Come and Follow Me

Matthew 16:21-28 New International Version (NIV)

21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

I was in high school when I noticed a lot of young men and women wearing a particular piece of jewelry. I’ve never been one to wear any kind of jewelry, I don’t wear a watch and often don’t even wear my wedding ring. But I thought that this piece of jewelry was kind of interesting: it was a bracelet with the letters “WWJD” printed in bold letters. WWJD of course stands for “What Would Jesus Do?”

The idea is simple and yet brilliant at the same time. When you find yourself in a difficult situation, perhaps an ethical dilemma, you look to your wrist and ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” If you’re taking your math exam and you don’t know the answer and you are tempted to look at your neighbor’s paper. What would Jesus do? If you are in a convenience store and see some Twinkies, and you love Twinkies, but don’t have any money, look to your wrist and ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?”

In a number of ways, that little bracelet is a lot like that wedding ring that I rarely wear. It serves two practical purposes: It reminds me of the commitment that I have made to my wife, and it tells others that I am dedicated to loving, honoring, and serving someone.

Of course the challenge is that we can’t always agree on what Jesus would do, and often what we decide Jesus would do surprisingly looks a lot like what we really wanted to do all along. At least it did in High School, I’ll let you decide if that’s the case today or not. Or even worse, when a young man found himself in a position where he knew right and wrong, but the wrong choice was a lot easier, he answer the question, “What would Jesus do?” by saying, “Jesus would forgive me, that’s what Jesus would do.” And he went ahead and did it anyway.

We may not always know what Jesus might do in any given situation that we find ourselves in, but we can ask a few more questions that can help. When confronted with the question, “What would Jesus do?” we must ask three questions: What did Jesus do? What did Jesus say? And What was Jesus like? (Murray, 61).

The desire to follow Jesus is something that we often call discipleship. As you know, Jesus had 12 disciples who followed him from town to town, ate with him, and lived under the same roof as him. The Greek word we translate as disciple is “mathetes.” Mathetes literally means a learner or a student. When Jesus calls his first disciples, notice what he says. He says, “Come and follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

The goal of Christian discipleship isn’t just to learn for the sake of learning. The goal is to learn how to be like Jesus. The goal is to know Jesus so well that when the question “What would Jesus do?” comes up, you know.

And guess what. You never stop learning.

Jesus’s last words to his disciples is recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

The task given to this group of learners who are seeking to become more and more like Jesus is to make more learners. When asked about the mission of the church today, I like to say that we are disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples. Our job is to make more people who look like Jesus.

That’s exactly what the early church did. Just a quick read through Acts reveals that the church grew by leaps and bounds. I would attribute this growth to two things: One is the gifting of the Holy Spirit, which is best seen on the day of Pentecost. The second is that Jesus’s disciples did what he taught them to do. They went out and made more disciples, who made more disciples, who made more disciples. And these disciples put the teachings of Jesus into action. The fed the poor, healed the sick, they shared meals, they shared their homes. And we find these encouraging snippets, like Acts 4:34, “there was no need among them,” and Acts 2:47b, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

So here are these disciples, empowered by the Holy Spirit, following Jesus every day and in every way that they could. And we know that it isn’t easy to follow Jesus. It isn’t easy to love your enemy, forgive people who have hurt you, to wash the feet of someone you know is going to betray you. We know it isn’t easy, and Jesus knew it wouldn’t be easy. In Matthew 16:24 Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

He just compared being his follower with one of the most gruesome and painful methods of public execution known to humanity. But with the power of the Holy Spirit, and the support of community of believers, it can be done. Sure, we will fail, and praise God for grace in those moments. But Jesus didn’t give these difficult teachings knowing that they are impossible to achieve. No, he really wants us to try. We are called to look like Jesus in the way we live, breathe, and have our being.

Discipleship was a central part of Christianity for the first three hundred years of the existence of the church. But then something happened that forever changed the church and how we see Jesus. In the year 312, Constantine, Emperor of Rome, claimed to see a vision during a battle. Some claim that the vision was of a cross, others the Greek letters XP, the first two letters of the word Christ. Constantine then claims to have received a message: “In this sign, conquer.” The Romans painted the symbol on their shields and armor and defeated their enemy. Constantine made Christianity one of the recognized religions of the Roman Empire, and paved the way for Christianity to become the official religion of Rome.

Was this process, which we often call “The Constantinian Shift” a good thing or a bad thing? I would say a little bit of both. But think about what was lost. Before Constantine, only those who were dedicated to following Jesus, even if it cost them their lives, were Christians. After Constantine, everyone within the world’s largest empire was a Christian. We went from a voluntary group to required membership. This would be like going out and just declaring everyone in your city a Christian. Many people didn’t change anything about their lives.

This is about the time when groups like the monks started popping up. There became a second class of people who were dedicated to following Jesus and being his disciples because you can’t expect everyone to actually follow Jesus, even if everyone is considered a Christian.

Over the years Jesus went from being God with us, Emmanuel, who lived among us, taught us how to live, died and rose again, to some distant deity to whom we can pray. This distant deity even offers grace and forgiveness to those who believe in him. But that deity requires very little from his subjects.

We come to the 16th century and the Protestant Reformation. There is this group of believers in Switzerland that believes that leaders like Zwingli and Luther have started a good thing, but not gone far enough. This group didn’t see anything in the Bible that spoke of automatic church membership for someone just because of where they were born or the family they were born into. No, the New Testament Church was filled with people who had chosen to follow Jesus, at times at great cost. Some left behind family and friends, jobs and homes. Why should things change?

So this group decided that they were going to start a movement that got back to the root of the church. They began what is sometimes called the “Radical Reformation,” radical meaning the root of something. Voluntary church membership was central, as was its accompanying public gesture, which we know to be baptism. And since an infant couldn’t choose to be a member of a church, baptism became an act reserved for those who were old enough to choose to be baptized. And along with the symbol of adult baptism, these leaders, later known as the Anabaptists, focused on following Jesus. As HS Bender would write, “The Reformation emphasis on faith was good but inadequate, for without newness of life, they held, faith is hypocritical” (16).

Or as Hans Denck, an early Anabaptist, once said, “No one truly knows Christ unless they follow Him daily in life.” That’s on our church’s website!

Obviously, this can begin to look like legalism or works righteousness. I would argue that it isn’t works righteousness, it is works faithfulness. Or even more precisely, that’s what it means to be a good disciple of Jesus.

I think Palmer Becker says it best when he proclaims, “Jesus is the center of our faith.” Everything revolves around Jesus, what he said, what he did, and what he commanded. Becker, in his book Anabaptist Essentials, talks about different expressions of the Christian faith that he sees in the United States today. He asks the question, “Is Christianity a set of beliefs?” In a number of what we call “liturgical churches” we can find an emphasis on right belief or Orthodoxy. The worship services in these churches often include the recitation of creeds, or other documents of shared belief. “I believe in God the Father, almighty maker of heaven, maker of earth. And Jesus Christ, his only begotten…”

But Christianity is more than just having right beliefs. This isn’t about just having the right theology and reciting the right words. Don’t get me wrong, orthodoxy is important, but we can’t stop there. So yes, Christianity is a set of beliefs, but it is more.

Becker then asks the question, “Is Christianity a spiritual experience?” I spoke about the gifts of the Spirit in our last session, and emphasized that the Spirit does more than we often give him credit for. But there are traditions that emphasize supernatural experiences like healing, exorcisms, and speaking in tongues to the point that it would seem that this is the essence of Christianity. The working of the Spirit is important, but there is more.

“Is Christianity an experience of forgiveness?” There are traditions where everything seems to be geared toward getting people to pray the sinner’s prayer. You’ve got to seal the deal! I remember hearing a pastor talking about attending a church where forgiveness and grace was all that they talked about in their church services. So they would sing, “Just as I am,” and then they would leave just as they were.

Without a doubt, repentance and forgiveness are essential to the Christian faith. And I would say that is the minimum requirement for someone to get into heaven. But since when are we about getting by with the bare minimum?

Becker then ends this section with what he has been building toward: Is Christianity discipleship? He writes, “Anabaptist Christians affirm that Christianity includes beliefs, spiritual experience, and forgiveness. But particular emphasis is placed on following Jesus in daily life” (33).

Becker also acknowledges that we Anabaptist/Mennonites are in danger of overemphasizing right practices in the same way other traditions can fall into similar traps. As I mentioned earlier, Mennonites can fall into legalism and works righteousness way too easily. No, we need a balance of right beliefs, spiritual encounters, forgiveness, and following the teachings of Jesus.

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The Spirit of the Church

Romans 8:22-27

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.

Mark 16:17-18

17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

When I think of denominations that emphasize the Holy Spirit, I usually think of…well, just about every denomination other than the Mennonite Church. I’ve even gone so far as to say that we Mennonites are bi-nitarians, as opposed to Trinitarians. We focus a lot on Jesus Christ, and rightly so. He is our Lord and Savior and our entire religion is named after Jesus; we are Christians! I make no apology whatsoever for talking about Jesus and talking about Jesus a lot. We also talk a lot about God, sometimes to the point where it is hard to tell where Jesus stops and God begins. I also think that is a good thing. If I speak in such a way that I blur the lines between God and Jesus, I think that I have done that part of my job well. We cannot separate the two. Jesus said, If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.

But the Holy Spirit? Ah, we maybe talk about the Spirit once a year or so on Pentecost Sunday. There are usually a few references to the Spirit throughout the year, but the Spirit is rarely the focus of our time together.

No, if you want to hear about the Holy Spirit, you need to go to a Pentecostal Church. If you want to experience the Holy Spirit, you go to a Charismatic Church. If you want to see the Spirit at work, you go to a Holiness Church. I’ve never seen anyone speak in tongues in a Mennonite Church. I’ve never seen anyone handle snakes in any church. And we sure don’t roll around on the floor in the Mennonite Church! I will occasionally see someone raise a hand in worship and I feel that it is necessary to look at them suspiciously. No, we praise God by singing, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by Thy help I’ve come.”

It would seem that there is a huge Holy-Spirit-sized hole in the Mennonite Church. But then I go and read something that shakes up my understanding of what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Historian Peter Klassen writes that within the early Anabaptist movement “there was a profound conviction that the Holy Spirit was at the center of Christian experience. The work of the Holy Spirit enabled the followers of Christ to rise above legalism to the transforming life of joyful obedience.”

Palmer Becker paraphrases Klassen, writing, “The Anabaptist movement can rightfully be called the charismatic or Holy Spirit movement of the sixteenth century” (Anabaptist Essentials, 160).

What happened? Have we as 21st-century, North American Mennonites lost something that our spiritual ancestors found so central to their faith? I think that is part of it, and I don’t want to minimize that. But I think what we have seen more than anything else is that our concept of the Holy Spirit has been dominated by just a few expressions of the Spirit to the point that we only see a very narrow slice of what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit. There are a lot of references to the Holy Spirit in the Bible, and praise God, most of them do not involve handling poisonous snakes. (Can I get an amen? Or is that too Pentecostal?)

So today we are going to look at two additional roles of the Holy Spirit that often are neglected. We will look at the role of the Spirit in equipping and transforming.

The first thing that I want to look at is how the Holy Spirit equips the Church. When I think of equipping, I think of gifts. Each of us has some gift that will help the ministry of the church and if you don’t know what your gift is, I suggest asking someone from the church whom you trust. We need to be affirming the gifts in one another, especially as many of us have been told that humility is a virtue and to boast about a gift would be a sign of pride.

The Apostle Paul gives us several lists of Spiritual Gifts in places like Romans 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 4, and what is probably the best-known list in 1 Corinthians 12. 1 Corinthians 12:1 says, “Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.” I don’t want you to be uninformed, either. So let’s see what is going on here.

One of the words that Paul uses that we translate as “gift” is the word charisma. As you may have guessed, that is where we get the English word charisma from. When you hear a dynamic speaker who is engaging, entertaining, and a delight to listen to, you might say that they are charismatic. That simply means that they have a gift for speaking.

Charisma can be further broken down to find its root, which is the word charis. Charis is the word that we translate as “grace.” We have friends who named their first-born Grace, their second born Charis, and their third Anya, which is the Russian word for grace. With all respect to Meghan Trainor, you might say that they are all about that grace, bout that grace.

Grace, charis, is a gift from God; something that you cannot and have not earned. Likewise, charisma and the charismata (plural form) are gifts from God. And Paul calls each one of these gifts a manifestation of the Spirit. Here is just a short list of what Paul names in these passages: Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Encouraging, Courage, Leadership, Mercy, Words of Wisdom, Words of Knowledge, Faith, Healing, Powers, Discerning Spirit, Speaking in Tongues, Interpreting Tongues.

Please notice, snake handling is not on the list.

I’d also ask you to notice that this is not an exhaustive list. I think of some of the skilled positions in our church, like our webmaster or our sound technician. I usually send our webmaster the bulletin Friday afternoon and he often has it up on the website before I get home, complete with hyperlinks to the written text. Our sound guy edits the audio each Sunday and transfers it to an MP3 file and sends it to the web guy, who has it posted early each week.

These are gifts that are being used in the church to reach people outside of the church. I don’t have any problem with calling these spiritual gifts, even though they don’t make any of Paul’s lists.

And think about Jesus’ first recorded sermon, which we find in Luke 4:18-19. Jesus is fresh off his time of temptation in the wilderness, he comes to his hometown of Nazareth, and speaks in the local synagogue. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

The Spirit of the Lord has anointed Jesus to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom to the prisoner, sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and what many scholars believe the year of Jubilee.

The marks of a Spirit-filled church aren’t exclusively speaking in tongues or ecstatic worship experiences, though it can indeed include those things and I think that we can learn something from our more charismatic brothers or sisters. But I want to ask of your church: Is there sound teaching? That’s a Spirit-filled church. Is there prophesy or wisdom? That’s a Spirit-filled church. Is good news proclaimed to the poor, the oppressed, and the prisoner? If so, that’s a Spirit-filled church. The Mennonite Church may not be what you commonly think of when you think of a Spirit-filled church, but maybe we need to rethink what it means to be a Spirit-filled church. God equips us to do the work and ministry of the Church, and he does so through the Spirit.

How about one more “charisma,” one more gift of the Spirit that is often overlooked? The end of 1 Corinthians 12:3 tells us, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”

That doesn’t really seem like that great of a gift to me. We are looking at three little words, two words in Greek. What kind of gift is that and what does Paul mean when he says that you cannot say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit? I’m glad you asked, because that leads us to our second area, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

It isn’t that it is all that difficult to say the words “Jesus is Lord,” it is difficult to live out that conviction. Because to say “Jesus is Lord” is to give your highest allegiance and ultimate authority to Jesus.

In the 1st century, it was common for members of the Roman Empire to greet one another by saying “Caesar is lord.” It was a way of identifying friend from foe. Recall that the word “lord” does not necessarily mean that someone was divine, such as in the British House of Lords or the series “Lord of the Rings.” Nobody has ever accused Bilbo Baggins of being divine.

Throughout Paul’s writings we find him encouraging followers of Jesus to proclaim that Jesus is Lord. At one point he writes, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” That verse is found in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, Romans 10:9.

To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that Jesus receives your highest allegiance and is your ultimate authority. To say that Jesus is Lord is to say that Caesar is not. This does mean that you go around defying the government and its leaders just to be defiant. But for the 1st-century church, they understood the phrase “Jesus is Lord” to mean that when Jesus says one thing, and the government says something else, you follow Jesus.

Jesus told his disciples to make disciples throughout the nations. The governing authorities told the disciples not to teach about Jesus and arrested them when they kept doing what they were told not to do. What was Peter’s response? “We must obey God rather than human beings!” (Acts 5:29b).

So the authorities, the Sanhedrin in this case, had the disciples beaten and told them again to stop teaching. We find the disciples’ response in verses 41-42, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.”

Tradition tells us that eleven of the original twelve disciples, plus Paul, were killed, martyred for their faith. Were they just slow learners? Were they that dense? They were told that they would be punished if they kept proclaiming that Jesus was Lord, but they continued anyway. No, they kept proclaiming that Jesus was Lord because they believed that Jesus was Lord and therefore had ultimate authority in their life.

And ultimate authority in their death.

So when Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12 that nobody can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit, he doesn’t mean just muttering the words. Paul is saying that if you state that Jesus is Lord and really believe it, you will have struggles. He said this and he knew it personally! How many times was that man thrown in jail? Paul also knew that the strength to proclaim Jesus as Lord did not come from himself. That was only through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s double back to that Klassen quote from earlier: “The Anabaptist movement can rightfully be called the charismatic or Holy Spirit movement of the sixteenth century.”

Let us not forget that in the 16th century many Anabaptists were martyred for their faith. Some estimate that around 2,500 Anabaptists were killed for their faith, other estimates double that number. Our history includes stories of Anabaptists singing hymns as they were burned at the stake, men and women using their last words to offer forgiveness to their executioners, and what may be the best-known story, that of Dirk Willems saving his pursuer from drowning in an icy river, only to be recaptured and executed.

What gave these men and women the strength and courage to stay faithful in the midst of persecution? It was the same power that allowed the disciples to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, and it is the same power that is available to us today. It was the Holy Spirit.

But we can’t limit this transforming power of the Holy Spirit to allowing people to withstand persecution. This isn’t just about toughening us up! It is about forming us into the kind of people that God has called us to be. In his book The Anabaptist Vision Harold Bender talks about the role of the Spirit in what he called “the regeneration of every Christian.” This is a renewed sense of zeal, a renewed desire to serve and follow Jesus. Not because our salvation is dependent upon our works, but because Jesus is Lord.

Bender offers a number of stories and quotations from opponents of the Anabaptist movement where these opponents had really nice things to say about the people they were persecuting. Ulrich Zwingli once wrote about his Anabaptist foes, “If you investigate their life and conduct, it seems at first contact irreproachable, pious, unassuming, attractive, yea, above this world. Even those who are inclined to be critical will say that their lives are excellent” (as quoted by Bender, 22).

Bender will go on to say that some non-Anabaptist Christians were accused of being Anabaptists during the persecution period, not because anyone had heard that they had been re-baptized, but because of the Christ-like life they were living (25). You’re giving money to the poor? You must be an Anabaptist!

            I’ll be the first to admit that Bender may be a little biased in his assessment of the 16th-century Anabaptist movement. But my point today is that the gift of the Holy Spirit is more than just speaking in tongues or handling snakes. Indeed, it may include those things, but it can be much more. Godly teaching, feeding the poor, preaching, enduring persecution, web development, and declaring Jesus as Lord can all be signs that a person is filled with the Spirit.

The early Anabaptist movement was indeed a Spirit-filled movement. And maybe many people wouldn’t look at how we worship today and called us a Spirit-filled denomination. But like Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:1, I do not what you to be uninformed. You are a Spirit-filled people, and you continue to bear the fruit of the spirit.

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Weeding the Garden

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

36 Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

37 He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.

Last week Sonya and I marked our ninth year in our current house, which is easily the longest we have lived in one location in our adult lives. Nine years is enough time to make a house a home. We have, both figuratively and metaphorically, put down some roots. Eight summers ago we brought in some topsoil and built a raised-bed garden (two more would later follow). We have worked and amended the soil every spring, planted our seeds in straight rows, watered the garden, and watched it grow. And then every year, by the 4th of July, we start to neglect our garden and it becomes overgrown with weeds.

The thing is that I enjoy working the soil and planting the garden. I do not, however, enjoy weeding it. Maybe it is because I don’t like to pay that much attention to what I am doing and inevitably pull up a cucumber plant or two along the way. Maybe it is just the hot weather that comes in the middle of the summer. Either way, I’m glad to say that I have made the decision to follow the teachings of Jesus, which is to say that I will never pull another weed again!

Who doesn’t love a good agricultural parable? If you don’t, I’d suggest staying away from Matthew 13, because there are a few of them sprinkled throughout this chapter. In Matthew 13 we find the parable of the mustard seed, the parable of the sower, and of course today’s lesson, the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Or if you know your King James, you probably have heard this one called the parable of the wheat and the tares.

If you have ever grown anything, you know that this parable is really bad advice. If you do not weed your garden or cultivate your field, you will not get much of a harvest. The weeds and the good seed will compete for nutrients, water, space, and sunlight. If Jesus’s intention was to tell people that they should never pull up weeds, then I would expect that someone with some agricultural or horticultural experience would have called him out on it. Someone would have said, “That will never work!” So what is going on here? (Sorry kids, we still need to weed the garden.)

The point of this passage seems to come right down to the long-standing Christian teaching that we are not to judge one another. We can speak about actions that think are right or wrong, but we are in no position to say if someone is “good” or “bad,” and surely it is not up to us to decide on someone’s eternal destination.

In this parable, Jesus says that a man sowed good seed in his field, with the goal of having a wheat harvest in a few months. But a few weeks go by and the workers notice that there is more than just wheat growing in the field. There is a weed, which is sometimes called a “tare” or “darnel.”

The darnel plant looks a lot like wheat, so much so that I’m a little surprised that the workers were able to discern between the two. Darnel puts forth a shoot like wheat, it develops a head like wheat. Most people, myself included, can only really tell the difference when it comes time to harvest the seed.

So the workers come to the owner and ask him, Hey, what’s up with this? Didn’t you sow good seed? The owner says, Of course I sowed good seed! My enemy has come in and sowed weeds in my wheat field!

I wonder about the feud that these two must have had to make him sow weeds in his neighbor’s field, but that really doesn’t seem to be the point here.

The workers offer to go and pull up the darnel, to remove the weeds from the field. But the response from the owner comes as a surprise: he says no. No, we will wait until the harvest and sort out the good wheat from the bad tares. Because in pulling the tares, we may accidentally uproot the wheat as well.

It isn’t exactly clear why they might uproot the wrong plant. It might be because they look so much alike that a worker could grab the wrong one in a hurry and pull it out of the ground by accident. It might be because their roots are intertwined. Regardless of the reason, the point is to wait. Wait, and at the harvest, someone else will sort between the two.

It is not surprising that Jesus’s disciples don’t quite understand what to do with this parable. So like the previous one, they take him aside and ask him to explain.

This is where it starts to get interesting. In verse 37 Jesus says, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man.” Jesus often called himself the Son of Man, which was a messianic title that we find in places like Daniel’s apocalyptic vision from chapter 7. We read in verse 13, “In my (that is, Daniel’s) vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.”

Jesus saw himself as that person, the one who would come on the clouds of heaven! And Daniel is such an interesting book, filled with stories of idolatry and the worship of nations and human leaders. It is also the place where we find the story of three men who would not bow down and worship a golden idol. These men, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, were condemned to die. And how were they to die? They were thrown into not just any furnace. The NIV says, “a blazing furnace.” And if you know the story, you know that God kept them safe. Daniel 3:27b says, “They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.”

I love that last part. They didn’t even smell like smoke.

In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the good seed is the members of the kingdom of God. The weeds are the people of the evil one. And where do the weeds end up? Not just a furnace. The NIV says, “a blazing furnace.”

Where in the book of Daniel, it is the good seed–Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego–that is thrown into the furnace by an evil king, Jesus flips the story around and it is the weeds—the idolatrous ones–who are punished.

My friends, I think that there are weeds out there, and I do believe that they will be punished. I don’t know what that will look like, but that’s not the point that Jesus is trying to make. The point of the parable is that we aren’t supposed to try to uproot and weed out the bad seed. We are in no position to judge.

Let’s look at a couple of reasons why this could be a problem, and I will base these reasons on what I said earlier. 1. The plants might look similar, making it more difficult to discern between the wheat and the weeds. 2. The roots of the good might be so intertwined with the bad that you end up pulling them both out.

Sometimes it is difficult to determine good and bad. Maybe it is at times easy to point out good actions or bad actions, but we really aren’t in a position to determine good and bad people. There may be people who do bad things, but are they completely evil? Do they deserve uprooting?

So often we just don’t know the entire story. Especially in this day and age, where the phrase “Fake News” seems to be entering our daily vocabulary at an alarming rate. Now keep in mind that there is satire and there is fake news. You may have heard this week that OJ Simpson was granted parole and will be released from prison in the coming months. OJ was a pretty good running back in his day, a Heisman Trophy winner, and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. You may also know that my favorite pro football team, the Cleveland Browns, have been historically terrible.

After the news of Simpson’s parole was published, one of my friends from Ohio posted an article on Facebook stating that the Browns had signed OJ Simpson to a contract and that he would be playing running back for the good guys from Cleveland.

FYI, OJ will be 70 next year.

That’s satire. That’s taking a real-life story or situation and running with it in an obviously silly way for comical purposes. You can find satire websites online like the Onion, the Babylon Bee is a Christian satire website, and there is even a Mennonite satire site called the Daily Bonnet, whose tagline is, “The Daily Bonnet, a Mennonite’s most trusted source for untrustworthy news.” One of my favorite articles from the Daily Bonnet has the title, “Lancaster Hospital Opens New Wing to Deal with Dutch Blitz Injuries.”

But then there is fake news. This term became popular last election cycle and is still thrown around quite often even today, eight months later. I should note that most fake news is found online. Unfortunately, many people get the majority of their news online, where anyone can publish anything that they want. And if you have the skills to do so, you can make a fake news website look real. During the elections, it was not uncommon to find stories with just enough truth in them to make them seem real, but they would also introduce information that isn’t exactly accurate. Numbers can be inflated or shrunk. Quotes can be taken out of context. And the public doesn’t always know that what they are reading isn’t an exact replication of what took place.

Unfortunately, we in the church participate in this act of writing and sharing fake news. Maybe we don’t do it intentionally, but we do. I’ve seen various stories posted online that seem to present half-truths about people I care about, leaders in the church. And these half-truths are shared by people across the theological spectrum, progressive and conservative. I then hear people wanting to weed the garden of the church, pluck out these bad seeds, based on half-truths and incomplete stories.

One of the reasons that Jesus says that his followers should let the wheat and the weeds grow together, side-by-side, is because we don’t have the entire story and often we have half-truths. It isn’t easy, or sometimes even possible, to tell if someone is wheat or a weed. That’s one reason why it isn’t our job to judge!

How about my other concern? What happens when you try to pull out a plant whose roots are intertwined with another plant? You get a two-for-one deal!

Wheat is an interesting plant. When you plant wheat, it grows and looks like most other plants. The first thing that you see above ground is a single shoot, a single blade of wheat, coming out of the soil. That blade will grow into a fully mature wheat plant with a head that produces seed, if the right conditions are met. But wheat can also produce multiple “tillers,” which are additional stems that grow from the same root system. What appears to be a totally different wheat plant growing a few inches away from the first stem is actually a part of the same living, growing organism.

Do you know other plant grows a tiller? The darnel plant, the tare, the weed that Jesus was describing. So as the wheat and darnel grow and develop root systems, they are growing not only vertically, but also horizontally. Each is putting up its own tillers, and they become more and more intertwined.

In the church and in the world, it is nearly impossible to know who is the good wheat and who is the weeds. Everyone seems to have a little of both. Add to that the fact that we are so intertwined that if you try to pull up what you believe to be a bad one, you’ll likely pull up a good one as well.

It isn’t our job to weed the garden. God will sort it all out in the end.

You might be asking what to do with Matthew 18:15;17? In this passage, Jesus says, “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you…If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

I skipped a step there for brevity, but notice that there isn’t the violent language of uprooting. There is nothing about a blazing furnace here! Jesus call us to treat sinners in the church as tax collectors and pagans, which isn’t to say that we cast them into the furnace. Remember how Jesus treated the pagans and tax collectors. He ate with them. He stayed in their homes. He loved them. You might even say that Jesus became intertwined with them. They may not have had it all together and been a full part of the church, but Jesus also never advocated for an all-out purge of sinners either.

Really, the only violent images that I could find coming from the lips of Jesus for our responsibility when dealing with sin is when we are dealing with sin in our own lives. Jesus says that if our hand causes us to sin, we are to cut it off. If our eye causes us to sin, pluck it out. But we are never called to cut off, pluck out, or uproot others from this world. That is not our job; God has promised to sort it all out in the end.

I want to end with a few quick questions to ask yourself when you consider uprooting another plant. 1. Will the one taint the other? Sometimes we are so concerned with other people having a bad influence on us that we forget that influences can go both ways. Just as someone can be a bad influence on us, so too can we be a good influence on others. 2. Can we have civilized conversations despite our differences? I know that it matters what the issue is. If someone comes up to you and says that strawberry ice cream is the best and you already know that chocolate is the best, you should be unyielding! No, you can probably still have a civilized and loving conversation. But we should also be able to have a civilized and loving conversation about things like politics and religion. And finally, 3. Ask yourself if we are not better off for our diversity. There are times when what we perceive to be a weed, might actually be just a wheat plant of a different variety. When someone demands a certain style of worship, whether that be music genres, robes, bells, candles, or smells, remember that just because someone has a different preference doesn’t make them a bad person.

I think that I have grown more over the last few years by being with and talking with people of different denominations. There was a time when pretty much every other denomination condemned Anabaptists as heretics, but today some of my best friendships and most meaningful conversations are with Methodists and Presbyterians. I might think that they are wrong on some things, and they surely think that I am wrong as well. But I hope that neither of us would consider each other a weed. Our diversity, though sometimes a challenge, can actually be a strength.

Like it or not, our lives are intertwined with the lives of others. And the deeper your roots run, the more intertwined they are going to be.

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Sowing Kingdom Seeds

Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23

13 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. 3 Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. 9 Whoever has ears, let them hear.”

18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

The parable of the sower has always been one of my favorites. Maybe it is my agricultural background, maybe it is my love for biology and nature. Or maybe it is just because it is so relatable. I know what it is like to try to sow a few metaphorical seeds, and I know what it is like to be unreceptive to the seeds that other people have tried to sow in my life.

I want to start today by looking at the soil and then end by looking at the sower. Because we are called to be both. We receive the message of the kingdom and we spread it. We are going to jump around this passage a bit, much like our passage itself jumps around a bit. Notice that in verse one Jesus is addressing a large crowd. This is one instance where he is speaking to so many people that he has to get into a boat and push out into the lake a bit so that everyone can hear him, forming a bit of a natural amphitheater. After he tells this parable, his disciples take Jesus aside and ask him why he talks in parables, and our text jumps over Jesus’s reasoning for teaching in parables and goes straight to the explanation of the parable of the sower.

Let’s look at the beginning over verse 19, where Jesus begins his explanation of this parable: “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom…” The word that is translated as “message” in the NIV is the Greek word “logos,” which simply means “word.” So in the parable of the sower, the seed is simply word of the kingdom. Don’t limit the seed to the story of salvation, and don’t limit the seed to ethics or theology. It is all of the above. Any word of the kingdom falls into this category of seed. So no matter if you are not a Christian, or if you have been following Jesus for 60 years, you need to be receiving seed. That is how we grow.

As we consider the types of soil and how they may reflect our receptivity to the words of the kingdom, let us not think this is just about some other person. Jesus is talking about people at all stages of their faith walks. So we should be asking, “How’s my soil? Am I receptive to words of the kingdom?” While Jesus describes a number of inhospitable soils, like the rocky or thorny soil, I don’t think that this list was meant to be exhaustive. There are many things that can keep us from producing a healthy harvest.

I’ll admit that I am not always receptive to teaching. There are some teachers that I appreciate, some authors that I frequently read, and some preachers that I listen to on a weekly basis. I’m receptive to these teachers! My soil is good, worked up, and fertilized. These are the teachers that I often quote in my sermons, the NT Wrights, the Greg Boyds, and other Neo-Anabaptist folks. But if someone doesn’t quite fit my mold of Christianity, I become skeptical.

Part of it is the way I read or the way I listen to words of the kingdom. I listen with a critical ear or read with critical eye most of the time, but this critical aspect is heightened when the words of the kingdom are coming from people from certain traditions. I’m looking, listening, for things that I disagree with. I want to catch that person saying something that I believe is wrong or something that I believe is simply too naïve or uneducated. Ohh! Joe Shmoe just admitted to believing in a Trinitarian heresy!

Don’t hear me wrong, critical thinking is a good skill to have, and we can’t just assume that everything someone tells us is correct. But when I listen to a sermon or read an article looking for things that I disagree with, my soil is unsuitable for kingdom seeds.

Last weekend we traveled to my childhood home in Ohio to spend some time with my family. Since we were going to be there on Sunday, we made the decision to attend worship at the church where I was baptized, which was also the church were Sonya’s father served in his first pastorate. I’ve not been to this church for several years, and I would say that in many ways I am at a different place theologically than many people in that church, and I’m in a different place than I was when I was an active member of that church. This is exactly the kind of scenario that lends itself to me being very critical of what is said from the pulpit.

This is the kind of thing that makes it really difficult for me to enter into a real time of worship. If I’m always looking for something to disagree with, I can’t be moved by the spirit, and I can’t be moved by the words of the preacher. I know that this is a problem for me, and I also knew what my scripture for this Sunday was going to be. So before we went to church, I made the conscious decision to listen to the sermon and find kingdom seeds that could be planted in my life and grow to produce a crop.

Again, this isn’t about agreeing with everything that I hear or read. I’m surely not asking you to agree with everything that I say! But what I’m suggesting is that we enter into conversations, into study, and into worship with an attitude of receptivity. I’m suggesting that we check our soil and ask if we are prepared to receive kingdom seeds or if we are just looking for something to disagree with. Not just in worship, but in our conversations with people who don’t think just like us and in our reading, our studies, and our daily activities, we need to be open to hearing words of the kingdom from people outside our circle. If you enter into worship or dialogue trying to find something to disagree with, you will find it. But if you enter worship or dialogue trying to find kingdom seeds, you will find that, too. We are responsible for preparing our own soil to receive words of the kingdom. We are responsible for receiving kingdom seeds.

As I spent time on my family’s farm this past week, I was reminded of all that goes into preparing the soil to receive the seed. The plowing, tilling, and fertilizing all takes place before the seed is ever introduced to the soil. Afterwards, efforts are made to keep the weeds down. Some cultivate, others spray, and some do a combination of the two. If my family is willing to put forth that kind of effort to prepare the soil for the seed and care for it once the two come together, then surely I can do a bit more to prepare my soil for words of the kingdom.

What about the sower? As I noted three years ago when I last preached on this passage, the soil isn’t the only interesting thing about this parable. In fact, look at what Jesus says in verse 18, “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means.” Jesus doesn’t call this the parable of the soil, he calls it the parable of the sower. As much as we can get from Jesus’s description of the soil, we must not miss that Jesus calls this the parable of the sower. So what can we learn from the sower?

The first thing that I notice is that this sower is really wasteful. There are four different kinds of soil named in this parable: the compacted path, the rocky soil, the thorny soil, and the good soil. The sower comes along and throws seed on all four of those soil types. If we assume that he sows an equal amount on each soil, he wasted 75% of his seed.

For most of us city folks today, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. You can go to any hardware or home improvement store and buy a small envelope of seed for less than $2.00. If you lose a bit here and there, no biggie.

I was talking to my little brother this week about their spring planting, and he was lamenting how wet their spring had been. All of the rain made everything really green and beautiful, but it also kept them out of their fields. You really shouldn’t drive a big tractor through the mud when you are planting, because you will rut the field up. So my family got their corn planted pretty late this year.

However, there were some who were able to get their corn in early before all of the rain hit. The problem is that when you get too much rain, the seed sits there and rots in the ground. My brother told me that the local farmers who got their corn in early found out that they had to replant their fields, which meant additional time and additional cost. One bag of seed corn runs about $250 and is enough to plant 2.5-3 acres. If my calculations are correct, planting 100 acres of corn is going to set someone back $10,000. To replant it would also cost you $10,000! But really, what farmer doesn’t have an extra $10,000 lying around? (PTL for crop insurance!)

My point is that sowing, planting, harvesting on a large scale can be very costly. But when you think about it from a 1st-century perspective, you realize it might be even more costly. Consider Psalm 126:5-6, “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.”

Why did the sower in Psalm 126 sow in tears? Because what we call seed could also be food. The seed you plant this year was a part of last year’s harvest. A kernel of wheat or corn can be planted with the hope that it will grow and produce a great harvest of 100, sixty, or thirty times what is sowed. But you can’t guarantee that it will.

You may get too much rain, and the seed will die in the soil. You could end up casting it on the path, among the rocks, among the thorns, and what could have been food has now been wasted.

So yes, when a modern farmer plants $10,000 worth of seed, they are risk. But when a sower in Jesus’s day spread her seed, she was taking an even greater risk, a potentially costly risk.

If I were to tell the parable of the sower, it might go something like this: “There once was a farmer who went out to sow his field, and he got about 25% of it where it should go, and the rest was completely wasted because the birds ate it, it burned up from the sun, or it got choked out by the thorns. Don’t be like that farmer.”

But notice that Jesus never condemns the farmer for sowing without restraint. He doesn’t reprimand the farmer for his poor stewardship and never says that now his family might starve. Jesus just names it as a fact: some soil is going to be better than others. We hope for the good soil, but sometimes we hit thorns and rocks along the way. Praise God for the good soil, but sow wherever you go.

Remember that sowing seeds is a reference to words of the kingdom. This may include things like evangelization, but it can also include words of forgiveness and love. A kingdom word can be about ethics, it can be about theology. Anything that points to the kingdom can be a word of the kingdom. I don’t even think that words of the kingdom need to be words! Sometimes it is just a good deed or an act of kindness. The point that Jesus is making is that we are to sow these kingdom seeds broadly, indiscriminately, and without holding back! We are not responsible for the soil condition in other people’s hearts. We are responsible for two things: casting the seed, and our own soil’s condition.

Casting kingdom seeds is not meant to be an act of determining someone’s worthiness or even the likelihood that they will receive the seed well. I think of some of the ministries that we are involved with here at Staunton Mennonite. We recently purchased and installed carpet for the after school tutoring program at the Valley Mission. Every so often we gather other goods for the Mission as well. We have collected food for Thanksgiving boxes for the needy. We have had toilet paper drives, and served meals. We have supported the work of the Mission financially. We do this because these are little seeds of the kingdom. We are called to care for the poor, the needy, and the homeless.

Do you know how many people have come out of poverty because of the efforts of Staunton Mennonite or how many have seen our dedication to service and decided to follow Christ? No, you don’t know, I don’t know, and we may never know. That’s not our job. Our job is to sow the seed.

Last week Marvin delivered a message about the work of the Gideons, distributing New Testaments around the world and in our own neighborhood. Our church sent a check to the Gideons for $427 this week, which will buy almost three and 1/3 cases of New Testaments. These Testaments will be handed out across college campuses, in parks, and in nations I’ve never heard of.

I remember when I was in college and the Gideons were on campus handing out New Testaments. You can imagine that this wasn’t always met with appreciation on a secular college campus. I saw a lot of New Testaments dropped in the next trash can. I even remember seeing one in a drinking fountain, “baptized” by an unappreciative student. Do we know how many Testaments will end up on the trash and how many will actually be read? Nope. And that’s not our job. Our job is to sow the seed.

Every Sunday during the school year we have Sunday School, and all year long we gather our little children at the front of the church for Children’s Time. I don’t teach Sunday School very often, but I know that the kids aren’t retaining everything I say during our Children’s Time. Hit your thumb with a hammer and say a bad word, and your kid will remember it forever. Sit them down and teach them about Jesus, and it can go either way! If I can get them to sit still for just a few minutes, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I can’t say for sure what is soaking in and what will be forgotten before the get back to their seats. But that’s not my job. My job is to sow the seed. The Sunday School teacher’s job is to sow the seed.

We can’t work up someone else’s soil, and often, we can’t tell whose soil is prepared. Because unlike the compacted, thorny, and rocky soils of this parable, we aren’t in any position to know whether or not someone is receptive to kingdom seeds. You can’t determine soil condition with your eyes! But that’s not our job. Our job is two-fold: we are to prepare our soil to receive words of the kingdom, and we are to sow kingdom seeds without reservation.

God has poured out love and grace upon us, even though we are not worthy. Likewise, we sow kingdom seeds regardless of how prepared we believe someone else’s soil to be. Someone ones sowed seeds in our lives, and we are called to pass on the favor.

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From Herem to Hesed

Joshua 6:15-21New International Version (NIV)

15 On the seventh day, they got up at daybreak and marched around the city seven times in the same manner, except that on that day they circled the city seven times. 16 The seventh time around, when the priests sounded the trumpet blast, Joshua commanded the army, “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city! 17 The city and all that is in it are to be devoted[a] to the Lord. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall be spared, because she hid the spies we sent. 18 But keep away from the devoted things, so that you will not bring about your own destruction by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction and bring trouble on it. 19 All the silver and gold and the articles of bronze and iron are sacred to the Lord and must go into his treasury.”

20 When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. 21 They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.

My friends, we have arrived. We have arrived at the conclusion of our four-part sermon series on how God is revealed to us. I’ve been using the metaphor of God’s revelation as a journey. First we find God in creation. The mountains, the sun, moon and stars all point us toward the Creator. Creation, I’ve said, is like a compass, which doesn’t tell us everything about our journey, but it points us in the right direction. We also need a map. Maps are made by people who come before us, people who have experienced the lay of the land. They know that there is a canyon over here, and a river over there, and the mapmakers pass that information on to us. Likewise, our Bibles are the accounts of those who have experienced God first hand. Our Bibles are a collection of divine encounters passed on to us for our spiritual, social, and physical journey.

Of course, our journey would not be complete without a destination, and our destination is Jesus. Our map, the Bible, brings us right to the destination, Jesus. And it is the Bible that tells us repeatedly that Jesus is the fullest and clearest revelation of who God is. In the past, God spoke through the prophets. In the New Testament, God spoke through his Son. If you want to see what God is like, look at Jesus.

And while we are at it, let’s look at a few more guiding principles that we find in scripture. Malachi 3:6a says, “I the LORD do not change.” If God does not change, it should not surprise us that we find this in Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.”

So we can say from these verses that if we look at Jesus, we see the clearest representation of who God is. And that isn’t just how God is today, that is how God was back in the New Testament days, back in the Old Testament days, and that is how God always will be.

Most days I find this helpful. Most days, but not all days. There are days when I read scripture like our text for this morning from Joshua 6–which is an instance of herem warfare, total destruction–and I must admit that I am confused. Jesus clearly teaches us to love our enemies. He tells stories about “Good Samaritans.” He even goes so far as to allow himself to be beaten, stripped naked, and crucified. He could have stopped that. Jesus said that he could call down legions of angels to fight for him, but he let the Romans humiliate and kill him.

And then he forgave them for killing him.

Today we are addressing the question of how to look at the violent depictions of God in the Old Testament because sometimes the God of the Old Testament just doesn’t look like Jesus. Now to be fair, the violent images of God in the OT are not the only images of God that we find in the first testament. The OT commonly speaks of God’s hesed, God’s steadfast love. Exodus 34:6b-7a is just one of many places where we read things like this profession of faith from the mouth of Moses, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” God is abounding in hesed, abounding in steadfast, unwavering love.

We must also keep in mind that God is often depicted as working toward some kind of peaceful vision, some type of peaceable kingdom. We read that the God of the Old Testament will one day lead the lion to lie down with the lamb. One day the God of the Old Testament will command his people to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. So don’t ever allow someone to set up this false dichotomy between the loving God we find in Jesus and the violent God of the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament is still the God who is love. The God of the Old Testament is still the God who called out for forgiveness for those who crucified him.

But there are some passages that just don’t seem to fit, and I want to look at how we might approach those texts. For those of you who are expecting me to give the definitive answer on these passages today, I want to warn you that you will be disappointed. Nothing that I’m about to say has “fixed” these problem texts for me, but some approaches have been helpful. I’m going to be drawing a lot from two books, Philip Jenkins’s Laying Down the Sword, and Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God. FYI, Boyd’s popular version of this book will come out in August of 2017, which is about 1200 pages shorter than the original tome.

Boyd lays out three approaches to dealing with violent images of God in the Old Testament which we will look at briefly. He calls these approaches “Dismissal, Synthesis, and Reinterpretation.”

Dismissal is a strong word, and it can have a spectrum of meaning. For instance, around the year 144 AD a Christian theologian named Marcion was excommunicated from the church and labeled a heretic. Marcion presented a version of the Bible that only included eleven books, the Gospel of Luke and the writings of Paul. Marcion threw out the Old Testament and much of the New because it did not line up with his understanding of the God revealed in Jesus. Marcion was the ultimate dismissalist, which would make it a lot easier to read the Bible all the way through in a year.

If someone calls you a Marcionite, don’t take it as a compliment.

But you don’t have to be an outright Marcionite to be in the category of a dimissalist. Sometimes, when presented with these problem texts about herem warfare, you will hear someone say something along the lines of “God’s ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts. God is beyond our comprehension.” That is true, and it is biblical. Yet this too is dismissing the text and does not really engage the scripture.

I would put Philip Jenkins in the category of dismissal too, even though he is a Christian scholar who works at a conservative Christian college. Jenkins, and others like him, don’t throw out the entire Old Testament, but they would question whether events like the herem warfare found in Joshua and Deuteronomy ever really happened. The truth is that archeology has not to this date found evidence that these wars occurred. So dismissalists often say that it is more likely that there was a small battle, but that years later, when these books were written down, the people injected their own ideas about God ordering complete annihilation of the people and animals. The idea is that God didn’t really command this, but the ancient people, who lacked our modern understanding justice and righteousness, wrote these things about God. These passages about herem warfare reflect the ideology and interpretation of God common among the people during the exile period.

The dismissal approach is really tempting, mostly because it is the easiest. It is really easy to just say that these things didn’t really happen, that God didn’t really command the annihilation of entire people groups. But if we take a high view of scripture, we can’t just dismiss the text. And just because archeology hasn’t proven that these events took place as they are listed, archeology also hasn’t proven that these events haven’t taken place.

Along the spectrum of dismissalists you will find people who try to spiritualize this event and others who will say this was meant to be read allegorically. This is a common approach where people preach on the walls of Jericho falling down in our lives. God brings down the walls of addiction, the walls of seduction, the walls of sin. Really, these people are trying to avoid the difficult teaching in these passages without neglecting the passage altogether.

I’m not comfortable with the dismissalist approach, regardless of where it might fall along the spectrum, so let’s see what other options are out there.

The Synthesis approach is simply an attempt to make a smooth transition from one testament to the next. The approach that I find the most helpful under the synthesis rubric is sometimes called “Divine Accommodation.” As I mentioned earlier, God’s goal has always been peace. But also remember that God never forces human beings toward anything, but is drawing us closer and closer to his will. However, often we are not ready. So God accommodates, God meets us where we are.

In Genesis 4 we find a brief story about Lamech. God has just made a promise to Cain that if anyone harms Cain, they will experience vengeance seven times over. Then Lamech starts boasting in verses 23-24, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.”

Don’t mess with Lamech, or you will pay for it seventy-seven times!

If we turn to the next book of the Bible, we find this in Exodus 21:23-25, “But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

Rather than allowing a punishment of seventy-seven times the offense, now the Torah is specifying that there is equal punishment for a crime.

Fast forward to the New Testament, and we find Jesus say this in Matthew 5:38-40, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”

And let’s look quick at Matthew 18:22. Peter has just asked Jesus how many times he needs to forgive someone who offends him. Peter even has a suggestion, maybe up to seven times? “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’”

I find it very interesting that Jesus uses the exact number that Lamech had used way back in Genesis 4.

Divine accommodation says that God meets us where we are; these verses reveal a progressive ethic. Lamech wants revenge seventy-seven times; God wants forgiveness. But instead, knowing that the people weren’t ready for that, God offers the teaching of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Then, when Jesus, the fullest revelation of God comes along, Jesus reveals God ultimate goal. Don’t take an eye for an eye. Don’t exact revenge seventy-seven times. Forgive people.

So if God always wanted to move in the direction of peaceful resolution and forgiveness, why didn’t God just give the people the teaching that Jesus offered thousands of years earlier? When God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, God uses a phrase to describe the Israelites. Exodus 32:9, “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people.” Repeatedly, the Old Testament refers to the Israelites as stiff-necked people. They need a masseuse or a chiropractor!

This was a reference to the oxen who were used to plow the fields. The oxen had strong necks upon which a yolk was placed. Oxen are strong, but boy are they stubborn! So God calls the Israelites stiff-necked, and elsewhere we read about the hardness of heart that the Israelites suffered from. So if a chiropractor isn’t the solution, maybe they need a cardiologist.

On issues like monogamy, violence, lust, and anger we see God bending a bit to meet people where they are so that he can bring them closer to him. To quote Boyd, “God meets people where they are, not where he wishes they were” (399).

I think that is all well and good, but it doesn’t help with why God commanded the Israelites to kill the Canaanites. There is a difference between allowing violence and commanding it! Let’s look now at what Boyd calls the “Reinterpretation” approach.

Boyd’s central thesis is that all scripture must be interpreted through the cross of Jesus. All scripture, even the ones dealing with herem warfare. On the cross we see the length to which God is willing to go in order to save us. The cross was never God’s plan, it was his solution. So again, we see God bending a bit. And when God bends, God takes our sin upon himself.

Now look at some of these violent texts. In Exodus 23:23 God says, “My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.” That sounds pretty violent, but we are probably reading that with our modern understanding of what it means to wipe out a people group. When I think of wiping out someone, I think of total destruction. But this could mean to wipe them away, out of the city.

Look at the details we are given just a few verses later in 28-30, “I will send the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites and Hittites out of your way. But I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you.”

God’s plan for the acquisition of the Promised Land was not for the Israelites to enter into herem warfare. The plan was for God to slowly remove the other people from the land by literally bugging them until they left! And if we look at Leviticus 18:28, we get an even clearer picture of what was to happen: “And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you.” The land itself will cause the people to leave. It will vomit them out.

But again, these are a stiff-necked people. Boyd quotes John Howard Yoder in saying, “Each [of these passages] helps confirm that if the Israelites had been able to place their trust in Yahweh, the Canaanites ‘would have withdrawn without violence.’”

God said, “I’ll send my hornet.” The people heard, “I’ll give you victory!” God said, “The land will vomit them out.” The people heard, “You will overtake them!” God acquiesced. God met the people where they were.

How does this point us to the cross? Well if killing the people was not God’s original plan, then it misses God’s perfect mark. We would call that sin. In this scenario, who takes the blame for the sin of killing the people? God does. The blame falls upon the shoulders of God. God literally bears the sin of the people, God accommodates the stiff-necked people. God meets them where they are to bring them to where he wants them to be.

Does the idea of God bearing the sins of people by allowing them and even commanding them to use violence solve the problem of violence in the Old Testament? Maybe not, but it does seem consistent with who God is. God accommodates and takes our sins upon himself.

One thing that we must keep in mind is that no matter how we read these problem texts from the Old Testament, it does not change how we are called to live today. The scriptures that Jesus had were our Old Testament, but he still called his followers to forgive, love, and live in peace. So no matter what was done, the question must turn to what we should do today.

I heard a debate this past week on Christian radio about whether or not it is okay for a Christian to carry a concealed handgun. The debate was between a Mennonite pacifist and the editor of Christian Concealed Magazine. I heard a lot of the same old arguments from both sides, but one statement from the gentleman arguing in favor of carrying handguns said something along the lines of, “Do you really believe that God asks different things of his followers in the Old Testament than in the New Testament?”

His debate partner was a little nicer than I might be, because I responded out loud (though I knew he couldn’t hear me), “Yes, you don’t?”

Let me think about that as I offer my sacrifice on the altar and prepare my lunch, making sure not to cook a kid in its mother’s milk. Maybe we can talk about it some more over lobster or a pork chop. We might have to take a break from our conversation, though, because at noon there will be a public stoning at the city gate of a woman who was caught in adultery. There is a section of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says repeatedly, “You have heard it said…but I say unto you.” Most of those antitheses are quotations from the Old Testament that Jesus changes, tweaks, or adjusts, often making the teaching more intense.

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. No, God does not change. God will always be the God who take our sin upon himself. But it is very clear that what God expects of us and what God calls us to changes. God calls us from herem to hesed.

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God in Jesus

Colossians 1:15-23New International Version (NIV)

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

A Sunday school teacher was attempting to engage her students in a conversation about animals, so she decided to describe something that she assumed every child would be able to recognize with just a few words. She said, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.”  The children were excited to show her what they knew and leaned forward eagerly. “I’m thinking of something that lives in trees and eats nuts …” No hands went up. “It can be gray or brown and it has a long bushy tail …” The children looked around the room at each other, but still no one raised a hand. “It chatters and sometimes it flips its tail when it’s excited …”   Finally one little boy shyly raised his hand. The teacher breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Okay, Michael. What do you think it is?”  “Well,” said the boy, “it sure sounds like a squirrel, but I guess the answer’s supposed to be Jesus.” (via Grace Rules Weblog)

The answer is always Jesus. I remember driving under a bridge once and someone had sprayed graffiti on the overpass, writing out, “Jesus is always the answer.” I turned to my wife and asked, “What was the question?” She replied, “Jesus.” I stared at her with a puzzled look and she said, “If Jesus is always the answer, then the answer to the question ‘What was the question?’ must still be Jesus.”

Touché.

If it seems like we talk about Jesus a lot around here, well then I guess we are doing something right, and I make no apologies for spending a few sermons focusing exclusively on Jesus and how he relates to God the Father.

For the last few weeks we have been looking at how God is made known to us. Two weeks ago we looked how God is revealed through creation. It is an imperfect and incomplete revelation, but creation points us toward God like a compass can point us toward our destination. But we also need a map. A map is a description of the lay of the land and it is made by those who have been there and experienced things first hand. Our map is the Bible.

Today we move to the destination. And what do you think the destination is? It’s Jesus, obviously, because Jesus is always the answer!

Let’s start by looking at our passage for this morning. Paul is believed by some to have written this letter from prison to the church in Colossae. It seems as if he has received word that the Colossians have started following Jesus…but they just kind of added him to their pantheon of gods. In chapter 2 Paul criticizes the worship of angels, visions, dwellings, and what he calls “the elemental spirits of the universe” (v. 20). I think that means that they were worshipping the god of the soil, the god of the air, the god of the water, and so on.

Paul offers a counterpoint in verses 15-16, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.”

This sounds a lot like what we read in John’s prologue. Jesus himself wasn’t created, in fact, he was a part of the creation process. Through him all things were created, so don’t give credit to some elemental spirits for what Jesus has created! Jesus has made the things that are visible, like the earth, and things that are invisible, like the wind.

Let’s jump down to verse 19, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.” So Jesus is the image of the invisible God and God’s fullness dwells in Jesus. This isn’t the only place that we get this idea that Jesus is the full revelation of who God is. Let’s look at a few more as well: (Have congregation members read the list of scriptures at the end of this text.)

What does it mean that Jesus is the exact replica of God, the image of the invisible, the exact radiance, and the word of God made flesh? It means that what we see in Jesus is exactly what God is like. The prophets only had a small glimpse of who God was, but now in Jesus we see God fully. Jesus isn’t just kind of like God. Jesus isn’t similar to God. Jesus is the fullest representation of who God is.

Many of us learned how to do long division at some point in school, or at least we were supposed to learn how to do long division. Long division is challenging, especially for those of us who live in a cellphone world. Who really needs to know how to do that today, come on now!

Let’s look at a couple of simple problems just to refresh our memory. If I give you a math problem like 50 divided by 2, that’s easy, the answer is 25. Two goes into 50 twenty-five times. Now what if we made that first number odd? What is 53 divided by 2? 2 goes evenly into 52 twenty six-times, and into 54 twenty-seven times. But when you divide 53 by 2, you get 26 and a little bit left over. We sometimes write this little bit as .5 or ½. Or, the way I was taught to do this in school was to way that 53 divided by 2 is 26, remainder 1. You can fit 26 twos into 53, but there is still 1 unit that is left and does not fit.

This concept is practical when we try to transfer an object from one container to another. Imagine I have a quart jar filled with water, and I wanted to put that water into a pint jar. If I dump out enough water to fill the pint jar, there is still another 16 ounces of water in the quart jar. There are 16 ounces remaining.

You’ve got the big one, and you’ve got the little one. All that is in the big one does not fit into the little one, you have a remainder.

In verse 19 of our scripture for today we read this, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.” If we turn to the next chapter, Paul repeats himself to make sure you get the point. In Colossians 2:9 he writes, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” It isn’t like God is a quart jar that we are trying to dump into a pint-sized Jesus. The fullness of God dwelled in Jesus. Jesus is God, with no remainder.

We didn’t just dump the good stuff out of the quart jar of God into the pint jar of Jesus. We didn’t transfer the love, the grace, and the mercy of God into Jesus, and leave the angry, vengeful God in the remaining portion of the big jar. Jesus is the fullness of God! If you have seen Jesus, you have seen the Father.

This is important because the way we tell the story matters. I’m going to share with you one of the popular approaches that people use to describe the Gospel, and I hope to show you why it comes up short.

Human beings are sinners. We have been given the Word of God, passed on from generation to generation, from family to family, yet we choose to rebel and go our own way. This sin keeps us away from God and the plan that He has for our lives. The sin keeps us from entering into God’s presence here on earth and will keep us from spending eternity with God in heaven.

Why are we excluded from heaven? Because God hates sin. Because God is a perfect, we as imperfect sinners cannot be in God’s presence in heaven. God commands us to follow him, so when we sin God gets angry at us. God is filled with wrath against us sinners, or as has been said, we are sinners in the hands of an angry God. Our perfect God is angry at sin and cannot be in the presence of sin. And someone must pay for that sin.

Our condemnation to eternal separation from God in hell is our payment for sin. That’s the bad news.

But fear not, there is good news, it is the Good News! Though there is an angry God who is determined to make us pay for our sins, we have a substitute, a stand in, if you will. Jesus Christ, the sinless son of God, stands in our place. Jesus was crucified, beaten, stripped naked, and shamed on the cross in our place. In doing so, Jesus took the wrath of the Father upon himself, and those who call upon his name will be saved.

That is how we often hear the Gospel described, and there are things about that approach that I commend. I believe that sin is real and that it separates us from God. I believe in punishment for our iniquities and I believe that we all need the grace of the savior. But my concern is the image of God that we just created in that example. And maybe not everyone would put it the way that I just did, but that is often how I hear the Gospel described. The angry God must pour out His wrath upon someone, anyone, and Jesus offers to stand in our place. Angry God; loving, merciful Jesus. I think we can do better.

If Jesus is the clearest representation of God that we have, if Jesus truly is God with no remainder, then we cannot pit an angry God against a loving Jesus. God does not have a split personality, nor is this some good cop/bad cop scenario you might find in a Lethal Weapon movie. What you see in Jesus is what you get with God! There is never a time when God stopped being loving. There is never a time when God stopped being just. There is never a time when God stopped being righteous.

When we pit an angry God against a loving Jesus, we are denying the traditional Trinitarian view of God that says that the Father and Son are one. So essentially, when we try to explain the problem of sin, we create other problems. We create other problems that I would argue are worse than the ones we were trying to solve in the first place!

This misunderstanding of God makes God out to be a worse person than me, and that’s a problem! Imagine I was a mean, revengeful kind of person. Now imagine I’m walking down the street late at night and someone jumps me and steals my wallet. You bet that the mean and revengeful version of me wants someone to pay! I want my money back. So I demand that my money gets paid back, and I demand it from the next person I meet on the street. I can’t be consoled until I get my money. I don’t care who pays me back the $20 I just lost, but someone must pay. I’ll take it from you if I have to, as long as I get my money back.

Pitting an angry God against a loving Jesus makes just as much sense, probably even less, because we expect that God is going to be at least as just as we are.

Now don’t get me wrong. I believe in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. But rather than fabricating some unbiblical account of an angry God who just needs to pour out his wrath on someone, on anyone, even his own son, what if we approach the problem of sin from a biblical and Trinitarian perspective that says that Jesus is the fullness of God with no remainder?

It sounds a lot different, and I would say a lot better, to say that rather than an angry God off in heaven demanding payment for our sin who is willing to punish anyone as long as someone is punished to flip this and remind each other that Jesus is the fullness of God. Rather than punishing someone, anyone for our offenses, what if we considered that Jesus, as a part of our triune God, was willing put aside his life in heaven and voluntarily come to this earth to redeem us from our sins? God didn’t pour out his wrath on his son because he just needed someone to pay for the sins of humanity. No, God, in the form of Jesus, voluntarily entered this world to take away our sins.

Each week we have been addressing the concerns that are present in our method for seeing God. Today I wanted to just show you a blank slide and say that there are no problems with finding God in Jesus because Jesus is the fullness of God. If you want to see what God is like, look at Jesus. Boom.

Unfortunately, there are concerns with approach. For instance, the image that I presented a few minutes ago about how we often divide God up into an angry God and a loving Jesus seems to come from the Bible. There are times when the God we find in the Bible does not look like the God revealed in Jesus. There are times when the God of the Old Testament tells the Israelites to wipe out entire nations, killing every man, woman, child, and even the animals. This is what is known as “herem warfare” in the Hebrew Bible. Total destruction. In Deuteronomy 7 and Joshua 6 we find instances where God says to wipe out entire nations, leaving no living person or creature. That sounds like an angry God, maybe even one who demands blood for forgiveness, regardless of whose blood it is! So how do we see that God in a man who said to love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you, and do good unto those who would do you harm? Even though the New Testament tells us again and again that Jesus is the fullness of God with no remainder, the Jesus I read about doesn’t always look like the image of God we are given in the Hebrew Bible.

That one is so big that we will save an entire sermon for it and come back to that one concern next Sunday as we conclude what has now become a four-part sermon series. Four parts are always better and seem to make things a little more harmonious anyway!

God is revealed in many different ways. We find God in creation, just as a compass points us in the right direction. We find God through our map, the Bible, which draw from the experiences of those who have come before us. And we most clearly find God in Jesus, who is our destination, our goal. Next week we will try to understand who to deal with the differences we find between the God revealed in the Old Testament in the God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.

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John 1:1; 14, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Hebrews 1:1-3a, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.”

John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.”

 

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God of the Bible

Psalm 1

1 Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, 2 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. 3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers.

4 Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. 5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. 6 For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

How do we know anything about God? Throughout history people have made many claims about God, and usually that god looks a lot like us. Maybe a little bigger, maybe just a little more powerful, but a lot like whoever is doing the theology. Our god usually likes the same things that we like, and dislikes the same people that we dislike. Or, as has been said many times, God created human beings in his image, and ever since, we have been returning the favor.

Last week we looked at how God is revealed through nature. We looked at the really big things, the sun, stars, mountains and lakes. We looked at the really little things, the cells, the babies, and the ameba. We looked at the way things function, from the size of the earth, to the balance of nature, and I said that all of this points to a creator. I gave this practice of finding God in creation a name, we call it “Natural Theology.” When God is revealed through creation, we call this natural revelation.

But there are limitations to Natural Theology. It is incomplete and it is easily misinterpreted. Thankfully, there are other ways that we can understand God. There is natural revelation, and then there is “Special Revelation.” When Moses found a burning bush and did what anyone would do with a burning bush, talk to it, he found God speaking to him through that bush. The God speaking through the burning bush revealed himself to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God revealed that he is Yahweh.

But we don’t all have burning bush moments. Maybe you have had some kind of experience where God seemed very real and present to you. Maybe not. For many people, our Special Revelation of God comes in the form of other people’s experiences with God. God is revealed in the stories of the faith community, particularly the stories that have been collected and canonized. We call these stories “scripture.” Today we look at how God is revealed through the scriptures.

Our Psalm for this morning sounds like the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount as each begin with blessings. Verses 1-2 in the NIV say, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.”

The word in verse 1 that is translated as “blessed” is the Hebrew word “asher,” which simply means happy. What follows are instructions on how to be happy! Make good choices! Don’t walk in step with the wicked. Don’t keep company with mockers. Negative people will bring you down! So who should you spend time walking and keeping company with? Those who delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on his law day and night.

It isn’t exactly clear here whether those who wish to be happy are supposed to be walking with those who meditate on the law day and night, or is the practice of meditating on the scriptures day and night make you happy? I think you could make a good argument for both, but yet either way, this doesn’t really fit my reality.

I know some Bible-thumping Christians who are really not fun to hang out with, and I know some people who read their Bible a lot who don’t seem to be very happy. Just turn on your television, radio, or Facebook feed and you will find angry Christian men and women, yelling at you as they quote scripture. At times if you listen to their voices and not what they are saying, you might confuse these people with professional wrestlers. This is probably why they chose to translate ‘asher’ as blessed and not happy.

But I’ve also known plenty of people who seem genuinely happy because they study the scriptures. I know Bible scholars whose job it is to study the scriptures and they just seem to gush over their favorite texts. I’ve seen pastors moved to tears while readings stories of love and redemption. I know people who dig into their Bibles every day, and have done so for years, because they are excited about what they can learn, even as they read the same text over and over again, year after year.

So why does the same text make some people into bitter and angry people, and why do others find joy and happiness in the text? I think it all comes down to how we read it.

I don’t love that the NIV refers to the scriptures in Psalm 1 as God’s law. Laws are necessary and we need people who can read, interpret, and writes laws. But what the Hebrew actually says is that people are blessed, no they are happy, when they read God’s Torah. And yes, there is law in the Torah, which is the first five chapters of the Bible. But it is much more. Some of the greatest stories of the Bible are found in the Torah. We find the creation narrative, the calling of Abraham, and the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors in Genesis. We find the story of the Exodus and God leading his people out of slavery in Egypt in the book of Exodus (it is appropriately named, after all). So many great stories about God creating and delivering his people can be found in the Torah. It isn’t just law. The Torah is the beginning of the story of God’s redemption of humanity.

Because most of us don’t have a burning bush experience where God speaks to us directly, we rely on these stories to reveal to us who God is. And we can use words like “righteous,” “just,” “loving,” and “holy” to describe God, but those words only have meaning because we have these stories of what it looks like for God to be righteous, just, loving, and holy. We know who God is because of what God has done.

Who is our God? Our God is a god who creates human beings, not because he needed to, but because God is love. God is a god who creates out of love in order to love. God is a god who calls us his people, and delivers his people out of captivity. And God is a god who uses evil for good.

Come on now, how can you not think about those stories and be happy?!

Do you know who isn’t happy? The wicked. They are like chaff that will blow away. So read your Bible, or else you will cease to exist! Okay, let us remember that this is a Psalm, it was originally written as lyrics that could be set to music and sang. We are essentially looking at a poem here, so we need to look for the main point and not make too many assumptions. I would say that this is a little too binary, as in if you don’t mediate on the scriptures day and night you will be wicked and perish like the chaff in the wind. What if you only meditate on the scripture during the daylight hours? What then?

No, the point of this Psalm is to say that true happiness, true blessedness, can be found when we study the scriptures. And that’s not to say that true happiness and blessedness are found in the text or the way that the words are arranged. No, true happiness and blessedness are found in the God who is revealed to us through the scriptures. It is my argument that those who are truly moved by the scriptures aren’t moved by the laws (awe, don’t cook a kid in its mother’s milk…how touching?), the commandments, or the begats. They are moved by the God who is revealed in the Scriptures. The stories are good, but the one who is revealed through the stories is better.

I heard a story this week about a young woman who recently graduated from high school. Like many graduates, this woman received a gift from her parents. After she received her diploma and celebrated with friends and family, her father handed her a package. Wrapped in paper she found a children’s book, which is actually a popular gift for graduates. He father gave her the book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss.

When the graduate opened the present, she told her father, “Thanks, that’s always been one of my favorites.” And it is cute and encouraging. But it was more than just a cute and encouraging book. The father asked her to open the book and there on page one, the graduate found a personal note from her kindergarten teacher saying what she enjoyed about having her in class and encouraging her in her studies. The note was signed and dated with the year that the graduate had finished kindergarten. Obviously, her father had been working on this gift for a while; thirteen years, to be exact. Then, on the next page, she found a note from her first grade teacher, signed and dated when she finished first grade. And so it went, right through her high school career, and her senior-year homeroom teacher. Page after page this graduate found encouraging words and affirmations from the people who had invested their time in her academic career over the last thirteen years of her life.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! is a good book, maybe even a great book, written by a great author. But what really made that copy special wasn’t the rhyming words or the catchy rhythm. What made that books special was that it revealed to this young woman that she was loved and appreciated by her teachers. And even more so, I would say that it revealed that she was loved and appreciated by her father who had done all of this for her, each year seeking out these teachers to ask one more favor of them. In my mind, the greatest thing about this story is that through his actions, the character and the love of the father are revealed.

What makes our Bibles special and worthy of our mediation? And how does meditating on scripture make us happy? Yes, it is at times beautifully written and poetic, and yes, I believe that the writers were inspired by God. But it is special because it reveals a God who loves us and appreciates us, even more so than the father in the other story. The Bible is a story of God’s actions, and God’s actions reveal who God is.

In this sermon series we are also going to look at some of the challenges that each form of revelation of God has. To understand the challenge that we face when doing theology just from the Bible we need to look as some history.

Through much of what we call “Modernity” the Bible has taken a back seat in religious discussions. This is in part because Christians during this period were looking for verifiable facts about God. Think of the scientific method. You make a hypothesis, you test the hypothesis, and you assess the outcome. It is only through observation that you can “prove” something to be true. And since we can’t prove a lot of things that we find in the Bible to be true, many people set it aside as a second or third option for doing theology. Miracles? Can’t prove them, so some will say that they probably didn’t happen. What about the resurrection and deity of Jesus? Well, Jesus said some good things and seemed to be a good person, but we can’t prove that he was the son of God or that he rose from the grave, so modernity would say “let’s not start there.” One of the best examples we have is that of Thomas Jefferson, who famously cut up his Bible, removing references to miracles and anything else that didn’t fit his modern way of thinking. Jefferson and others like him believed in God, but not necessarily the God of the Bible.

For a couple hundred years, people moved away from the unverifiable teachings of the Bible, but what was left? Nature and reason. The 18th and 19th centuries saw a surge in Natural Theology and Reason. I’ve spoken before of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. One of Barth’s major influences on theology was his rejection of Natural Theology and Reason when doing theology. For Barth, theology must focus on the revelation of God found in Scriptures.

One of Barth’s contemporary theologians, Emil Brunner, wrote an essay in 1934 called “Nature and Grace” where he presented a soft version of Natural Theology. Brunner didn’t outright endorse Natural Theology, but he found some value in it. Barth responded with an essay of his own, which was simply titled “Nein!” And of course, it sounds even angrier in German than English.

Barth provided a necessary swing to the proverbial pendulum. When theologians were focusing exclusively on Natural Theology and Reason and neglecting the Bible, Barth said “Nein!” Barth’s voice was needed, and continues to be influential to this day. Remember that when Barth was writing his critiques of Natural Theology he was also witnessing the rise of the Nazi party in neighboring Germany. The Nazis used the concept of “survival of the fittest” and “Social Darwinism,” each theories derived from observing nature, to justify the Holocaust. Barth, who was the main author of the Barmen Declaration, was eventually kicked out of Germany, and forced to leave his teaching position because he refused to sign an oath of allegiance to Hitler.

But as is often the case, his reaction was probably an overreaction. This is almost humorous because the Bible itself says things like, “Come, let us reason together,” in Isaiah 1:18, and as we read in Psalm 19:1, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”

Reason and Natural Theology are not bad; please don’t be unreasonable! And toward the end of his life, Karl Barth softened a bit on Natural Theology and offered a bit of Natural Theology himself.

I used the metaphor of a compass and a map last week. I believe that Natural Theology, finding God in creation and other observable things is like a compass. A compass will point us in the right direction, but it won’t give us all of the necessary details. A compass will point you toward your destination, but I may walk right into a canyon on the way! No, we need the compass to find our direction, and the map to lead us. Next week we will look at our destination, for it is in Jesus Christ that we find the clearest revelation of who God is.

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