Posted in Bible, reflections

Reading our Bibles backwards? A pre-Advent reflection

Isa53While attending Nazarene Theological Seminary, I participated in a dialogue with students from a nearby Seminary for rabbis. We gathered around a table and discussed passages from the Old Testament, or what they just called the Bible. In the sentence you just read lies the crux of the matter: Should the Bible have a “New Testament”? Christians says yes; Jews say no.

As the discussion turned to what Christians would consider “Messianic prophecies” fulfilled in Jesus Christ, one of the rabbinic students remarked:

You Christians read your Bibles backwards.

He was right if by that comment we acknowledge it’s practically impossible for Christ followers, on this side of the Cross, not to see Jesus when we look at parts of the Old Testament. The New Testament provides the model. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 presents Jesus of Nazareth as the fulfillment of a prophecy from King David regarding the resurrection of God’s Anointed (the Messiah), that the “Holy One” would “not see decay” (Acts 2:31, NIV). Likewise, Acts 8:26-40 tells the story of Philip the Evangelist. Led by the Holy Spirit into the desert, he climbed into an Ethiopian eunuch’s chariot. The eunuch was reading the description of the suffering servant from Isaiah 53, and asked: “Who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” (v. 34). Philip used that passage to tell him the good news about Jesus.

Saint Augustine is credited for having said: “The New is in the Old concealed. The Old is in the New revealed.” Like a good two act play, the outcome of the drama can be hinted at through foreshadowing, but the ending is not given away. In the same way, Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart estimated that only about 2% of the content of Old Testament prophecy can be considered Messianic prophecies (See Klein et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation [1993], p. 303).  Still, it is enough to bind the Testaments together as the unfolding of God’s rescue plan for sinful humanity gone astray.

This Advent season, we will celebrate the coming of Jesus the Messiah into our sin-sick world. If “reading our Bibles backwards” means thanking God for accomplishing the divine promise to bring us salvation in Christ, then let’s keep celebrating. And as those who look to Christ’s return, let us together proclaim: Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.

Posted in Bible, reflections

Fasting, justice, and Sabbath rest: reflections on Isaiah 58:6-14

manaclesLet’s play a word association game. When you hear the word “fasting,” what is the first thing that comes to your mind?

Since I can’t read your mind, I’ll have to be content to let you know what images came to me. I envisioned a desert monk, someone like John the Baptist, austere, skinny, and prophetic. Another image is Ash Wednesday, a sober time when we give up something for Lent.

I must confess that upon hearing the word “fasting,” the first thing that popped into my thoughts was definitely not “justice.” Yet the prophet Isaiah insisted that the two concepts are intertwined. If fasting is abstaining, then there are practices from which we must refrain. Isaiah explains:

Isn’t this the fast I choose: releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke? Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your house, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family? (Isaiah 58:6-7, CEB)

Isaiah calls us to “fast” (abstain) from any enterprise that enslaves people, “untying the ropes of a yoke” (v.6).  For example, millions around the world are enslaved to cigarette smoking. If we are involved in the production of tobacco, are we not implicated in that bondage? Likewise, to “set free the mistreated,” using Isaiah’s colorful phrase, will mean abstaining from our own involvement, however indirect, in the mistreatment of others. Perhaps this will mean that we think twice about spending our dollars at businesses that could pay their workers a livable wage but stubbornly refuse to do so.

At the end of the chapter, Isaiah speaks of keeping the Sabbath (58:13-14). When God first spoke of the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11), he clearly underscored the principle of rest. This is a fast from all work. When serving as a missionary in Haiti, often we had no power from the local municipality. Our solution was to install a large generator that could give light to all the buildings on campus. I was assigned to maintain the generator, changing the oil and the filters as needed. Most importantly, however, was the instruction regarding how many hours uninterrupted the generator could run. It was important not to run it for too long without having several hours idle or else the generator would wear out.

If we understand that about a machine, why do we miss the lesson when it comes to ourselves? God made us and understands that sometimes we must fast from work in order to rest. Recreation – what as children we called “play” – is not just for children. We literally must be “re-created” by finding time free from toil, to unstring the tightly strung bow, to kick back and do nothing useful. Yet in our 24/7 world, even the people of God grossly neglect the Sabbath principle. Have we sacrificed our health on the altar of corporate profits?

Holiness is not just personal; holiness is social. Profession of saving and sanctifying faith can be easily undermined by our wicked practices. Fasting from food is not sufficient if at the same time we refuse to abstain from practices that undercut our witness.

But if we feed the poor and clothe the naked (v. 7, 10), then Isaiah affirms that what we say with our words will be seconded by our actions. And guess what? People will notice!

Then your light will break out like the dawn, and you will be healed quickly. Your own righteousness will walk before you, and the LORD’s glory will be our rear guard. Then you will call and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and God will say, ‘I am here (8-9a).

When reading Isaiah 58, I’m forced to reflect on my own life first of all. Renewal always begins with the person in the mirror. Will you join me in this prayer?

“Help me, LORD, in this sin-sick world, to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Show me where my words and actions do not match up, that what I do might open doors for sharing the love of Christ with others and not impede the advance of Your Kingdom. In Jesus’ name I pray, AMEN.”

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Image credit: Cornell Library Guides

 

 

 

 

Posted in Bible, ecclesiology & sacraments

Ephesians 3:19 – God cannot fill what is not empty

This year, my wife and I swore off soda.

Maybe you call it “pop” or – if you’re a Southerner – it’s a “Coke.” But it’s all the same thing, those highly sugared, carbonated drinks to which so many of us seem to be addicted.

We’re learning a lesson: When what is unhealthy gets jettisoned, what is healthy can take its place. So instead of soda, we’re drinking more water, milk, and juice, and feeling better for it.

To make room for good food, get rid of the junk.

As in the realm of the body, so it is in the realm of the spirit. Ephesians 3:19b is part of a larger prayer for holiness. In that verse, Paul prays for the Ephesians, that they will be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (NIV). In context, it’s clear that the sign of that fullness is the love of God “that surpasses knowledge” (v. 19a).

And yet…

How many of us are so filled up with the junk of this world that there is little room for God?

Television? Internet? Smart phones? Songs praising what we once considered shameful?

189795_glass_2_filling_with_waterThe media themselves are neutral. Each can be used to glorify God, yet is that their practical effect in our daily lives?  Does what we consume make us more sensitive to the voice of God or do our media choices make God seem more distant, more irrelevant?

The revival that broke out in 1970 on the campus of Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky was characterized above all by a deep sense of sin. When the holy presence of God fell upon the chapel service that February 3, students began with deep repentance confessing sins. Only then did they come to a joyous sense of both the forgiveness and fullness of God.

We say we want revival, that we hunger for the fullness of God in our hearts and lives. Yet how can God fill what is already cluttered with junk? Before we can know filling we must know emptying. We confess and God cleanses away!

God cannot fill what is not empty.

Many things that fill our lives we should not discard. They are wholesome and honor God. Yet harmful practices that distance us from the Lord must go if the Lord’s holy, loving presence would take their place.

These days, it takes courage to call sinful and damaging what the world labels fun and harmless. Yet that’s exactly the  kind of people God desires, one that – as necessary – will head north when all the world seems to be flocking south.

Are you filled with so much, yet strangely unsatisfied? It’s time to take inventory. God is calling each of us to confession and emptying so that God can fill us with Himself, the only one who can satisfy.

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Image: sxc.hu

Posted in Bible, reflections

Jesus 1, Satan 0: Christ’s triumph in Colossians 2:15

gen31501It was a stunning victory, a serpent-smashing triumph. Paul explains:

When you were spiritually dead because of your sins and because you were not free from the power of your sinful self, God made you alive with Christ, and he forgave all our sins. He canceled the debt, which listed all the rules we failed to follow. He took away that record with its rules and nailed it to the cross. God stripped the spiritual rulers and powers of their authority. With the cross, he won the victory and showed the world that they were powerless (Colossians 2:13-15, NCV, bolding added).

This militant tone is woven through Colossians 1 & 2. In 1:13, the Apostle rejoiced that “God has freed us from the power of darkness, and he brought us into the Kingdom of his dear son” (NCV). Having been liberated, we must avoid being recaptured through “philosophy and empty deception” (2:8, NASB).

Sometimes theologians are uncomfortable with the Christus Victor motif in the New Testament. It doesn’t seem to fit very well with “loving God and neighbor,” the watchword of relational theology. But the two needn’t be seen as contradictory. If someone is captive, only love is a strong enough motivation for daring raids behind enemy lines.

Yet Paul understood the importance of balance. In Colossians 3, he urges patience, compassion, and humility, then caps it off with a call to love:

 Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful (vv. 14-15, NASB).

There is a place in Christian theology for both Mildred Wynkoop and her emphasis upon love and Gregory Boyd and his image of earth as a spiritual battlefield. There is room for both because the New Testament speaks of both. What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.

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Photo credit: The Trustworthy Word

Posted in Bible, missions & evangelism, sermons & addresses

Three lessons on the lost – Luke 15

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773), by Pompei Batoni

Here’s a sermon I recently wrote, based on Luke 15’s lost sheep, lost coin, and lost sons.

Some speak of Jesus’ “preferential option for the poor.” But I wonder if that isn’t too narrow a reading of Scripture? I would argue that Jesus had a “preferential option for the lost,” regardless of their socio-economic status; for him, that was irrelevant. Jesus sought out lost people from all walks of life.

In gratefulness for God’s grace toward us, do we do the same?

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SCRIPTURE READING:  Luke 19:9-10

“Jesus responded: ‘Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a son of Abraham. And I, the Son of Man, have come to seek and save those like him who are lost.’ ”

– re-tell briefly the stories of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost sons (Luke 15)

PRAYER

I. INTRODUCTION

It’s hard to admit you’re lost. More than once, I’ve said to my wife when driving:

We’re not really lost. I just don’t know where we are.

Jesus, on the other hand, was not afraid to speak the truth. He cared enough about the lost to label them as such. That wasn’t hateful; that was loving. He understood that only when we acknowledge that people are lost will we do whatever it takes to rescue them.

Do we really believe that people without Jesus are hopelessly and finally lost?

I believe it because Jesus believed it.

When Zaccheus the tax collector repented of his sin, paying back up to four times as much as he had cheated from his victims, Jesus declared:

“Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a son of Abraham. And I, the Son of Man, have come to seek and to save those like him who are lost.” – Luke 19:9-10 (NLT)

Four chapters earlier, in Luke 15, Jesus spoke to a crowd of tax collectors and “sinners,” plus some Pharisees and teachers of the law. In that context, in no uncertain terms, Jesus spoke of the lost. From the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons, we can learn three lessons about the lost:

1. The lost matter greatly to God;

2. The lost can be found;

3. God calls us to join in searching for the lost.

Continue reading “Three lessons on the lost – Luke 15”

Posted in Bible

Matthew 7:13-14- Switching the road signs

Have you ever thought about how dependent we are upon road signs? Even in our GPS world, we still count on signage to know that we’re headed in the right direction.

But what would happen if someone had a dastardly plan? What if someone switched the signs? Could we still hope to arrive at our intended destination when we’ve traveled the wrong path?

The Devil has changed the road signs, and Jesus warned us as much. In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord talks about the importance of making sure we’re on the right road, the one leading to life:

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. – Matthew 7:13-14 (NIV)

It takes moral courage to tell someone else they’re on the wrong path, one that will take them where they don’t want to go. If I understand Jesus’ words, the person on the narrow road had better be prepared to be called narrow by others, even ridiculed.

Maybe you’re still on God’s path but are considering changing directions. Hear these words from Carla Sunberg:

It doesn’t matter where we live in this world or what we do, the call to follow God is the same! The temptations along the way are the same. The world is constantly calling out to believers to walk a path which may seem a bit easier, or is advertised as being more fun. But where does that walk take us? What is hidden behind the next hill? Do we know? Of course we don’t, and that’s the ploy of the enemy. He tries to get us to walk down a path that will lead to destruction because we can’t see what’s hidden behind the next curve.

Read her whole post here.

I’m with Carla. Don’t be duped by the enemy of your soul. Stay on target.

Maybe you’ve already taken a wrong turn. It’s not too late – with God’s help – to admit your mistake and turn around. You’ll be glad you did.

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Photo credit: University of Reading

Posted in Bible, Christian ethics

Honey, I shrunk the Bible

It was one of the more memorable fun flicks from the ’80s. Wayne Szalinski (played by Rick Moranis) was the mad scientist working on an incredible shrinking ray. Sadly, he only managed to blow things up, until the day his invention worked, accidentally shrinking two of his own children and two of the neighbor’s. The rest of “Honey, I shrunk the kids” revolves around the hapless teens’ attempts to avoid dangers lurking in the lawn while their parents search frantically for their diminutive offspring.

Herein lies a cautionary tale: We can shrink things unintentionally that were never intended to be shrunk. 

Take the Bible, for instance. Sometimes I wonder whether we’ve reduced both its size and its function.

Continue reading “Honey, I shrunk the Bible”

Posted in Bible, reflections

Scripture: Our Rule of Faith and Practice

Philosopher Blaise Pascal once said that “man is only a reed, but at least he is a thinking reed.” Likewise, on the great tree of Christianity, the Church of the Nazarene is only a leaf, but we are a colorful leaf. Our emphasis upon holiness of heart and life, evidence of God’s transforming grace radically at work in us, helps us bring color to the branches of the Christian tree.

Sometimes as Nazarenes we get caught up on what makes us different from other Christians, on being the colorful leaf. We can forget that leaves are part of trees. The Church of the Nazarene shares much in common with Christians of other traditions, particularly those that bear the name “Protestant.” One common element is the emphasis we put upon the Bible as the benchmark for what we  believe, how we “do church,” how we hear the Spirit’s voice and how we decide questions of ethics and morality. In theology talk, we accept the Bible as our “rule of faith and practice.” [See discussion in Randy Maddox, “The Rule of Christian Faith, Practice, and Hope,” in Richard P. Thompson and Thomas J. Oord, eds., The Bible Tells Me So: Reading the Bible as Scripture, Kindle edition (Nampa, Idaho: SacraSage Press, 2011),  location 2098].

Continue reading “Scripture: Our Rule of Faith and Practice”

Posted in Bible, reflections

“He must increase, but I must decrease” – John 3:30

All human organizations have “pecking orders.” In junior high concert band, I desperately wanted to play first trumpet. First trumpets sat on the end, and could be seen by the crowd during performances. Second trumpets (which was my position) were buried in the back, out of sight. With time and practice, I moved up. Eventually, I was visible. I had “arrived.”

The Kingdom of God works on exactly the opposite principle. It’s not about prestige or position, it’s about obedience, faithful service in the place God has assigned us, whether seemingly “great” or “small.” John the Baptist seemed to understand this. When his disciples came and complained to him that the crowds were abandoning him in favor of Jesus, John pronounced these unforgettable words:

“He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

This simply does not compute in human terms, but in God’s calculus, it makes perfect sense. Jesus calls us not to be masters, but to be servants. Greatness comes not through lording it over others, not in bullying them to get our way. True greatness lies in our ability put others before ourselves. To ascend, first descend.

Prayer:

“Lord, help me today to serve others, to put their interests above my own. Forgive me when I have made myself the center of my world. Teach me your way. In Christ’s name, Amen.”

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Reflection based on Scripture reading for Day 62, Cambridge Daily Reading Bible, 1995

Posted in Bible, reflections

When you think you’re alone – Psalm 12:1

In public high school, a believer can get pretty lonely. Sometimes, it’s tempting to think that there’s no one else who wants to follow Christ. But God gave me new eyes to see those around me for who they really were, and sent other believers my way. We started a prayer time, and met every day before homeroom. By the end of the school year, nearly twenty gathered daily to pray for each other. What a difference that made in my attitude! Truth be told, I had never been alone.

David sometimes thought he was all alone, too. He cried out to God:

Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from humankind (Psalm 12:1, NRSV).

God did not scold David for his heartfelt plea. David knew that God was big enough to receive his wrenching complaint. He felt all alone, and longed for the comfort of the LORD’s presence. Though in Psalm 12 David never sees the solution to his problem, we know from his life that God was listening. At various times, God sent people David’s way to encourage him. In Jonathan, he found a friend closer than a brother. In Abigail, he found a caring wife. The LORD blessed him with family, children like Solomon who – while far from perfect – sought after God and His wisdom. To one all alone, God gave faithful community. His heart brimming with joy, David proclaimed:

I rejoiced with those who said to me,  “Let us go to the house of the LORD” (Psalm 122:1, NIV).

Thank God today for the companions that He has given you on your journey of faith.

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Reflection based on Scripture reading for Day 45, Cambridge Daily Reading Bible, 1995