Monday, November 28, 2005

First Pass at This Sunday's Potential Bible Lessons: 2 Peter 3:8-15a and Matthew 1:18-25

Our congregation subscribes to what's known as The Toolkit from Changing Church, a ministry of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Minnesota. It provides worship resources built around themes usually suggested by the historic lectionaries (Bible lesson plans) of the Church.

While I would be loathe to ever swipe sermons from others--for one thing, I too enjoy the process of sermon preparation--I'm always ripe for finding good ideas! (I once heard pastor, author, and leadership guru Norm Shawchuck give this good advice: "Thou shalt steal good ideas!") The Toolkit is often chock-full of stealable ideas.

Lectionaries--Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics all seem to have slightly varying versions of these Bible lesson regimens--usually appoint what amounts to a total of four lessons for each Sunday and festival of the Church Year. Generally speaking, these lessons include an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a reading from one of the New Testament books other than the Gospels, and a lesson from one of the Gospel books: Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. (There are three different lectionary years, referred to as Years A, B, and C.)

A number of years ago, I decided to build the worship services at our congregation around a theme each week. That immediately suggested using one Biblical passage as the foundation for the entire worship celebration on any given day, thus "de-cluttering" things and heightening the impact of the theme each day.

Usually, I use one of the lessons appointed by the lectionary, but often I break free from what one of our former Lutheran bishops, David Preus, called "the tyranny of the lectionary" to address issues that I've chosen for special attention. So, a few years ago, I did a series of messages on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. I've also done series of messages on marriage and family life, stress, spiritual gifts, spiritual disciplines, the themes of the Forty Days of Purpose, and so on.

This week, the Toolkit suggests building worship around two Biblical texts: Second Peter 3:8-15a and Matthew 1:18-25. I've not yet decided whether I'll preach on the Peter text, the Matthew text, or both. I spent several hours today studying and weighing the alternatives.

For now, I thought I'd share a bit about each of the books from which the lessons are drawn and then, briefly, the connections I can see between the two specific texts.

Much of what I'm going to present here about Second Peter comes from The Interpreter's Bible.

Second Peter:
Most Biblical scholars seem convinced that this book wasn't actually written by the apostle Peter, even though the letter itself identifies it as his handiwork. There are several reasons they believe this:

First, the issue which prompted this letter--what the scholars call the delayed parousia--is something that would have likely arisen only after the first generation of Jesus-Followers had died, indicating that the earliest possible date it could have been written was about 80 to 90 A.D. (More on this in a moment. So, please be patient with me.)

Second, the vocabulary and the theological terms used here are very unlike First Peter, a letter that most believe was written by Peter himself. The author of this letter seems steeped in an extensive knowledge of Greek cultural practices as well as the practices of Jews and Christians. The vocabulary are those of a Hellenized Jew, these scholars assert, and not those of a Galileean fisherman.

Third, it was perfectly acceptable for the student or follower of a great teacher, to write in the name of and under the authority of that teacher. Second Peter is usually thought to have been written in Rome, where the apostle Peter is thought to have gone and recruited what some scholars call a "Petrine School," a group of students (another word for them would be disciples) who later carried on his work and his particular slant on the Gospel. (By the way, for an interesting look at the varied schools of thought within early Christianity, you might want to read Raymond Brown's The Churches the Apostles Left Behind.)

Of course, this all may be rot. There's no reason to suppose that concern for the delayed parousia didn't arise earlier. (I promise I'll explain this in a moment.) Nor is there any reason to suppose that Peter, like any person who is alive, especially alive in Christ, couldn't grow in his knowledge and for the sake of sharing Christ with many people, in his appreciation of various cultural expressions.

But there is no dispute over what Second Peter is about. Whether Peter or one of his students, the author is warning the letter's original recipients in churches that spread from Antioch to Bithynia, to ignore the proclamations of certain "false teachers."

These false teachers taught that when the Old Testament taught and when Jesus was quoted as having taught about a parousia, they weren't rightly representing the inspired truth from God. Parousia is the term in the original Greek of the New Testament for the day that the risen Jesus' returns to the world. (You see, I promised I'd explain that term!)

Because many people had expected Jesus to return within the lifetimes of the first generation of Christians and so many of that generation had died off, the false teachers Second Peter excoriates were now telling Christians that the notion of Jesus' return was inaccurate.

As we've seen in the Biblical texts over the past few weeks, because of the early Church's belief that Jesus was going to return, Christians were encouraged to be awake, attentive to Jesus' call to love God and love neighbor. In other words, belief in the parousia had practical, ethical implications for Christians in their everyday lives. Whenever Jesus returned, they wanted to be about His business.

But what if, as the false teachers asserted, Jesus wasn't coming back?

These false teachers had an answer for that, too. Like the Epicurean philosophers, these teachers believed in one universal Deity. But they effectively believed that He didn't care how we live our lives. They also seemed to believe that this God wouldn't become entangled with us.

This teaching is at odds with Christian belief. The apostles, Jesus' first followers, taught that:

  • Jesus was God in the flesh, come to earth because of God's passionate concern about our lives.
  • Because God values all human beings, God values how we treat one another and our own minds and bodies. We're called to love God and love neighbor. In other words, God cares about ethics and morals.
  • All who turn from sin and seek forgiveness through Jesus Christ are saved.
  • These same believers are given the power of the Holy Spirit to move toward greater holiness or Christlikeness as they follow Jesus.
  • Jesus is coming back to the world to judge the living and the dead. All who have trusted in Him and seen the power of sin and death lifted from their lives will live with Him forever.
  • After the judgment, Jesus will establish the new heavens and a new earth under His loving Lordship.
These false teachers were advocates of what is called antinomianism, lawlessness. God's law, as embodied in the Ten Commandments and as summarized in Jesus' Great Commandment (love God, love neighbor), isn't meant to be a strait-jacket. God's commands are, in Bill Hybels' memorable characterization, laws that liberate. God's law establishes the perameters within which life is at its best for His children. (Having tried to live both within and outside of God's law, I can say that it's more difficult to live within them, but it's also better.)

None of us will ever perfectly succeed at keeping God's law. Sin and the impulse to sin still lives inside every one of us, from birth.

But, as indicated above, when we surrender to Jesus Christ, God helps us to will what God wills. He calls us to lives of what Martin Luther called "daily repentance and renewal" in which we expose more and more of our lives to the transforming power of God's Holy Spirit. More and more, we see God's law as the way of life to which we aspire.

That means that Christ's return holds no dread for Christians, even though we believe that it will happen.

We know that while we are sinners, we're sinners covered by the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. We depend on Him. The teachings of those Second Peter warns us against urges us to give up on God and His promises and to depend on ourselves. That course leads back to the same old trap from which Jesus Christ came to save us.

Second Peter tells us that our lives matter and that as we live each day in vital connection with Christ, we will be prepared for the day when Jesus most assuredly will return.

I won't write anything on Matthew now because I've preached a good deal on texts from him book in recent weeks, all of which have appeared here, and I wrote a summary of the emphases of each of the four Gospels on this site last week. (To read more on Matthew, you can also Google my as-yet-unfinished blog series, Getting to Know Jesus One Chapter at a Time.)

I'll write more on the specific texts tomorrow, hopefully.

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