Thursday, December 1, 2016

Old Testament Prophets

This Blog was originally written in September 2014 but was never posted.

Recently our university hosted Palmer Chinchen, author of The Barefoot Tribe, on campus. During a very pleasant conversation over a Vietnamese dinner, he began to mention his focus on Justice. The word itself echoes powerfully in the ear of the reader who has spent time in the prophetic books of the canon. Justice is a critical theme for the prophets; it has to do with setting the world aright under God’s plan.

Therefore, return to your God,
Observe kindness and
justice,
And wait for your God continually. (Hosea 12:6, NAS95)

The justice Palmer mentioned was surprising to me since he used no modifier in front of it as so many proponents use: Social Justice, Economic Justice, Legal Justice, etc. Later in a hallway conversation with James Bryan Smith, the two recognized that they are using different words to propose the same concept: Christ-imitating behavior.

Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:23-24. NAS95)

 The role of the prophet in the Old Testament was to help others confront false narratives. The basic narrative needing correction was that Israel’s powerful, important people (kings) were not gods, as many nations around them held their kings to be. Instead, they were to be God’s representatives on earth to insure that powerful, wealthy and influential individuals did not allow selfishness and personal ambition to overrun the status and personhood of their weak, poor, and common countryman. In other words, the King was to insure Justice. The prophet’s role was to remind the ruler of his duty to enforce justice.

Another role of the prophets was to remind the rulers (that’s normally who they talk to!) that there was one and only one God in Israel. Idolatry was not going to go unpunished since it eroded the people’s participation in their covenantal obligations. Idolatry by the leaders was mirrored among the common people. The prophet served as the moral compass and conscience for the nation when they forgot their spiritual center.

What, then, can we learn today from the prophets of old, if anything, about spiritual formation?
First and foremost, God indicates through the prophets that the activity of his people is to protect the rights of the poor and helpless. Those who are engaged in spiritual formation to be shaped into the likeness of God and his son Jesus must consider their treatment of the less fortunate as a primary responsibility.

‘Dispense true justice and practice kindness and compassion each to his brother; and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.’ (Zechariah 7:9-10, NAS95)

Second, the role of the followers of Jesus is to remind their sojourners of the danger of beginning to lose sight of the holiness of God. The culture in which we live offers a multitude of attractions a follower of Jesus can pursue if he/she becomes stagnate in his/her life or relies on the activity of God at an earlier time of life to substitute for a living encounter with God’s presence in the now time.

Followers of Jesus must serve a prophetic role within their community of co-followers and gently encourage one another to return to a trusting, enlivening relationship with Jesus. More importantly followers of Jesus must be willing to build transparency within their community that allows them to listen and respond to brothers and sisters who bring a word of correction through the Spirit of God’s leaning. We do not walk alone!

 And just as He called and they would not listen, so they called and I would not listen,” says the LORD of hosts. (Zechariah 7:13, NAS95)


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent (re-visited)

On December 10, 2012 I posted the following comments.

During the Advent Season, many church attendees are confronted with the idea that Christmas is more than a single day holiday celebration: like Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Labor Day  to name a few, and more than an extended buffet of shopping excursions into the commercial establishments screaming, "stuff, stuff, stuff your home with our stuff".  Instead these attendants to Christian Church worship services are encouraged to anticipate, to actually expect the coming of the Christ Mass, the celebration of incarnation. Thus in one fashion or another a local congregation accentuates the regularly scheduled worship with something more, the Advent reading and Advent candle lighting.

The most popular quad-diurnal theme focuses on Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.  However, the website faithandworship.com provides an additional fourteen possible combinations. I remember vaguely from my childhood three from a fourplex of Prophets, Angels, and Shepherds. The churchofengland.org website states that the Four Last Things, Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell are traditional themes. What to make of the variety?  That is the real questions.

Does the celebration of advent and the selected themes speak to our human condition? Does the selection from the CoE speak about the focus of our celebration differently from the selection of Hope-Love?  I would say that the choice does speak about our human condition, but even more it speaks about our human focus.

Take for example the popular Hope-Love advent topics.  Are these something we possess already or something we look to receive at this time of year?  Is our focus on receiving from God?  Then shift to those from my memory, Prophets-Shepherds.  These represent those who proclaimed the coming of the messiah.  Does our selection reflect an emphasis on proclamation?

Symbolism is powerful. It not only reflects our thinking, it in turn shapes our thinking.  Be careful what you wish for, you may actually receive the same!

What does it take for you to prepare to celebrate the Incarnation? 2016 has been an unseasonably warmer fall. The frost on the pumpkins didn't come until well past October 31st and tomatoes were still putting on fresh fruit into November. Is cold weather a requirement for your mental preparation for Christmas? Must you wait until at least one week past Thanksgiving? The first Sunday of Advent falls only 3 days past Thanksgiving in 2016. How will you celebrate this sentimental season this year? More importantly, how will you live this season with expectations for God of Creation to be with you?

Thursday, March 24, 2016

An Intentionally Spiritual Application-(I hope)

(These are draft comments on Romans 4. Feel free to comment!)
The question may remain in some minds regarding the applicability of Abraham’s life to a Gentile of the first century or to anyone living in the 21st. Yet, Paul specifically describes these words of faith righteousness as written, not merely in testimony to Abraham, but as an example for those Roman Christians seeking God. The faith of Abraham is the type of faith necessary for those who hear the proclamation of the resurrected Jesus; one must believe God can give life to the dead!
            What does this imply for those of us in the 21st century? Simply stated, faith righteousness means that we, you and I, recognize that God the Father who gave life to the dead and infertile body of Abraham as well as to the dead and buried body of Jesus our Lord is able to bring life to any situation in our existence in need of life. God is the only source of life in this world and he breathes life into our lifeless existence through this seeming mystery of faith. These lifeless moments occur within our daily existence: broken relationships, meaningless jobs, or dysfunctional family situations. But the question may be asked, if our faith is in God, what role does Jesus play in this faith righteousness?
            Paul concludes Romans 4 and begins Romans 5 with a description of the critical role of Jesus that includes our transgressions, our justification and finally our new peace with God. This peace we have is covered in Chapter Five, our transgressions in Chapter Eight, so that leaves only the idea of our justification for discussion at this point. This idea of justification, or the verbal element of righteousness as with Abraham, is directly tied to the resurrection of Jesus. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is crucial to this faith righteousness, indeed it is the only ingredient that can bring it about. Just as law righteousness could not succeed according to Paul, law righteousness fails in our lifetime as well. Faith righteousness comes in our decision to trust the promise of God to bring his special type of life to our lifeless existence.
            To use a different analogy entirely, in Jesus’ resurrection the first fruit of this righteous character of God, of this covenantal faithfulness, of this steadfast love or, as it is often translated in the Psalms, this lovingkindness blooms into visible sight. Jesus’ resurrection is the ultimate expression of Paul’s main idea from Romans 1:16-17, “I am not ashamed of this good news, for it is the power of God for the preservation of everyone believing, Jewish first and then Greek. The righteous nature of God is revealed by faith to faith, as it is written, “The righteous one will live by faith.” Just as Abraham serves as the validating example that both Jew and Greek, circumcised and uncircumcised, have access to God through faith in the life giving power of God so, too, Jesus serves as the example that everyone subject to the death penalty of sin has access to the life giving power of God through this same type of faith.

Yet, this faith is not simply a mental tip of the hat to the existence of God. This faith is not merely the voicing of a specific phrase or prayer in response to another’s leading. The faith Paul describes is an all-encompassing recognition that reshapes and reforms our patterns of living in this world so that our physical existence is filled with the blessings of God’s provision because we trust God to provide them everywhere life is needed and a faith that provides us with the hope that this physical existence and its ensuing physical demise and death is not the sum total of all God ever intended for humanity. The faith Paul proclaims is a pattern of living allowing God the Father through the resurrection of Jesus the Son and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit to systematically replace the dead cells of our existence with living, breathing cells that transform us into life proclaiming followers of Jesus.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Chance for Feedback

Well, I know that some of you are surprised that I still post on this location. It is not regular, I admit. However, this time I am giving you a chance to comment in significant ways. I am trying to get a "voice" that will permit me to communicate to the larger audience much of what I have learned from Romans by teaching Romans. 

I have written a sample chapter and would love for you to comment on it. Where is it rough? Where is it too technical?  I've often said my target audience is my wife and her kindergarten teaching colleague! It is definitely not a scholastic group.  So, please feel free to help me find my voice. Or better yet, have your significant others help you to help me!!!

Sample Chapter
One of the tremendous challenges for reading ancient texts is to become familiar with the techniques designed to draw the reader back to the main theme of the author. The oral nature of these texts allows those of us reading them in the modern world to locate some of these techniques. One of the easiest techniques to recognize is repetition. Paul identifies his main them in 1:16–17 as the “righteousness of God.” Now, in 3: 21 Paul repeats this phrase and uses a synonym for the original verb, revealed. This marked similarity returns attention to his main idea.
 What is Paul’s main idea? This is an important question to keep in mind when reading an old text translated into a modern language. The reader can easily slip into the pattern of reading these words solely through the lens and filter of a modern mind and assume they were written in our history and should be understood by our methods. It is always helpful to keep in mind that ancient texts use ancient means for communicating. When we forget this simple truth our reading often becomes conflicted as we think the text says one thing based on our modern tendencies, but our eyes catch sight of a different meaning.
Paul’s main idea in this letter is to communicate the message he has been proclaiming throughout the Mediterranean region known today as Turkey and Greece, a message he summarizes in a single word, “gospel.” Since this term might also mean “good news” Paul could easily understand himself to be sent to tell other people in the first century about this good news. Hearing the words of Romans as bad news or depressing news misses the point of Paul’s actual proclamation. He utilizes the repetition of the words “righteousness of God” in order to draw his audience back on track.
One of the more important ideas in the New Testament is the term “righteousness.” Choosing to examine and explore the idea behind righteousness would likely imply that we identify it by using our preconceived notions.  Instead, Paul provides the reader a tremendous clue regarding his particular view of righteousness. On the one hand it is “apart from the law” while on the other it is “witnessed by the law and the prophets.” Although this may appear difficult, it is really only difficult because we want, no, we demand or insist that our preconceived notion of righteousness should have dominant position in our mind rather than Paul’s.
Placing the righteousness of God squarely within the context of the Old Testament causes the Christian in the 21st-century to rethink some presumptions that he or she may hold. The phrase “the law and the prophets” is a distinct reference to Hebrew scripture and is witnessed in other parts of the New Testament, particularly in Luke 24:27 where Jesus opens the mind of two followers to what is written within. Although great disagreement remains around which concept Paul uses, I prefer to view his term “righteousness of God” within the context of hesed; the lovingkindness of God portrayed throughout the Old Testament, mainly based on Paul’s references to God and what God is doing. These references become even more obvious as we examine how Paul unpacks his thesis in this section of text.
We see also that this righteousness of God is through faith, for all who believe, and demonstrated by God in Jesus Christ. We also find that this same righteousness of God is “at the present time” and demonstrates that God is just in the one who justifies at the same time.
How might righteousness be understood apart from the Old Testament? The standard context for understanding righteousness within Christian history is in a legal sense. John Calvin, one of the early reformers, was trained as a lawyer. Martin Luther viewed the Scripture through the two lenses of law and faith. The Western world is strongly influenced by Roman and Byzantine legal traditions. It is, thus, no real surprise that we are preconditioned to understand righteousness within the context of keeping the law. However, Paul has just devoted a considerable amount of time and space in order to clarify that legalism simply does not work! “In His presence there is no cause for justification by the works of law.” (3.20) If this is the case, how can Paul now argue that legalism is necessary?
”The steadfast love of God endures forever.” This phrase appears over thirty times in the Psalms alone. The foremost characteristic of God in the Old Testament is hesed, translated as either steadfast love or as lovingkindness. Given Paul’s propensity to situate his discussion and description of God’s righteousness within the context of the Old Testament, it appears the context for Paul’s use of this phrase is far less inside a courtroom and far more inside a covenant agreement. Paul is arguing that the righteousness of God is made visible within the covenant relationship with his people. The righteousness of God is God’s character revealed to his people. Thus, the righteousness of God has to do with God, and God alone, rather then some seal of approval humans can earn.
A second clue for the reader that Paul is returning to his main idea is his use of the word faith. The idea of faith occurs four times in this brief section: 3:22 (2x), 25, 26. Paul’s statement of his main idea in chapter 1 identifies “the righteous nature of God is revealed by faith to faith” and the quotation from Habakuk that “the righteous one will live by faith.” Although Paul has not yet defined faith for the reader, he will soon provide an example of the type of faith he is discussing.
Faith is critical to Paul’s discussion. Since he has argued that there is no righteousness through the works of the law, he must provide a means for righteousness. He is claiming that God’s righteousness has become visible through faith to those possessing faith (3:22). In other words, only the means of faith is useful for understanding God’s righteousness. At the end of this brief section God demonstrates his righteousness and justifies the person of faith, a direct correction of the problem identified by Paul’s statement in 3:20.
The reader of Paul’s letter to the Romans is provided two highly visible clues that this section returns to the main idea. Thus, this section is explaining further the “good news” that Paul has spent his past twelve years sharing around the Mediterranean. But what exactly is this “good news?”
Good news can be experienced either through action or person. A phrase such as “I won!”, or “We’re expecting a baby!” focuses on the action while “My son is coming home from deployment,” or “We have a granddaughter!” focuses on the person. Paul discusses his main idea by describing the person of God more than the action of God. There are only two strong verbs in this passage: “revealed” (3:21) and “displayed” (3.25).  Meanwhile, Paul’s description of the person of God is more extensive.
In addition to God’s righteousness, we hear about God’s glory (3:23), God’s gift and grace (3:24), God’s forbearance (3:25) and God’s just nature (3:26). It should come as no surprise to an attentive reader that Paul focuses his message on God. At the very beginning of the letter Paul identifies himself as “an apostle, set apart for God’s Good News” (1:1). Furthermore, God promised this Good News (1:2) and it concerns his son (1:3).  Later Paul refers to this Good News as “God’s power” (1:16).
More to the point, Paul’s good news message does not focus on humans, human frailty, human sin, or human condemnation—none of which sound “good” to my ears. Instead Paul’s message focuses on the character and nature of God, seen in action within the covenant relationship with God’s people. The negative nature of this passage is reinforced when one takes the dependent clause out of its sentence; thereby removing it from its context. Many have memorized Romans 3:23 for one reason or another, “for all sinned and lack the glory of God.” This clause simply clarifies the opening phrase of its sentence—There is no distinction regarding the “all who believe”.

More importantly is the closing phrase—All are being justified as a gift! Much more to the point is the good news of this particular message. Since “no one is justified by works of the law” (3:20), Paul quickly counters that negative message with this powerful statement, God’s righteousness is for ALL who are believing and ALL are being justified as a gift. No longer is the status quo the law and its inability to grant justification. The relationship is governed by a new paradigm, experiencing God’s righteousness ias a gift from God alone!