Friday, November 23, 2018

More chewing

I'm continuing to chew on the story in 1 Kings 13 and its context. I think what engages me more than anything in this story -- aside from the fact that it's fascinating, and it's almost never talked about -- is that it highlights a very real question for those of us who are serious about following Jesus in a biblical way:

How do you discern God's direction?

The prophet from Judah hears a word from God. Okay. But as noted in the last post, he doesn't have a black-and-white Bible to go to in order to test it, and God seems okay with that. In fact, God seems okay with that lack throughout the Bible. Apparently God thinks his Spirit is capable of communicating and directing.

The prophet from Bethel lies outright. What motivates him? It doesn't really matter. Maybe it's civic pride. Maybe it's an effort to protect his king. Maybe he's trying to test the authenticity of the Judean prophet's word, which is what the text seems to do with the whole story when all is said and done. Maybe he's just a mean old man.

How would the story look different if the Judean prophet had "done it right"? What seems to be expected of him in the story? It seems like -- and this is not necessarily clear, but it seems to be the case -- he is expected to obey the clear word of God he's received to go to Bethel, pronounce his message of destruction, not eat or drink, and return by a different route. If he had done just that, the story at least implies things would have gone well for him.

So think about this for a minute: He is supposed to be obedient to the word he's heard from God and disregard 1) the witness of another prophet; 2) a revelation (false, but he doesn't know that) given by an angel; 3) the conventions of hospitality that were absolute in his culture.

Has God ever called you to take a stand? Can you sympathize with the Judean prophet who finds himself completely isolated in this regard?

Martin Luther said late in his life that during the height of the Reformation, the greatest temptation to abandon biblical truth for him consisted in this question: Is it possible, Martin, that you alone are right and all of Christendom is wrong? He nearly abandoned all his convictions because he found himself required to take a stand alone.

I believe God wants us to know his character and his voice so well that we trust him, even when other voices contradict. I'm not advocating that we all should simply listen to the voices in our heads to the exclusion of all else. But over and over in the Bible, being able to hear and discern the voice of the Spirit is critically important. Jesus said his sheep know his voice (John 10). Paul wrote about the Spirit in our hearts bearing witness (Romans 8 among others). This idea permeates the New Testament. But as Lily Tomlin said, it's fine for you to talk to God; but if God talks to you, we say you're crazy.

I worry that we have perhaps settled for a corporate, policy-laden, rule-bound version of Christianity rather than the Spirit-driven journey of listening for Jesus' voice and following his leading.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

A disturbing detour

I've been reading my way through 1 Kings lately. Spent a couple months savoring the stories in 1-2 Samuel, and for a couple weeks I've been in 1 Kings. Today I read 1 Kings 13, and as always, this story disturbs me greatly.

Basically it's the story of a prophet from Judah who comes to Bethel, the worship center for the northern kingdom of Israel, and speaks a word of judgment from God on the religious practices of Israel. You see, Jeroboam -- who was set up as king in Israel by God when Solomon's son Rehoboam turned out to be a jerk -- had crafted a couple golden calves (sound familiar?) and set them up at Dan in the north and Bethel in the south so that his people wouldn't go to Jerusalem (the capital city of Judah) to worship. God sends a prophet from Judah with very specific instructions to go speak a word against what Jeroboam has done. The prophet does so, and continues to obey God's word.

So far all this makes sense.

Now, there's a prophet in Bethel who (long story) lies to the prophet of Judah and gets him to disobey God's word by saying he has a more recent, more authoritative, more spiritual revelation. So the prophet from Judah disobeys, which basically means coming back to Bethel and eating a meal. Then the prophet from Bethel says, "Ha! You're going to die because you disobeyed!" The prophet from Judah goes on his way and gets killed by a lion. Not making this up. THEN the prophet from Bethel goes far out of his way to honor the prophet from Judah (what?), buries him in his own tomb and gives his sons instructions that when he dies, he should be buried right next to that guy whom he deceived.


Take a look for just a moment at a few of the wild dynamics in this story. (By the way, I'm guessing none of us have EVER heard a sermon on this story. It's way too complicated to preach. That doesn't mean it's not important. It's incredibly important; most of us just don't have a clue it's in the Bible.) So. Dynamics.

  1. Jeroboam has founded his kingdom on the promise of God. (This happens earlier in 1 Kings.) Jeroboam is God's chosen king for the northern kingdom of Israel, but Jeroboam makes an expedient decision about the religious life of his people, creating local worship centers to protect his political power. Not to draw too fine a parallel, but how many of our churches are built on authentic promises of God, authentic interpretations of God's word, but we have compromised ourselves in order to protect our political power through expedient decision making? 
  2. God speaks a word to the prophet from Judah that frankly puts his life in danger. This seems to be the reason why the guy is not to return by the same route after delivering his message -- people will want to ambush and kill him for the judgment he speaks. The prophet is boldly obedient, resolute in the face of resistance, and he takes this wild word from God to heart. Question: Does God still speak this way? If not, why not? Remember that this prophet doesn't have a trove of written scripture he can go to in order to test the word he receives from God. He does, however, have a Levitical priesthood that had some basic laws drawn up that would have condemned Jeroboam's religious practices.
  3. When the prophet from Judah is in Bethel, he has no one to back him up. He's totally solo. He has to cling completely to what he thought he heard God say in the face of incredible resistance. We don't know, but we can imagine, that maybe he had support back in Judah. He might have had a band of prophets he prayed and prophesied with. That seems to have been fairly common. Or he might have had reinforcement from the Levitical priests in Jerusalem who would have recognized the wrong in Jeroboam's worship practices. But when he's on assignment, he is totally isolated.
  4. The prophet from Bethel takes advantage of this. He comes alongside, says, "Hey, I'm a prophet, too, and God has given me another word for you ..." and he convinces the prophet from Judah to compromise what he's heard. He is flat-out lying, but the younger prophet doesn't know this yet. So by giving in to spiritual counsel from what looks like a teammate and compromising what he's heard from God, he participates in his own destruction. 
This story is leading me into far more questions than answers. What do you do if you think you've heard a word from God, but that very word seems to isolate you? What do you do with feedback from people who look like teammates? Is there a difference between how the Spirit of God operated pre-Pentecost versus today? What does it mean to be guided by the Holy Spirit -- to be, as Len Sweet calls it, a "pneumanaut"?

I'm going to park here for a day or two and reread this text. Lots of questions. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Luke 17:20-37

This is another section of the Bible that we tend to read in a very self-centered fashion. I can't tell you how many sermons and studies and teachings I've heard about this, inspiring an adrenaline rush of "Jesus is coming back at any moment, and he'll take one person out of bed and leave their roommate!" It's led to songs like Larry Norman's "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" (very catchy) and some frankly abusive teaching that has inspired terror in order to motivate people to true conversion. It's the classic "If you died tonight ..." question that is provocative to think about, but notice -- and I think this is critically important -- that Jesus doesn't ever inspire conversions based on that kind of tactic.

So what's Jesus getting at in this section? Let's make a few observations.

First, remember that "the kingdom of God" is not about some future heaven, but rather it is about the present day rule of God in the lives of believers, looking ahead to a future fulfillment. It's about God's kingship. So verses 20-21 are extremely important. There's an intentional linguistic pun in the text based on the fact that the second person singular and plural are identical in Greek. In other words, Jesus is saying both "the kingdom of God is within you" (singular) AND "the kingdom of God is among you all" (plural). There is an internal, individually spiritual dimension to God's rule. There is also a relational, corporate reality to God's rule. Both are key parts of the kingship of God in our lives.

Then Jesus begins to teach his disciples some difficult things about what life will be like in their future. (Remember we have to try to discern what these words meant to their original hearers before we import them wholesale into our lives.) Jesus and the disciples are traveling toward Jerusalem. At this stage, they are likely on the east side of the Jordan River, traveling the road that followed the floodplain southward from Galilee (crossing along the border of Samaria), then crossing the river and moving southward. They'll re-cross the river near Jericho, as we see in 18:35, and begin the long climb up into the hills where Jerusalem is located.

Interestingly, this puts Jesus and his followers geographically near the place where Lot escaped the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. That may be what prompted the conversation Luke records here. Remember, though, that Jesus is looking ahead to two cataclysmic events. First is his own crucifixion, coming up in a few short weeks. Second is that a generation from now, the city of Jerusalem will be destroyed by the Roman armies who will surround it, lay siege to it, and eventually burn the city and the temple. These two events are beyond-comprehension devastating for Jesus' immediate audience. Jesus uses figurative language to communicate how devastating these events will be. First the crucifixion will devastate his followers, throwing their movement into absolute chaos, then (at the time of his resurrection) transforming this movement into something none of them could imagine right now. Then, a generation later, as the news of Jesus' resurrection is spreading outward from Jerusalem into the whole Roman world and beyond, the Jews will rise up in revolt against the Romans and suffer the terrible consequences as Vespasian and his son Titus come with the legions to destroy anyone who would proclaim their independence from Caesar. It's not surprising that Jesus would end this section by saying, in answer to his disciples' question, "Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather." His own soon-to-be-crucified body and the corpse of burned Jerusalem are both held in this cryptic statement.

Is it realistic to think that Jesus' words here are intended to be more figurative than literal? Think about the way we use language. A decisive political victory is a "landslide." A mass of refugees is a "flood." When public sympathies are changing we say "the tide is turning." An individual or a set of circumstances that seems a bit chaotic and high-energy is a "whirlwind." We do this all the time -- but because these are normal expressions for us, we don't think anything of it. Jesus is doing much the same thing, using common apocalyptic expressions here to help his people understand a bit of what's coming, and to prepare them for the challenging days ahead.

What do we do about applying these things to ourselves? It's certainly not a bad thing to hear these texts as warnings to be ready for whatever cataclysms might come. Jesus has spoken that message over and over again already, especially in chapter 13 where he tells his followers to live in an attitude of repentance. Make peace with God and tend to your human relationships. Be ready. Don't get embroiled in the concerns of daily life and miss the fragile nature of this existence. Watch for what God is doing and be ready to change your plans when God calls you to something new.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Luke 17:11-19

This text is often used for Thanksgiving worship services, focusing on the one man (a Samaritan) who returns to give thanks to Jesus for his healing. A couple reflections on this fairly straightforward story:

First, it is interesting that a debilitating disease breaks down the social mores that keep Jews from associating with Samaritans. The nine Jews were apparently content having this Samaritan with them, and vice versa. Yet we know (see John 4, for example) that Jews and Samaritans didn't associate. We see this in daily life, that terrible tragedies can bring people together and create bonds of commonality and understanding that would be impossible without a crisis.

Second, our status as "insiders" may well keep us from Jesus. Though these nine Jews are lepers and therefore outcasts, they still in some measure live in bondage to the expectations of their tradition. So when Jesus tells them to go show themselves to the priests, that hierarchy and authority structure takes immediate priority in their lives. The Samaritan, on the other hand, is far enough from the temple structures and systems that he recognizes that it is important for him to return to thank Jesus. The Samaritans had their own temple, their own priesthood, their own laws that required the same kind of obedience, but this man is already living as an outsider to his own cultural systems by associating with these Jews. Perhaps that gave him enough perspective to recognize Jesus more fully.

Third, the nine are simply being obedient to Jesus' words, but they fail to recognize the priority of a grateful relationship with Jesus. Once they were healed, it would have been entirely appropriate for them -- as it was for the Samaritan -- to return and thank Jesus before then proceeding to fulfill the law by showing themselves to the priests. It's about love and gratitude. A case study in similar contrasts happens in John's gospel, where John carefully lays out a subtle comparison between the cripple who is healed in John 5, who ungratefully goes on to rat out Jesus to the authorities, and the blind man who is healed in John 9 and then stands up to the authorities as a witness to the authority and goodness of Jesus.

Fourth, Jesus seems to affirm the Samaritan in his disobedience. But a theme throughout the New Testament (and indeed, reading carefully, through the Old Testament as well) is that Jesus becomes the new temple and the new priesthood. He is both the locus where we meet God and the intermediary for that meeting. This is the theme of Stephen's sermon in Acts 7 that ends with him being stoned by the Jewish authorities who desperately wanted to protect the temple and their hierarchy. So when the Samaritan returns to Jesus and recognizes in him the goodness and presence of God, Jesus releases him from the need to go to the temple and to the priests. This is the essence of Jesus statement that "your faith" -- in other words, your relationship of trust with God through Jesus -- "has made you well."

So what about us? Do we remain encumbered in the structures and assumptions of old power systems and miss what God is doing in and around us? Do we use Jesus for our own ends, but remain in bondage to our old wineskins? Often we fear the newness that truly surrendering to Jesus might mean. We fear the breakage of those old wineskins. And if, as seems to be happening in many traditionally oriented churches today, God begins to simply allow them the consequences of their own bondage to traditional assumptions and structures and they begin to wane, those who maintain those loyalties are gripped by resentment, fear and bitterness. It's true in our personal lives as well. We cling to our old habits when they are clearly not working for us anymore, because we are afraid of anything new -- and the pain of change is greater than the pain of dysfunctional habits.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Luke 17:1-10

The kingdom of God Jesus came to proclaim is an upside-down kingdom. Power as we understand it doesn't work right here. Neither does control. It is a kingdom built on God's ways, not our ways. As Jesus has revealed his Father's heart in chapter 15 and called us to the task of stewardship -- managing our resources well in light of the Father's character -- so now he begins to apply that to our interpersonal relationships.

Don't lose the context here. Jesus is still in tremendous tension with the Jewish leaders who have just condemned him. Yet we know that some of those same Jewish leaders became his followers. John's gospel tells us specifically that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus worked their way around to becoming disciples of Jesus. Have you ever had to forgive someone who at one point stood with your enemies? Have you had to release the wrongs done to you? Jesus recognizes both the seriousness of causing someone else to stumble -- sin is no joke -- and also the absolute imperative of God's kingdom of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not a blanket statement or a universal principle. It is excruciating: literally, from the cross. Forgiveness is the painful work of releasing the one who has hurt you, the one whose sin is real, the one whose fault is so obvious to you.

In the not too distant past I've heard through the grapevine of people who have been so angry at me that they say I am beyond forgiveness. I'm not surprised. I've also had people who have said and done things that have damaged me beyond what I can even calculate. On both sides of that coin, Jesus stands in between, mediating broken relationships, calling all sides to drop the hatchet and do the hard work of forgiveness.

Understand, we are not yet talking about reconciliation. That is a further step. Sometimes it's possible and sometimes it's not. But forgiveness is not an option -- not if we want to be healthy. We will not do ourselves or anyone else any good if we say "I will hold on to this hurt, nurse this grudge, maintain this condemnation." As the wag has said, that's like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.

Reconciliation is a topic for another day. But Jesus calls us not to step into a position of authority that doesn't belong to us. We all love to be judge and jury. It's a human instinct, a reflex. It feels like justice at first, but it only leads to bitterness. When you've been hurt, the kingdom-of-God practice is to release the hurt to the Father, to let him have it rather than hanging onto it yourself. The New Testament is absolutely full of this, beginning with Jesus on the cross saying "Father, forgive them ..."

The heart of this surrender (and it is a surrender) is recognizing our role. We are servants in this kingdom, not judges. We are waiters, not executioners. Humility, in other words, is not an option in this kingdom.

How can you become humble? Only, only by getting your focus off yourself. Turn your eyes upon Jesus, as the song says. Let go of the hurts. Let go of the shame. Let go of the desire for vengeance. Let go of the will to control. Focus on his face. Focus on his words. Focus on his grace. Take up the servant's task he has set before you and do it with all your will. Lose yourself in it.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A week nobody else has

My mom used to say, "All I want is a week nobody else has." When she said that, she was usually talking about tasks and projects she wanted to complete. I think if I could schedule such a thing, I'd certainly do it this time of year, not to focus on projects but to enjoy this beautiful season. The last few days of October and the first few days of November are so full of good things, and every year I struggle to fit it all in.

Some of these things are like clockwork -- the whitetail rut kicks in about now, and big bucks get a lot less secretive and start appearing in daylight. I'm seeing pictures of big bucks taken by people I know, and I've even seen some activity around here. Pretty exciting. Still don't have any fresh venison in the freezer, but we'll get there. Bowhunting these days is a delight, especially on crisp days when the deer make a ton of noise moving through the woods, and they seem okay with that. Hunting season is usually (this year is no exception) a good excuse for a lightning trip north to the farm where I grew up, and though the last few years (this year is no exception) don't allow enough time for leisurely hunting, it's a chance to be back at the farm, drive past Faaberg Lutheran Church, maybe stop in the cemetery and say hi to Mom & Dad, walk the woods and the farm where I grew up, and hopefully fill the freezer.

In my part of the world, deer hunting is a big deal. There's an excitement to early November that wraps up as many people as football season. The young lady cashiering behind the counter at the store yesterday couldn't stop talking about how this is her first year deer hunting, and she's so excited. Kind of fun.

Speaking of football, we're in that mid-range of the season when the Vikings haven't eliminated themselves from playoff hopes yet. It's a time of optimism in Minnesota, and people aren't ashamed to yell "SKOL!" out loud. Spending Sunday afternoons wrapped up in a blanket on the couch with the remote and a bowl of popcorn watching a game while hope still thrives -- that's a delectable gift.

Another delight that's a little more variable, timing-wise, is the appearance of the first snowflakes of the year. We've had a couple snow showers already, but daytime temps are still firmly above freezing, which is good. There's time to clean up leaves, finish fall projects, etc. Satisfying stuff.

Less tangible but no less important, we are poised at what I often think of as a "hinge" of the year when we turn the corner from the activity-rich summer and early fall into the relationship-rich season of holidays, family feasts, reconnecting with loved ones. Word to the wise: be intentional. Love endures all things, Paul tells us, but it takes maintenance as well. Schedule in face-time with those you haven't seen in a while. The next few weeks are some of the best times to reforge those connections.

Similarly, the "hinge" also includes a transition toward arts and charities making a bigger splash than they do in the summer. Look around -- the world is suddenly full of plays, concerts, galas, parties and fundraisers. Seems like they pop up this time of year like crazy, and it's a wonderful time to get connected to worthwhile stories, events and causes.

Outside my window this afternoon it's raining and gray. The trees are stark and bare, the water on the lake looks like steel. I find myself a little restless in the midst of it all -- tempted to give in to unease, to feel a little frantic like I'm missing something I should be doing. Instead I'm debating which of the six immediate options I should choose, how I should spend the rest of the afternoon and evening, what needs to be done and what I choose to do because it's simply the best. Work on a story I'm writing? Go sit on my tree stand in the rain and see if that eight pointer comes by again? Put in an old favorite movie? Invite a friend over and put those jalapeƱos on the grill, stuffed with cheese? Build a fire in the woodstove in the shop and start working on that oak table that's been on my mind? Oh, the options!

I don't have a week no one else has -- but like you, I have a bunch of weeks during this pinnacle of the year. I want to spend them well.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Luke 16:19-31

Three things to say about this parable, which closes out this section (chapters 15-16) of parables we've said are focused on stewardship: First we must know the heart of the Father, then we can figure out how to appropriately manage our worldly goods in light of who God is.

1. This parable is often cited as some kind of evidence of what the afterlife is like. I've heard in-depth teachings using this parable to explain that when we die, we are taken to a sort of holding area. Those who are good / God-pleasing / righteous / saved will go to a pleasant place called "Abraham's bosom" and those who are bad / condemned / unrighteous / unsaved will go to a place of temporary torment called "Hades" or something similar. Please understand that mapping out the afterlife is NOT Jesus' point here. That would be a little like reading Moby Dick as a whaling manual or watching Jeremiah Johnson to figure out how to be a good trapper. Yes, that element is in the story, but it's not even close to the point. The Bible is frustratingly, intentionally fuzzy and vague about questions of exactly what happens in the afterlife. Many cultures surrounding biblical ones had extensive writings on this topic -- the Egyptian "Book of the Dead" is the best example -- so one has to think this omission is intentional. Think about it a bit, and you'll see that it must very well be so. God doesn't want you to trust some road map of where you're headed after you die. He wants you to trust him, in this life and the next. We are to be like Peggy who, a couple days before she died, told me, "I figure all I have to do is die, and Jesus will take care of the rest." Sound wisdom.

2. Having laid the foundation of revealing the Father's heart in chapter 15, Jesus is now making explicit his advice in the first part of 16: We are to use our worldly goods to please God. The rich man (interestingly unnamed, though tradition sometimes names him Dives) uses his abundant wealth to indulge himself, ignoring the beggar at his gate. The first point of the story is that this self-indulgence is clearly against God's desire, and eventually the rich man will experience the consequence of his selfishness. We are not called to be like the younger son in chapter 15, squandering our resources on our own lusts. Nor are we to be like the elder son, selfishly hoarding those resources and never allowing ourselves to live like we are heirs of the estate. Instead, we are to manage our goods as a reflection of the Father's heart, who cares for the outcasts, the sick, the marginalized, the orphan and the widow and the slave and the prisoner and the blind and the lame. The problem with the rich man is not that he is selfish, but rather that his selfishness puts him directly in opposition to the Father's heart.

3. The end of the parable is one of those intriguing statements that must have puzzled people when Jesus first uttered it but came to be extremely important in the early church. As the first Christians after Pentecost tried to tell their fellow Jews about Jesus and his resurrection, they faced tremendous frustration and disappointment and some limited success. Throughout the New Testament we hear echoes of that frustration, longing for the Jewish people to recognize Jesus as their Messiah. Here Jesus foretells that frustration, saying that even if someone rises from the dead (as he will shortly do) those who are entrenched in their own structures of religious power and certainty (the old wineskins he has talked about before) will refuse to believe him. We live with the same frustration today.

So don't let's make this a parable about the structure of the afterlife and miss Jesus' point. In regard to questions about what happens after death, maybe we are wisest to cling to Deuteronomy 29:29, where Moses tells the people that the hidden things belong to God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever. In Jesus' resurrection, the heart of the Father that will not even be stopped in the face of death is revealed and victorious. We cling to that.