Archive for April 2018

The Bible and Hot-Button Issues

April 17, 2018

Spirit FireIn today’s gospel John the Baptist says, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).

The first thing I’d like to say is about Scripture. John was a prophet. Jesus even said that to this point there was no greater prophet than John. He was a New Testament prophet. He was a prophet whose mission it was to get people ready for Jesus.

And yet, even John’s prophetic words were incomplete. John seems to assume that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit instead of water. John also assumed that when the Messiah came, there wouldn’t be any more chances to repent: the Messiah would gather his wheat (righteous people) into his barn (kingdom) and burn the chaff (everyone else) with fire (hell). The baptism of the Holy Spirit would be for the good guys and the fire of judgment for the bad guys.

Of course, what actually happened looked very different. Jesus and his disciples also baptized with water. Jesus hung out with sinners and even invited them to become his students. He said he didn’t come to judge but to save.

Instead of burning sinners he died for them.

So even though John was given the assignment of preparing people for Jesus, there was very little about Jesus as Messiah that he understood. (In fact, later he would ask Jesus, “Are you the one, or should we be looking for someone else?”)

So no biblical passage or prophet gives the whole or final word about…anything – whether it’s about Jesus, or the cross, or baptism, or the “baptism of the Spirit,” or the Lord’s Supper, or slavery, or the sabbath, or food laws, or predestination, or circumcision (the hot button in the New Testament church) or military service (the hot-button issue in the post-New Testament church, along with whether people who had folded under persecution could repent and be reinstated), or divorce (the hot button issue 50 years ago) or same-sex marriage (the hot button issue that’s dividing congregations and denominations today).

Being baptized with the Holy Spirit doesn’t guarantee our always getting it right either. John was filled with the Holy Spirit back when he was in the womb. It was Holy Spirit baptized Christians who disagreed about food laws, circumcision, Sabbath-keeping and burping in public (just making sure you’re still paying attention).

And maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s God’s way of saying that none of these are supposed to be deal breakers.

So this is what I’m wondering. I’m wondering if the fire John says is going to accompany the Holy Spirit is ultimately meant to get rid of the chaff inside each of us, the chaff that often surfaces when I’m talking about whatever issue is making me feel “hot” inside. I wonder if many of the things I think and feel when talking about same-sex marriage or abortion or politics is actually the stuff that has to be burned with fire.

Maybe the reason I’ve been baptized with the “Holy” Spirit isn’t so that I’ll always be right, but so I’ll gradually become more holy, which includes becoming more humble and loving.

Knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God” (1 Corinthians 8:1-2).

Talking about This Stuff in Community

April 13, 2018

DiscussingI had an amazing time learning from Jesus during my Scripture reading this morning. The day ahead is full, and there would be too much to recount in a blog post anyway. But I want to say something this morning that I’m finding is really, really important for engaging with Christ in Scripture.

You see, part of what made the Scriptures so amazing for me this morning was a conversation I had with Sharon last night. We talked about some really meaty subjects related to faith and evangelism and community. And then we prayed about those things together. And it was because of that conversation and that time of prayer that the Scriptures virtually exploded with meaning for me this morning (and, I sense, for Sharon as well).

Not all of us have someone in our household that we can talk with about what we’re wondering about and learning as a follower of Jesus. But I think it’s so important to be interacting about our faith with some person or group. That sort of honesty and vulnerability can feel risky. But I don’t think any true community happens without it. And our reading of Scripture is likely to be impoverished as well.

Just as the Trinity is three persons in community, fundamental to our life in Christ is each of us being a person, yes a real person, in community. And community requires communication, especially about the things that really matter – which isn’t just the fact that the Mets are 10 and 1.

I’m guessing there are questions that are not meant for us to think about on our own. We should also remember that hardly anyone in the early church had their own Bible. Reading the Bible had to happen in community. I love the fact that I can read my Bible on my own every morning. But I think the process can be hindered if not aborted when we aren’t talking about this stuff with one another.

Including after worship on Sunday morning.

How important has talking with other people about your questions and discoveries been for your reading of Scripture?

Manna Anyone?

April 12, 2018

Reading BibleIn today’s Old Testament reading (Exodus 16:10-22), the Israelites get their first taste of “manna” – the honey tasting flakes that would descend upon their camp six days a week for 40 years.

(On the sixth day they were to gather enough for two days. Both God and his people would rest on the seventh day.)

So this was God’s daily, divine provision for their journey.

When the people first saw the strange flakes on the ground they said, “What is it?” The question eventually became the name. The word “manna” literally means “What?” or “What is it?” I like that. The name would always remind people of that first morning of discovery. They got used to manna after a while and even tired of it. But the name itself reminded them that it was God’s gift and provision for them.

So what about our daily manna?

“Give us today our daily bread.” Interestingly, when Jesus included that petition in the Lord’s Prayer his listeners would have likely asked, “What is it?” The Greek word epiousios, usually translated “daily,” isn’t found anywhere in ancient literature outside the Lord’s Prayer. In other words, we’re not exactly sure what it means. The root meaning “come down” or “come for” actually suggests a number of intriguing possibilities, like bread “for the journey” or “spiritual” bread.

So don’t be surprised if when you’re eating your own daily manna (i.e. reading Scripture) you find yourself asking, “What is it?” While I’m grateful for biblical scholarship, even the experts don’t always agree. I’ve come to believe that the uncertainties around Scripture are actually meant to give the Holy Spirit a lot of room to work.

Speaking of the Spirit, this is what Jesus says in today’s gospel reading: “When the Divine Assistant comes, whom I will send you from the Father – the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father – he will testify about me…” (John 15:26).

I’ve been reading the Bible for a lot of years. What keeps it exciting is that I try to never stop asking the question “What is it?,” even when the passage is familiar and the meaning seems obvious. And I try to always connect what I’m reading to my life in Jesus, and to our life together as his people.

But I may have to chew on the passage for a bit. If I’m patient I usually get a “nibble” — a question, a conviction,  an encouragement, a connecting of dots, a highlighting of a word or phrase. If that happens I’ll usually write it down and see if anything more comes. Or maybe an insight will come later when I’m walking to church or driving.

And if nothing happens? I show up again at the same time tomorrow, because I believe the living word of God is that valuable, that potentially life-changing.

I’m curious — how does the Holy Spirit use Scripture to speak to you?


The Tester

April 11, 2018

FaithSo does God ever test us? We talk about the devil tempting us, but does God ever test us, and how do we know the difference?

Soon after I came to BRC I preached a sermon where I suggested that the same event can be a trial, a temptation and a test. It’s like looking at the same event from three different angles. From our end we mainly experience the situation as something difficult to deal with, i.e. a trial. But with that trial often comes a temptation – for example, the devil tempts us to doubt, to be afraid, to give up or to give in. And at the very same time God may be testing us – especially our faith, faithfulness and obedience, which are the fundamental building blocks of a life with God.

Today’s Old Testament reading (Exodus 15:22-16:10) talks a couple of times about God testing the Israelites. They got thirsty, and then later they got hungry. God was supposed to be their provider (i.e. “Give us today our daily bread”). God seemed to purposely drag his feet in order to test them. Both times they murmured, grumbled, complained. Each time he met their needs anyway.

So why did God test them? At one point God says, “For I, the Lord, am your healer.” This is what I’m wondering this morning: I’m wondering if the first thing God wants to heal is our faith. Faith is as critical for our spiritual lives as food and drink are for our physical lives. So God “tests” our faith to see what condition it’s in, as well as to strengthen and heal it.

This coming Sunday we’ll look at what Peter has to say about faith (1 Peter 2:1-10 for those who want to dig in ahead of time). He compares its value to gold. Both gold and faith have to be refined by fire. But gold (and all that it buys) perishes, while faith opens up a whole new world now and prepares us for the world to come.

How is your faith being tested right now? Could God be testing your faith in order to heal it?


April 10, 2018

It’s been well over a year since my last blog post. I think I’m back.Bible

Sort of.

It won’t be like before, at least most of the time. I realize now that the longer the post, the less likely you are to read it.

So I want to use this blog to help us stay connected during the week, and to keep learning, and to keep remembering who we are and what we’re about.

Most of the time I’ll be saying something about Scripture – either about the lectionary readings for the day or more generally about how Scripture “works.” I hope if you aren’t reading the Bible daily, you’ll consider starting. For some of us it’s a discipline issue, and for others it’s a matter of understanding it. Since I’ve been working with Scripture a long time, I think I can help you navigate the sorts of things that often trip people up, and offer some general principles that can help you get to the heart of things.

But I’m going to keep this one short, and hopefully future posts as well. I’ll end with this teaser from today’s epistle reading.

For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God (1 Peter 1:23).” The word of God is that potentially powerful, that transformative, that available. A few verses later Peter writes, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” So while we’ve been born again, we still have a lot of growing up to do. The word of God is meant to help.

“...this is how we make important changes–barely, poorly, slowly. And still [Jesus] raises his fist in triumph.” –Anne Lamott, from Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith