Jesus and the argument from silence

800px-Empty_bookThe headline caught my eye: “Here’s what Jesus had to say about (topic x).”  Underneath was an open book, with blank pages.

Clever, right? But is it a valid argument?

Let’s take the issue of cutting down trees. I might say:

Here’s what Jesus said about deforestation: ”          “

If felling trees and planting nothing in their place were wrong, one might assume that the Son of God would have uttered words against such an evil practice. In fact, we search Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in vain for a single word from Jesus on the subject. Accordingly, are we justified in clear-cutting the Amazon forest?

Another “hot-button” topic is abortion. Did Jesus have anything precise to say about it? No. Some might ask: “If it were so wrong, wouldn’t Jesus have spoken against it?”

The argument from silence makes conclusions based not on what Jesus said, but on what he didn’t say. But is it right to isolate Jesus’ teachings from the larger message of God’s revelation as contained in the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments? The Lord responded to the pressing issues of his day, not all the pressing issues of our day. Still,  we can find principles about caring for the earth in the same Old Testament that Jesus recognized as God’s revelation. Psalm 104 praises the Creator and the beauty and splendor of creation. To mar that creation through deforestation is like taking a masterpiece by Rembrandt and slicing the canvas with scissors. In the same way, human beings – born and unborn – are God’s masterpiece. David affirms that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14, NIV). Deforestation and abortion alike are sins against both creation and Creator.

Apart from the Old Testament kings and prophets – the giants on whose shoulders Jesus stood – the Apostle Paul and other New Testament writers fill in some of the gaps. A good example is slavery. Jesus is mute about it, yet Paul radically affirmed:

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” – Galatians 3:28, NIV

If one were intent on accepting only Jesus’ words (or lack thereof) as our guide, one could say:

Here’s what Jesus had to say about slavery: ”             “

Yet we don’t accept that argument, because we understand that God’s view of the issue must be more broadly considered, taking into account not just the words of Christ in the Gospels, but all of the Bible. And when we do that, we see that God had lots to say about it. Yes, we can argue over the meaning of verses addressing slavery – and slave owners and abolitionists in 19th century America did so in spades! –  but at least we’d be debating the significance of words and not the verbal vacuum of the argumentum ex silencio.

The next time someone references Jesus’ silence on an issue, don’t let it be the close of the discussion. Instead, let it spur you to dig deeper in the broader mine of Scripture, to unearth closely related principles from God that can guide us. The Church and our world deserve nothing less.

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Image credit: Wikkipedia commons

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Begging bread? God’s promise to the righteous in Psalm 37:25

Two city street children in Antananarivo, Madagascar
Two city street children begging in Antananarivo, Madagascar

It’s a sweeping statement from King David: “I have been young and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread” (Psalm 37:25, NRSV).

What did David mean?

The context of the passage quoted helps us understand what David was saying. Psalm 37 contrasts the lot of the “wicked” with the “righteous” or the “blameless.” Do the wicked prosper? Only temporarily, affirms David. “The LORD laughs at the wicked, for he sees their day is coming” (v.13). The “arms” of the wicked shall be “broken” (v.17). Like a pasture can have “glory” for a time, so the wicked may as well, but they will “vanish” like smoke (v.20). They shall be “cut off” (v.22).

If the wicked won’t endure, the opposite is true for the righteous. They shall “inherit the land” (v.22). Even in famine they will have “abundance” (v.20). They will “give liberally” and be able to lend, their children becoming a blessing (v.26).

Two things come to mind when reflecting on this passage:

1. Redemption and lift – Jesus said: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21, NIV). If you want to determine what a person values – where their “heart” is – look at how she spends her money. Helen had been a chain smoker for years. When she came to Christ, God broke her desire for cigarettes. “Pastor,” she said, “the money I would have spent on cigarettes, I’m going to put into my change purse.” A year later, Helen had enough for a trip to Hawaii. When money is no longer going down the drain at the neighborhood bar or being wasted on gambling, it’s now available for the family budget. Christians call this “redemption and lift.” God re-orients our value system, meaning some of the leaks in our financial boat get plugged.

2. The solidarity of the community of faith – I can’t read Psalm 37 without thinking about Acts 2:44-47 (NRSV):

All who believed were together and had everything in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day as they spent much time together in the Temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

When I was in high school, our church youth group took a trip to one of the colleges sponsored by our denomination. For three days, we competed in sports and talent competitions. Before dinner one night, without thinking, I slipped my wallet into the pocket of my jacket, then hung the jacket on the coat rack outside the cafeteria. After dinner, my heart sank when I realized my wallet (and with it the $ 50.00 inside that I’d carefully saved up for the trip) had been stolen. Later that night back at the hotel, there was a knock on the door. Roger, my youth pastor, came in and handed me an envelope. I opened it up, and inside was $ 50.00. I couldn’t believe it! Had he found my money? “No,” he said. “But when I told the others in the youth group about your loss, they all wanted to take up a collection for you.” That generous gift of solidarity meant so much to me! I felt loved.

How do we as a church measure up to Acts 2:44-47?  Are there practical ways that we could help each other? If the children of the righteous avoid begging bread, it will be because the community of faith has taken care of her own, seeing needs in the Body and responding in Christlike ways. Instead of making loans to each other – loans that cause division when repayment is delayed – how about if we simply say:

I’m giving you this small amount, but it’s not a loan. It’s a gift. You don’t have to pay it back to me, and let’s never speak of it again. All I ask is that you keep your eyes open, and if one day you see someone else in the church who has a similar need, give to them with the same simple conditions.

The “pay it forward” concept is powerful. As we exercise it inside and outside the church, it will commend the Gospel to those who are not yet followers of Christ.

King David rejoiced that he had never seen the children of the righteous having to beg for bread. If this was true, then surely it was not accidental. Putting God at the center of our lives means that wasteful practices will wither away. A holy frugality will take its place. Likewise, we cannot love God without loving our neighbor (1 John 4:20), whether that neighbor is already or not yet part of the community of Christian faith. Let’s pray that God will give us eyes to see like God sees and hands to do what God wants us to do.

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.

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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.

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