making straight paths for Messiah

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For Sunday, December 7, 2014
2nd Sunday of Advent

In introducing his gospel and the coming of Messiah the Apostle Mark says, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight” (v.3).  I’ve read this many times but never appreciated the full significance of the straight paths until now.  Subconsciously I’ve thought, “Well, yeah, I guess a straight path is better than a crooked path.  Jesus must like orderly paths.”  You too?  Thought so … This totally misses the point!  Mark is quoting Isaiah 40:3.  Look at this quotation in Isaiah’s original context:

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

Isaiah isn’t just talking about building a straight path. He’s talking about building a highway.  The Romans did just what we did.  They built the highway straight: mountains were leveled, valleys were filled, and obstacles removed.  The commitment and power contained in such a project is a metaphor for the commitment and power God has to accomplish his redemptive purpose.

This is very good news for us, for we, like the early church, find ourselves in exile.  We’ve lost cultural pre-eminence.  We’re increasingly outsiders.  Yet we can be assured that God has neither lost us nor this world.  He is going to accomplish his purpose.  What this means for us is that we can prosecute our daily callings with confidence and joy because we’re walking on the highway of God’s greater purpose.

Points to ponder:

  • How have you experienced being a member of a people in exile?
  • Where do you see God at work building the highway that Isaiah and Mark are so excited about?
  • How is God calling you to prosecute your calling with confidence this week?

The First Thanksgiving

My friend Fred Beuttler has a wonderful tribute to Thanksgiving here.  President Washington said in his original proclamation:

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

Hard to stop there.  Read Fred’s post (link above) for the full text of President Washington’s proclamation.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Does our performance match our profession?

The parable of the talents, as depicted in a 1712 woodcut. The lazy servant searches for his buried talent, while the two other servants present their earnings to their master.

The parable of the talents, as depicted in a 1712 woodcut. The lazy servant searches for his buried talent, while the two other servants present their earnings to their master (1).

Matthew 25:14-30
For Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014
23rd Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 28)

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away (Matt. 25:29).”  

The parable of the talents is well known.  A contemporary outline might go like this.  There were three employees at an investment firm.  The owner is about to go on a summer hiatus.  He gives the first employee, an “A player”, $500,000; the second, a “B” player, $200,000, and the third, a “C” player, $100,00.  He asks them to steward these funds responsibly.  When the owner returns in the fall, he calls the three employees into his office to report on their work.  The “A” player reports back with $1 million, a 100% return on investment.  The owner is very pleased.  The “B” player reports back with $600,000, also a 100% return on investment.  The owner is very pleased again.  The third employee reports back with the same $100,000 he was given.  The owner is not at all pleased.  This third employee has done nothing – not even depositing the money in a savings account to earn minimal interest.  The owner takes the $100,000 from this third employee, who is fired on the spot, and gives it to his “A” player.

So what’s the point of the story.  I love how R.T. France puts it:

What ultimately condemned this disciple, and made him unready to meet his Lord at the parousia, was the fact that he had proved to be “useless” for the kingdom of heaven. Like the man ejected from the wedding feast in 22:13, his performance had not matched his profession (emphasis mine), and it is only those who “do the will of my Father who is in heaven” (12:50) who ultimately belong to his kingdom (2).

Does my performance match my profession?  I profess to be an ambassador of the kingdom of heaven, carrying the best news that anyone could ever here, that there is a God who created them, understands them, and offers them forgiveness and a new life.  He commissioned me to advance this message before he ascended to heaven.  He’s coming back and he’s going to ask me what I did with my commission.  Will I be one who acts with “entrepreneurial boldness” (R.T. France again) or one who buries what I have in the ground?

My performance does not match my profession to the extent that it should.  I waste way too much time watching television.  I commit to things that I shouldn’t and fail to follow through on things that I should.  My performance in private and with my family needs improvement.  The good news is that I have already made some good investments privately and publicly and I’m empowered by the Holy Spirit to continue in these.  I’m going to enjoy making some course adjustments today and pursuing the fantastic calling given to me.

How about you?  When you look at your own performance, where are you doing well?  Where do you need to do better?  Please share your comments below.

Points to ponder:

  • What have I done this week to fulfill the mandates of my calling?
  • Do I even know what my calling is?
  • If not, what commitment will I make to discern it?

Suggested resources:

(1)  "Parable of talents" by Unknown - A Woodcut from Historiae celebriores Veteris Testamenti Iconibus representatae, taken from http://www.textweek.com/art/parables.htm. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Parable_of_talents.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Parable_of_talents.jpg

(2)  France, R.T. (2007-07-27). The Gospel of Matthew (New International Commentary on the New Testament) (pp. 956-957). Eerdmans Publishing Co - A. Kindle Edition.

The Exodus: merely a charter myth?

"Departure of the Israelites", by David Roberts, 1829

“Departure of the Israelites”, by David Roberts, 1829

Exodus 14:19-31
For Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014
14th Sunday After Pentecost

The Wikipedia article on the Exodus begins, “The Exodus is the charter myth of Israel.”   That phrase, ‘charter myth’, marks a fault line running through our culture.  Did it happen or didn’t it?  For someone operating out of a secular worldview, it couldn’t possibly have happened.  For someone operating out of a Christian worldview (at least in its classical sense) it had to have happened.  The biblical writers clearly thought that it did.

Is the Exodus account (and the use of ‘account’ seems a better choice to reflect Wikipedia’s value of ‘neutral point of view’ than ‘charter myth’) historical or merely mythology?  It’s worth considering the case presented in the Wikipedia article regarding the historicity of the event.

The first point the article makes concerns numbers and logistics.  The biblical accounts (and note there are multiple sources here, Exodus and Leviticus) claim there were 600,000 men involved.  With women and children included, this would represent a total number of approximately 2 million people.   Wow, that’s twice the size of metro Milwaukee.  Marching 10 abreast this would form a line 150 miles long.  That is supposed to be considered implausible.  I however cannot imagine a group of that size deciding to march 10 abreast.  It would make much more sense to march 100 abreast, in which case the line would be 15 miles long.  That becomes very plausible, like the long line of motorcycles that rumble through our city every five years for the Milwaukee Rally 5-year anniversaries.

The second point the article makes is that 100 years of recent archaeological research hasn’t turned up any archaeological evidence.  This is an argument from silence and therefore unpersuasive. To form a persuasive case contrary evidence would need to be provided.

The third point the article makes concerns alleged anachronisms.  Place names mentioned in an alleged 2nd millennium B.C. account date instead from the 1st millennium B.C.   But how strong is this evidence?   I’m not going to take the time to chase down the source cited but the burden of proof is on the one trying to undermine the historicity of the account in front of us.

The article’s fourth point is that the supposed chronology seems more religious than historical.  The problem here is that the supposed 4,000 year chronology of world history is supposed by the interrogator as against being supposed by the Bible itself.   Taking this supposition away there is no point left to make.

For those that find the above considerations persuasive the most plausible conclusion is that the Exodus account is indeed historical.   The wider biblical story is that God worked to save a particular nation, Israel, not so that he could favor them over other nations, but to set the stage for an Israelite to come who would save every nation on earth.  This is a great story, and it’s true, and in its truth we can rejoice and be confident of both blessing in the present and future glory.

Additional reflection:
It is not my calling to contest the current Wikipedia article but it may well be the calling of some of my readers and I urge them to take up the challenge.  We ought not let the secular bias evident here stand unchallenged.  We too easily and often capitulate to the naturalistic worldview from which this kind of thinking stems without even realizing it.   When we do take a stand  it becomes evident that the secular case is often built upon pillars of sand that will crumble upon first touch with considered reality.

“I am who I am”

Kukel PutinExodus 3:1-15
For Sunday, August 31, 2014
Proper 17 (12th Sunday After Pentecost)

We lived in Russia (Irkutsk, Siberia) during the tumultuous transition from Yeltsin to Putin during Putin’s first presidential incarnation.   At that time a very funny TV show called Kuklee (“Puppets”) parodied the machinations in the Kremlin.  This was a knock-off of a similar show in the U.K.  that some of you may remember.

When Putin came to power he did not find his character amusing.  The Kremlin told the sponsoring Russian television station NTV that Putin would no longer be appearing on the show.  The very next week, a new character, the burning bush, appeared.  The other characters asked the bush, “What is your name?”  The bush said, “I am he whose name shall not be spoken.”  I remember laughing out loud while watching this.  Putin was so enraged that the very next week the tax police descended on NTV and Kuklee ceased to exist.  In writing up this post I searched for the episode on the internet and couldn’t find it.  (If you find it please send me a link!)

Turning then back to the original burning bush event why did God say to Moses, “I am who I am?” (v. 14).  This was a powerful play on words in the Hebrew language of the original text.  To say in Hebrew “I am” sounds almost exactly like God’s proper name, “Yahweh”, which is then used in the very next verse.   God was saying this: “Moses, I know you are anxious, but do not fear, for I will be with you.

We live in a secular culture that wants to deny the existence of the supernatural and even further, to denigrate the very possibility (consider, for example, the title of the movie “Bruce Almighty”).   Our best response might be to reply calmly and confidently with Francis Schaeffer’s famous book title: God is here, and he is not silent.  Trusting in God’s gracious and real presence will bring confidence and peace to us personally, and will open the door for blessing upon everyone within our respective spheres of influence.

God is calling you and I to something today just as he called Moses to free the Israelites from Egypt.   Quiet yourself for a moment.  Listen.  Do you hear him speaking?  What is he saying?  If you actually acted on that, would it be a little scary?  Probably.  But hear what else he’s saying: “I am who I am.  I will be with you.”

Points to ponder:

  • What you you most passionate about with respect to living out your faith?
  • What is God calling you to do with your life?  With your week?  With today?
  • How could God’s commitment to be with you help you deal with the trepidation that might come from moving forward with your calling?

snatching victory from the jaws of unlikelihood

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“Finding of Moses”, Giovanni Battista (1696 – 1770) National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
For Sunday, August 24, 2014
Proper 16 (11th Sunday after Pentecost)

God has a habit of snatching victory from the jaws of unlikelihood.  This week it’s Moses, who was born only because some Egyptian midwives defied Pharaoh.  Moses would otherwise have been killed at birth along with all the other Jewish males who were under Pharaoh’s death decree.

The midwives themselves make for an interesting aside. Because they are God fearers, they refuse to obey the decree.   Pharaoh finds out about it and confronts them.  They respond with a very creative fabrication: “Well, all-wise Pharaoh, you are right to be concerned about these Jews.  The Jewish women are so vigorous that they give birth before we can get to them!”  The text then says, “God dealt well with the midwives.”  In my ten years living in Russia I saw this jujitsu-like tactic employed often.  Redirection is more effective than direct resistance when one finds oneself in a minority position.  This kind of thinking maybe be more useful to the American church in days ahead.

Back then to unlikely Moses.  After hiding him for three months, his mother applies some additional creativity.  She builds a little basket and puts him in the reeds of the Nile.  Note that she didn’t just abandon him.  “She watched.”  What happened was exactly what she hoped.  Someone came and found little Moses, and that someone just happened to be a member of the royal family, Pharaoh’s own daughter.  Moses very name becomes the mnemonic for the story: he was “drawn out” of dire circumstances.

This snatching of victory from the jaws of unlikelihood is something God does regularly.  He did it through Joseph, who is sold into slavery by his brothers.  He did it through Jesus, who was crucified by an unjust regime for crimes he didn’t commit.  He did it for us, who being so dead in our sin, had no chance of new life until God came in and drew us out of condemnation.

The next time we wonder, “Can God really use poor insignificant me?” remember just who is acting on center stage.  If our Father can save a nation through a kid snatched from the reeds of a river, then surely he can, will, and even now is using us for the glory of his redemptive purpose.

Points to ponder:

  • What has you most discouraged at the moment?
  • How does reflecting on God’s ability to draw victory from unlikelihood reframe your circumstances?
  • How does God’s character and history give us hope in the midst of unlikelihood?

 

dysfunctional families in the purpose of God

"Joseph sold into slavery", Johann Friedrich Overbeck, 1816, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany.

“Joseph sold into slavery”, Johann Friedrich Overbeck, 1816, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany.

For Sunday, August 10, 2014
Gen. 37
Proper 14

Israel was a dysfunctional family just like many of ours.   In this case, the father Jacob has made the classic error of favoring one son over the others as symbolized in the long robe with sleeves he made for him (v. 3).  Apparently sleeves were a big deal back in those days.  This would be like me buying my youngest son Noah a Corvette after having made his two older brothers drive my car when it was available.

Jacob’s other sons had taken their family flocks from the Valley of Hebron, where they lived, north to Shechem.  This was a distance of 60 miles north and would have taken them through the disputed territory of the contemporary West Bank (see map).   Why go 60 miles?  Was the flock so big it ate that much grass?  More likely they went to where the water was.

Josephs journey into slavery

Joseph’s journey into slavery with reference to modern boundaries.

Joseph’s brothers are infuriated when they see the fancy robe that Jacob made for Joseph.  They proceed to throw Joseph in an empty well and then sell him into slavery.  So much for brotherly love.

With a family like this how could God possibly accomplish anything?  Take heart, o fellow member of the family dysfunctional.  As we know, God used this episode for great good later in the larger story.  Joseph will later say to his brothers, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.

Referring back to one of the readings from recent weeks past, observe how the Spirit’s presence and intercession lead to God’s purpose being accomplished through the dysfunctional family which is us (Rom. 8:26-30):

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings.  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes on behalf of the saints according to God’s will.  And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose,  because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified.

God in his sovereign grace is intent on glorifying us, and as he did not fail with Joseph or his father Jacob, nor will he fail with us.  Hallelujah.

Points to ponder:

  • What is the deepest pit you’ve been thrown into over the course of your life?
  • How might the fact that the Spirit is interceding for you encourage you in navigating the pain and discomfort of that experience?
  • How does this story move you to pray for your own family of origin?