Devotional – Isaiah 40.25

Devotional:

Isaiah 40.25

To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? Says the Holy One.

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We live in the land of similes. No matter who we are, and no matter what we do, our days are filled with seemingly endless comparisons. We hear people say things like “My husband is like a couch potato” or “Baby you’re as bright as a firework” or “Ogres are like onions.” A simile is any figure of speech that describes an object, or action, in a way that isn’t literally true, however it conveys something we can understand through comparisons.

In the realm of the church, we use metaphors for God all the time, and the practice is problematic.

Just type, “God is like…” into a Google search bar and you’ll find all sorts of things. God is like oxygen, the sun, a lion, the wind, wifi, a mother hen, santa claus, a gps, an umbrella… And of course there are ways in which God is like those things, but at the same time God is totally unlike those things.

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The prophet Isaiah knew the challenge of making comparisons to unravel the truth of God’s identity. The people, in some ways, were blind to what God had done, because they forgot that God was the author of all things. And instead of experiencing God as totally other, they were elevating people and objects in their lives to be equated with the realm of the divine.

We, of course, do this today as well. We circle around our televisions and computers to catch up on the latest celebrity craze, and political drama. We make finite people and experience into more than they really are. And when we want to figure our what God is like, we use earthly comparisons like the sun, the wind, and even wifi.

And here is the beauty of the incarnation; God is at once exactly like us, and totally different from us. God in Christ is both human and divine. God is paradox, unreachable and yet experiential. There is nothing we can compare God to, however God chose to take on flesh and dwell among us such that we can know God’s character. God is beyond anything we can possibly imagine, and at the same time God is in the bread we break at the table. God’s understanding is unsearchable, and at the same time God reveals God’s identity to us in the waters of baptism.

And so Isaiah can say, with paradoxical certainty: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not grow faint or weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faith and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

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What A Difference A Day Makes

Genesis 1.1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

 

“How old is the earth?” The fifth grader looked up from his homework assignment as if to say, “Well, dude, you’re the tutor… what’s the answer?” We were sitting inside Forest View Elementary School in Durham, North Carolina, and I was in the middle of a tutoring session. Each week we would sit in the library and go through his homework together. His class was finishing up a unit on earth sciences and his worksheet was filled with questions about the subject.

“How old is the earth?” I, of course, could not remember the answer so I promptly pulled out my cell phone to Google it and the young man rolled his eyes as he opened up his textbook with dramatic emphasis. We flipped through the pages together looking for key words or pictures that would indicate we were on the right path and then we found it in big bold numbers on the bottom of a page: 4.54 billion years.

I waited patiently for my young tutee to copy the number down into the answer column on his worksheet, but he just kept looking at the textbook with a glazed-over look in his eyes. Then I heard him say, no louder than a whisper, “That can’t be right.”

“Well of course it’s right!” I said, “I mean its in the book, it has to be right.”

And then he said, “But my pastor told me the earth is only 6,000 years old…”

In the beginning there was nothing. All matter was formless. What we now know and see was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. And in the midst of nothingness, there was something: God. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

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I can think of few verses in scriptures that have created more problems with interpretation than those found at the very beginning of the book. These words have vexed and inspired, they have built up and they have destroyed, they have been the start of faith for some and the very end for others.

Genesis 1 is beginning, and not just a beginning to a story, but the beginning to the story.

So how did this collection of sentences lead to one of the largest debates from the last few hundred years? Why are these descriptions about God’s creation at the heart of the debate between science and religion?

Centuries ago there was a man named James Ussher who set out to date the earth. He dove deep into the Old Testament and, with the help of genealogies and life spans, established the exact time and date of God’s creation as 6pm on October 22nd 4004 BC. Therefore, according to the work of Ussher, the earth is approximately 6,000 years old.

            However, with the advent of modern science, and carbon dating, and evolutionary biology, scientists have determined that the earth is rough 4.5 billion years old.

There is a huge difference between 6,000 and 4.5 billion.

For a long period of time, the Christian church established itself as the predominant distributer of information, and when that came into conflict with Science, the battle began.

The war between Science and Religion has manifested itself in a great number of ways like the fight between Galileo and the church, Darwin and the church, and even the American Government with the church.

And nowhere is the war more apparent than between the debate of creation and evolution.

            “How old is the earth?” might sound like an innocuous question without too many ramifications, but how we answer the question comes with a lot of consequences.

A couple of years back, the state of Kansas removed questions about evolution from its standardized tests. This meant that teachers were still allowed to teach evolution, but the children would not be tested on it at the end of the year. Some Christians rejoiced in the victory Creation over Evolution, and others were concerned that children from Kansas would pale in comparison to students from other states by the time they entered college.

It would seem that the church has one answer to the question, and science has another.

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I remember learning about the theory of evolution when I was in the 8th grade. With all my hormonal angst, and pimply face, and peach fuzzed mustache, I sat in my science class and learned about how all life can trace its origins back to one single cellular being: That over millions of years that first cell grew and evolved and developed new traits; how life began in the sea, and eventually developed to live on land and in the air; how humanity is one of the last developments in a tremendously long line of evolved species.

I thought it was awesome! The science-fiction nerd within me went into overdrive and I relished in learning about where we came from, how the earth has changed, and how beautifully unique we really are. And the whole time I dove into evolution I saw God’s handiwork all over the place. Who could have brought life into that first being, who could have the imagination to force molecules and atoms together in such a way that life began, who could have moved the development of species to its zenith in humanity?

However, around that same time a number of my Christian friends stopped attending church. While learning about evolution, their faith in church disappeared. What they heard in the classroom became more important than what they heard in the sanctuary. When they learned the earth was older than what they heard from the pulpit, their faith was crushed.

            I was fortunate to have pastors and mentors who helped me to see the bonds between science and faith, but my friends saw only the battle.

A lot of you wrote questions about the relationship between science and religion. And frankly, I wasn’t surprised. The so-called war between science and religion is one that has gone on for a very long time, and frankly it’s something we rarely address in church. It’s as if we let the world of science rule our lives Monday through Saturday, and the world of faith is reserved for Sundays, and never the two shall meet.

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There is conflict between science and religion, and the conflict exists because of us. The fault is ours. We Christians who become defensive when scientists learn more about the world instead of rejoicing in God’s strange and creative majesty; we Christians who are too quick to jump ship when we discover there is more to the world than what we can read about in the bible; we Christians who see scientific discoveries as works of the devil, and label them as such.

But the realms of science and religion are not as mutually exclusive as we think they are.

There are Christians out there called “Young-Earth Creationists” who believe, like Ussher, that God created the earth over six 24-hr days around 6,000 years ago. They dismiss discoveries like dinosaur bones as a way for God to test our faith.

However, there are ways of looking at the biblical account of creation such that it harmonizes with science, rather than creating yet another battle.

To start, the word for “day” in Hebrew is “yom.” And it carries with it a number of definitions and interpretations. Yom is used in the Old Testament as a general term for time, like a time period of finite but unspecified length. We can also read in Psalm 90.4 “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” What we understand the word “day” to mean is different than what it means in scripture. God’s time is not our time.

We could then read Genesis 1 to be that in the beginning God created light, and after light God created air, and after air God created earth and sky and sea. But how long it took God to do this is unknown. One day? One million years? Only God knows.

Genesis, and the rest of the bible, is not meant to be read like a science or history textbook. The bible, over and over again, rejects our desire to become masters the text and instead calls us to be servants of the Word. We might be concerned with how and when God created, but the bible only tells us the who and why of God’s creation.

Then we can look at the order of creation itself and the similarities with the theory of evolution. Though it was written thousands of years before Darwin’s On the Origins of Species the order of creation parallels Darwin’s and modern evolutionary scientist’s ideas. The first thing to exist was light and energy. Then matter began to fuse together into celestial beings like stars and planets. Eventually the earth developed an atmosphere and water and land. The first life began in the sea, eventually evolved to fly in the air and crawl on the earth, and the last life to be developed, the pinnacle of God’s creation, was us, humanity.

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            Knowing this, countless Christians are able to hold that evolution is real, but that God set it in motion. They are able to assert that the earth is 4.5 billion years old AND God created it in the way described in Genesis. They are able to hold together science and faith in such a way that it gives glory to God’s glorious creation.

The conflict between science and religion, between creation and evolution, exists because people like us have treated the book just like every other book. We see it as our own historical textbook, or as our scientific journal, or as our genealogical record. We import the ways we read other texts into the way we read God’s great Word.

And then many of us take it up like a weapon against anyone who disagrees with us.

But the bible is fundamentally unlike anything ever written. It is historical, and scientific, and literary, and poetic, and every other form we can think of. It is beyond our ability to fully comprehend, it breaks down and exceeds the expectations we place on it, it is the living Word of the Lord.

The bible is far less concerned with explaining how things happened, and is far more concerned with proclaiming God’s handiwork. It comforts us when we are afflicted, and it afflicts us when we are comfortable. It can make us laugh and it can make us cry. It can bring us to our knees and it can propel us to dance on our feet. It identifies God as creator and us as creature. It harmonizes with the marvelous developments in science. It humbles us and exalts us. It is who we are and whose we are. It is God’s Word for us. Amen.

Devotional – Jonah 3.1-2

Devotional:

Jonah 3.1-2

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

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Sometimes, we don’t want to say what God wants us to say. All of us have a little Jonah in us, and all of us have faced a Nineveh at some point and decided to run in the opposite direction.

However, there are times when God gives us the strength, courage, and wisdom to say what God commands us to say.

On Saturday morning 600 United Methodists from all over the Northern Virginia area gathered for a day of spiritual renewal and theological reflection. At the beginning of the event, the District Superintendent from the Alexandria District stood up and said, “By now you have all heard what our President said about the kinds of people he doesn’t want coming to our country. Well, last night I was driving home from church and I was listening to the radio when person after person denounced what the President said and the words he used. But there were three people in support of the President’s message: A member of the KKK, a member of the Neo-Nazi movement, and a pastor. Thank goodness it wasn’t a United Methodist Pastor, but most people outside the church do not differentiate between us.”

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The DS then went on to express his gratitude for our denomination, and in particular for our Council of Bishops, who publically condemned President Trump’s recent remarks against immigrants.

It’s not easy saying what God wants us to say. There are always people who will be angered by what the church has to say, and frustrated by the path of discipleship that calls for others to be better. But our Ninevehs are always waiting, and God has given us something to say.

Below is the statement from Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, on behalf of the whole council:

“We are appalled by the offensive, disgusting words attributed to President Donald Trump who is said to have referred to immigrants from African countries and Haiti, and the countries themselves, in an insulting and derogative manner.  According to various media accounts, President Trump made the remarks during a White House discussion with lawmakers on immigration.

As reported, President Trump’s words are not only offensive and harmful, they are racist.

We call upon all Christians, especially United Methodists, to condemn this characterization and further call for President Trump to apologize.

As United Methodists, we cherish our brothers and sisters from all parts of the world and we believe that God loves all creation regardless of where they live or where they come from.  As leaders of our global United Methodist Church, we are sickened by such uncouth language from the leader of a nation that was founded by immigrants and serves as a beacon to the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Thousands of our clergy, laity and other highly skilled, productive citizens are from places President Trump has defamed with his comments.  The fact that he also insists the United States should consider more immigrants from Europe and Asia demonstrates the racist character of his comments.  This is a direct contradiction of God’s love for all people.  Further, these comments on the eve of celebrating Martin Luther King Day belies Dr. King’s witness and the United States’ ongoing battle against racism.

We just celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, whose parents during his infancy, had to flee to Africa to escape from the wrath of King Herod.  Millions of immigrants across the globe are running away from such despicable and life-threatening events. Hence, we have the Christian duty to be supportive of them as they flee political, cultural and social dangers in their native homes.

We will not stand by and allow our brothers and sisters to be maligned in such a crude manner.  We call on all United Methodists, all people of faith, and the political leadership of the United States to speak up and speak against such demeaning and racist comments.

Christ reminds us that it is by love that they will know that we are Christians. Let’s demonstrate that love for all of God’s people by saying no to racism; no to discrimination and no to bigotry.”

Devotional – 1 Samuel 3.1

Devotional:

1 Samuel 3.1

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

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It’s mean, but one of my favorite games to play is called, “Is it in the bible, or not?” I could be in the middle of a mission trip with middle school students, or in a nursing home with residents, or in a preschool surrounded by 4 year olds, when I will start the game and relish in the responses.

I’ll usually start with something tame like, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and the participants will nod their heads in affirmation. But then I’ll up my game a little bit with something like, “With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement.” People will usually scratch their heads wondering why I brought out something so unpleasant, but it’s there in Deuteronomy 23. By the end of the game I usually drop something like, “God helps those who help themselves.” To which people often express their agreement when in fact it’s definitely not in the bible.

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We no longer know the story of God like we once did. I don’t mean to sound overly harsh, but it’s true. During the time of Jesus, young men grew up having most (if not all) of the Psalms memorized. Today we’re lucky if we can get through the 23rd Psalm. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was able to quote scripture left and right. Today we need bible apps and Google searches to find the right verse. Even preachers like me fail to love the Word of the Lord in a way that is comparable with the preachers of the past.

Perhaps our lack of love for scripture is due to the fact that we have other things to distract us constantly, or that we have tools that can give us scriptural answers whenever we need them, or that we no longer revere the text for what it is. It’s impossible to particularly pinpoint the reason for the bible’s fall from grace in our contemporary world, but it’s something we are called to combat.

Because, unlike the days of Samuel, the Word of God is not rare today.

We live on the other side of the resurrection, we have churches with more bibles than they know what to do with, and we can jump into the strange new world of the bible whenever we would like to.

If you want to hear the Word of the Lord, if you want to receive a vision about what is to come, if you want to encounter the living God, you need not look further than the bible.

Devotional – Psalm 29.2

Devotional:

Psalm 29.2

Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor.

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It is rare for me to face the altar during worship. Unlike lay people, I spend most of my Sunday mornings staring into the faces of a bunch of people rather than at just one person in a robe. Worship, therefore, becomes a time when I try to guide people along a path that leads all of us to discover more about what it means to love God and neighbor, though I do it from a slightly different vantage point than everyone else in the sanctuary.

However, on Christmas Eve, we all joined together for at least one moment as we held our candles and the words of “Silent Night” filled the sanctuary.

Because the moment only comes once a year, I do whatever I can to savor it. After lighting the ushers’ candles so that they can spread the light throughout the sanctuary, I quickly made my way over to my wife and son and we all sang together. At some point I stopped signing and just listened to the harmonies wash over me. At some point I glanced around the room to rest in the glow of candlelight reflecting off the faces of the young and old alike. Christmas Eve, and in particular when we sing silent night, is one of the moments where it really feels like we worship the Lord in holy splendor.

I think it feels so special because it is so different from everything else we do. Usually, we do whatever we can to avoid the darkness of life by surrounding ourselves with devices that shine brighter than any flame – we stream music all the time to the degree that it becomes difficult to appreciate a single song for what it can convey – we move so quickly through this world that we don’t enjoy the presence of strangers, nor do we appreciate the beautiful complexity of humanity all around us.

But on Christmas Eve, it’s a little different.

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I am grateful for the experience I had on Christmas Eve, but I also want to find ways to experience that same feeling of difference regardless of the holiday. I want to live and move in this world such that I can truly appreciate my God and my neighbor without taking them for granted. I want to ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name each and every day so that I can remember how blessed I really am.

God has been so good to us, and I hope all of us can appreciate what God has done more than once a year.

The Church Is The Better Place or: Why Did Jesus Come?

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC, broke the internet recently with the following tweet:

“Jesus didn’t come primarily to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world. He came to forgive our sins.”

And people went crazy.

Some reacted by strongly affirming Keller’s point, and others rejected it completely as a dismissal of the social/justice orientation of the church’s mission.

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And so, the team at Crackers & Grape Juice teamed up with Scott Jones to dissect the tweet and offer our theological reflections to it.

If you want to listen to the recording or our conversation, you can do so here: Why Did Jesus Come?

 

Devotional – 1 Corinthians 1.9

Devotional:

1 Corinthians 1.9

God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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On any given day when I hear about faithfulness, it is often attributed to people. When a family is in church every Sunday for months in a row, I’ll overhear someone describe them as a truly “faithful” family. When a wife shares about her husband’s infidelity, she describes him having broken his “faithfulness.” When a family shares the story about Santa Claus with a questioning child they ask him/her to keep the “faith.”

Even from the pulpit, I am apt to use language about faithfulness primarily in regards to us. On any given Sunday I can wax lyrical about faithful giving, and faithful praying, and faithful yearning. I can quote the parables describing faith like a mustard seed, I can debate different uses of faith by Jesus across the gospels, and I can encourage people to have the type of faith that can move mountains.

But the faith I hear about the least, and sadly the faith I talk about the least, is the faith of God.

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Paul begins his first letter to the church in Corinth with a declaration not about who they are, but about who God is: “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus the Christ.” However, there are many moments in the realm of “doing Church” where we make it all about us and what we do. We say things like, “Let us now go and do likewise,” or “Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior,” and it’s like God isn’t even in the room.

But the bible, and what it means to be the church, is always primarily about God, and only secondarily about us.

At the heart of following Jesus is the recognition that God (in Christ) is faithful. God is faithful to the promises of scripture. God is faithful in receiving our prayers. God is faithful in delivering us out of captivity to sin and death. God calls us into fellowship with the Son. God reveals God’s self in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. God destroys us and resurrects us to new life in baptism. God is faithful.

At the beginning of the liturgical year, it is good and right for us to remember that God is God and we are not, that God moves in and through us, and that God is faithful even when we are not.