Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Luke 21:5-38

We need to take seriously that all of Christianity is based historically, and the basis of Christianity is not our period in history, but that of Jesus.

This is so obviously important when it comes to a passage like this in Luke 21. Too often, modern readers read a passage like this purely in reference to themselves and an anticipated "second coming of Jesus." Now, the New Testament does talk about Jesus coming again, very clearly. But we so often become self-centered and read this chapter purely in reference to our own time, to our own expectations, to our own anticipation of how soon Jesus might come back for us. We completely miss the point, and it has hurt our churches. So much.

While deeply committed Christians may read the Bible, even they rarely get to know the history of the first century. Some will know a little bit about the fact that the Jewish temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, but even that tidbit doesn't help them read their Bibles better. Instead, they go on reading as though every word was written for their self-focus.

Fact is, it is of tremendous value to read the Bible, and I believe with all my heart that God speaks through its words. But we have to add a step. Like Linus in the Peanuts comic strip when he was telling Charlie Brown how he felt guilty going to Vacation Bible School where they were studying the letters of Paul, we are "reading other people's mail." That's exactly what we are doing, and we need to take that seriously.

The original audience for Luke's gospel was a man named Theophilus, most likely a Roman official who had become a Christian. Beyond that, Luke rapidly came to circulate within the Christian communities of the first century. They at least could read it with some sense of its proper context.

We, however, take a chapter like this one and we read it from our own perspective, never thinking about the fact that Jesus' original hearers lived in a completely different frame of reference than we do. So we misunderstand a lot of what Jesus said because we read in this irresponsible way.

When we start to dig into the first century historical events Jesus was talking about -- and if you doubt that was Jesus' intent, you are ignoring verses 6-7 and verse 32 -- there is a lot to learn. Where can a person start? Here are a few recommendations:


  1. Get a good academic study Bible. Life Application Bibles and such are great, but if you want to dig deeper into what the Bible is really saying and learn a bit of the history, find a Bible that includes diagrams of Jerusalem, timelines of the period between the Testaments, and talks about which Roman emperors were in power when the New Testament was being written.
  2. Read a few articles on an easy to understand source, even one like Wikipedia. Here are some ideas what might be most helpful to read about: 
    1. The Jewish War of 66-70
    2. Several Roman emperors including Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, and Domitian. 
    3. Study up on "apocalyptic literature" and realize what exactly it is, and what it is trying to accomplish.
  3. A good historical atlas of the Bible is very helpful, whether online or in print. Often church libraries have one of these stuck back in a dusty corner somewhere. 
  4. Read up on Josephus, and then dabble in his histories a bit. Josephus was roughly contemporary of the Apostle Paul and wrote extensive histories of the Jewish people and a fascinating autobiography that gives us tremendous insights into the world of the New Testament. 
How will this kind of study change your reading of the Bible? Let's start with Luke 21. What will we learn about this chapter?
  • Realize the context. Jesus and his disciples are speaking as they look at the temple, still under construction, being built out of massive limestone blocks. It was a huge project undertaken by Herod the Great who died in 4 BC, but the project continued on and was finished a few years after Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. The project was designed to intimidate and inspire. The giant white blocks (a few from the platform are still visible at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but as Jesus predicted the temple itself was knocked down completely) gleamed and gave the Jewish people of Jesus' day a deep sense of national pride -- a national pride that eventually led to the revolts that precipitated the Jewish War of 66-70 AD. 
  • Everything Jesus described in this chapter happened in the generation after his crucifixion and resurrection. But what about verses 25-33?? Surely here Jesus is talking about his own second coming? Not so fast. Don't skip over verse 32! Jesus says he is talking about the generation of his hearers. What then, to do with the words about "the Son of Man coming on the clouds"? Here is where studying apocalyptic literature becomes helpful. While in our day we are tempted to read for some literal meaning, Jesus' contemporaries out of necessity became experts at shrouding their meanings in figurative religious language. So the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation in our Bible, along with other passages here and there, are full of apocalyptic imagery that is designed to hide its meaning from the enemies of God's people but to reveal basic truths and encourage God's faithful people. Jesus' words here are an apocalyptic way of speaking of the rise of Jesus' own followers and the spread of his message throughout the Roman world, not of some cosmic second coming. (Though, as stated earlier, the New Testament does in fact teach about Jesus' second coming -- just not right here.) 
  • Always, always in the New Testament when we read about these "end times" kinds of teachings, scripture points us clearly -- usually in the very next breath -- to pay attention to our own conduct. This passage is no exception, as Jesus brings his teaching home in verse 34-36. Watch yourselves. Stay awake. Pay attention. This is where Jesus calls us to focus. Don't get fascinated by end times speculation. Instead, do what Jesus clearly calls you to do. Meet together for worship. Pray. Steep yourself in scripture. Be kind to your neighbors. Bear witness to all God has done for you. Don't grow weary. 

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Luke 20:41-21:4

Jesus turns the tables on his detractors. He asks them a thorny scriptural question that contradicts their common wisdom and opens the door for them to recognize his authority if they're willing. But sadly, they are not. So Jesus speaks an open warning that his disciples, the crowds, and even the Jewish leaders can hear: Beware of them, beware of their love of appearances, of their longing for human recognition. They love status. They serve themselves rather than living in submission and dependence on God. Jesus says they "devour widows' houses" -- a ringing condemnation that echoes many of the prophets. (I'm currently reading Amos, and his condemnation of the Israelites' social injustice and their religious hypocrisy and showmanship are lockstep with Jesus at this point.)

Then Jesus moves on to contrast an actual widow with these leaders. Remember that the chapter divisions were added later. If you were just reading through this text as a narrative, it would be hard to miss the obvious connection between "widows' houses" and the widow who, out of her poverty and out of her faith offers her pittance to God. She becomes the poster child for trust and submission, in contrast to the scribes' scheming and self-focus. She is living out Jesus' command in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) to "seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness" and to lay up treasures in heaven. Jesus makes this connection explicit when he comments on her giving by saying "this poor widow has put in more than all of them."

As we'll see next time, the self-seeking power games of the scribes and authorities bring down not only condemnation on themselves, but on the whole temple institution and the future of Israel as a political entity. Again, Jesus echoes the prophets when he says that their agendas and refusal to recognize what God is doing will not stand.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Luke 20:27-40

Writing and pondering this story in the run-up to Valentines Day, I suppose it's not surprising that the biggest contrast I see between Jesus and his detractors (in this case, the Sadducees) is love.

Ironic, isn't it, that the Sadducees' question is built around marriage. But their approach (besides the fact that they are simply using this hypothetical situation to entrap Jesus, and so love is out the window from the get-go) is legalistic, rule-bound, wooden. There's no pathos in their storytelling. There's no concern for the specific people in the situation. There's no compassion. It's exactly like the "lifeboat" ethics problems that were popular a generation ago -- there are five people on a lifeboat, but the lifeboat can only hold two. Who will you throw overboard?

I've been reading Bob Goff's book, Everybody Always lately. Goff does a great job of pointing in his homespun way back to Jesus' command that we should love one another. Always. Almost without exception, our rules and principles get in the way of love rather than empowering it. Beyond the basic expectations of human decency that are reflected in the most elementary structures of justice, we fine-tune our systems to decide who is in and who is out, who measures up and who doesn't, who is worthy and who is to be discarded. There's also a serious irony here. Perhaps more than anything else, we focus these systems on ourselves and not surprisingly, find ourselves wanting. We fall short. We are broken. We have sinned and continue to sin. We don't look like the airbrushed models in the ads. We've gained a few pounds. We binge-watch Netflix. We find the most creative ways to shame ourselves, to draw circles that exclude us from being accepted, from being loved.

Without doubt, the most systematic of the New Testament writers is the Apostle Paul. He carefully reasons out the philosophical and theological underpinnings of Jesus' death and resurrection, and if anyone is willing to draw hard lines, it's Paul. Yet, when he's summing up the implications of what Jesus did, Paul over and over again says it comes down to drawing bigger circles that include us all. My favorite summary of this position comes at the beginning of one of my favorite chapters in the Bible, Romans 8. Paul writes, "There is therefore now NO CONDEMNATION for those who are in Christ Jesus" (emphasis added, though it's fair to say that the entire New Testament was written in ALL CAPS in the original Greek, which is kind of funny when you think of it through the filter of today's social media conventions). No condemnation is another way of saying there's no shame. There's no possibility of being excluded. As Paul says at the end of that same wonderful chapter, there's nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Jesus. Nothing.

We can certainly turn away, rebel, exclude ourselves, and most of us do. But the upshot of this brilliant message is that when we allow God to turn us back to himself, we find open doors and open arms. The tragedy (as C.S. Lewis so strikingly portrays in his excellent book The Great Divorce) is that so many of us choose separation from God and condemn ourselves, in spite of God's superabundant love.

So the Sadducees lay a trap for Jesus, and Jesus responds with something like, "Don't you get it? It's about love, and you've completely missed the point." Human love -- even the greatest human love like that in an excellent marriage -- is an arrow pointing toward the real source of love, God himself and his love for us. Why would you keep the treasure map when you find the treasure? Though I suppose you might tack the treasure map up on the wall as a nostalgic reminder of the journey and what an adventure it was. In a similar way, maybe our imperfect human loves will be nostalgic reminders in heaven of God's love and how we began in imperfect, partial ways to know him and his measureless love for us.

The last point to make is this: Jesus' response to the Sadducees, though it seems harsh, was exactly what love looked like in that situation. He was confronting not their surface question, but the assumptions that kept them from knowing the living God in his fullness. The last line of the story -- that from that point on they no longer dared to ask him any question -- is hopeful not because questioning God is wrong, but because questioning God from a position of arrogant superiority is foolhardy. One can hope that their silence came from humility and a sense of having their eyes opened to the love standing in front of them.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Luke 20:19-26

This brief story points out exactly how the world treats Jesus, and exactly how Jesus treats the world.

Note, to start with, that the religious leaders understand (v. 18) that Jesus has publicly called them out by telling the previous parable. He has named them as unfaithful tenants in God's vineyard. Their response? They could have repented, but instead they sent spies hoping to catch Jesus in words they could later use to convict him. Note also that they have increased the stakes in the game: They're no longer just trying to smear Jesus in the court of public opinion, but their question is specifically about how to deal with the Romans. They want to get Jesus not just disgraced, but executed.

The heart of their question: Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not? The people hated their Roman overlords, and popular sentiment would immediately answer, who cares if it's lawful -- we need to rebel! The Jewish leaders who sent these spies, however, were colluding with the Romans to maintain a relatively stable political climate so they could maintain their power base.

Jesus takes his answer, again, to a new level. It's not just a question of taxation, he says, but of identity. Show me the coin. Whose image is on the coin? (Jewish coinage, by the way, never included a human form like Roman coins did, because of the Old Testament prohibition against graven images.) Caesar's image is on the coin, they said. So Jesus, knowing that these spies as well as everyone else in earshot will get the allusion, says they should give to Caesar the things that bear his image (i.e., the coins -- pay your taxes) and to God the things that bear his image.

No listener would have missed this: In Genesis 1, God said he was going to make human beings in his own image and according to his likeness. So even in the face of this seemingly niggling question about taxation, Jesus points to the ultimate authority of God and challenges his hearers toward repentance: You are made in the image of God. Therefore, pay your coins to Caesar but give yourself to God. Stop worrying about self-preservation and render your heart to God, then see where he leads you.

It is not very hard to transpose Jesus' comments into our own era. We who tend to be so consumed with the matters of costs and benefits, of ownership and acquisition: Whose image do we bear? And are we giving ourselves, heart and soul, to God, living as his reflections, his image, in this world?

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Luke 20:1-18

The two related pieces of this text force us to examine a Jesus with sharp edges. The New Testament is clear that Jesus comes as judge -- but our normal picture of what this means, of Jesus sitting on a throne saying "This one's a sheep ... this one's a goat ... sheep ... goat ... goat ... sheep" is incomplete at best, and probably messes us up in some significant ways. In these eighteen verses we see a clear example of how Jesus judges people and what that looks like. If we're paying attention, we might find out something about our own call to "judge" and what it looks like for Jesus-followers to act as judges over the world.

First section: Verses 1-8:
The Jewish leaders (who are nervous about protecting their own authority) come to Jesus to challenge him. They want to know how come he sees his own teachings and actions, which are often critical of the current leadership, as legitimate. Where does his authority come from? Jesus recognizes that it's not an honest question, so he poses a question in return, asking about the legitimacy of John's prophetic movement and his practice of baptizing people who came to repent and align themselves with what God was doing. The leaders had stood at a safe distance evaluating John's movement, of course, so they couldn't answer either way, and they realize it. Recognizing their unwillingness to be judged, Jesus refuses to answer their question. And in their actions, in their unwillingness to side with Jesus even if he is legitimate, they judge themselves. (For a longer, but extremely provocative take on this, read C.S. Lewis' excellent book The Great Divorce and get multiple examples of what it looks like when people judge themselves.) They reveal the state of their unrepentant hearts. Jesus doesn't need to say, "See? You're a bunch of unholy jerks." Their self-protection, their motives, their unwillingness to interact honestly with the truth, are all visible for anyone with eyes to see.

Second section: Verses 9-18:
So Jesus tells a story not to scold them, but to put their actions in context. He chooses the familiar imagery of a vineyard (see Isaiah 5, for example), a common way of speaking figuratively about God's chosen people. The question is, have you who are in authority been faithful tenants? Have you recognized the rights and supremacy of the owner rather than just serving yourselves? Through Jesus' story, the lesson finally starts to sink in. When Jesus tells what will happen to the tenants of the vineyard, the leaders hear him speaking their future, and they respond "Surely not!" If all Jesus is doing is telling a story, why does it matter? But Jesus is telling their story, making their actions clear for all to understand.

The question we have to ask, then, is this: What authority has God given you? What is the vineyard God has entrusted to you, and are you honoring him in the way you manage it?

Lest we read this selfishly and make it all about ourselves -- "Someday Jesus will come back ... maybe any day now ... and then this will be fulfilled!" -- know that Jesus' words very literally came true about forty years later. The vineyard that was Israel was gutted and the current systems of leadership were completely destroyed. What wasn't completed in the Jewish War of 66-70 AD was mopped up in the Bar Kochba revolt another sixty-five years later. From that day on, Jewish leadership in the world was radically changed. It is also arguable that the primary vehicle God uses to communicate his presence and character to the world shifted from Second Temple Judaism to the fledgling Jesus movement that spread like wildfire through the Roman Empire and beyond.

History is important, because we might be able to see in these events some indicators of our own situation. We live in one of the great shifts of the Christian movement, what some have described as a shift past the "Christendom" where Christianity enjoyed status and privilege and power, into something we don't know how to define yet but for the moment we're just calling "post-Christendom." Is it possible that for decades and even centuries Christian churches got complacent serving themselves rather than recognizing and participating in the mission God had for them? And is it possible that in our day, God is giving that "vineyard" to Jesus-focused movements that are more true to his mission?

It's worth pondering.

In the next few verses we'll be seeing Jesus' own perspective on living in tension with culture -- especially religious culture -- and how to interact with a wider society that is opposed to God's rule. Hang on for the ride!

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Watching the snow fall

My attention lately has been focused elsewhere, and I've been delinquent about updating this blog. I've been focusing on the launch of some mid-sized groups -- "pastorates" in the language I've used in the past, and "Life Groups" according to what we're currently calling them. They're mid-sized groups (25-50 people) that meet in homes (yes, it's wonderfully crowded, and yes, your home is big enough) and are led by a team of people who cover the various roles of teaching, administration, mission, hospitality, etc. This has been exciting for me. It's really fun to see these home-based groups launching in a way that brings so much of what the New Testament describes as "church" to life in the 21st century! We've got three Life Groups up and running now, and anticipate launching at least a couple more later this spring.

I've also been launching another Alpha course, and that will take up the lion's share of my day today. Alpha complements Life Groups so well, and provides such a great way for people to build community, explore life's deeper questions, and come to know Jesus in a more personal way.

At the moment I'm watching the snow falling outside my window. This isn't supposed to amount to much, but it's coming down pretty enthusiastically at the moment. And tomorrow (first real Alpha session so the timing isn't great) we're supposed to get 5-8 inches of snow. I always get my hopes up for these storms and then too often they fizzle. However, once again I'm an optimist. I invested in a pair of aluminum snowshoes and trekking poles yesterday -- something I've been debating for at least a decade. I've got a traditional pair of snowshoes, and they're great, but for more serious winter activity the modern ones work a little more efficiently. I'm excited to get out on them later today, hopefully, if I can get my Alpha preparations done. We've had about four inches of a good base of snow here, and if we get another half a foot or more it will be about ideal for snowshoeing. I'll keep you posted.

That's my intention now -- to mix up posts that complete the task of working through Luke (I haven't forgotten) mixed with more personal updates about life on the lake here at Decision Hills. I've been embroiled in vehicle maintenance, furnace repair, and other joys of winter in Minnesota these last few weeks. But my intention, as I said, is to reengage in the discipline of writing here a bit. Apologies to those of you who might be checking this blog from time to time! Don't give up on me just yet.

In the meantime, since I'm continuing to pursue the discipline (ever so slowly) of learning Spanish, I'll say:

Qué día tan bonita! La nieve es muy hermosa!

Saturday, December 29, 2018

On the fifth day of Christmas ...

Merry Christmas! Hope you are still enjoying the season and letting the joy and peace of it linger in your life a bit these days. I've been occupied with a few other things and abysmal about writing regular posts these days, but I've been listening to a delightful mix of Christmas tunes including the one referenced in this post from 2012. Thought I'd repost it here for your fifth-day-of-Christmas reading pleasure.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas Eve

I'm so often struck by the tension between the powers of this world and the way Jesus arrives. I was watching a movie the other night -- no, I won't recommend it -- that included a criminal who was studying economics reflecting that since retailers make about 50% of their profits in December, you'd think the government would institute another giving-based holiday around May or June. Christmas 2. Just for the profit. Incisive, and pushing the point that Jesus doesn't come to endorse the Way Things Are.

Each year I take a few minutes to appreciate a voice as unlikely as Jackson Browne's making exactly that point. Enjoy.

And Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A love-shaped life

I have written before in these pages about longing to have a life built around love. Scott Sauls does a powerful job of describing this life (what he calls here a "love-shaped life") and why it is so important for those who know Jesus. I'm intrigued by the distinction he makes between "resume virtues" and "eulogy virtues." This blog post is less about politics (though the title may make you think it is) and more about authentic discipleship. It's an excellent read.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Plenitude and pulchritude

Life has been full these last few days. My daughter from Seattle was here for a few days, and that time was delightfully packed with in-depth conversations, cutting and decorating a Christmas tree (she convinced me to actually have it inside the cabin this year, which turned out to be a good decision though I was dubious), and helping her get a resume and cover letter set up for a possible job ... then, wonderfully, having a positive response so that she actually had a phone interview while she was here, sitting up in my writing studio and jumping through hoops. It's such a joy to see the young woman she has become and watch her navigating her way in the world.

I also had my brother's dog here for a few days, and that was great fun as well. Callie is a laid back golden lab who loves to chase squirrels and has a lot of patience for being left at home for a few hours. (She's learned, even more than me, to value naps.) So having a dog becomes a good excuse for lots of long walks, for playing / wrestling on the carpet, for building fires and relaxing, for the delight of all these long trails through the snow. It's good.

Christmas activities abound around Decision Hills these days, of course. The children's Christmas program happened yesterday afternoon, so while the sun was setting I was out directing traffic and parking cars. Part of my not-so-secret delight in this event was sitting in the back of the packed sanctuary listening to some of the traditional carols and seeing children retelling the old, old story of Jesus' birth. Even as Herod, after the sack of Bethlehem and the slaughter of its infants, is in his spectacular death throes on the platform (something you rarely see in nativity stories these days, especially with the dramatic flair of this particular young Herod, while his gold-armored soldiers stood around looking helpless and he contorted and finally breathed his last on the steps of the platform) part of my mind was back at Faaberg in the days of my childhood, being a child and having this or that role in the Christmas program while proud parents in parkas looked on, while frost rimed the inside of the windows on especially cold years, while the Sunday School teachers stood in the back with an apple or a small bag of hard candy and caramel corn for each child after the program. Good memories, set to the strains of "Silent Night" and "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Angels We Have Heard On High" on the playlist in my mind. I love the traditional carols and the simple retelling of the biblical stories. There is a delightful incarnate beauty and a deep sense of community in those events as well -- the good will of humanity expressed in a tangible hug or gift or card, gratitude for the privilege of sharing life and ministry with people who have become so immeasurably dear. Community, partnership in ministry, the shared sense of both the gravitas and the hilaritas of this Jesus-following life -- these all come to the surface during these dark days of December, the temporal "thin place" of the downhill slope of Advent. 

My brother and sister-in-law came last night to retrieve their dog. We chiseled holes in the ice and he fished for a bit, but we are convinced that unlike the sweeping V's of northbound geese that swept over our heads, the fish have all flown south for the winter. Or in the words of the old Ole and Sven joke, "There are no fish under the ice." I left for the Christmas program while they continued their vain piscine pursuit, and then we sat long into the dark, lit by the Christmas tree lights, curled up on our various pieces of furniture watching football, eating venison and pork and cheese and chocolate and talking about all kinds of great topics. What a gift. This morning we filled up on biscuits and duck eggs and walked the property, through the various buildings and up past the crosses, around the north end where my grapes grew this summer and down through the RV sites and back up to my cabin. It's a light, sunny morning full of the crispness of a mid-December day in Minnesota.

It's just funny, I guess, how roller-coastery my life gets sometimes. On the solid, good foundation of living where I live and an outstanding collection of people who love me so well, I am prone to the all-too-Scandinavian downsides of the December dark. But when I look back objectively at the last few weeks I have to shake my head in an amazed appreciation of all that is so good. It's a great reminder during the long evenings, something to ponder with joy while I walk out to listen to the ice groan and crack as it swells and shrinks in the cold. The night skies are brilliant in this darkest season of the year -- good reminder of the lovely points of burning starlight God has placed in my life, and how grateful I am for every bit of it.