Back To The Bible

Psalm 97.7

All worshippers of images are put to shame, those who make their boast in worthless idols; all gods down down before the Lord. 

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Every once in a while Christians get hooked on what we might call “going back to the Bible” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; who wouldn’t want the people of their church to start reaching out to the last, least, lost, and little?

And yet, not all biblical ideas are equal. 

For instance, there is a a fad currently going around to begin having a biblical diet. Those who adhere to it follow Genesis 1.29 in which humans are told they are allowed to eat herbs and their seeds as well as fruits, nuts, grains, and legumes. 

Others try to incorporate biblical ideas into their life by not wearing clothing with more than one fabric, or by making sure that women do not wear make-up, or any other number of biblical rules/laws.

Perhaps one of the strangest biblical ideas as of recent that has come back into vogue is Noah’s Ark. 

On July 7th, 2016 Ark Encounter was opened to the public. It is a biblically themed adventure park in Northern Kentucky and is centered around a large representation of Noah’s Ark based on the proportions as outlined in the book of Genesis. For just under $50 you can enter the ark and see it from the inside (for another $25 you can enter the museum that describes and displays “biblical history”). 

The Ark was in the news recently for reasons that can only be described as ironic.

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After experiencing slightly above average rain fall, a barrier next to the park’s access road failed in response to a small mudslide, and now the park is suing its insurance company for the repairs.

Apparently, the replica of Noah’s Ark can’t handle a little rain.

The psalmist warns that those who worship and boast in idols shall be put to shame. We finite and fallible creatures can’t seem to shake our desire to create things in our own image, and most of the time for a profit. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to explore “the most authentic full-size replica of Noah’s Ark in the world.” However, we can certainly call into question whether the creation of such a theme park was done to turn a profit, or to educate those who call themselves Christians about God’s willingness to never again destroy the world as was done so long ago. 

Going back to the Bible is a good thing. For whenever we open our Bibles we are invited into a strange new world in which we discover more about who we are and whose we are. We can stand with Noah looking out over the flood waters waiting for the dove to return. We can imagine the warmth of the flame from the burning bush with Moses hearing his call from God. We can picture the cross standing empty to the sky knowing that the tomb is empty.

It’s all right there in the Bible – we don’t have to go to a theme park to find it. 

Reconciliation Belongs To God

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joshua Retterer about the readings for the 7th Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Genesis 45.3-11, 15, Psalm 37.1-11, 39-40, 1 Corinthians 15.35-38, 42-50, Luke 6.27-38). Our conversation covers a range of topics including deflecting questions, God working through fallen people, using the Bible to subjugate others, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, bashing on the boomers, the expectation of suffering, scary statistics, group texts, the pain of loving your enemies, and hoping for mercy. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Reconciliation Belongs To God

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On The Perils Of Preaching At Home

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Todd Littleton about the readings for 3rd Sunday After Epiphany (Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a, Luke 4.14-21). Todd is the pastor of Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma and he is the host of the Patheological Podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including reading from other preachers, the cyclical nature of history, getting rid of pew bibles, communal interpretation, clapping in church, God’s perfect speech, the most important question in church, first sermons, and helping people cry. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: On The Perils Of Preaching At Home 

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Merry Christmas Ya Filthy Animal

Luke 3.7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 

For 16 days in a row, my 2 year old son has scarfed down his food at the breakfast table with reckless abandon. Cheerios and yogurt and eggs and bread have flown from plate to mouth and to the wall and to the floor like the Tasmanian devil himself was starving. And with the final mouthful he will triumphantly declare, “I’m done!”

And then he’ll stare at the pantry with gleeful expectation.

We will, of course, reorient his demeanor and disposition to the Christmas tree advent calendar where he practices counting his numbers in order to pick a magnetic ornament to hang as we get closer to Christmas Eve, but all he really wants is The Incredibles themed chocolate Advent calendar we have hidden in the pantry.

He will sit there with his fingers twittering like a mad scientist and then his eyes will dart all across the thin cardboard box until he finds the right number and he will promptly scarf down the terrible tasting piece of chocolate all while grinning from ear to ear.

Happy Advent.

And, I’ll admit, there is something in me that just wells up with all kinds of fatherly and joyful feelings when I see the daily practice. Behind the frenetic eating patterns, and the impatience to ingest sugar at 7 in the morning, there is an anticipating, a waiting, for what is yet to come.

At least, that’s how I felt until I read something this week. 

Fleming Rutledge is, without a doubt, one of my favorite theologians and preachers. As a preacher, her sermons are the kind that make me feel like I’m terrible at what I do. 

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Nevertheless, I was reading through a collection of her old Advent sermons this week and I came across one on the same text that we just read. And this is how she begins the sermon: “I’ve always wanted to design an Advent calendar. You would open up one of those cute little windows and there would be John the Baptist glaring at you saying, “You brood of vipers!”

Imagine a wildly bedraggled man, smelling up to high heaven, clothed in camel’s hair, with honey stuck in his beard, jumping out at you from behind one of your favorite Christmas decorations, only to shout, “Merry Christmas ya filthy animal!”

Happy Advent.

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “John the Baptist? Again?! Didn’t we have to hear about this guy last week?”

And you’d be right. John the Baptist, the crazy prophet is back again, but this time he’s not mincing his words. You brood of vipers!

In Advent, there are plenty of other people from the Bible we might like to hear from. The angel Gabriel, or Mary, or even Joseph (though he doesn’t say much). But John is the central person of this season of being in the in between. He is the one who stands with one foot in each of the ages. He rests between how things are and how they ought to be. 

He is the last and the greatest of all the Hebrew prophets. With every new prophet the declarations about the coming Messiah increase until they reach their electrifying zenith in John who says the waiting is over!

And how does he begin his message? What are the first recorded words we have in scripture from John the Baptist? He belittles the crowds who have gathered and he exhorts them with a to do list.

I’ve said this a lot already, but Advent is a really strange time in the life of the church. It is quite a challenge to place our theological fingers on the pulse of what this season is and what it means for people like you and me.

I can’t tell you the number of churches who are spending this Advent season doing a series like “How To Find Jesus In The Peanuts” (as in Charlie Brown), or “Christmas Through The Movies” in which a church will play clips on a Sunday morning and then a preacher will exegete what the people have seen, or even something like “The Best Present Is Presence.”

Those types of things draw forth these deep waves of warmth regarding the season and the are the theological version of sitting by a cozy fire with a nice cup of hot chocolate.

And, for as interesting and exciting as they might be, like a child devouring the daily chocolate piece, they don’t really have a lot to do with Advent. 

The readings we encounter in church at this time of year don’t leave us dreaming of sugar plumbs dancing in our heads, or feeling fuzzy and familiar fantasies… John the Baptist just called us a brood of vipers!

I think it would shock those from the early church to see the cutesy versions of the angels, and the mangers, and the virgin Marys we use to decorate our homes. I think they would be baffled by the sheer number of lights and inflatable cartoon characters we put up in our yards during the coldest part of the year. Which, to be clear, I love those things about Christmas. I love driving around to look at lights and taking the time to go through every member of a manger scene.

But we’ve got to admit that our Advent and Christmas observances are pretty watered-down and sanitized. No one wants to put up an angry John the Baptist inflatable or ornament in their tree.

And yet Christmas, what we are preparing for right now, is the stark and frightening and profound transformation of the world. It is surely worthy of shouting “joy to the world” but God refuses to leave the world the way that it is.

God will redeem God’s people, because we are in need of redemption!

The Good News of this season of waiting and putting our feet in two different places isn’t just that Jesus arrives, but that Jesus’s arrival changes people like you and me.

Back to Fleming Rutledge, she says Advent forces us to look at the dark sides of ourselves.

Now, I don’t need to take the time to regale you with stories about the brokenness of the world. All of us here know how messed up things are. No matter how many sentimental decorations we have, or how many gallons of eggnog we’ve consumed, or how many carols we’ve belted out at the top of our lungs, we know that things really are as bad as they seem, and we are not innocent.

We, brood of vipers.

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John sounds pretty judgmental. And we don’t like judgmental people. He spends the majority of his proclamation exhorting the people to do this, that, and the other and it is just plain exhausting: Give your coats away, repent for your sins, don’t extort people.

Doesn’t John know that we already have too much to do at this time of year?

I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t like being called a viper, or a filthy animal. 

I don’t like feeling judged.

But here’s the rub: those of us who don’t like hearing about judgment in church are usually those ones who have reason to fear being judged. Or, to put it another way, we who protest the judgmental behavior of others usually suffer from that same disposition without really realizing it.

Advent is a time where all that has been, at that is, and all that will be is made known to God. It is the time that all of who we are is opened up to the divine: our inner thoughts, our knee-jerk reactions, our biases, our prejudices, our everything. We are laid bare and judgment is coming.

There is a new exhibit in DC at the Bible Museum that features a very interesting bound collection of scripture. The so-called “Slave Bible” was printed by the Missionary Society For the Conversion of Negro Slaves in 1808. Though labeled “Holy” on the cover, it is anything but; in order for Christian missionaries to convert enslaved African peoples to Christianity they created a bible but they removed any verse that had any references to freedom, equality, and resistance.

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In the end the Slave Bible is missing 90% of the Old Testament and 50% of the New Testament.

And Christians, that’s people like us, used that particular book to keep particular people in bondage. 

What were we justing singing? Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free…

All has, is, and will be made known to God. The final reckoning is going to take place. That’s what John the Baptist is yelling about – the ax is lying at the roots of the tree!

But we’re not quite there yet. And, strangely, something has already taken place. The Judge of all things is arriving and has arrived.

His name is Jesus.

So take a moment and think, if you can stand it, about your own sins and secrets; not the sins and secrets of others, the Christians who have come before us. Think about the dark side of yourself. 

In Advent we are bombarded with the notion that one day all of us will bring those very secrets before the throne of God and the great Judge will see us for who we really are.

But here’s the craziness of the gospel: the Judge is not like what we so often fear. Our great Judge is filled with compassion and comes to us with wounds in his hands and feet.

This is a paradox befitting the faith: the judgment we hear from the lips of John has already happened. It has taken place in the very body of the Judge.

Jesus, the Judge who is to come, has already given himself to be judged in our place.

Vipers, crucifixion, judgment… It is strange to hear these words in Advent while we’d rather consider Frosty, and Rudolph, and the one who has a belly like a bowl full of jelly. But it is an even stranger thing to realize that Advent and the Cross are so intertwined that they cannot be separated.

If Advent is the time to contemplate the dark side of ourselves then this season sheds light on the truth that our sin is what nailed Jesus to the cross. We really are the unrighteous, the vipers, for whom the Son of Man was hung on a tree.

This is our Jesus; bloody and bedraggled. This is the One for whom we wait this time of year. And that’s why John the Baptist is the central figure in Advent. 

He reminds us that we were unworthy but Jesus counted us worthy. 

He reminds us that we deserved judgment but in Jesus we found mercy. 

He reminds us that we were slaves to sin and death, but that Jesus brought us to righteousness and life.

Hear the Good News! Jesus’ arrival both from the womb and from the tomb means that he will not let us remain as we are. He is the judged Judge who stands in our place. He is, in himself, the Good News. 

So, Happy Advent Ya Filthy Animals. Amen.

Daydreaming About God

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Hebrews 1.1

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed her of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.

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One of the things I loved most about the church I grew up in, is that I always felt like I could bring questions about faith to the pastors. They, like good clergy in the UMC, would come and go but no matter who stood in the pulpit on Sunday they offered a willingness to hear what was stirring within me, and they were always prepared to nudge me in the right direction. 

For me, a question would usually begin to percolate in the middle of a sermon. It would be a line, or a phrase, or even just one word that would stick out and from it I would journey into the unknown. Sadly, there were many times when that precise moment of question formation was when I tuned out the rest of the sermon and started searching in a pew bible for an answer. However, I would inevitably find myself more confused than when I started and I would patiently wait in line after church to drop my bombshell on the pastor.

It’s like Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said, “People don’t come to church to hear preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.”

And it was on one such Sunday, long ago, while I was daydreaming about God that I got stuck on a particularly profound question: “Why don’t we hear God speaking to us like how God speaks to the people of the biblical narrative?” The text that morning must have been from a moment when God definitely spoke to a particular individual, and I wanted to know why I couldn’t hear God in the same way.

And so I dug into the pew bible and went looking for an answer. But by the final hymn I was no wiser than when I started, so I asked the pastor on my way out.

To this day I remember exactly what he said: “God spoke God’s truest and best Word in Jesus. If we are waiting to hear God speaks in our lives, all we have to do is open our bibles because God is still speaking to us through Jesus.”

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I only later learned that the pastor got the answer from the first chapter of Hebrews.

That memory has stayed with me over the years because of how profound it actually was. Many of us expect to hear God audibly speak to us in the midst of our prayers like we’re talking to a friend on the phone, and then we immediately become disappointed when God appears to be silent. However, my pastor was right: God spoke God’s fullest word in Jesus because Jesus is, was, and forever will be the incarnate Word. God can and still does speak to us through a variety of means like a conversation with a friend, a particular verse from a hymn, or even in the rare decent sermon, but God will always speak into our world through the stories of Jesus in scripture.

So, instead of reading the Bible like a collection of stories from the ancient past, can you imagine how life-giving it could be if we read it like Jesus was still speaking to us here and now? 

The beauty of the Bible takes on a whole new dimension when we stop limiting Jesus to the past, and start hearing him in the present. 

Christianity and the Fourth of July

2 Corinthians 12.10

Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

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On the 4th of July, Americans bring out all the red, white, and blue we can muster and we fill the sky with fireworks. It is always a spectacle to behold. The day encapsulates so much of what America stands for: freedom, festivities, and food!

And behind the colorful outfits, and backyard barbeques, and displays of pyrotechnical achievements, the 4th of July is all about strength. So much of what Americans do on the 4th points to the country’s strength in the realm of economics and militaristic might and total freedom.

However, on the 4th of July, while many of us will be out in our communities celebrating America’s independence, it is important for Christians to remember that the day doesn’t really belong to us.

Can we wear red, white, and blue? Of course, though we should oppose forms of nationalism that result in xenophobia and violence.

Can we support our military? Of course, but we must not forget that America is an imperial power that often uses violence indiscriminately and disproportionately throughout the world.

Can we kick back and enjoy the fireworks? Of course, though we cannot let them blind us to the injustice that is taking place each and every day within our borders.

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The 4th of July does not belong to us not because Christians are against America, but simply because our hopes, dreams, and desires have been formed by the Lord. What we experience across the country as we mark the independence is fun and full of power, but it will never compare to the weakness that is true strength in the bread and wine at the communion table and the water in the baptismal font.

Americans might bleed red, white, and blue, but Jesus bled for us such that we wouldn’t have to.

Therefore, should we avoid the practices that make the 4th of July what it is? Should we abstain from the hot dogs, and pool parties, and fireworks?

Of course not.

But if those things are more compelling and life-giving that the Word of the Lord revealed through Jesus the Christ, then we have a problem.

In Jesus Christ we discover the end of all sacrifices, particularly those demanded by countries of their citizens.

In Jesus Christ we meet the one in whom we live and move and have our being such that we can rejoice in the presence of the other without hatred, fear, or even bitterness.

In Jesus Christ we find the incarnate Lord whose resurrection from the dead brought forth a light into this world that overshadows all fireworks.

In Jesus Christ we begin to see that weakness is actually strength.

Jesus Is Lord, And Everything Else Is…

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost (1 Samuel 3.1-10, Psalm 139.1-6, 13-18, 2 Corinthians 4.5-12, Mark 2.23-3.6). Mikang serves as the pastor of Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including connecting with God through a native language, the movie Love Letter, choosing biblical names, pregnancy prayers, divine repetition, shame and guilt, dissonance and harmony, and breaking the rules. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Jesus Is Lord, And Everything Else Is…

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