First sermon in 4 months

I know how to preach to the people beside whom I worship, pray, study and serve. The people God has called me to equip for ministry. I’m not sure I know to prepare a message for strangers who are also sisters and brothers in Christ. Obviously relying heavily on the guidance of the Holy Spirit (and the local pastor) in a way that is different from my past decades of preaching.

My last sermon was at Forest Grove Christian Church (DoC) on Feb 2, 2013, the final day of my 10.5 year ministry there. Now, exactly 4 months later, I will be preaching supply for Deb Chisolm @ Central Christian Church, Dallas. I’m grateful, excited, and nervous. I’ve not preached for a congregation where I was not also the pastor in almost 20 years. Also scheduled to preach @ Ridgelea Christian in Ft. Worth on July 21.

This has got me thinking about the responsibility and authority of a guest preacher, particularly when the home pastor is not present in worship for whatever reason. I have chosen to stick with the lectionary text for 6/2 (7/21 is TBD) as it takes some of the control out of my hands, rather like drawing lots or casting the Urim and Thummin. It also saves such a great deal of time wondering and wandering about the scriptures in search of the “right” text. This narrows it down to 4 (or in the case of this Sunday 9) upon which to meditate and pray and seek guidance.

For Sunday 6/2 I have selected 1 Kings 8:22-30;  Psalm 96Galatians 1:1-12& Luke 7:1-10. I know that Central has some big decisions ahead, so I am mindful of those and at the same time wary of stepping into a conversation that is not mine. These texts have some interesting things to say about where, why, who and how we worship.

What experience do you have with these texts that you want to share?

Bible & Sermon Study that embraces paradox

I’ve just discovered a new conversation partner in Ken Howard over at www.practicingparadoxy.com with the tagline “Creating Christian Community Beyond Us and Them.” He has a several part series on Midrash: Ancient Bible Study for a Post-Modern World. In the first part (The Need for A Deeper Method of Bible Study) he points out how both Hebrew and Greek resist our attempts at precision in our translation by their alphabetic, linguistic and grammatic structures. Helpful is his observation that both neoconservativism in its drive toward infallibility of the text and liberalism in its opposite journey toward infallibility of forms of criticism set up a false binary resting on a modern presumption of the existence of verifiable certainty. Yet quantum physics is illustrating to us that the nearest certainties are only approximate and always dependent on the position of the observer.

In lue of such certainties, Howard suggests the ancient rabbinic practice of Midrash, which he outlines as a four step process of (to quote from his post):

  1. P’shat (lit. Simple).  Read the text for its simplest, most literal meaning. For example, if the Torah says God spoke to Moses through a burning bush, we are not allowed to say God spoke to Moses through an exploding cigar. It is also known as the grammatical level.
  2. Remez (lit. Hint).  Rather than avoiding what appear to be contradictions or textual errors, or trying to explaining them away, this step calls us seek them out as hints of deeper meaning. This is sometimes called the allegorical level.
  3. D’rash (lit. Investigation).  In this step, we use our imaginations (and the imaginations of others) to explore all possible meanings and applications of the text. This is sometimes called the parabolic or homiletical level of Midrash.
  4. Sod (lit. Secret).  Finally, we are called to open ourselves to the mysteries revealed to us through creative imagination of Drash. This level of meaning is sometimes referred to as the mystical level.

In the succeeding posts (Applying Midrash to the Words of Jesus & Investigation and Mystery) he gives further examples of how to use this method. I look forward to learning from him and trying to apply this in my own bible study and sermon preparation. It seems to me a middle way for those who tend to approach the bible from a more liberal or conservative pov to share common ground in their respect for and listening to the text and the Holy Spirit speaking through it within the community of faithful study. Why not join me?

Some thoughts regarding “The Word of God”

At its most basic level, a word is a symbol used to express and idea, and perhaps to communicate that idea from one being or group to another.

When we think about God as represented in the Bible, we see a God who speaks to express ideas and who seeks to communicate. Genesis tells us that through speech (presumably of words) creation experienced order, distinction and categorization arising out of chaos. Thus we learn that words, or at least the words (Word?) of God has the power potentiality to create. “God said, “Let there be…” and it was so…and God saw and said, “It is good” (Genesis 1). God then turns the divine word toward relationship with humanity by offering the blessing of orientation, direction, counsel and boundaries that would constitute the divine/human relation. “Do this… don’t do that” (Genesis 2). Words are next used to disorient and deceive, and then to rebuke, correct, and warn (Genesis 3). From just the first three chapters of the bible, we learn that words are spiritual, powerful, and that they shape life.

With the second call of Abram/Abraham (Exodus 15) we encounter the phrase “the word of the LORD”. The all caps “LORD” is a place holder for the tetragrammaton “YHWY” which is the unpronounceable name of God derived from the encounter with Moses on Mount Horeb (Exodus 3:14). This word of the LORD comes to people, as an almost physical presence of God in speech – see the encounter of the boy prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 3.

Through the call, the word/speech of God continued to create/form a unique people (Isaiah 42:6). The calling/creating word/speech beaconed Israel back from captivity and restored them as a nation in Jerusalem and Judea. The word came and spoke through the prophets. The word had always been known by the Hebrew people as active in the world, and among them speaking and calling and creating.

Then, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The New Testament theologians understood that through this same word-made-flesh all creation came into being and continues to exist (1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2, 2:10). They recognized in the Incarnate One the same creating word which they believed was spoken (and spoken of) in Genesis. In the Hebrew Scriptures “the word of the LORD” is most commonly the direct communication from God to a prophet, priest or king. Similarly, we also encounter “the angel of the LORD” as a reference to God’s direct communication.

That mode changes in the New Testament, as Jesus himself comes to us as God’s Spoken Word – God’s direct communication to the world. “The Word of God” is a New Testament theme – the phrase only appears 3 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and once in the Apocrypha. In the writings of Paul and the other epistles “word of God” most often refers to the proclamation of the message about Jesus (e.g. 1 Corinthians 14:36; Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12; 1 John 2:14). The notable exception is Romans 9:6 where Paul is discussing the unfolding message of salvation to the Jews throughout their history.

The phrase “word of God” as used by Jesus in the Gospels refers to God’s communication to Israel as witnessed in the faith and testimony of the Hebrew Scriptures – specifically “all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:40). When the same phrase is used by Luke in telling the story of the early church in The Acts of the Apostles, it refers to the testimony about Jesus (e.g. Acts 4:31; Acts 6:2). Here in Acts, as in the epistles, the proclamation of “the word of God” results in creative action – i.e. people become believers in / followers of Jesus and the Church, the Body of Christ, increases. Thus the notion of the Word of God being a creative force continues. Finally, in Revelation the usage shifts again, back to the more broadly understood message of God to the world through the Jews, where we encounter the new phrase “the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (Revelation 1:2; Revelation 1:9; Revelation 6:9; Revelation 19:13; Revelation 20:4).

Nowhere is the “word of God” a fixed or static thing. As Hebrews 4:12 says, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” At the time of Jesus there was strong debate among the Jewish leaders over what constituted authoritative scripture and how to interpret them. This is the essence of the conflict between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Sadducees apparently denied the resurrection (Mark 12:18; Luke 20:27) and possibly the existence of angels – Acts 23:8 lists these distinctions: “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.” The Pharisees also held an oral tradition of interpretation that is called “The tradition of the Elders”. An example of this discussion is found in Mark 7

1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles. ) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ 8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 9 Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother’; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God )— 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”

Here Jesus enters a discussion of the relationship between the Mosaic Law, the tradition, and the practice of his contemporaries. Clearly there were multiple understandings of “the word of God”, and only Jesus, the “Word of God made flesh”, was able to bring clarity.

What to make of all of this? I want to stress several points:

  1. The “Word of God” and the “Spirit of God” are intertwined, though distinct. We see this in the bible’s first story of creation – the Spirit moving and the Word spoken.
  2. God’s communication with us is creative – this is the active result of the work of the Word of God proceeding forth.
  3. God’s communication with us is ongoing, not closed or static. God spoke, is speaking, and will speak the world and the church into existence and into relationship through love.
  4. We are participants in this loving, creative, sustaining work. We are being made new. And because the Word is in us and we in Him, we are co-laborers with God in creating, redeeming and sustaining the world – the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus tells his disciples that when the Holy Spirit comes (Who was also at the beginning of creation, moving over the waters of chaos) the Spirit will teach the church (Luke 12:12; John 14:26) which is similar to what is said in Psalm 143:10: “Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.” The church taught that we abide in Jesus, and he in us, and that together we abide in God (John 15) “As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.” (1 John 2:27)

Lastly, the writer of Hebrews quotes from Jeremiah the promise that eventually the communication of God with humanity would shift modes yet again, so that we would no longer be in need of an external teacher and interpreter, because the Law/Word would dwell in us.

10 This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 11 And they shall not teach one another or say to each other, “Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” (Hebrews 8)

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31)

We have not reached this place, but we are on our way. This is the goal of all spiritual formation and growth, until we come to maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:13).

Christ is risen! Now what?

Easter Sunday reflections on Mark 16 vs1-8

What are you expecting of God? We marvel that no one in the story seemed to anticipate the resurrection even though they’d been repeatedly told by Jesus, and even though we can see in their scriptures some foreshadowing, as we heard in Isaiah 53. Yet somehow everyone missed it. Everyone was surprised. No one expected what God ultimately did.

What are you expecting of God? Once you realize what God has done, now what? Think about these women at the tomb – they’ve come to finish the burial rites that were rushed because the Sabbath evening fell. So Joseph of Arimathia and Nicodemus quickly took the body of Jesus after receiving consent from Pilate, and they lay it in a borrowed tomb. It was necessary that the body not be left exposed, as a mitzvoth to honor the dead and save the land from being cursed. And their work had to be done before sunset on Friday, the beginning of the Sabbath. So now the women come to the tomb to finish. They realize while they are on the way that they should have brought some of the men with them to help roll away the stone and open the tomb. They arrive and the stone is rolled away. A young man is there (notice no angel in Mark’s story – his lacks the power and glory found in the other accounts) and he speaks to them – “He is not here. He has been raised.”

Good news! The one who had died is now alive! We will not go back to the way things were, but forward to a new way, a new life. But that’s not what we want, is it. We don’t want to go forward, we want those we have lost restored and brought back. Jesus is not brought back to life, but taken forward through death to new life. Even though they will see and experience him, they will not be allowed to hold onto him for long. This is not the good news for which we had hoped. This is not what we thought God was going to do. Christ is risen. Now what?

The young man instructs the women to go and tell the others. Their next steps are clearly laid out for them. But they are frightened – “terror and amazement has seized them” – and they said nothing to anyone. That’s how Mark originally ended his gospel. Later generations would add two alternate endings because, like us, they felt Mark’s ending unsatisfactory. They knew that more happened – Matthew, Luke and John give several more details over 40 days. But for Mark, at the time he was writing, this ending seemed appropriate. His church was asking the same question we are asking today, “Christ is risen, now what?”

Marks’ gospel was written during or just after the Jewish revolt which began in 68 AD and included the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans in 70. To be a Jew of any sort (even one who was a Jesus follower) was a dangerous thing in Mark’s day. It is believed that Mark’s mother owned the home in Jerusalem with the upper room where the Last Supper was shared by Jesus and his disciples (Acts 12) – probably when Mark himself was 10 or 12 years old. Later, when he was a young man, he traveled with Paul and then with Barnabas. He had first-hand knowledge of the events of Jesus’ last week, including the resurrection and the days which followed. The disciples were hiding back in the same house on Easter when Jesus showed up in the locked room and asked for something to eat (Luke 24). Mark knew what Jesus wanted the disciples to do in response to the resurrection, he was a part of their response. And yet, at the time of his writing, it made sense to end his sermon in this way:

6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

With what was Mark’s church struggling? With what do we struggle on this Easter morning?

Perhaps the women struggled to believe that what they heard is true. The women had repeatedly heard Jesus say that he would be raised again. This young man in white told them it has come true. And yet the go away in silence and fear. It seems incredible, unbelievable, inconceivable. Mark’s church was witnessing what to them must have seemed like the end of their world. Jews and Christians alike were under attack. The Temple had been destroyed. With such tragedies surrounding them, did they begin to question God’s faithfulness. Did they begin to wonder if God could or would bring resurrection to the church? Were things too far gone to be restored? It is too big to wrap our minds around. We struggle just to believe it. Christ is risen! Now what?

Perhaps the women struggled out of fear that they would be in danger. After all, Jesus had been killed. The apostles were hiding in the upper room. They had reason to fear. Mark’s church, likewise, could relate to such fear. The tide had turned and again it was dangerous to be a follower of Jesus. Standing up for God among a religiously diverse community risked not only neighbor, business and family relationships. Proclaiming faith could cost Mark’s church members their lives. What about us? What is at risk for us as followers of Jesus? Do you risk rejection from coworkers, business associates, neighbors, friends and family? Are you able to live out your faith fully in the face of a religiously diverse? Christ is risen! Now what?

Perhaps the women feared because they knew that they could not live up to what the resurrection would mean. If Jesus were raised from death, then nothing would ever be the same. All their relationships would be transformed; their commitment to community, their relationship with money and material things. It is not that Jesus would ask too much, but that they could not live up to this. This would be too much grace, too much mercy, too much love. Was this the fear of Mark’s church? Did they fear that they could not live up to the claim of the resurrection on their lives? Not that God was too small, but that they were too small for God’s greatness. They were unworthy to receive God’s power in their lives, and through them bringing redemption to the world. Is this our fear today? Are we like these Easter women who experience the resurrection power of God in their lives but fear to step into it fully, fear that we will fall and fail? Do we doubt not God but ourselves? It seems easier to live in silent fear than to risk everything for God.

Did Mark close his gospel this way so that we would know that we are not alone in our Easter fear; that others have been overwhelmed by all that the resurrection means? Are you afraid to go and live an Easter life? Are you afraid to let the full power of the resurrection flow through you to transform your life and world? If you are afraid, you are not alone. But the story does not end there. Christ is risen! Now what? Will we hide from all that God’s resurrection power desires to accomplish among us, in us, through us in the world? Or will we receive this good news? Will we celebrate it, live it, share it fully, in spite of our fears?