Reflections on the Lessons of the One Year Bible

Leviticus 17:3-9

In this portion of the law, the Lord gives a stern warning against any Israelite offering sacrifices in ways that were not prescribed. They were to bring their offerings to the priest and he was to offer it in a manner ordained by God.

While the Church is not under these restrictions, because the sacrificial system has been fulfilled in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, there are nevertheless some nuggets of wisdom concerning worship that can be gleaned from these instructions.

First, worship is to be God focused. It may be more convenient for me to offer sacrifices in the fields rather than taking them all the way to the priest, but worship is not about me and my convenience. That should be obvious, but is it so in the Church today? In many services it is apparent that the principle question is “How can we attract more people?” or “What makes me feel good?” The question for the Church should be asking is “What does God require? What honors Him most?”

Second, worship requires humility. All Israelites were the covenant people but that did not give each one carte blanche to do whatever he deemed to be right. The Lord set up a system to see that worship was done decently and in order. It required humility to submit to God’s decrees. I recently read a long discussion on Facebook with a priest being challenged for his defense of the liturgy. He was upholding how the Church had worshipped over the centuries against another priest who has little respect for tradition. The discussion reminded me of a quote. “Isn’t it interesting how the people who are so concerned with what the Spirit is saying to the Church today, don’t seem to care what the Spirit said to the Church yesterday.” The latter priest’s disrespect for tradition betrays his pride. It is another way of saying “Everyone before us got it wrong, but we are the generation that will get it right.” As a priest in the Anglican Communion, I don’t get to make up our worship. I submit to the worship that the Church has determined to be decent and in order. If I want to add or subtract from the prescribed worship of the Church, then I have to seek the Bishop’s permission, because he is the chief liturgist of the Diocese. This protects the Church from my whims and foibles and ensures that the Sacraments are faithfully administered. This does not mean that there is only one prescribed way to worship God but it does mean that those who lead worship should under some form of authority so that they don’t become the focus of worship.

Third, worship is a corporate experience. If I am off by myself offering sacrifices then I can do that on my own time and according to my own agenda and I don’t have to have the inconvenience of dealing with others. With the advantage of cyber worship, I never have to leave my computer. But is that true worship? Jesus went to the synagogue for corporate worship ” as was His custom” (Lk 4:16). The first Christians gathered daily for the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42). Important decisions of the Church were made by council, Christ’s Body seeking the mind of the Spirit (Acts 15). This is not to deny the importance of a private devotional life where, as Jesus taught us, we go into our closets and pray (Mt 6:6). But we must never think that private devotions are an adequate substitute for corporate worship. Both are necessary. This should be so evident to us that the term “corporate worship” is understood to be a redundancy.

Fourth, worship should reflect God’s orderliness. Everyone sacrificing as he sees fit is ecclesiastical chaos. There is a right way and a wrong way to worship. That was the point of St. Paul’s correctives to the Church at Corinth. They didn’t get to blast out in tongues just because they felt moved by the Spirit. It could only be done by two or three and they had to have an interpreter (1 Cor 14). The genius of such orderliness is that it keeps emotions in check because subjective emotions are easily confused with the movement of the Spirit. What some may think is a work of the Spirit can instead be quite carnal.  All you need do is to turn on the prosperity TV preachers to see how manipulative and chaotic it can be.

All of this indicates to me that there should be a holy fear or reverence when it comes to worship. Our hearts should be prepared, our minds fully focused on the importance of what it is we are doing. Our very bodies are to be offered to God as living sacrifices (Rom 12:1). The spirit of the sacrificial regulations is to honor God. If we are dashing into worship at the last minute, getting the service over with and rushing out to beat the Baptists to Shoney’s, then we are missing the big picture.  Worship is one of the highest and most sacred acts to which we are called. Therefore we are to take great care to see that it done correctly, and above all, that we make it about Him and not about ourselves. Jesus said that the Father seeks those who worship Him in spirit and in truth (Jn 4:24). It should be our aim to be those people.

Sermon – 2 Lent C

Lessons – Genesis 15:1-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1; St. Luke 13:22-35

One time when I was on vacation I visited a church of another tradition and at the announcement time the minister spoke very passionately about a founding family of the church that had left and gone to the Roman Catholic Church. As a pastor I could relate to the pain of losing a member of the flock, but where he lost me was when he asked the congregation to pray for that family since they had now lost their salvation by going to Rome. Conversations about who is and who is not saved make me feel very uncomfortable. While I think we should all seek an assurance of our own salvation, the way I read Holy Scripture is that it is above our pay-grade to try to decide who is in and who is out. That is left up to Jesus as the Judge and not to you or to me.

So a guy comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord will only a few be saved?” We don’t know his motivation for asking the question but since the Sadducees and Pharisees were pretty sure they knew who was in and who was out, it seemed like a fair question to ask. Clearly he wanted Jesus’ to address it.

Jesus answered, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many I tell you will try to enter and will not be able. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves are thrown out.”

Jesus does this a lot. Instead of directly answering the question, Jesus he turns the question around on the inquisitor. The guy asking the question wanted to know about “those folks” …you know, the ones going to Rome. Are “they” going to be saved? But Jesus turns it on him and tells him what he must do. He tells him to strive to enter the narrow door, which was another way of telling him that rather than being concerned with a theoretical question, he had better worry about his own soul. Peterson picks this up in his paraphrase The Message. “A bystander said, ‘Master will only a few be saved?’ He said, ‘Whether a few or many is none of your business. Put your mind on your life with God. The way to…God is vigorous and requires your total attention.’” (The Message, p.184).

Even though Jesus’ response to the man’s question could have not been more direct, it is very popular today in many churches in America to muddy that waters about that question. In an effort to paint a god who is loving and fair they propose a variety of forms of universalism, which is the idea that in the end everyone is going to be saved, in spite of the fact that Jesus just said the opposite.

One form of universalism is the idea that all roads lead to God. So it is not as important which road you choose as long as you are devout and sincere in your beliefs. But even people who claim to believe this do not really believe it. In the Old Testament there was the religion of a god named Molech in which devout followers would burn their children to death as an act of worship. Does burning your children lead to God? Of course not. So all roads lead to God except Molech.

There was also the worship of Asherah, which would involve temple prostitution as a sacrament. Would temple prostitution lead someone to a holy God? Of course not. So all roads lead to God except Molech and Asherah. What about the religions created Charles Manson or David Koresh or Jim Jones that involved the killing of innocent people. Do these murderous paths lead to God? Okay…..all roads except Molech and Asherah and Manson and Koresh and Jones. I could keep going but you get my point. It sounds very tolerant to say that all roads lead to God but if you believe that then Jesus lied when He spoke of a narrow door.

The other form of universalism that is a little subtler is that all people will ultimately make it but after first going through a cleansing or remedial process. It is proposed that suffering in the life to come will lead everyone ultimately to call upon the Lord. The book Love Wins took this approach and caused quite a stir among the evangelical ranks because it was written by a man who tried to be faithful to the Scriptures but still ends up with everyone being saved.

To be honest I would love to believe that approach is right and that all will be saved, but I don’t understand how you get there after reading what Jesus said in our lesson today. A plain reading of the text suggests otherwise. Some are inside eating and drinking at the feast and some are outside wanting to get in but are told to go away. It is a frightening picture Jesus paints, but we must believe it is a true picture or He would not have painted it.

Lest we jump to a wrong conclusion about the nature of God, I want to be quick to point out a couple of details from this passage. First it is very important to note that what is limited here is not the number of those who can be saved but the timing of salvation. It is true that the door is narrow but that still does not limit how many may be saved, it only limits the options for salvation. Let me explain it this way.

Last week Beth and I had a cookout for the clergy of the deanery. On the back of the retreat schedule I put a map from the church to our house. Go out the church parking lot, left on Baker, left on One Mile Lane, left on Peebles, last house on left. Those were pretty narrow or specific directions but if every cleric followed them, then every cleric would get there. The specificity of the directions did not limit how many could come to our house, in fact just the opposite. The specificity of the directions assured that at least some would make it. If, on the other hand I had said, “take any road and it will lead you to my house”, then no one would have made it.

Let’s ask ourselves this question. What or more accurately who is the narrow door? Jesus tells us in John 10:9. “I am the door. If anyone enters through Me he shall be saved and enter in and out and find pasture.” So numbers are not limited by the narrowness of the door. He is open to anyone because He says “anyone.”

What is limited is the time. Jesus tells us that there will be a time when the owner gets up and shuts the door and it will be too late for anyone to enter in after that. People will be standing outside and knocking to get in but the owner will deny them saying, “I do not know where you come from.”

I can’t help but believe that when Jesus gave this illustration that the minds of his hearers went back to the story of Noah. While Noah was building the ark, he was a preacher of righteousness, according to 2 Peter, either by words or example or both. But once Noah and his family had entered the ark and the rains came and the earth began to flood, then the wicked started knocking at the door, but it was too late. Was God being unfair? We are introduced to Noah when he is 500 years old and the floods came when Noah is 600 years old, so the wicked were given time. Even as the floods came there is no indication that the wicked wanted in the ark because they were repentant, rather they wanted in the ark to avoid drowning. There is a vast difference between repenting of sin and wanting to avoid judgment. Prisons are full of men who want to avoid judgment but if given the opportunity would sin again and again. Repentance on the other hand involves a change of heart.

The next thing that I would like to point out about this passage is the active role that Jesus says we are to take in entering the kingdom of God. He says, “Strive to enter…” In 2007 Fr. Chris did a Lenten series for us on the 10 Commandments. It was a powerful series, one that Beth quotes to this day. During one class Fr. Chris asked us an insightful question. He asked, “If someone were to ask you how they could inherit eternal life, what would you say to them?” While I would answer that question differently today, I thought of my protestant/evangelical background that would include something like praying the sinner’s prayer or walking forward at an altar call or inviting Jesus into your heart. It’s not that there is anything wrong with doing those things but it is very interesting is to compare those responses with Jesus’ when a man asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus said to him first, “You know the commandments…”

I’m not suggesting here that our works saves us, but we cannot ignore Jesus’ point here about striving to enter the kingdom. Too much of what is offered as salvation today is a form of “easy-believism” or what one theologian called “cheap grace.”  There is more to entering the kingdom of God than walking forward at a revival 20 years ago or being a cradle Anglican or serving ten times on the Vestry before you retired. Our faith is to be living faith, a current and vital relationship with Christ where we trust in Him with all of our heart. To say like the folks in Jesus’ story, “We ate and drank with you and you taught in our streets” really only says, “We met a few years ago.” But that was not good enough because meeting someone a few years ago is not the same as living in the kingdom today.

Our New Testament lesson is St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He definitely had an experience with Jesus that led to his conversion and call to be an apostle to the Gentiles. But he did not rest on that past experience. Just a few verses before today’s lesson he says, Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

If the Apostle Paul was not resting on his past experiences and accomplishments then we had better not gamble that our past is enough. Jesus said “Strive” and so strive we should. As Peterson put it, “‘The way to…God is vigorous and requires your total attention.’” (The Message, p.184) There should be evidence in our lives today that the kingdom of God is our priority. This of course does not mean that we work our way to heaven but it does means that if we really have a living faith then someone should be able to find a pulse.

Often people have a difficult time wrapping their minds around how on one hand grace is a free gift that we do not earn and yet on the other hand we are told to strive to enter the kingdom. Let’s shift our thinking from spiritual rebirth to natural birth to see that there is no contradiction here.

Let me speak to the Mothers. Mothers, was there anything that your child did to earn the gift of life that you gave them in the womb? No. When your child was in the womb did you love him or her? Of course you did and yet there was nothing that they had ever accomplished in their lives, except maybe occasionally kicking you in the bladder. So here was this person that you loved and to whom you gave life and they had done nothing to deserve either.

Next question. Was there any work involved in birthing them? Would it be fair to say that both you and the baby had to strive to enter this world? In fact for some of you “strive” would be a terrible understatement because it felt closer to the Aliens movie where the creature came bursting out of people’s chests. If in natural birth the free gift of life and the striving to be born are not contradictory, then neither do we need to see in spiritual birth a contradiction between the gift of grace and striving to enter the kingdom. Both are a reality.

Here is where the season of Lent can be so helpful. If we approach Lent as something we survive until Easter, so that we can go back to eating all of the chocolate we want or whatever it is that we have given up, then we are missing the point. Lent is a gift, and opportune time to take a careful look at our lives and to adjust them so that our faith is healthy and alive. The classic disciplines of Lent of fasting and study, prayer and almsgiving and these are practical ways that we strive to enter the kingdom. Once again, I am not saying that we enter the kingdom by giving up chocolate. But I am saying that our faith is more than lip service or something that we did way back when. Our faith, true faith, engages us with Jesus in the here and now. Jesus said we are to seek, ask and knock and it is through the disciplines of Lent that we do just that.

In a few minutes a fresh invitation will be offered to each of you as you come forward to receive Christ, veiled in the bread and wine. In the 1979 prayer book the priest says, “The gifts of God for the people of God, take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving” That is an invitation to enter through the narrow door. Don’t in your minds try to invent another way. There is no need for that. Simply accept what is being offered to you, just as it is offered to you. The door is narrow but by the grace of God you will enter in. Amen.

 

 

 

 

        

 

Reflections on the Lessons of the One Year Bible

Leviticus 9:7-10:20

When reading about the rules and regulations of what can and cannot be used in the various offerings to God, it can all be more than a little overwhelming. It is therefore easy for the Christian to think, “Since we don’t do this anymore, it does not really matter.” But such thinking robs us of some of the rich connection between the Old and New Testaments and how “the New is in the Old concealed and the Old is in the New revealed.”

While not intended to be a comprehensive list, allow me to offer some general remarks about the various offerings. One word frequently translated as “offering” (minha) bears the idea of a “gift” and even a “tribute”  A tribute is what a lesser pays to a greater, it is an acknowledgment to a ruler of one’s submission to and acceptance of that ruler’s protection. So an offering is not a sign of personal benevolence but rather of giving of that which is due. A number of offerings stand out in the Old Testament.

First is the burnt offering. The idea here is that of consecration. The animal is fully consumed in the fire as a symbol of giving oneself fully to God. A bull or ram or bird could be used. It is a voluntary act of worship.

Second is the grain offering. This is an act of thanksgiving for the goodness and provision of God in our lives. A portion of it is burnt and the rest is available to the priest to be consumed.

Third is the peace offering. Animals without defect are offered to God, accompanied by a vow or an act of thanksgiving. This is done to establish communion or fellowship with God. The fat portions of the animal are burnt and the meat is available for the priest’s use.

Fourth is the sin offering. This can be a bull or goat or lamb or bird or even a small portion of flour, depending upon what the giver can afford. This is a confession of sins committed and an act to make atonement for those sins. The meat can go to the priest.

Fifth is the trespass offering. This is an act of making restitution and seeking cleansing. A ram is used here, with the fat being burnt and the meat going to the priest.

The writer of Hebrews goes to great detail in portraying Christ as both Victim and Priest. As such He is the fulfillment of all of the Old Testament offerings and we are the ones blest by His acts. As the sinless One, He is the unblemished sacrifice that atones for the sins of the world (sin offering). Our sins and trespasses are blotted out, not because they do not exist, but because He has taken them upon Himself and He has paid the price for them (trespass offering). He established peace between God and man and between man and man (peace offering). He fills our lives with thanksgiving, giving us Himself in the Eucharist (grain offering) and He calls upon us to consecrate ourselves to His loving service as He consecrated Himself to do His Father’s will (burnt offering).

“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:1,2

Sermon – 1 Lent C

Lessons – Deut 26:1-11;  Psalm 91;  Romans 10:5-13;  St. Luke 4:1-13

 

On Ash Wednesday we began the fast and entered into a symbolic 40 days of uniting ourselves with Christ during His time in the wilderness. While these 40 days are symbolic for us they were not for Him. We still have to go to work or school and raise our families and vote for American Idol but it would be a real mistake to turn this period of Jesus’ life into an allegory.

Jesus accepted unimaginable suffering for us on the cross but His sufferings did not start there. He faced discouragement when His disciples didn’t understand Him. He would know the pain of betrayal. He would sweat blood wrestling with the call to drink from the cup that His Father had given him. All of these were actual events and He them for our benefit. This story of His temptations in the wilderness fits in so well with all of the other portrayals of Jesus’ suffering on our behalf that it should be taken as an actual event and His temptations were real.

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”   Jesus had been fasting in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights and Satan tempted Him to eat. But what would be so wrong with that? There is not commandment that says “Thou shalt fast 41 days and nights.” It is particularly interesting that many translations of this passage include the idea that the fast was finished or completed when the devil came to him. So again, why would it be wrong to eat?

The first problem that Satan’s temptation presents, and it occurs in two of the three temptations, is that of sewing doubt. Twice he will say to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God….” That approach is so dubious. It is not a frontal attack, it subtle and sows seeds of doubt. Remember how he used this same approach in the garden? This is from Genesis 3.

“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

4“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

First he sows doubt, which if unchallenged, it leads to denial. It is heartbreaking to watch this process. A little voice starts that challenge. “Man if you really were a Christian you would be more loving or patient or have more faith or fill-in-the-blank.” If that voice goes unchallenged it grows like a cancer to “Maybe I’m not really a Christian” and then to “I’m just not feeling it any more” and then to  “Maybe I’ll try another path.” I have had those conversations in my den and tried to get folks to appreciate that they were engaged in a spiritual battle and not a loss of emotions but I have not always been successful. That is why I said it is a heartbreaking process to watch.

Behind the question “if you are…” is an implication that Jesus was under a burden to prove that He was. Notice that in neither case does Jesus take the bait. And why should He? To whom was He burdened to prove that He was the Son of God? Certainly not to Satan. Heaven had just spoken at His baptism “This is my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Case settled.

As Christians we need to be just as certain of our sonship or daughterhood in God. We just read in Romans about such assurance. You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. If Satan wants you to prove that you are a Christian, tell him to go ask your Owner. Don’t take that bait of doubt.

But as far as Jesus actually eating after a long fast of course there is nothing inherently wrong with that. The real issue here was not about bread per se but about who would be in control of Jesus’ life. Would it be His appetites that dictate His life or would the Spirit lead him? Jesus resisted the option to be led by His appetites and declared, “Man does not live by bread alone, and other Gospels add, but by every world that proceeds from the mouth of God.

When I was a kid I went with my parents to tour a small coliseum in Italy were gladiators fought and battles were reenacted. The Romans were so advanced that they even had ways of flooding the grounds of the coliseum to reenact famous naval battles. As the guide was showing us around he pointed out what was called “the vomitorium.” When I asked what that was for he explained that while the people watched the fights they would gore themselves and then they would come to the vomitorium, tickle the back of their throats with a feather, expel the food and go back to their seats and start eating all over again. Even as a kid it was difficult for me to imagine a culture that was so debased as to think that was entertainment. This of course was years before Jerry Springer and Reality TV. I say that only partly jokingly. Look at the constant appeals to our lower appetites through the culture. There is so little that challenges us to expand our minds much less our spirits. To test what I just said I stopped writing the sermon and went to the TV guide to look what was being offered on the TV channel Arts and Entertainment. That sounds highbrow no? Back to back episodes of Dog the Bounty Hunter and Parking Wars. Is there anything remotely with artsy or entertaining about watching people get arrested or argue over a parking ticket?

The answer is not a pendulum swing to some form of religious fundamentalism because the focus here is also about appetites, only in this case spending all of your time not giving into them. And since our appetites are God given they cannot be suppressed that way.

There was a wonderful piece on the news last week of a group of Afghan kids that joined an American orchestra to play Vivaldi at Carnegie Hall. They interviewed a young Afghan pianist named Milad who explained that when the Taliban were in control all secular music was outlawed, He said that you could be killed for having a musical instrument so he learned to play the piano by drawing a keyboard on a piece of paper and practicing on it. Suppression does not work.

Jesus set the example of us in how to deal with our appetites when he said that we are to live, “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” It is as we live under the authority of God’s Word that we find the proper balance to live our lives. John Paul II said, “Temptation is nothing else but directing toward evil everything which man can and ought to put to good use.” (Prayer and Devotions from Pope John Paul II, Chicago:Regnery Gateway, 1984). Our appetites themselves therefore are not bad, they just need to be under authority, which in turn keeps them in perspective.

This very season of Lent is designed to address our appetites and get our priorities back on track. The invitation to observe a holy Lent that we read on Ash Wednesday, mentions a number of important things that help us towards that end. It speaks of prayer, reading and meditating of God’s holy word. It also mentions fasting and self-denial. These disciplines put our appetites in check and do not allow them to rule us.

In the next temptation Satan took Jesus up to a mountain and had Him observe the kingdoms of the world. What is interesting about this temptation is that Satan promised to give to Jesus that which Jesus would inevitably be given by God. Once Jesus went through the passion and resurrection and ascended to the right hand of God, He would be given such authority that at his very Name every knee will bow in heaven and on earth (Phil 2). So Satan was offering Jesus His inheritance, that which was rightfully His to have. What made it a temptation was that the timing was wrong.

I’m sure you saw last week’s news of all of the problems with the Carnival Cruise ship Triumph. It advertised itself as the ultimate in relaxation and adventure and I suppose they got at least the second part correct. It sounds like it was quite the adventure. 5 days with no electricity, one woman reported standing in line for 5 hours just to get a sandwich, and the toilets were so stopped up that sewages was coming down state room walls. It struck me what an allegory this story would make for what really happens with Satan’s promises. You are promised the trip of the lifetime. Food and drink 24 hours a day, all you want, any kind you want. There will be music, live entertainment, and a staff to wait on your every need. You will be the center of attraction. Instead you get a cold sandwich, sweltering heat and flowing sewage.

Just as Jesus knew Satan’s promises could not be trusted, we should not be deceived by the promises of the world. I knew a woman who had a magnet on her refrigerator that said, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” She aspired at both of them and she achieved them. I was at her deathbed when she died and she one of the most hateful people I have ever known.  Jesus says, “Come unto Me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

Notice that Satan’s temptation to Jesus was to miss all of the suffering. He wanted Him to act like many Christians and jump from Christmas to Easter with nothing in between. But if Jesus had done that, how would we receive the propitiation for our sins? Jesus had to go through the cross to get the crown. The time for Him to be glorified was to come but this was not the time. He accepted God’s timing and as in all things we should follow our Master here as well.

In the last temptation Jesus and Satan went from the wilderness into Jerusalem to the pinnacle of the temple. This would have been the side of the temple that was next to a deep valley and a fall from there would have meant death. “If you are the Son of God throw yourself down for it is written, ‘he will command his angels concerning you…’”

It probably wouldn’t surprise you to know that Satan took that verse out of context? Those of you who have been with me awhile will know the answer to this question. What are the three most important rules of biblical interpretation? Context, context, context. It is true that you can prove anything from the Bible if you will take it out of context but you cannot prove anything from the Bible if you keep it in context. So context, context, context.

There is indeed a verse that promises the protection of the angels but it is not offered as an insurance policy against our own stupidity. That was Jesus’ comeback and why He said we are not to put God to the test.

What does it mean to put God to the test? One way is when we ignore God’s truth, do things our own way, and then expect Him to support and bless what we are doing. We do this as a nation. Somehow we think that even though we abort some 3,500 babies a day that as long as we end our speeches with “God bless America” that we are going to be okay? We do this as a Church. In order to keep up with the culture we bless and consecrate what the Scriptures clearly state we should not bless or consecrate and then we scratch our heads about the losses and divisions among us. We do this as families. We ignore what God teaches us about giving to Him our first fruits and not going into debt but expect him to do a miracle in our finances. We do this as individuals. We ignore our wedding vows and when our lives come crashing down around our ears we wonder why God is not helping us.

Here is an important detail about this temptation. If Jesus did not know the Bible, then He would not have known that Satan had taken the verse out of context. St. Paul said, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” But is it for most of us? The living Word, Jesus, certainly is but how well do we know the written Word of God? We have to know God’s will before we can obey it and as any policeman will be happy to remind you, ignorance of the law is no excuse. If we are not regularly reading the Scripture in order to know God’s will for our lives, then we are almost assured of putting the Lord to the test.

I want to point out one last thing about this passage today. It was the Spirit that put Jesus in the wilderness where He was tempted. It was not for punishment nor was in an accident. It was a part of the plan. And it was because the He was full of the Spirit that He was able to pass the test. It is in that light that we can pray for this to be a Spirit led and Spirit filled Lent for us and that by His grace we will pass the test as a part of God’s plan for our lives. Because of His mercy, I’m sure we will.

 

 

Reflections on the Lessons of the One Year Bible: Mark 5:21-43

The healing of the man possessed by demons is as beautiful as it is dramatic. This region around the Galilee was inhabited by Gentiles, hence the availability of a herd of pigs into which Jesus could cast the demons. (The loss of so much bacon gives pause for sadness but that is another story). The naked demon-possessed man was out of his mind, enormously strong and self destructive, cutting himself with sharp stones. He reads like a character from a Stephen King novel. And even before coming into contact with the man, the Savior takes spiritual dominion. From a distance He commands the demon to leave the man, which resulted in the demon driving the man to Jesus, like a messenger riding an exhausted, sweat covered horse. “Why are you interfering with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In the name of God, I beg you don’t torture me.”  (NLT).

Three things jump out at us from this pain filled cry. First, the demon knew exactly who Jesus was, the Son of the Most High God. What a shame that more men do not know that truth. Second, the demon appeals to Jesus in the name of God. It would have done the demon no good at all to appeal in any one else’s name. Jesus had come to do only His Father’s will. Third, the submissive nature of the appeal demonstrates that demons were fearful of Christ. Because of that, those who bear His Name need not fear them.

After Jesus dramatically casts that demons into the pigs, and they plunge to their deaths, the man is found fully clothed and sane. The nameless man begs Jesus to allow him to go with Him but Jesus refuses. He tells that man instead to go tell his family what the Lord has done and how merciful He has been.

This command by Jesus is in contrast to many other healings after which He told the one healed to tell no one. It is very likely He told them two different things because of two different audiences with two different expectations. The Jews were expecting a king from the line of David to emerge and to reestablish the kingdom. Therefore Jesus wanted the Jewish people that He healed to keep it under wraps lest there be a ground swell of the populace, and they try to force Him to be king, as they did on one occasion (John 6). He was on another mission, having set His face towards Jerusalem. Now was not the time to be made king. By contrast the Gentiles were not looking for a king or a restoration of a Davidic kingdom, so they needed to hear the good news soon and often. Healed Gentiles were released to tell their story, which is a great model for us Gentiles today. We don’t have to be students of apologetics or have the mysteries of the Bible within our grasp. We simply have to tell our story, of what the Lord has done for us and how merciful He has been.

Reflections on the Lessons of the One Year Bible: Exodus 39:1-40:38

TABERNACLE

“Then Moses inspected all their work. When he found it had been done just as the Lord had commanded him, he blessed them.”

The work to which this passage refers was the work of creating the tabernacle, utensils and vestments for the worship of God, according to God’s own specifications. The pure gold and gold laid items, along with the blue, purple and scarlet fabrics must have made the project look like a piece of heaven in the midst of the wilderness. We can only imagine its beauty and grandeur. Perhaps the King Tut exhibit gives us a taste of what it must have been.

One Sunday after worship a young man came up to me and said, “I have a question for you. Where in the Bible does it tell you that you can wear those silly robes?” He was referring to the alb and chasuble that I was wearing to celebrate the Mass. Trying not to react to his cheeky attitude, my mind raced back to these commandments of God for the vesture of the priesthood. But I knew that such a reference would be patently dismissed with, “Well that’s just the Old Testament.” So I decided to go another way. I responded, “Let me answer your question with a question.” (Smart people seem to always take this approach and so I thought I would give it a go). “Where in the Bible does it say that I cannot wear these vestments, because if you can show me that, then I will take them off and never wear them again.”

This was not my first rodeo. In this part of the Bible Belt I have had to learn to address the questions of those who take a fundamentalist approach to the Bible. I do so not with a goal to one-up them, but to let them see that our tradition honors the authority of Scripture as well. We may not interpret it the same but we love it the same and this often that brings some understanding even if not agreement.

I went on to explain to the young man that our tradition believes that we are free to do all things except what the Scripture forbids. We accept what St. Paul said, “all things are lawful but not all things are profitable” (1 Cor 10:23) and so we look to the Church over the centuries to help us understand what is profitable. For many centuries the Church has patterned her worship as not the rejection, but the fulfillment, of the Old Testament worship that God ordained. Consider the elements of the tabernacle. Before entering the sacred space you washed in the laver. This is baptism and it is why the font is often in the entrance of the church. Inside you find a golden lampstand which represents God’s Word, which is a “lamp unto my feet” (Ps 119:105). That is represented by the lectern where God’s Word is read and the pulpit where God’s Word is proclaimed. The altar of incense represents the prayers of the people (Ps 141:2). The table of showbread represents fellowship/communion which culminates in the Ark of the Covenant which is God’s presence that comes to us in Holy Communion.

So, with all of this Old Testament imagery being fulfilled in the Church, what should I be wearing? Let me ask this another way. What would the boy who challenged me have thought if a police officer or a doctor came to his house dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and kakis? (Okay I know the idea of a doctor making a house call is a stretch but work with me here). He probably would either have doubted that they were the real thing or wished that he had been sent someone who was a better representation… someone in uniform. Thus the Roman, Orthodox, Anglican and some Protestant traditions have traditionally placed their clergy in garb that befits their office, and even more, that honors the Lord that we have come to worship.

This is not to say that what was just described is the only way to worship our Lord. The varieties of ways that the Body of Christ honors and proclaims Him are like the many facets on a beautiful diamond. It is important, however, not to have a wholesale dismissal of the Old Testament or of Holy Tradition and think that it is up to us to reinvent the wheel. It is a waste of time and energy that we can put to better use.

Reflections on the Lessons of the One Year Bible: Psalm 34:11-22

Ash Wednesday

“Come, listen my children, and listen to me, and I will teach you to fear the Lord.”

One of the things that I found missing in the Jesus Movement decades ago was a sense of reverence, what the theologians call numinous; that the One we come to worship is not our buddy but is holy and Other. I’m not convinced that things have improved much. Some current worship songs contain such a strong overtone of romance, that the name of Jesus could be replaced by the name of a boyfriend or girlfriend and no one would be the wiser that we had just slipped from worship to a love song. To use a theological term, that gives me the creeps.

To be fair, a balanced view of the Lord contains both immanence and transcendence. We must see Him as dwelling in us and we with Him (I Jn 4:11) and at the same time see Him “high and lifted up.” (Is 6:1). But even when we hear Jesus say “I no longer call you servants but friends” (Jn 15:15) that is not an invitation to lose our reverence of Him and reverence is the type of fear that the Psalmist is calling us to learn.

There is of course a wrong placed fear. Such fear the Gospel addresses. “Perfect love casts out all fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” (I Jn 4:18). Since Christ is the propitiation for our sins, we no longer need to fear punishment. Our debt has been paid. To put it in more colloquial terms, we should not be afraid of God but we should fear Him. Who He is and what He has done for us demands our love and respect, our reverence and worship, our loyalty and our obedience.

Proverbs says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Prov 9:10). That becomes clear when you consider the opposite is also true. To be blunt, some of the stupidest people I have ever known have been those who fear nothing, especially God. They blaspheme and live dissolute lives like there is no tomorrow, and the sad thing is that unless they repent, there will be no tomorrow for them. It takes a foolish person to fear nothing. They say the last 5 words of a fool are “Bet I can do this!”

The reason that fearing God is the beginning of wisdom is because fearing Him brings us under His authority. In doing so we accept His ways and His ways bring life to us. If our first parents had maintained their fear of the Lord mankind would have never left the Garden.

Yesterday in Ash Wednesday we were reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Being thus confronted with our mortality makes Lent a perfect season to learn to fear the Lord.