria), where only basic food is available (“curds and honey”, v. 15), he will develop moral discrimination – unlike recent kings, who were deemed wicked, ungodly people. By this time, Assyria will have conquered both Syria and Israel (v. 16).
Ahaz represents many believers probably. At least at some times in our lives. Ahaz knows that he can go to God in prayer. God has even told Ahaz to pray. But he refuses because he clearly doesn't think that God will give him the answer he wants to hear!

(2) Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19: The historical context in which this Psalm was written is suggested by verse 2, in which three tribal provinces of the Northern Kingdom (called Israel or later, Samaria) are mentioned. This suggests that it was composed before the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, the same period of apprehension and fear addressed in Isaiah.

(3) The refrain of the Psalm, found in verses 3, 7, and 19, asks for restoration from God. The psalmist, said to be written by Asaph, clearly sees the rebelliousness of God's people as the reason that foreign powers are menacing them.

(4) In verse 17, the psalmist prays for the king to make the right decision. This is interesting in light of what the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah discusses: a king who refuses to seek God's counsel. In his book, Prayer, The Mightiest Force In The World: Thoughts For An Atomic Age, Frank Laubach suggested that we should not only pray that God would show leaders His will, but that they would be receptive to what God shows them.

(5) The psalmist describes the king as "the one whom you made strong for yourself." In their New Testament letters, both Paul and Peter, urge prayers for and obedience to leaders as the authority to govern comes from God, for God's purposes. (This doesn't mean that autocrats are to be obeyed blindly. Kings and presidents, like the rest of us mortals, are to love their neighbors as they love themselves.)

(6) This Psalm, with its recollections of Israel's wilderness wanderings, most likely was composed for use during one of the great annual festivals of Judaism, the Festival of Booths. For more on that, see here.

[More on Friday, I hope.]

Sunday, December 16, 2007


[This was shared with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, during the worship celebration this morning.]

Matthew 11:2-11
During a worship service in India, a missionary presented the Gospel, the Good News of new and everlasting life that belongs to all who turn from sin and follow Jesus Christ.

One man watched hundreds step forward to be baptized. But, as compelling as the missionary's words were, he held back, watching, wondering. At the end of the service, the man noticed that an Indian servant worked for the American missionary. He followed the servant to his house and knocked on his door.

“I was at the meeting tonight,” he explained. “I would like to follow Jesus. But I wonder about one thing. The missionary, does he really believe the things he says?” When the other man assured him that the missionary, though imperfect and a sinner in as much need of daily repentance as the next person, really did believe in Jesus Christ and really did seek to live a life pleasing to God, the skeptical man was ready to be baptized.

What won that man to Christ boils down to a single word: authenticity. The missionary believed in the God of love he proclaimed.

People the world over want to believe in Jesus Christ. People here in Logan and Hocking County want to believe in Christ. They want to be part of His Church.

That yearning for Christ and His family is behind the fact that Christianity today is the fastest-growing religion in the world. In places like India, China, across the continent of Africa, and elsewhere people like that man are being attracted to Christ through the authenticity of Christians.

They see Christians feeding the hungry, serving the victims of disaster, building houses for the homeless, teaching the illiterate to read, and other acts of Christian love. Through these actions, the faith of Christians and the Savior we follow are authenticated.

Christ has given us a mission. We call it the Great Commission. It's the mission of every Christian to make disciples of all people, to bring them the Good News of Christ so that, like us, they can live with God forever.

We're reminded of our mission and the way in which God wants us to do it every time we baptize. As happened last Sunday when we celebrated Baptism or will happen next Sunday, when we have yet another Baptism, we present the baptized with a candle with the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew, “Let your light so shine before others that they see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Our lives are meant to authenticate the faith we confess!

In today's Gospel lesson, we find John the Baptist in prison, facing the prospect of execution. All his life, John had known his mission. He was to prepare the world for the Messiah, the Christ. As last Sunday's Gospel lesson showed us, John was faithful in the pursuit of this mission. But John also had very specific ideas about what the Messiah would be like. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” John said, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

John had expected the Messiah to be a judge of the living and the dead. His expectation wasn't wrong, of course. Virtually every Sunday, you and I confess our belief that the Messiah will do just that on what the New Testament calls “the Day of the Lord.”

But as John sat in prison, he heard reports that the One he had thought was the Messiah wasn't judging people. Instead, He was healing them, feeding them, telling even notorious sinners like tax embezzlers and prostitutes that God forgave them their sins and wanted to spend eternity with them.

John was confused. He wondered if he'd been wrong about Jesus. And so John sent some of his followers to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus could have given a lengthy theological treatise on His being the long-awaited Messiah. Instead, Jesus points John and his disciples to the evidence of His actions. “Go and tell John,” Jesus says, “what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

“I could talk until I'm blue in the face,” Jesus seems to say. “But to decide whether I'm the Messiah, the promised King, take a look at what I've been up to.” All the actions Jesus describes in today's Gospel lesson-from restoring sight to the blind to bringing good news even to the poor and marginalized of the world-were things that the prophet Isaiah said the Messiah would do when He first appeared.

Jesus' actions authenticated Who He was…and Who He is. Jesus' actions spoke louder than words, including His submission to a cross where He died for our sin and His resurrection, when He secured eternity for all who entrust their lives to Him.

As followers of Jesus, our actions speak loudly, too. Our lives demonstrate to the world either that the Good News of Jesus is true for us or just a lot of hot air.

A friend of mine once told me of the experience of his son-in-law, Bill. It was an experience that nearly robbed him of his faith. Bill, then about eight, was at church one Sunday, when a man stood up and gave an impassioned speech about the need for every member to support a missionary their church sponsored. Moved by the speech, Bill approached the man afterward and held out all the money he had, just a few cents, to support the missionary. The man barely looked at Bill and said patronizingly, “I don't want your money, son. It was just a speech.” That man's faith wasn't authentic. It was only words.

There isn't a perfect person in the church, of course. I like to say that the church is a hospital for recovering hypocrites, each of us guilty, either by thought or deed, of violating every one of the Ten Commandments. But we Christians authenticate our faith in Jesus and our Savior when others see that, sinners though we may be, we really mean it when we say that we believe in Jesus Christ, that He's the Lord of our lives, and the Savior of our souls.

In my former parish, inspired by the ministry of my friend, Steve Sjogren, we undertook what we called Kindness Outreaches, going out to major intersections on Saturday mornings to give away things like cold cans of Coca Cola in the summer or cans of soup in the winter. We handed these and other gifts to motorists when their cars were stopped at red lights. (The police let us do this!) In five years, from June 28, 1997 to June 22, 2002, we reached 15,861 people in this way. (I'm obsessive compulsive. I kept track.) When people asked us why we did this crazy thing, we explained by saying something like, “We're just trying to share the love of God in a practical way.”

I got a letter from a woman about our outreaches once. “My husband is an over the road truck driver,” she explained. “He woke up one Saturday a few weeks ago, cranky, demanding Chicken Noodle soup. I told him we were out of it, but that I was heading to the grocery store and would pick some up for him.”

The woman wrote that she had gone to the store, but on the way home, realized that she had forgotten to get the soup. “I didn't want to go back to the store though,” she said, “I decided that my husband would have to live without it. But then, I pulled up to the intersection of Glen Este-Withamsville Road and someone from your church handed me a can of Chicken Noodle soup. They said, 'Here, we're giving this to you because God loves you' and then walked away. When I got home, I told my husband, 'God must be looking out for you. He's even got people out on the streets so that you can have your Chicken Noodle soup.'”

The woman went on to say that she and her husband hadn't been to church in a long time. But after realizing that there were still Christians who believed in God and showed them what God's love was like that soup, a free gift, they were going back to their old church.

The world is looking for churches and for Christians that actually believe in the God of grace and love that we Christians proclaim. They don't expect Christians to be perfect. But they do expect us to be authentic.

If people see Jesus working in us, guiding us, and informing us in lives of service, love, and prayer, the Church will make disciples and continue to grow.

Saint Matthew Lutheran Church will make disciples and grow.

Authenticity. It was what Jesus used to confirm to John that He was the Messiah. And authenticity is what lets others know that the Lord we follow is real, His grace is real, and His kingdom is real.

The world needs authentic Christians. May we always be just that! Amen

Clinton, Obama, and the Experience Issue

With Illinois Senator Barack Obama in a virtual tie with her in Iowa polls before that state's presidential caucus, Senator Hillary Clinton and her husband are claiming that Obama is dangerously lacking in experience which the New York senator apparently possesses. The New York Times reports that former President Bill Clinton says that electing Obama would be "rolling the dice" for the United States.

This is a curious argument for Clinton and her campaign to make.

The reason it's so strange is that it's so at odds with the facts. Clinton began her first term in the Senate, her first political office, in January, 2001. It's true that Obama didn't enter the Senate until January, 2005. But by that time, he had already served ten years in the Illinois legislature, meaning that he has roughly double the experience in elective political office that Clinton has.

The only way that Clinton's experience argument will resonate with voters is if they think of "experience" in terms of years of public visibility. But it's precisely Clinton's years of public visibility that create her greatest problem as a candidate. After all her time in the public spotlight, she's viewed negatively by a daunting percentage of voters. I personally can't recall a candidate being nominated by a major political party with as much hard opposition--upwards of 40% in most national polls--as Clinton. Her "experience" then, could be a deficiency in many voters' eyes.

What's interesting about the three current front runners for the Democrats in Iowa--Clinton, Obama, and former one-term Senator from North Carolina, John Edwards--is that all of them have thin federal elective resumes. The experience of each appears to pale by comparison to their less popular rivals like Senator Joseph Biden, Senator Christopher Dodd, and Governor Bill Richardson.

Elective political experience, it should be pointed out, isn't always a great predictor of an excellent presidency. George Washington spent limited time in the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress before becoming president. Dwight Eisenhower, though always a "political general," in the best sense of that term, had never held public office when he became president. They developed the skills necessary for the presidency while becoming two of the country's three greatest generals. (The third, Ulysses S. Grant, was a disastrous president.)

Nor is federal elective experience or even executive experience of much use in predicting who will perform well in the White House. When he became president in 1861, for example, Abraham Lincoln had served about a decade in the Illinois legislature and one term in the US House, back during the Polk Administration, and had no executive experience. (Obama's resume in 2007 is almost precisely the same as that of Lincoln's in 1860.)

On the other hand, some long-time officeholders were disastrous presidents. Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding, Martin Van Buren, and Richard Nixon, among others, are unlikely to have their images chiseled into the sides of mountains.

There probably is little way of knowing how experience is going to play out in a presidency. I nonetheless think voters take it into consideration and vote against candidates they think have too little experience. Steve Forbes, Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and the 2004-version of John Edwards would probably agree with me on that. (Of course, each of those candidates had other "issues" that we could go into, but inexperience as elected public officials played a role in their rejection by voters.)

Of course, Clinton is pushing the experience issue, something she spoke about earlier in the year but had not emphasized in recent months, because the momentum of the Iowa caucus campaign is shifting. Clearly, Obama is on the rise and Clinton is throwing this argument out to voters in an effort to stop her chief rival. Whether Obama can beat Senator Clinton may depend on her ability to convince voters that, as she's quoted as saying in that New York Times piece, she's been vetted and that electing Senator Obama to the presidency would be too dicey.

Though her argument doesn't square with history, voters in Iowa may buy it. If they do, Clinton will likely have done all she needs to do to secure the Democratic nomination and put Obama away. That's because Democrats in 2008, like Democrats in 2004, are so desperate to win the White House that New Hampshire Democrats, five days later, are likely to coalesce around the winner in Iowa, foregoing further intra-partisan wrangling in favor of creating a united front to face the Republican nominee in the fall. Democrats may be rolling the dice if they nominate Obama, as President Clinton suggests. But right now, his wife is betting her campaign on a different throw of the dice, her assertion that she is the experienced candidate for the presidency that her party wants and her country needs.

[This was posted last night at The Moderate Voice.]