Saturday, December 29, 2007

Second Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 30, 2007)

[Go here to see the first pass at the lessons and to find an explanation of what these passes are about. The illustration on the right is by Cerezo Barredo and is appropriate both for this text and for the John 1:1-14 test used on Christmas Eve. The words on the book, in Spanish, mean, "The Word became flesh."]

[General Comments, continued]
7. Hebrews 2:10-18: The New Testament book of Hebrews was traditionally attributed to Paul. Almost nobody believes that today. The book is a sermon or a set of sermons addressed to Jewish Christians who, in the face of persecution for their Christian faith and their spiritual immaturity, are considering a return to Judaism.

The preacher, most notably in chapter 11, draws on the examples of faithfulness found in the people chronicled in the Old Testament. He says that those Old Testament people of God faced persecution but kept believing in the promises of God ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. We must be no less faithful, the preacher says, now that Christ has come, died, and risen for us.

8. The text refers to Jesus as "the pioneer of their [our] salvation." Jesus has gone ahead of all who believe in Him, blazing the trail, so that, like Him, we will experience resurrection beyond death.

9. Verse 10 says that this pioneer was "made perfect through sufferings."

This is a bit confusing. Wasn't Jesus already perfect?

Yes. But the word rendered as perfect here is teleios, which means not so much perfect as complete. The idea here is that the pioneer, Jesus, completed His mission by dying and rising for us.

A form of teleios is what Jesus used just before He died on the cross. It's rendered, "It is finished," but more accurately should be translated in a grammatically awkward way, "It is completion."

The pioneer of our salvation fulfilled His mission by undergoing the suffering that completes His link to our humanity.

10. Through this suffering Jesus establishes His fellowship with us and "is not ashamed to call [us] brothers and sisters." Furthermore, "because He Himself was tested by what He suffered, He is able to help those who are being tested."

11. Matthew 2:13-23: The incidents recounted here follow the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus. According to Matthew, their visit occurred some time after Jesus' birth. In fact, Joseph, Mary, and the Baby seem to have taken up residence in Bethlehem, since we're told that the wise men found Jesus not in a stable, but in a "house" (Matthew 2:11).

12. In any case, the birth of Jesus and the visit of the wise men, often bathed in sentimentality by us all, is quickly followed by the intervention of a violent world. Joseph, who like his Old Testament namesake, is a man of dreams, is warned by an angel--the word literally means, messenger--to take the child, Jesus, to Egypt. (v. 13)

Egypt was often a place of refuge for God's people. In the Old Testament, Joseph, the son of Jacob, is taken to Egypt as a slave. But with the passage of time, his skills as an administrator and an interpreter of dreams become known and he's made, essentially, prime minister of the country. Eventually, he takes in his entire family, embryonic Israel. (Of course, later, God's people will become slaves and God will raise a leader to take them out of Egypt to the promised land. More on Moses in a moment.)

13. The Herod who sought to destroy the child was Herod the Great. He reigned as a kind of puppet king--with some power--under the dominion of the Roman governor. The Roman empire found it useful to employ local "rulers" as a way of "softening" their iron rule. Herod's claim to the throne was, by most accounts, illegitimate. But he had managed to ingratiate himself to Rome and maintain his crown.

The Romans looked the other way as Herod engaged in one violent act after another. Although Matthew's account of the killing of boys two years of age or younger in Bethlehem is found nowhere else, it's consistent with other written accounts of Herod's rule that we do have. Herod was so sick, in fact, that before he died, he arranged for a member from every family in Jericho, the city where he lived, to be killed so that when he did die, the whole city would be in mourning.

14. The "killing of the innocents," when Herod's orders were put into effect, probably resulted in the deaths of about 20 children. That's because, at the time, it's estimated Bethlehem was a town of about 1000 people.

15. The baby Jesus is spared. But this isn't preferential treatment. This Child has a mission. He must die for the sins of the world. The final Bethlehem innocent to die will be Jesus Himself, on a cross.

16. In yet another dream, Joseph is told to go back to "the land of Israel." Herod the Great has died. His kingdom is divided among Herod's three sons. Herod Archelaus is the most violent of the three sons. He rules in the south, including Bethlehem, where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had formerly lived. In yet another dream, Joseph is told to take his family to Nazareth in the Galilee region.

Galilee was regarded negatively in Judea. Intermingled with God's people were Samaritans and Gentiles. Although Nazareth was close to a trade route that brought three continents together, it was regarded as a backwater, spiritually and otherwise, by the Jewish people. This is why, in the Gospel of John, Nathanael asks his friend Philip, when told of the new preacher from Nazareth, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?"

17. The words of the angel to Joseph in v.20, are reminiscent of the words of the Lord to Moses, then in exile in Midian, found in Exodus 4:19.

You may remember that Moses, as an infant, had been spared a death sentence from a malevolent ruler, the Pharaoh in Egypt.

Concerned by the rising strength and the numbers of his nation's Hebrew slaves, Pharaoh had ordered that the Hebrew midwives kill all the newborn boys. The midwives lied to protect the children and Moses was one of the babies born after the Pharaoh's order was issued.

His mother placed him in a basket in the reeds of the Nile for protection and he was found by the Pharoah's daughter, who raised Moses as her own, with his mother recruited to serve as Moses' nurse.

Later, Moses, killed a taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave and he became a wanted man. He went to Midian, where he became a shepherd and married.

But God wasn't through with Moses and called him to go back to Egypt. It was safe, at least for the time being, because "those who were seeking your life are dead."

There is a sense in which Jesus, then, is a new Moses. But, He is greater than Moses. Unlike Moses, whose temper caused him to act rashly against the Egyptian taskmaster, to resist the will of God, and to rebel against God in the wilderness, Jesus remains forever faithful to God the Father, perfect in righteousness, and intent on the completion of His mission.

Friday, December 28, 2007

First Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 30, 2007)

[In these passes, I hope to help prepare myself and the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, Logan, Ohio, where I serve as pastor, for worship on the upcoming Sunday. But because we use the lectionary that is basically the same one used by most Christians in North America--and elsewhere, I hope that everyone will find these looks at the Bible lessons helpful.]

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

General Comments:
1. The Church Year has entered the twelve-day season of Christmas. It begins with Christmas, what's called "The Nativity of Our Lord," itself and extends through January 6, Epiphany, the day when the Church remembers the arrival of the wise men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. (Because of the wise men, our custom of Christmas gift-giving began as Epiphany gift-giving. Later, the custom of some small gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas began.)

2. The order in which the Sunday Gospel lessons come at us this year is a bit bizarre. They're out of sync. We mentioned a few weeks ago, for example, that the Church Year begins about nine-tenths of the way through Matthew's telling of the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. In the following two weeks, we looked at the ministry of John the Baptist and last Sunday, even though it was still Advent, we considered Jesus' birth from the vantage point of Joseph, his earthly father.

Today's Gospel lesson looks at events just after the arrival of the wise men. Next Sunday, we'll go back to the wise men!

Part of this is a simple trick of the calendar. January 6 has always been reserved for the celebration of Epiphany. In former times, not that long ago, worshipers would gather on that Epiphany Day, no matter the day of the week on which it fell. Now, we take advantage of celebrating Epiphany whenever a Sunday presents itself for that. Often, over the years, I've used the lessons appointed for the day on the Sunday nearest to January 6. This year, January 6 will fall on a Sunday. Without marking Epiphany in this way, the season of Epiphany begins with no indication of what it's about.

All of that will start next week. I just wanted to alert you to the fact that, at least as it relates to the Gospel, we're going to continue jumping around the story of Jesus out of sequence.

3. Isaiah 63:7-9: One of the best things believers can do as they face tough times or periods of doubt is to remember God's past faithfulness, not only in Bible times or in the lives of others, but in our own lives. It's a way of reminding ourselves--and when appropriate, others--that there is no expiration date on God's promise to never leave us or forsake us. Isaiah 63:7-9 is really a psalm, a worship song, probably composed in a tough time, designed to encourage believers with reminders of God's faithfulness.

4. As I've mentioned several times during the Advent season when all of our Old Testament lessons were from Isaiah, this book may have been written by three different authors. If so, our lesson was written by the person that scholars call Trito-Isaiah (Third Isaiah). (It was thought acceptable in Biblical times for writers or teachers who were part of the school of thought or piety established by an esteemed teacher to write in the voice of that teacher.)

It's thought that our lesson was written after the Babylonian Conquest of God's people, which happened in about 587BC. This was a good time for God's people to remember God's faithfulness.

5. The term steadfast love actually translates a single Hebrew word, hesed. It has a very specific meaning, being a technical term describing God's covenant faithfulness. Through Abraham and later, through Moses, God made a covenant with the people of Israel. He would be their God and they would be His people.

Isaiah is reminding God's people that God has always been faithful in His covenant relationship with them and He wouldn't stop being faithful in the face of the cataclysmic events they then faced.

6. Psalm 148: This is part of a group of five psalms that come at the end of this worship book of the Old Testament. They're all classified as praise or hallelujah psalms. This is a call for everything from the inanimate objects of the universe to God's highest creatures, human beings, to join in praising God. This psalm was the inspiration for Herbert Brokering's hymn, Earth and All Stars.

[More tomorrow, I hope.]

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Malnutrition Up in Darfur

See here.

Despite an increase of aid, the fundamentals in Darfur and Sudan remain the same. A malevolent regime backs a terrorizing military group, displacing thousands, making it impossible for people to farm and confining many to camps. Aid workers are often unable to get to those whose lives hang in the balance.

Pray about the situation. God can use prayers in Christ's Name to give wisdom and solutions we don't know or can't see. (See here.)

Call on the African Union to bring in more troops to help aid workers get through to those in need. The AU Chairperson is His Excellency, Mr. Alpha Oumar Konare. His email address can be found here.

Call on the United Nations, through representatives from the US and other countries, to bring more pressure to bear on the Sudanese government in Khartoum.

Ask the President and members of Congress (House and Senate) to give the Darfur crisis higher priority, including providing helicopters and funding.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

I know...

that this is basically a five-minute commercial. But it tells something about Logan, Ohio, where we live, and its surrounding area. It's a great place to visit!

"Isn't There Anyone Who Knows What Christmas is All About?"

Latch Onto the Promise of the Manger

[This sermon was shared during the Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church.]

John 1:1-14
She was a member of the first parish I served as a pastor. She had been seriously ill for several years. Now, in the waning days of Advent, while the Church awaited the coming of Christmas and the return of Jesus, she took a turn for the worst. "It will be her Advent soon, Pastor," her husband told me. "In a short while, she'll see Jesus coming to be with her in heaven."

Before I left his wife's room that night, we shared a prayer. We asked God to ease her pain and to allow her to see the Lord's coming, His Advent, soon.

Just before Christmas, as I prepared for worship, I got the telephone call. She would soon die. I drove quickly to be with her and her family. I got there just after she passed from this life to be with Christ. With tears in his eyes and a smile on his face, her husband told me, "It is her Advent, Pastor."

You know, there's a lot of sentimentality and silliness attached to Christmas. Hawkers of everything from jewelry to flannel underwear call it a magical time, especially if you buy what they're selling. Every year, hundreds of people, disappointed by the false promises made by the Christmas industry, take their own lives, unable to cope with the realities of a world in which wars rage, arguments go unresolved, and illness and death refuse to take holidays.

Christians aren't immune to the message of the fake Christmas touted by the movies, television commercials, and popular songs. They look at their own sometimes painful lives and wonder what good the baby in the manger does.

But it's important to remember that when Jesus calls us to follow Him, the same Jesus Whose birth we celebrate tonight, He doesn't call us into a kingdom of sugar plum fairies. Heavenly perfection belongs only to those who have followed Him through life in this world. Christmas is a signpost of coming attractions. In the meantime, you and I live here.

A devotion in the most recent issue of Our Daily Bread reminds us, "Let us at all costs avoid the temptation to make our Christmas worship a withdrawal from the stress and sorrow of life into a realm of unreal beauty. It was into the real world that Christ came, into the city where there was no room for Him, and into a country where Herod, the murderer of innocents, was king.

“He comes to us, not to shield us from the harshness of the world but to give us the courage and strength to bear it; not to snatch us away by some miracle from the conflict of life, but to give us peace—His peace—in our hearts, by which we may be calmly steadfast while the conflict rages, and be able to bring to the torn world the healing that is peace.”

God is the author of miracles, of course. And we should never forget that or cease to pray for them. But the greatest Christmas miracle of all is the one described by the evangelist John in the prologue to his Gospel, which we'll hear in its entirety in just a few moments:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...And the Word became flesh and lived among us…"
God came to the world in the person of Jesus and through His death and resurrection can make the same promise to us that He made to the sister of His friend, Lazarus:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die."
What that promise meant for that man in my first parish is that even amid the sorrows and the grief of this world, he could be filled with joy, the joy of Christmas. He had the confidence, the hope, and the serenity that belongs to all believers in Jesus Christ.

The promise of Immanuel, of God with us, can also have an impact on how we live each day on this imperfect planet. I once knew a man named George (not his real name). George was a veteran of World War II. A soldier, he had fought and trudged across Europe through one battle after another. He had seen and experienced the death, disease, and privation visited on humanity by human evil. “I promised God,” he once told me, “that, with His help, if I could do anything to prevent a child from going hungry or a family being without heat or running water, I would do it. I didn’t want to kill any more.”

George came home, went to college, became an engineer, married, and started a family. But he never forgot his promise. Until he died in his late-seventies about five years ago, he headed the outreach ministries of his congregation, a Lutheran church in the Cincinnati area. I’ve known George to go out to remote rural households on blustery nights just to deliver a bag of groceries to a family in need. When his church ran out of budgeted funds in November, I knew that George would call me. “Pastor,” he’d say, “there’s a family that needs help. Could your church help them?” “Yes, George,” I’d say.

Some who saw the things George saw during the war spent their lives trying to forget them. That’s understandable. I might have reacted in the same way. But George looked at war’s horrors from a different perspective. His vow to use what he saw and experienced as a springboard for living life differently shows us that you and I need not be overwhelmed by the sorrow or difficulties of life. We can face them from the perspective of people who know that they belong to God forever and confident of our places in Christ’s kingdom, be empowered to love our neighbors and to bring something of Christ’s kingdom of love to this needy world!

Christ came at Christmas and He comes to all who call on Him any day to give us the strength and peace to live each day, to let us know that, no matter what, in life or death, in happy times or sad, He is our God, He is our Savior, and He will never leave us or forsake us.

Latch onto that promise, the promise of the manger, made with the flesh and blood of Jesus Himself, as we celebrate Christmas tonight.

"Pete's Christmas Garden"

That's the title of this insightful post by the always-wonderful Charlie Lehardy.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas and "Pagan Customs"

I just finished talking with our daughter on the telephone. She told me about a conversation she'd had with a guy at work that nearly made me bust a gut.

This fellow told her knowingly, "You know, most of the customs of Christmas go back to the pagans. Even the date for Christmas goes back to them."

He said this with a triumphant knowing tone, as if to say, "This all proves Christmas is bunk."

But any informed Christian can tell you that we have no idea when Jesus was actually born. No Christan claims that December 25 is the actual birthday of Jesus. It's just the day we've chosen to celebrate the birth.

For centuries, residents of the northern hemisphere have celebrated varied holidays involving light, just around the Winter Solstice. In the first century Roman world in which Christianity was born, the festival of Saturnalia, celebrated in honor of a god of agriculture, took place during the Solstice. Evergreens were hung. Gifts were exchanged. Candles were lit.

Christians, a marginalized minority, appropriated the customs of the "pagans" in order to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the One they believed was "the light of the world." This is Who the evangelist John wrote about in the prologue of his Gospel:
...The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God... [John 1:9-13]
The Christian reclamation of old customs may have been a somewhat subversive act for a persecuted band of believers to employ to worship and honor the God they'd come to know through Jesus Christ. But people who think that it all disproves the revelation of God in Christ are guilty of poor logic...or wishful thinking.

Approaching Iowa: A Tale of Alternative Universes

The results of the Iowa caucuses, coming on January 3, will likely tell different stories in the presidential nominating races of the Republican and Democratic parties.

That shouldn't be surprising. For months now, the campaigns for the two parties' nominations have unfolded like tales from parallel universes. The datelines and the timelines are the same, but the plotlines are altogether different.

Democratic voters are generally happy with their field of presidential contenders.

The Republicans have been restive. For months, people hankered for former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson to enter the race, for example. But once he did--"belatedly" according to the current bizarre standards, he was met by a collective yawn.

The respective parties' debates have found Democratic and Republican candidates spending time talking about different topics, almost as though they were speaking to two different countries. Democrats talk more about health care and Republicans focus more on illegal immigration.

But it's the difference in politics in the two parties that most interests me right now. The stakes associated with the Iowa caucuses and then, the New Hampshire primary, which happens on January 8, are very different for Democrats and Republicans.

At present, it appears that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee will win the Iowa caucuses in the Republican Party. That will afford the affable former clergyman a bit of a bounce in his bid for his party's nomination.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that Huckabee will automatically become the presumptive Republican nominee if he wins in Iowa. Such cautions are especially appropriate in the Republican universe.

In 1980, for example, George H.W. Bush narrowly won in Iowa, taking 32% of the vote. The elder Bush pronounced that he had Big Mo--momentum--in his corner as he headed to New Hampshire. Because the Bush family had strong New England roots, many presumed it would be a likely spot for a Bush to win, thrusting him toward the GOP presidential nomination. But it didn't happen. Big Mo shifted his allegiance and Ronald Reagan was nominated for the presidency.

There's another reason an Iowa win might not give Huckabee a big boost from Big Mo. Iowa's Republican caucus-goers are both more conservative and more evangelical than voters in New Hampshire's primary. The composition of Iowa's Republican caucus-goers is advantageous to Huckabee. The composition of New Hampshire's likely primary-voters is not. Not only New Hampshire' Republican voters more moderate and dramatically less evangelical, the state also allows independents to cast votes in the parties' primaries.

While Huckabee can certainly capitalize on an Iowa win, it's likely that such a victory will say less about enthusiasm for him, at least for the moment, than about a decided lack of enthusiasm for the presumptive frontrunners going into Iowa, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani.

A Huckabee win in Iowa then, will be a signal that the race for the GOP nomination is far from over. For Republicans, that will heighten New Hampshire's importance.

For some time, it's been clear that two members of the Republican field have built-in advantages for the New Hampshire primary race. One is Arizona's senator, John McCain, a maverick whose appeal among Granite State voters was strong enough to give him a win there in 2000.

But the Republican with overwhelming apparent advantages in New Hampshire was Romney. For any Massachusetts pol, campaigning in New Hampshire has always been like the Red Sox playing at Fenway Park. On the Democratic side, John Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, and John Kerry all knew that they could count on New Hampshire to give their quests for the presidency boosts. In 1964, while he served as ambassador to South Vietnam for a Democratic president, former Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Richard Nixon's 1960 vice presidential running mate, won the New Hampshire presidential primary.

Given his advantages, the New Hampshire primary has always been a must-win for Romney. The stakes in the Granite State will only get bigger if he loses in Iowa. Failure to win in New Hampshire will spell the end of his quest for the nomination.

Romney operatives must be feeling that they're watching a train wreck, as their candidate, prone to gaffes and exaggerations, loses support in both Iowa and New Hampshire, watches Huckabee surpass him in the first state, and sees McCain revivify his New Hampshire constituency, all at Romney's expense.

If Iowa and New Hampshire produce two different winners and the elimination of Romney from the field, as I expect they will, the winner of the Republican nomination will be unknown through at least the South Carolina primary on January 26. Front-loading be hanged, the Republicans will have a race on their hands.

But in that parallel universe, the race for the Democratic nomination, a very different tale is likely to be told. In recent weeks, Illinois' senator Barack Obama, has been pulling even with or surpassing New York's senator, Hillary Clinton, not only in Iowa, but now in New Hampshire. If Obama wins in Iowa, as I expect that he will, the Democratic race, unlike the one among Republicans, will be effectively over. Barack Obama will then be the Democratic nominee.

The reason is simple. In 2004, the Democrats had a large field that included John Edwards, Wesley Clark, Joe Lieberman, Howard Dean, and John Kerry. When Kerry defied conventional wisdom and won in Iowa, Democratic voters became like traditional ward-heeling politicians, swallowing whatever misgivings they may have had about Kerry to back him. True-believing liberals forgot their loyalty to Dean and got on board with the Massachusetts senator. Democrats, many believing that the Bush Republicans had stolen the 2000 presidential election, were desperate to win. Dems decided to unite behind Kerry.

It almost worked. John Kerry got more votes than any Democratic presidential nominee in history. More than Franklin Roosevelt. More than Lyndon Johnson. Certainly more than Bill Clinton, who only mustered plurality votes in two successive elections. The problem is that George W. Bush got more votes, popular and electoral.

In the intervening years, the Democrats have built up even more desperation to put a Democrat in the White House. If the polls are to believed, quite a lot of independents and not a few Republicans agree with them. Democratic candidates are receiving more contributions from more contributors than their Republican counterparts. Crowds for Democratic candidates are larger and seemingly more enthusiastic than those for Republican candidates. Democratic rank-and-file voters, as much as the party's professionals, want to win in 2008.

If Obama defies the odds and stands down the formidable Clinton machine in Iowa, the trend toward the Illinois senator, in New Hampshire and elsewhere, will become a tidal wave.

Two parallel universes. Two differing scenarios. The result? The presidential nomination of the party which generally gives its nod to the candidate next in line up for grabs. The party which pioneered democratization in its nominating process to give more candidates a shot closing ranks to support one person ten months before the general election.

But, as I always say when making political prognostications: Or not.

[This has been cross-posted at The Moderate Voice.]