Category Archives: Religion

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?

 

the power of the gospel and prayer

Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father’s Herds, Joseph Ritter Von Fuhrich, 1836. Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria.

For Sunday, July 27, 2014
Seventh Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 12)

My intention is to use this blog to share what God is working into my own life in the hopes that it will encourage the work of God in others and bind us together bind us together for the cause of the kingdom.  This week, amidst so many remarkable insights and encouragements, the most important thing to share is the power of the gospel and prayer.

The power of the gospel (the good news of Jesus) is that it so aptly and completely captures our sinful condition while also providing an exit from it.  This week we see Jacob attempting to execute on the scheme of stealing his brother Esau’s birthright, only to be out-schemed by his Uncle Laban (2).  The message?  We’re all a bunch of schemers but God is on to us!  Yet at the same time he loves us deeply: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38,39).  Amidst the painful brokenness of my scheming he invites me to draw on his strength: “Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually” (Psalm 105:4).

This is a great reminder as we see brokenness not only in ourselves but throughout our world.  In recent days a Malaysian plane was shot down errantly over the Ukraine and there has been desecration of the human remains.  Awful and abhorrent.  Elsewhere Hamas has been lobbing rockets into Israel, Israel has invaded Gaza, and protests against Israel have sprung up in London and Paris.  Israelis and Palestinians are fighting  over tunnels dug under Israel’s security wall.  Brokenness, horror, suffering, pain.

How do we go about addressing much less solving problems such as these?  The gospel invites us to start with prayer and to remember that the Holy Spirit himself is praying right alongside us:  “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26, 27).  As we are forced to acknowledge the strife in ourselves, in our families, in our cities, in our nations, and in our world, this is very good news indeed.

Point to ponder:  
How could prayer be a key weapon in our ministry arsenals this week?

Footnotes:
(1)  http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54267.
(2)  See Expositors Bible Commentary on Gen. 29:14b-30.

making the case

“St. Paul Preaching in Athens”, Raphael, 1515, Royal Collection of the United Kingdom

Acts 17:22-31
For Sunday, May 25, 2014

6th Sunday of Easter, Year A

What would be a compelling case for the gospel in our culture?

Conventional wisdom, at least within my own evangelical tradition, is to build a nice building, provide contemporary worship, good children’s ministry, and hope their lives are transformed.  There are however problems with this approach.  First, it only gets off the ground in more affluent areas (i.e. the suburbs).  Second, decision making becomes driven by the need to pay the mortgage (even if only at a subsoncious level).  As a result, while some life transformation takes place, it happens in  isolation from the wider culture.  Third, rather than the church serving it’s members the members end up serving the church’s programs (again, ultimately, to pay the mortgage).

Apostolic wisdom approach the problem differently.  First, get out there.  The church’s best communicators are not tied to a Sunday morning pulpit but rather engaged in the very centers of culture.  In this case, The Apostle Paul was speaking to the Areopagus, a council of city leaders.  This would be like speaking to the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) here in Milwaukee.

Second, engage in appreciative inquiry.  Paul was greatly distressed to find a city full of idols (v. 16).  What are the idols filling our cities (e.g. consumerism, careerism, self-fulfillment)?  Paul spent time conversing with his audiences, which included pagans in the marketplace and God-fearers in the synagogues (v. 17).   The purpose of these conversations was not be primarily to convert, but to understand and build empathy.  What if we said to ourselves, “Ministry, at least in this stage, is not about getting my message out, but rather letting their questions sink in?”

Third, offer a persuasive apologetic.   Having developed an appreciation for the culture (beliefs, practices, values) of his audience Paul framed his communication of the gospel accordingly.   He knew that a primary value in Athens was knowledge.  Yet they had an altar “To an unknown God” (v. 23).  This was a cultural admission that there was something missing.  Paul said to himself, “Aha, that’s my opening.”  He proclaims to them that the God they do not yet know is there and wanting a relationship with them (v. 24, ff.).

If Paul were giving a similar speech today to the MMAC, where would he start culturally, and where would he finish in terms of an invitation to follow Christ?   Where would he start and finish where you live?  The path to the answer involves getting out there, engaging in appreciative inquiry, and constructing a persuasive apology.  May we have the courage to bring apostolic wisdom to bear on the opportunity before us for the glory of Christ and the gospel.

loving deeply

For Sunday, May 4, 2014
Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 2:14, 36 – 41 (Definitive Statements)
Definitive statements are not in vogue; diversity and tolerance are.  Yet how refreshing when someone has the courage to speak definitively as Peter does in Acts 2:36 – 41:   “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (v. 36).   Peter is not saying, “I’m against diversity and I’m intolerant.”  He is saying,  “Look, there is a God out there who understands what we all clearly know  – that something is wrong with the world –  and he has appointed and sent his son Jesus to make it right.”  If the church is to tear down the stronghold of secularism she must continue to declare this boldly and definitively.  It is to say as Martin Luther did, “Here I stand and I can do no other.”  

Psalm 116 (Loving the Lord)
The first verses of this Psalm describe what it is like to be severely depressed and I’ve been there.    When you are really down, cry out, and someone not only hears, but responds with love and grace, you become profoundly grateful.

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live.

In Christianity I find both an explanation for depression (the brokenness of everything around us) as well as way forward (the joy of being forgiven, of knowing Christ, and of following him).

Luke 24:13-45 (On the Road to Emmaus)
I love the humor here.   Jesus appears to Cleopas and friends, and asks, “So what are you talking about?”  Cleopas responds, “Are you the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on here?”  Actually, Jesus was the only one who did!  God was at work to save Israel, only not in the way that God’s people anticipated.  How many times do we make the same mistake?  We put God into a box of our own pre-conceptions and completely miss that he’s standing right in front of us.  Let God be God.  He won’t disappoint.

1 Peter 1:17-23 (Loving Deeply)
As Christians we are called to live out our time on the earth as foreigners.  Why foreigners?  Because we are now citizens of heaven.  There is something about us that won’t abide the corruption of the falsehoods of this world whether they take the form of a glossy cover of People Magazine or the politics of whatever organization in which we find ourselves (even our churches!).   The Christian who is clear on this will find his mind purified of corruption as well as a new ability to love those around him sincerely.  He will then proceed to be among those who “love one another deeply from the heart” (v. 22).  Would you not agree that both the church and the world could use more people like this?  

Let’s commit to being among them this week.  What’s one deep act of love you could extend?  

What is this thing called life?

20140302-114110.jpg

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
For Sunday, March 9, 2014
First Sunday in Lent

Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love” is one of the great jazz standards. This week’s readings address an even deeper question: “What is this thing called life?”

There are several common answers flowing through contemporary culture. The first and most prominent in the Secular West is this: “This thing called life is whatever you want it to be. Ultimately, we’re cosmic accidents, but we can enjoy our self-awareness while we have it.” A second answer is the Islamic one. We’re created by God but will only find peace when we submit to him both personally and culturally”. A third answer is the Bhuddist one. We’re asleep at the wheel and need to be awakened into the universal consciousness of which we are a part. A fourth answer is the Hindu one. We are spiritual beings on a journeys through this world in order to move our souls toward Nirvana.

The Christian answer is that we are made in God’s image but fatally flawed because of our sin. God offers to redeem us through faith in his Son, and those who accept the offer will be restored and start restoring everything around them. This week’s readings tell this story from Genesis, Psalms, Matthew, and Romans.

So what is this thing called life? It comes down to which of the above (or other) answers best aligns with reality. What so you see in your own life? What do you see around you? Let your conscience be your guide.

What got me going in this direction is that very first verse in Genesis 2. “God put the man in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” What we’re all designed for is to create a beautiful garden that honors Him while also blessing us.” Based on what I see in myself and in this world, this makes sense.

How about for you? This week we move from The season of Epiphany (revelation) to Lent (springtime). The purpose of Lent is not to serve as a killjoy but rather to refocus us on the great question, “What IS this thing called life?”