Jonah and Lent

This Sunday, we’ll be hearing from one of my friends and running partners talking about World Vision and raising money for clean water in Africa.  Sandra will be asking for volunteers to run the Twin Cities Marathon (the same one I ran last year) and raise money at the same time.  It will be a moving presentation and I hope you’ll look forward to it!

I’ll also be talking to the kids – and the adults – about Jonah.  Lent, as I said yesterday, is a time of training and spiritual thoughtfulness.   This year, I’ll be working through the entire book of Jonah.  You probably know the story by heart – the famous prophet being called by God to go out of Israel and preach to the Assyrians in Nineveh.  As you know, he runs away instead of following God, and he ends up being swallowed by a “great fish” and then praying for forgiveness – and being spat out on the shore and heading to Nineveh.  He preaches and the whole city repents.  Remember?  You’ve heard the story since you were a kid.  Most of us never really get past the children’s version of the story…but this year we will!

Jesus refers to the “sign of Jonah,” and many people look to the story of Jonah as a “type” of Christ – that is, the story foreshadows Jesus and what He does much much later.  That’s true, but I think it still falls short of the wonder that Jonah can add to the Lenten experience.  You see, Jonah’s story mirrors our story as Christians.    

Jonah gets called by God.  “The Word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai…” Jonah is referenced in Second Kings as a prophet of the Lord.  There is no mention of him getting into trouble with any kings – like so many of his brethren did throughout history.  It appears Jonah was relatively popular; as far as we know he did what God asked of him and preached well – the reference in Kings is to Jonah proclaiming a renewal of the territory of Israel.  Good stuff.  And once again, God calls Jonah. The standard prophetic phrase “the Word of the Lord came to…” has vast implications for us as Christians, knowing the pre-incarnate Christ is and always has been the Word.  Jonah is filled with Christ – and apparently His forgiveness. 

The next verse is “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.”  Nineveh – the great city – was probably the largest and most dangerous city in the ancient near east.  It was the capital – or one of the capitals – of the Assyrians, a people who were so frightening other cities tended to surrender rather than fight when they showed up at the gates.  Assyrians had a habit of creating vast sculptures out of their enemies’ bones.  They had iron – which was at the very least rare in those days – and used chariots.  The Israelites were terrified of them, just like the rest of the world. 

But in this verse, God says that He is in charge of even them.  That His mercy extends even to the worst kind of people that Jonah could imagine.  It says that God is going to give them a chance. He won’t just destroy the city – which is probably what Jonah secretly would like. 

Isn’t that exactly what happens with us?  God calls us.  He calls us to repent like the Ninevites.  He calls us to preach like Jonah.  He calls us into relationship with the Trinity – He loves us.  We are called to respond.  He steps out – and we have the opportunity to say yes or no.  The call is on our lives – to do what the Word wants us to.  It involves doing things we may not like; it also suggests a mercy that we are not prepared to deal with.  Both for ourselves – because in our heart of hearts we know we aren’t worthy of God’s love – and others; because we secretly aren’t so happy about other people being forgiven either.  It doesn’t seem “fair,” whatever that means. 

We know what Jonah does.  The question is, what will we do when God calls?  For most of us, we behave just like Jonah.  We might not run physically, but we throw tantrums and refuse to do what He wants.  Next time, how will we respond? 

A Reflection on Ash Wednesday

Last night, we had our annual Ash Wednesday service. It really is one of my favorite services in the church calendar. It isn’t a…fun service (although as I told my wife last night, that was probably the funniest Ash Wednesday sermons I’ve ever given). Ash Wednesday begins our observance of Lent. Lent is the forty days leading up to Easter and the observance of the Resurrection.

I often hear, after the service, things like “We’re not Catholic!” from people who do not receive the ashes. Or, “why do we do this? It doesn’t make sense!” Last night I heard, for the first time (but didn’t get a chance to talk with this person) “Christ wasn’t burned – we don’t use ashes…” So I thought that I’d sort of address these things -and a few others – here.

Lent is a time – remembering and “celebrating,” the forty days in the wilderness in which Jesus, Our Lord, was tempted by the Devil. The word translated “tempt” and its variations also means “test,” and it is these days that we remember – the days where Our Lord was tested and tempted and suffered before He began His ministry. Like the last tempering of a sword, Jesus needed to be tested in order to make sure He was, in His humanity if not His deity, strong enough to perform the tasks He had been given.

Lent is a sort of training period. In the ancient church, Lent was often the last time of teaching catechists before they were baptized and admitted into the underground and illegal church. We, as followers of Christ, need to continually train and grow in our faith so we, too, may withstand the temptations and testing that occur in the world that does not fully realize to whom it belongs. Lent is the time to focus and grow spiritually in Christ – it is a time of growth and challenge. That is why people traditionally give something up – although in truth it seems that in many ways one would be better served by adding a spiritual discipline rather than legalistically swearing to NOT do something.

As with any period of training and difficulty, it is helpful to go through some sort of beginning ceremony (think of the Olympics without an opening ceremony!). For us in the West, that ceremony is Ash Wednesday. During the Ash Wednesday service, we recall that we are mortal and broken and sinful – we are the reason that Jesus HAD to come, HAD to suffer, HAD to die. Without our sin – all of humanity’s sin – there would be no reason for the Cross. We begin the training with a realization of why we need it. We start the journey to Easter in shame and mourning. Traditionally, throughout history as well as the Biblical witness, mourning and shame were marked with ashes. When Job lost everything, he covered himself in ashes and sat in an ash pit. When the Hebrews were faced with destruction, they fasted and put ashes upon themselves. When Esther was about to face death, she asked her people to do that same thing. To plead with God for mercy. The ashes have nothing to do with how Christ died, they have to do with our acceptance of our own culpability in His death. As many psychologists might comment, you cannot get better unless you realize that you are, in fact, sick. The ashes are a sign that we know we are sick.

If anything, Ash Wednesday reflects an older, Hebrew tradition more than a contemporary Roman Catholic one. It seems that the service is more common among Catholics, but many other denominations encourage its observance – Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists… it belongs to the tradition of the One Holy and Apostolic Church. The Hebrews covered themselves in ashes and sackcloth and fasted from food and water for periods of time in order to remind themselves that they needed God; in order to plead for His favor and love that they felt they had wandered away from.

Lastly, it might be argued that the wearing of a symbol goes against Scripture regarding not shouting your prayers or disfiguring one’s face in order to show how pious one is. While for some reason no one has ever argued with me against the observance of Ash Wednesday referring to this, the argument has weight. Jesus tells us to go into our inner closet and pray, and to not disfigure our faces to show how much we “love God” – He tells us rather to anoint ourselves with oil and pray the Lord’s Prayer in secret. The Bible also tells us to not observe the “moons and Sabbaths” of the Jews…and several other things that appear to argue against observing Ash Wednesday. However, the observance of “moons” etc were meant to separate Christians from observant Jews and have no place in separating Christians from one another. Ash Wednesday does not do that; on the contrary, it brings us together in common practice. The ash cross on our foreheads is not the same as standing on a street corner yelling at people while covered in ashes – it does not draw attention to our false faith and pride. On the contrary, it reminds us of our own shame. The ash cross also provides a quiet and intimate way to calmly and lovingly share our faith – if someone asks about it. If you go to the supermarket after the service and walk up to random people and tell them what a pious Christian you are and show off your cross, I would agree that is against what Jesus was saying. The simple wearing of a cross does not do the same thing. Symbols are powerful – and a wonderful, beautiful, meaningful way of remembering something powerful about God’s grace.

Because the ashes are not only a reminder of our mortality, our brokenness and shame, they are also a reminder of the grace of God in Christ. The shape they are in reminds us of the instrument of our salvation – the Cross of Christ. Being burned from the palms waved in the Triumphal entry last year, they remind us of Christ’s Kingship over our lives. The words spoken as they are “imposed” (remember that receiving the ashes is always completely voluntary) – “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” remind us not only of our mortality, but the call to immortality – the grace that God has shown us in Jesus that results in eternal life…we will die – but we won’t.

As with so many of the ancient services and ceremonies of the Church, Ash Wednesday is paradoxical – it is sad and solemn, but also joyous and wonderful. It reminds us of the reason for Christ – and of our joy in Him. Amen…

Giving

As we at the church are ramping up towards Stewardship Sunday (and what I affectionately call Stewardship Season…it’s not just one Sunday!), I’m working on a series of sermons called “Revolutionizing Church.” This particular Sunday I’m preaching from Deuteronomy 6, and I’m calling the sermon “Giving.” Yup. I’m gonna talk about money. I’m also gonna talk about lots of other things. a

You see, Deuteronomy 6 is about serving God and teaching His commandments. It’s about following God’s rules and teaching them to our children and our children’s children. In the church as a family, we are called to do this for each other and each other’s children as well. It’s about keeping His commands always before us (“wearing them as a frontlet” and “writing them on our doorposts”) and thinking about them so that they aren’t thought any more – they’ve become a habit.

And in the cultivation of that habit, worn like a familiar sweater, you give. You give away your money, your time, your talent, your thoughts and your joys and fears – you share.   The Shema – which begins “Hear O Israel…” in verse four is something that Orthodox Jews did and still recite three times a day, to remind them that living for God is the most important thing in life. “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and all of your might.”

“Love” is the difficult word, if you will. Love, to us, mostly means a short term hormonal or other imbalance that messes with what you think. We use the same word to describe how we “love” our spouse as how we “love” cheeseburgers. Love is a useless term in today’s America. It doesn’t really mean anything. If anything, the way most people use it today it means leaving people alone – if you love people then you’ll let them live the way they want no matter what. It doesn’t mean anything.

But for God, it means obedience and heartfelt following. It means doing your best no matter what. It means reading and thinking and talking and perhaps most of all – doing. It means actually DOING what He says. It means thinking and praying about what HE says and how it applies to you today. The rules haven’t changed. The world hasn’t really changed all that much – if there’s anything I’ve learned by studying the Bible and ancient societies as well as trying to pay attention to the society around me – it’s that we as humans haven’t changed that much. We’re still selfish and misguided and prone to taking things too far or not far enough. We’re still thinking about ourselves before we think about anyone else. But that’s not what God wants for us. God wants us to be our best and to be our real selves – which are better than who we normally think we are!

Giving – our money, our time, our talent – it is what we were made for. It is what we do when we are at our best. Remember who God made us to be. Remember who we are supposed to be. And then…give yourself away.

Alone in Prayer

Alone with none but You, my God,

I journey on my way.

What need I fear, when You are near,

O King of night and day?

More safe am I within Your hand

Than if a host did round me stand.

My life I yield to your command,

And bow to Your control;

In peaceful calm, for from Your arm

No power can snatch my soul.

Could earthly foes ever appall

A soul that heeds the heavenly call!

  • Attributed to St. Columba (Ireland, Scotland, Iona)

Authority

On Thursdays I’d like to spend some time with you about general Biblical and theological points. Doctrines and ways of thinking about our lives from a sort of “big picture” view. Some, if not all, of these will probably reflect some of my frustrations as a conservative living within a much more liberal denomination.

Most people who would self-refer as Christians would agree with the statement “the Bible is authoritative.” However, the way we view that word and the way we live out our belief that the Bible is inspired by God (not to mention the WAY it is inspired by God!) vary tremendously. There are some who view the Bible – all sixty six books of it (as a Protestant) – as being “inerrant” or “infallible”, and there are some who view the Bible as co-authored or mis-translated. From the extremely conservative (inerrant) to the much more liberal views on the Bible we vary greatly.

As soon as we start using terms like inerrant or infallible, we need to realize that people often use words without specificity or definition – we just use them the way we have heard someone else use it and are not exactly sure what we mean. I think we Christians are especially guilty of this – we talk about salvation and righteousness at the drop of a hat and most of us don’t really know what we mean, let alone what the words would mean in the culture of the Bible. “Inerrancy” and “infallibility” both are used the same way. Some people mean that God sort of held the author’s hands and wrote for Himself EXACTLY what He wanted to say. Some people mean that if we had the original documents (the actual pieces of paper that Paul wrote on himself…) then we would see what God really wanted to say. Some people mean that throughout history in all the copying and all the translating we STILL have exactly what God wanted to say and the words in the Bible (usually the King James but not exclusively so) are not only exactly what God wanted to say but exactly what we think God wanted to say.

From what is called textual criticism – the science of looking at all of the different copies of different books of the Bible and comparing them so we have a way of telling what was changed over the centuries of copying – we can see that there has been very little change to the Biblical text. Occasionally we find that there was a section missing or different words that mainly don’t change the meaning….but largely the scribes and copyists over the last 3000 years or so have been remarkably consistent. [Try to copy by hand something that someone else copied by hand sometime – it’s harder than it sounds!]

We also need to understand what we mean by “inspiration.” Did God Himself write these books, or did He speak through people who have incomplete understanding and then they wrote it down, or how exactly did that work? Not that I’m suggesting that we even have to understand that perfectly – I certainly don’t! – but we have to think about it. Are there ever portions of the Bible where, for example, Luke is saying what he thinks, not what God said? People need to think about that.

It seems that the more “conservative” people are, the more they lean towards the “inerrant” stance. The more “liberal” people are, the more they lean towards the messed up copying and the possibility that human beings copied down stuff that they heard (or mis-heard) from God. [Again, lots of words that many people use differently!]

I, personally, am more conservative than liberal. With that being said, I also understand that the Bible was written through the inspiration of the Triune God over many centuries and in many different times and places by many people. All of it – ALL of it – was and is inspired by God (the word we translate “inspired” in Greek means “God breathed”) but it was written by pre-modern people to other pre-modern people. The Bible is not a historical textbook, nor is it a scientific textbook. It is, first of all, a STORY of God’s love and His call to salvation and His plan for humanity and everything He created. It was written for everyone, but it was written to a particular group of people in a particular time and in a particular language. In a sort of humorous (and perhaps slightly blasphemous) image, I have thoughts of God in the deserts of the Ancient Near East explaining how He created the universe and people’s head exploding because they could not possibly understand. Finally, God condescends to humanity’s limitations and says “in the beginning, God created…” Not that things aren’t TRUE, but the Bible was never meant to be SCIENTIFIC the way we understand that word. [for more reading on this topic especially, see The Lost World of Genesis One – fabulous book!]

God’s Word – the Bible – is TRUE. It contains what we need to understand what we need to understand about what God wants us to understand. It contains what we are supposed to believe. It is authoritative about how we are to live and what we are to believe and understand about the Triune God. Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, was born and died upon a cross in order to save us from our sin and conquer evil and death for all eternity. Etc.

Now, the important thing about authority is that we may not always like it – but authority is authority. If the Bible is God’s Word and tells us what to believe about Him and how to live, we need to bow to its authority. Even if we may not like it. If the Bible says that we are love our enemy (which it does!), we may not like it, but we are supposed to do it! We are under the Bible’s authority – not the other way around. In matters that the Bible is authoritative – we are to approach what it says the way we follow our boss….or even more so!

He’s Got Your Back

Jeremiah's Lament from WikiCommons

Jeremiah’s Lament from WikiCommons

I’m starting a new blog post push. Not to push anyone else, but to just get into a rhythm of posting here at my church blog. I haven’t done it for a long time. So today – and every Tuesday – I’m posting a bit about what I’m learning as I work on my sermon for this coming Sunday.

This Sunday’s passage is from Jeremiah 29. It’s verses 1 through 14, and it includes probably my favorite passage in all of Scripture – 29:11. “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans for welfare and not calamity to give you a future and hope.” It’s the verse I have prayed over every single one of my five children on the day they were born. I picked them up in my arms, I touched their head and through tears (one and all) I have whispered that verse. [I tried once to memorize it in Hebrew….didn’t go so well, so I ended up saying it in English. It’s all good.]

But the background to this single verse is huge: it’s part of a letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent to the exiles (including the king) in Babylon. Basically after the sack of Jerusalem by the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 587BC, some ten thousand of the nation’s most important citizens were taken into exile and placed in Babylon. There were some priests and self-proclaimed prophets who were encouraging the Hebrews to revolt because “the Lord was with them and their captivity would be short.” Jeremiah told them that was not in fact the case. In fact, God Himself claimed responsibility for their exile, and they would be there for a long time; seventy years in fact. So while they were there, they should settle down and raise families. They should build houses and gardens, and most of all they should pray for the prosperity of the city that they hated. The city that in other places in Scripture, the psalmist says “happy are those who bash their children’s heads against the rocks.” (that’s a loose paraphrase of Psalm 137)

Pray for the city in which you find yourselves. Seek its prosperity, build houses and raise families. Because I have plans for you. That’s God’s message to a people who were hurt and dejected – who had faced evil and hatred and pain and suffering. And isn’t it His message to us all?

No matter what sort of things that are going on in your life – no matter how painful it might be or how terrible you might think it is, the probability is that it’s better than what the Hebrews went through when Jerusalem was sacked. When they were carried away against their wishes into a foreign land through fire and the sword. And God still told them to carry on. To keep going, because He had a plan.

We may not know the plan, and we may not even like the plan. What matters is that it belongs to God – to the One that made you and knew you before you were formed in the womb. Who watches over you and cares for you. Who loves you too much to just let you go and abandon you. It may be hard; it may be horribly difficult! But in the end, it will be for your prosperity. Maybe not financially. Maybe not physically, but in some way you will grow stronger and better for the experience. That is, if you participate in it.

Only a few verses later, the letter of Jeremiah continues, saying that “if you seek me, you will find me, says the Lord…” It’s not just that He wants you to let go. It’s that you need to find Him. He’s waiting for you, and He’s got the plan. But you still need to participate in what he’s doing. Whatever it is – you still need to show up and do your part.   Christian life and discipleship is not a passive affair – He may be doing the hard work, but you still need to show up and do your bit, no matter how small it may seem or, conversely, how big it might be.

God has plans for you. And He’s got your back.

Living the life as a disciple

This week’s scripture is Mark 8:31-38.  It’s the first of three passion predictions given by Christ before He actually is crucified.  He tells His disciples that the Messiah “must” suffer and die, and after three days He will be raised.  Peter, the sort of “representative disciple” in Mark, takes Jesus aside and rebukes Him – and is rebuked in turn.  Then Jesus turns and calls the crowds as well as the disciples and talks about losing one’s life for Him – and they will keep it.

This part of the Story happens right after Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ, in Caesarea Philippi, a well known and beautiful city that contained the grotto of Pan – sometimes called the Gates of Hades.  And right after Peter gets it right, as it were – he messes it up again.  He is told to get behind Jesus and is addressed as “Satan.”  Peter and the rest of the disciples were not willing to hear what kind of a Messiah Jesus was – the suffering servant of Isaiah who would one day return as the glorious Christ-King.

Are we any different?  Does following Jesus mean getting what we want all the time?  Is the life of a disciple of Jesus, in an “adulterous and sinful generation” consist of getting rich and famous?  Or is it giving up our life – our psyche?  Is it following in the steps of Jesus even when it consists of denying the things that our wordly selves desire – whether it’s a Cadillac Escapade or a Jaguar X type or a villa in Tuscany?  Does living life as a disciple mean giving up our very selves and our identification with our culture and country and exchanging it for a life lived for and with and through Jesus the Christ?

In some ancient manuscripts – not the Bible, but other ancient Jewish texts – the idea of giving up your life has to do with “living as a foreigner” among your people-group.  While I don’t deny that the phrase also has to do with being willing to be persecuted and die before denying  or being ashamed of Christ, I also think it has to do with completely identifying with Him and His people rather than our own culture.  That is, being a Christian first and an American second – if at all….

But the main point of living the life of a disciple is really living as Christ has called us. It needs to be more than an intellectual assertion that Jesus died for us – but rather a complete change of heart and mind identifying with Jesus.  Nothing else can be as important to us – giving up our very “selves” for His “self.”

Frederick Buechner once said that Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness learning what it meant to be Jesus the Christ; we Christians need 40 days every year to learn (and re-learn!) what it means to follow Him.  Part of it is to trust Him with our lives, our very sense of self – our souls…everything.  And that is a difficult thing…