Old Testament

What’s Missing


Mark 1:1-8 (NRSV)

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight.’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”


Followers of Jesus sometimes struggle with how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament. The behaviors of the God of the Old seem different than the God of the New, and this perception can cause people to treat the ancient Jewish Bible as a colorful aside to the real story.

The beginning of Mark should help us put aside any notion the two can be separated. First of all, there is a clear connection of ideas, a flow from the promises of the Old Testament into Mark, generally considered to be the earliest gospel written.

Let me make this important assertion about the Old Testament: Grace abounds. Yes, in some of the really ancient stories, God can seem harsh, with entire cities vanishing in sulfurous flames or overrun by holy, spear-chucking armies. We have to remember how far back in time we are going with these stories, and we have to remember God is communicating who he is in the only way ancient people could understand.

What’s remarkable is in the midst of all that primitive communication, grace still abounds. God’s love for his creation and his desire to be in deep relationship with his creation shines through. There is a simple call throughout the Old Testament: “Put aside sin, be holy, and I will be with you.”

In our text today, we hear a quote from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, a call to repent and prepare for the full, visible presence of God. If we back up a little in the 40th chapter of Isaiah, we hear the context for this call to repentance:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God,
speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

Throughout the Old Testament, God seems to long for the full relationship to begin. You see this desire in the Psalms, and you certainly see it in the writings of the prophets.

When the Gospel of Mark begins, we remain in the theme and mood of the Old Testament. A man clearly dressed and living like an ancient prophet, John the baptizer stood in the wilderness crying the words of the prophets of old.

Just like the ancient prophets, he told the people to straighten out their lives. He was saying, The centuries-old promise is bearing fruit! Something is about to happen—get ready! Someone is coming, and in him you will meet God.

It was an exciting message, so exciting that word spread, and people went into the wilderness to hear more. They were even given a chance to respond. They partook of an activity rare for Jews, water baptism, symbolically putting their sins behind them and pledging to live under God’s law.

Repentance is not the end of it, though, John made clear. Even with their contrite hearts, something was missing. Again, John was very much the Old Testament prophet, repeating messages that had been floating around for centuries.

God had already described just how intimate he wants to be with his creation. Look at the words of another prophet, Ezekiel. He was speaking to suffering people, the people of Israel living in exile because of their sins. A day is coming, though, he told them:

“I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.” (Ezekiel 11:19-20)

The encounter with God was to be so deep that it would become a matter of the heart, God working from within. And like the prophets before him, John saw that day coming. In his case, it was coming soon, very soon.

It was to be a baptism much greater than the water-based one they were receiving in the wilderness. Instead of water, God’s Spirit will wash over you, into you, John told the people, and God will fulfill the promise of old.

As people looking back on the events through the lens of the New Testament, we know how this actually happened. Jesus came into the world, and was declared the Christ as the Holy Spirit descended on him at his baptism.

This baptism of the Spirit began to spill out on the world in Jesus’ ministry. His touch healed and the truth he declared marked the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth. After his death and resurrection, he breathed new life into his followers.

And then, just as he promised, the Holy Spirit descended on his followers at Pentecost and began to spread as word of the Savior spread.

The Spirit is God’s palpable presence, and where God’s presence is acknowledged and accepted, there is great power.

In a story of the early church in Acts 19, there is a fascinating account of the Spirit becoming known and going to work. Paul traveled to Ephesus, and there found a group of people who are described as “disciples,” followers of Jesus Christ. They had experienced what they described as “John’s baptism.” That is, they had repented of their sins with a sense of expectation, but they did not know they could experience the Holy Spirit immediately.

Paul let them know there was so much more available to them in terms of experiencing God’s power. He laid his hands on them, and Acts tells us they began to speak in tongues and prophesy.

They encountered the truth of God’s love and a sense of God’s presence. Think how that changes a life—to know, without doubt or fear, that God is real, that God speaks to you and through you.

I want for all of us what Paul wanted for the Ephesians. I want for all of us to have a deep sense of our connection to God, to know the Holy Spirit is at work. I want for all of us to sense that power, and then to see great works happen, not to our glory, but to the glory of God.

All I know to do is what John did as he baptized and Paul did as he guided the church at Ephesus. I declare to you today, the Spirit is present. I declare it to be true, in your lives and in mine.

Whether the Spirit truly changes us has a lot to do with how we have readied ourselves for this powerful manifestation of God. One of the authors in the recent book “A Firm Foundation,” Georgia Pastor Carolyn Moore compares this process to wood catching fire.

For the wood to be ready, time and patience often are needed. The wood has to be dry, free from the outside influences that hinder combustion. It has to heat up enough to reach the combustion point.

“Try to light a wet log and you’ll end up frustrated,” Moore writes. “Try to start a spiritual fire before the heat is there to sustain it, and you’ll end up frustrated at best, burned at worst.”

Our spiritual practices are the kindling, drying the wood and heating it so it will burst into flames. Traditionally, Methodists have called these “means of grace”: worship, Bible study, prayer, fellowship, communion, and caring for the “Matthew 25” people of the world.

The Holy Spirit is the match. But the wood cannot be lit until it is ready. What are you doing to prepare yourselves to catch fire?

Through our lives and through this church called Luminary, may the Spirit bring glorious changes in this world God so desperately loves.

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The Well-Guarded Path

Psalm 1 (NRSV)

Happy are those
   who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
   or sit in the seat of scoffers;

but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
   and on his law they meditate day and night.

They are like trees
   planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
   and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so,
   but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
   nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;

for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
   but the way of the wicked will perish.


In Psalm 1, we have the beginning of a beautiful formula, a theological concoction that has intoxicated God seekers for thousands of years.

Understand God’s will and live according to it, and you will find joy, prospering in all you do. Ignore God’s will, and life will be misery and loss. It is the classic theme of Wisdom literature from the Near East.

The psalm is all about action-oriented choices. A different translation, one by Hebrew professor Robert Alter, captures the first lines more literally from the Hebrew:

Happy the man who has not walked in the wicked’s counsel,
     nor in the way of offenders has stood,
          nor in the session of scoffers has sat.

One chooses where to walk, or with whom to stand or sit. The metaphor then shifts to something very familiar for people raised in an arid climate, the image of fruit trees in need of water. Plant yourself in God’s law, the revelation of God’s will, the Psalm is saying, and like a tree near an always-flowing stream, you will bear fruit. Plant yourself too far from the source of life, and you will wither until dry and blow away.

On the surface, these are beautiful ideas, concepts that fit our desire for justice. Without further development, they can seem quite empty to us, though.

If the opening theme of Psalm 1 were the only theme of Scripture, I would have long ago discarded my study of the Bible. The idea being expressed does not match the reality of what we observe during most of our lifetimes.

Too often, the clearly good people suffer. Too often, it is the wicked who flourish and seem to have all the fruit. Fortunately, Psalm 1 is just one piece of an elaborate puzzle.

The Book of Job is an equally ancient piece of Wisdom literature, and it takes us in a whole different direction. You may remember the story of Job. As it begins, he fits the pattern described in Psalm 1. He is a righteous man, walking with God and prospering mightily in terms of family and wealth.

The problem arises when Satan goes to God and speculates that Job is righteous simply because life is so good for him. Let me strike at him, Satan says, and Job will curse you, God. First, Satan is allowed to strike Job’s possessions and family. Later he’s allowed to strike at Job himself, afflicting him with terrible diseases.

In all of this, Job does not curse God, and he does not relent in his assertion to friends that he has done nothing wrong. He does complain mightily at times, though, and once he begins, he moves beyond his own problems and complains about how the wicked flourish and abuse the righteous, including orphans and widows, and God seems to do nothing.

You reach a story like Job’s in Scripture, and you realize the Bible deals with some very deep subjects. We may not find satisfying answers in Job to these deep questions about evil’s persistence, but at least the questions are asked.

So, with its simple opening formula, is Psalm 1 irrelevant? No, not at all. Its theme is a beginning point for us to think theologically.

If you teach a child something, you have to begin in a simple place. There is good, and good is what we must pursue. There is evil, and evil must be avoided.

The later, more complicated questions we ask as we mature do not change how the early, simple lessons need to be structured. And as our spiritual understanding grows and matures, the Bible is there for us every step of the way.

This is why it is so important for us to engage with the Bible continually throughout our lives. If we hear what seem like simple stories and lessons as children, and never return to the Bible as we experience more and more of life, we will think Scripture is irrelevant. And in the process, we miss so much that is useful as we continue to live.

When Jesus arrives on the scene in the grand narrative of Scripture, his teachings seem designed to take us deeper while also simultaneously emphasizing the early truths we learn.

Parables are a good example. Jesus teaches in parables to perplex us until we ponder for awhile, and in pondering we discover powerful new truths. Through Jesus―God among us, Immanuel―we learn that God loves us in ways the Jews had scarcely imagined. God pours out on the world what seems, from our perspective, to be this most illogical love, a love unearned and undeserved.

At the same time, Jesus teaches us to never let go of what we learned from the start. We are to come to God with the faith of a child, trusting that the basic lessons found in places like Psalm 1 really are true.

Yes, in the end, righteous, good people really do prosper; in the end, wicked sinners have nothing but failure and loss.

You heard me say “in the end” twice there, of course. So often, answering our difficult theological questions simply is a matter of perspective. We are confused because in our grief, in our pain, we have trouble with the bigger picture, which again, Scripture provides.

If you’re paying close attention, even Psalm 1 alone offers that bigger picture. As the psalm ends, the wicked and the righteous get their just deserts at the judgment, rather than right away. The path of the righteous may seem difficult, at times, but it is well-guarded. God ensures it leads to eternity with him.

Thousands of years ago, even suffering Job sensed the bigger picture in the midst of all his pain. In the 19th chapter of his story, he suddenly says prophetically, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

We are blessed to know Job’s Redeemer as Jesus Christ. Knowing Jesus and believing in Jesus, we will have both justice and joy, neither of which will ever depart from our lives for all eternity.

 

Joyous Gentiles

Romans 15:7-13 (NLT)

Therefore, accept each other just as Christ has accepted you so that God will be given glory. Remember that Christ came as a servant to the Jews to show that God is true to the promises he made to their ancestors. He also came so that the Gentiles might give glory to God for his mercies to them. That is what the psalmist meant when he wrote:

“For this, I will praise you among the Gentiles;
   I will sing praises to your name.”
And in another place it is written,

“Rejoice with his people,
   you Gentiles.”
And yet again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles.
   Praise him, all you people of the earth.”
And in another place Isaiah said,

“The heir to David’s throne will come,
   and he will rule over the Gentiles.
They will place their hope on him.”


I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.


Let’s focus on Paul’s concept of the Gentiles, the word for people not of Jewish descent.

The Bible as a whole is a very Jewish story. While God is the creator of all people and things, what we now call the Old Testament is told very much from a Jewish perspective, a viewpoint that continues into the New Testament.

By the 12th chapter of Genesis, Abraham and his descendants are quickly established in the biblical narrative as God’s Chosen People, the ones who desire, seek and finally possess the Promised Land.

Non-Jews are merely supporting actors on the stage, people who rise and fall depending on their interaction with the main characters. And yet, there are clues all along regarding how God loves all of creation, and how God’s close relationship with the Jews leads to salvation globally.

As I’ve already noted earlier in this Romans series, we can see the broadness of God’s plan in the first promise made to the man eventually called Abraham.  God tells him to go toward Canaan. There will be blessings for those who bless you, God says, and there will be curses for those who curse your venture. But most importantly for our meditation today, the father of the Jews is told “all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.”

In our text today, Paul quotes from the Psalms, Deuteronomy and Isaiah to demonstrate how the plan for the Jews was designed to become a plan for all people.

Our problem in understanding this plan has been a problem of time. God’s plan plays out over thousands of years, and individually, we are just mist, curling into a brief shape and then vanishing.

For the Jews, it is easy to get lost in the idea of being special, set apart as an example of holy living before God. They can become so focused on their unique relationship with God that they forget the whole purpose of their existence, to be a light to all the world so that salvation may spread.

For Christian Gentiles, it is easy for us to forget that our Savior is a very Jewish carpenter, a descendant of Abraham. Often this forgetfulness can express itself simply as disinterest in the Old Testament, but the effects also can be much, much worse. Some of history’s most horrific acts of madness have occurred when people calling themselves Christians have seen the Jews as enemies, persecuting and killing them.

Paul offers us a broader way to see Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is the bridge allowing the promise of salvation to be exported from the Jews to the Gentiles.

We see the transition happen in Jesus’ ministry. Mostly his ministry is a very Jewish one, reflecting the Jewish perspective on Gentiles. Just look at Matthew 15:21-28, where Jesus calls Gentiles “dogs.” In the story, he does ultimately point out the power of faith and hint at the unexpected grace to come, but the rude reference comes as a shock.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 12, verse 20, we see Jesus transition from Jewish Messiah to global Christ. Here, Jesus has just ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey to the cheers of the people. Greeks—to a Jew, just a particular kind of Gentile—ask to see Jesus.

The odd thing about the telling of this story is we don’t know if the Greeks ever spoke to Jesus. The whole point of the story is that Jesus sees deep meaning in their arrival. Gentiles are seeking him, and now it is time to die for the sins of all people, Jew or Gentile. If you keep reading in John, it is clear Jesus’ mind is set on the cross once those Greeks ask to see him.

Christians, you know how the story continues. Jesus goes to the cross and dies. And then, glory of glories, there is the resurrection.

Word spreads, and spreads, and spreads, and here we are today, in Ten Mile, Tennessee, on the other side of the planet, worshiping Jesus Christ. Mostly we are the descendants of a bunch of Gentiles, knowing we have eternal life because of a promise made to and through the Jews thousands of years ago.

I guess we’re just a bunch of lucky dogs!


The featured image is “We Would See Jesus,” James Tissot, circa 1885.

The Radical Love List

Romans 12:9-21 (NLT)

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.

Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,

“I will take revenge;
   I will pay them back,”
   says the Lord.


Instead,

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.
   If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
   burning coals of shame on their heads.”


Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.


In many ways, Paul here is simply echoing the teachings of Jesus. Jesus had his Sermon on the Mount, and this would be Paul’s Sermon from Corinth, if most scholars are correct about where Paul was when he wrote to the Christians in Rome.

It is best, it seems to me, to go through it concept by concept, much as we might break down the Sermon on the Mount. Again, we are moving rather quickly through Romans. I see about a dozen possible full-length sermons in these verses today.

Broadly, I will say this: Like Jesus, Paul is encouraging a kind of love most of us still consider radical today.

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other.

The key word here, it seems to me, is “genuine.” If we find ourselves faking love in order to look Christian, we need to pause and ask God to help us discern what is wrong. Why do we struggle to love the person before us? What prejudices or old hurts are we carrying that interfere with our God-given ability to love others?

Similarly, if we find ourselves liking what is wrong or failing to appreciate what is good, we may have discovered a spiritual flaw we need to bring to God for healing. Again, what has happened to us that would cause us to like what is wrong, that is, what is contrary to God’s will?

If we want to deepen our prayer lives, a good place to start is a close, prayerful examination of those moments when we may not be reacting to people or situations the way Christians should.

Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying.

This one is easier to understand, I think, as we age. Time seems to go so fast. Time is so easily wasted. Oh, to have back all the time I’ve wasted, time that could have been of benefit to the kingdom! I am embarrassed to think of all the ways I’ve wasted time.

It’s easy to fall into despair. Don’t, Paul is saying. Hope should reign in our hearts. Hey, as Christians, we’re often a mess. We get off-track, off mission. Christ’s power is in the world, though, and remarkable things can happen in a very short period of time.

Yes, time is short. Paul reminds us, however, that there also are painful moments we think will never end. No one wants to be in such moments, but there is an advantage to such times. They represent opportunities to slow down, breathe, and pray.

When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

Hospitality is a Christian virtue that also was a very important Old Testament virtue. This is not about tea-and-cookies hospitality; when rendered into a theological term, hospitality is about radically opening our lives to people in need.

In the Old Testament, we see hospitality in practice when strangers enter a town square or draw near to a herdsman’s tent and are quickly greeted, fed and sheltered. Turning away a traveler was tantamount to sin; there were no Holiday Inns, no Waffle Houses, and you potentially were leaving the person to die.

We also see hospitality in the Old Testament when a prophet finds shelter with a poor widow, and becomes a blessing to his benefactor.

Hospitality is a deep and complicated subject, in part because it requires a commitment to simple living and deep vulnerability to others. I have found it even helps us process difficult subjects like abortion.

If I’ve intrigued any of you at Luminary or elsewhere with a brief mention of hospitality, let me know. It is the kind of topic we can spend weeks exploring in a small study group.

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them.

This seems to be more about our state of mind when victimized than anything else. In the scenario we are to imagine, someone has caused us to suffer, and the first step is to get to the place mentally where we can pray for that person’s well-being and alignment with God.

Praying for our persecutors makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. Maybe you’re dealing with a bully. Hey, even adults deal with bullies. A lot of bullies move from pushing people around on the playground to making life miserable in the workplace. But if that bully is transformed by Christ, everyone’s problem vanishes.

The last thing you want is for your persecutor to grow more closely aligned with the devil. Pray the devil away. Pray the bully finds the peace and joy derived from a close walk with Jesus Christ. Your non-anxious, prayerful presence might even contribute to the conversion!

Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!

Life happens. Joy happens, sorrow happens. Stay in the midst of it all, and as you do, don’t be afraid to carry Christ into every situation you encounter. Again, such behavior is very “on mission,” and when we stay on mission, people are drawn to Jesus Christ.

As for the part about the company of ordinary people and not thinking you know it all—well, I humbly refer you to last week’s sermon.

Never pay back evil with more evil … never take revenge … Instead,

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.
   If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
   burning coals of shame on their heads.”

 

Oooo, boy. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” “Turn the other cheek.” Remember those words of Jesus? Paul really is echoing Jesus here as he quotes from the Old Testament Book of Proverbs.

This is tough stuff. It’s hard to live out personally. It’s even harder to get what so many people call a Christian nation to put it into policy. We’ve been at war 16 years, people—16 years! We’re about to escalate in Afghanistan once again. Some new strategies may be in order.

Paul offers all this up not just as a nice idea, but also as a strategy that should lead to positive results. He is saying, Let your goodness stand in such striking contrast to other people’s badness that the bad feel ashamed, and ultimately they will change their ways. In modern terms, we call this “nonviolent direct action.”

And yes, it does work. All you have to do is study the strategies and results achieved by people like Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi.

Yes, it’s also dangerous. Both the men I just mentioned died while living out such a strategy. But despite their deaths—we even can accurately say, in response to their deaths—larger victories were won.

Earlier this week, I put something on our church website and in our September newsletter arguing that this commitment to Christian nonviolence is precisely what we lack in our culture today. We need some brave Christians willing to stand against this tendency toward violence that is creeping into our national conversations.

Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.

After all that talk of peacemaking, Paul uses a conquest metaphor. We are reminded that we are in a war, a spiritual war that plays out all too often on a very physical level. As you enter the fray, enter it boldly, but understand that truths revealed by Jesus Christ are our weapons.

By the way, the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Christ wins! And because we stand with Christ, we win, too!

The Merciful Sovereign

Romans 9:14-29 (NLT)

Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses,

“I will show mercy to anyone I choose,
   and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.”

So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it.

For the Scriptures say that God told Pharaoh, “I have appointed you for the very purpose of displaying my power in you and to spread my fame throughout the earth.” So you see, God chooses to show mercy to some, and he chooses to harden the hearts of others so they refuse to listen.

Well then, you might say, “Why does God blame people for not responding? Haven’t they simply done what he makes them do?”

No, don’t say that. Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory. And we are among those whom he selected, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles.

Concerning the Gentiles, God says in the prophecy of Hosea,

“Those who were not my people,
   I will now call my people.
And I will love those
   whom I did not love before.”

And,

“Then, at the place where they were told,
   ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called
   ‘children of the living God.’”
And concerning Israel, Isaiah the prophet cried out,

“Though the people of Israel are as numerous as the sand of the seashore,
   only a remnant will be saved.
For the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth
   quickly and with finality.”
And Isaiah said the same thing in another place:

“If the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
   had not spared a few of our children,
we would have been wiped out like Sodom,
   destroyed like Gomorrah.”


Sometimes the Bible forces us to think until it hurts. Paul is doing that to us in Romans today.

If that bothers you, sorry. If that doesn’t bother you, congratulations—you may be on the verge of getting a glimpse of God’s mind via Paul’s writings.

This particular passage for centuries has caused the church to think until it hurts. Differences of opinion regarding how to read it and related passages have pushed Christians into two camps. One would be the Christians who believe God predestines who gets to experience eternal life. The other camp would be Christians who believe choosing or rejecting Jesus ultimately makes the difference, although these people also emphasize that our ability to choose is a gift from God.

People in the first group are called Calvinists; they include denominations like Presbyterians, certain kinds of Baptists, and just about any church with the word “Reformed” in its name.

People in the second group are called Arminians. Methodists would be among the Arminians. I don’t have time to get into a lot of church history today, but with the internet, the history of the differences between Calvinists and Arminians is easy to find.

You may recall from last week’s sermon that Paul has been talking about the twins Jacob and Esau. Both were in the direct lineage of Abraham, but only one, Jacob, was a part of the promise intended to bless the whole world. If you look at the story in Genesis, you can see that even before they were born, God had a preference for Jacob and what sounds like an intense dislike of Esau.

In today’s text, Paul gives another example, this one found in Exodus. There you will find the story of Moses confronting the leader of Egypt, the Pharaoh. And in that story, you’ll notice a puzzling pattern.

Sometimes Pharaoh heard Moses’ warnings and “hardened his heart” against God’s plan on his own. Other times, God directly hardened Pharaoh’s heart, in order that the mighty story of the plagues and the escape by the Israelites from Egypt could play out in full and to the glory of God. When you read the story closely, Pharaoh looks like a chess pawn, something to be used and discarded according to God’s purposes.

Paul also resorts to an analogy, one common to Jewish tradition. God is like a potter, Paul says. He makes his individual creations however he wants, and he uses his creations however he wants. One pot may be for art, and the other may be fashioned as a garbage container.

As we noted last week, from a human perspective, God’s preference for one person over another or one group of people over another can seem unfair. Paul’s answer to this protest is pretty straightforward—in fact, his answer is the main point of this text.

God is sovereign. As Creator, God has a kingship no human could ever match. Being all-powerful, God can do anything he wants. Being all-knowing, God can see his creation from the beginning to the end of time, and on into eternity.

The message is designed to humble us, particularly those of us who have an inflated sense of self-importance. Who are we, compared to God? If we truly understand who God is, we sin when we look at God and say, “Unfair!”

Instead, we should be driven toward an attitude of submission, to a desire to simply serve God in whatever way we were made to serve. I’m reminded of John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

We essentially are praying, “I submit to being whatever kind of pottery you need me to be.” It is a sobering prayer. But let me take a few more minutes to remind myself, and you, why I am glad to be a Methodist. For we do take this message of God’s sovereignty and ultimately find great joy in it.

We do this by looking at Paul’s words in a much larger context. Yes, God seems to have a preference for one person over another or one group of people over another. At a minimum, he seems to have such preferences during critical moments in history, those times when he directly propels forward the Great Promise, the blessing designed for all families on earth.

We know, however, that God is a most merciful sovereign. In human kings, mercy has always been seen as a powerful virtue, although often a missing virtue. In God the King of Creation, mercy is perfect. The great merciful sovereign pours out grace on his subjects in ways no earthly king ever could.

The best example, of course, is the king coming among us as Jesus Christ, teaching us about the power of love and then, in an act of love, dying on the cross for our sins. Once again, we are reminded of that great verse from the Gospel of John. Here is John 3:16 in the New Living Translation:

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

If the Great Sovereign were not somehow giving us a choice, I don’t think these words in John would be possible. Also, I don’t think Paul would have written earlier and later in Romans of the need to spread the Good News about the cross. When I return from vacation in a couple of weeks, we’re going to hear a lot from Paul about the importance of spreading the Good News.

Why involve humans in sharing the message if choosing Christ is irrelevant? Why all the talk in the gospels, Romans and elsewhere about the importance of faith if the decision regarding who is saved is fixed from the start?

I will admit, I cannot fully explain how an all-knowing, all-powerful God who “elects” and “chooses” people throughout much of Scripture also gives us the freedom to say yes or no to him. I try not to resort to the word “mystery” too often, but it likely applies here. We are, after all, talking about how the mind of God works, and I do not see how a human mind, or even millions of human minds working together, can fully understand the mind of God.

I do know, however, that the mind of God is a loving mind, and that Christ’s death and resurrection express that love fully. We are blessed to have such a king.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What About the Jews?

Romans 9:1-13 (NLT)

With Christ as my witness, I speak with utter truthfulness. My conscience and the Holy Spirit confirm it. My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them. They are the people of Israel, chosen to be God’s adopted children. God revealed his glory to them. He made covenants with them and gave them his law. He gave them the privilege of worshiping him and receiving his wonderful promises. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are their ancestors, and Christ himself was an Israelite as far as his human nature is concerned. And he is God, the one who rules over everything and is worthy of eternal praise! Amen.

Well then, has God failed to fulfill his promise to Israel? No, for not all who are born into the nation of Israel are truly members of God’s people! Being descendants of Abraham doesn’t make them truly Abraham’s children. For the Scriptures say, “Isaac is the son through whom your descendants will be counted,” though Abraham had other children, too. This means that Abraham’s physical descendants are not necessarily children of God. Only the children of the promise are considered to be Abraham’s children. For God had promised, “I will return about this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

This son was our ancestor Isaac. When he married Rebekah, she gave birth to twins. But before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad, she received a message from God. (This message shows that God chooses people according to his own purposes; he calls people, but not according to their good or bad works.) She was told, “Your older son will serve your younger son.” In the words of the Scriptures, “I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau.”


No one likes to think about losing someone he or she loves. Paul is concerned about losing the vast majority of his people, the Jews, for all eternity.

It is a disturbing idea for any loving person even today, one that can still puzzle us if we have Jewish friends, or for that matter, friends of any faiths other than Christianity. What about the Jews, specifically those Jews who do not see Christ as the Messiah? What about the other people around us who have never accepted Christ or even flatly reject the idea of Jesus as savior?

Paul clearly is in pain as he raises the topic in his letter to the Romans. This is not some vague theological exercise for him. As he rhetorically explores the issue, he surely is thinking of specific people: family; mentors, perhaps like his respected teacher Gamaliel; sincere fellow students who had rigorously studied Judaism alongside him; the faithful Jewish vendor who sold him lunch in the marketplace.

We have to be careful not to read too much into his angst, however. While he is in pain for his people, the Jews, he does not speak as a man wrestling with a question. In that way, he is very different from some of us. Paul knows the answer because he has directly experienced the risen Christ. He understands and accepts the exclusive claims Christ made regarding his ministry and his sacrifice on the cross.

When we struggle with the question, “What about the others,” we actually are debating an idea that has been clearly defined for us in Scripture. A lot of us simply don’t like the answer. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life; there is no other way for sinful beings to reconnect to a holy God except through Jesus. (I’m referencing the Gospel of John, chapter 14, verses 1 through 11, here.)

Sometimes, it doesn’t seem fair. Paul says as much in next week’s text, although he quickly discounts this notion of unfairness. In this week’s text, he notes the Jews were “adopted” by God as the People of Israel, using the same familial language we heard last week when we considered our own status as adopted children. He recounts the history of revealed glory and covenants entered, and the giving of the law. Worship has been happening among the Jews, and promises were made.

It just seems like they’ve been trying so hard! The same can be said for our religious non-Christian friends, and Gandhi, and the Dalai Lama, and all those other good people we have seen.

If you take Scripture seriously at all, though, some truths about the nature of Jesus are undeniable. Jesus came as the result of those promises to the Jews. He is the ultimate fulfillment of the promises, a fulfillment so great that from Jesus’ day on, we live in a time described to Abraham thousands of years ago.

Through Abraham’s Jewish descendants, God has blessed “all the families on earth” (Genesis 12:3). He has gone to great lengths to ensure any human being can be saved from sin simply by believing. If the Jews reject Jesus, they reject a promise first made to them. If others reject Jesus, they reject a promise extended to all of humanity.

Perhaps our problem with the exclusive claims of Christianity lies not in how God works, but in how we respond to God’s work. We sit back and say, “How can God be working this way,” and never for a moment consider what we are called to do in response to Christ’s sacrifice and the resultant gift being offered.

If you’re concerned about someone’s relationship with God, you are called to witness to the truth of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. To do so, you need to understand the message so well that you can relate it to nonbelievers in a winsome, non-threatening, non-judgmental way.

The non-judgmental part is very important, by the way. Only God can ultimately determine who is aligned with him and who is not. We are called to bear his loving invitation to others, not his judgment.

There is an art to such witnessing, and all of us as Christians need to develop this art form as best we can.

Someone among this congregation recently put it this way in reference to evangelism: How much do you have to hate a person to not tell that person about Jesus? Those of us who call ourselves Christians know the source of eternal life; we have found the path to God.

It is as if you are crawling through the scorching desert with others, dying of thirst, and you stumble across a cool, flowing spring rising up out of the sand.

How dare you not call out, “The water is here! It’s here!” You would have to really hate those other people to leave them to their deaths, crawling around in the sand.

If there seems to be a gap in God’s plan for salvation, it’s very possible our reluctance to share the Good News contributes greatly to the gap.

Paul concludes what we hear today by starting a deeper examination of why some seem to be favored by God while others are not. He reminds his audience of a very Jewish story, the story of the twins Jacob and Esau. Even before birth, one is clearly favored by God, while the other is not.

It will take us a few weeks to unpack the idea he is offering us here. Prepare to go deep.


The featured image is Giovanni Maria Bottala’s “Meeting between Esau & Jacob,” circa 1638.

 

Mind Wars

Romans 7:14-25 (NLT)

So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.


Most of us intuitively understand what Paul means when he writes, “I want to do what is is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” We’ve been there. We’ve done that.

His statement is, of course, in the context of his long conversation in Romans about the law, how it was given to us so we could better understand right and wrong. It also is rooted in a related thought he has been repeating, that we are too broken by our sinfulness to live holy lives by our own effort.

Paul also is moving us toward a deeper understanding of the spiritual world around us and how it influences us. For modern Christians, this concept may elude us a little. Some other Bible stories may help. Be sure to click the links to read the stories.

Daniel’s Tardy Angel

Daniel was praying to understand why his people remained in captivity. After three weeks of prayer and fasting, he received a vision and heard directly from an angel.

I’m not focusing on the vision, which had to do with revelations about the end times. Instead, I want to focus on the angel’s reason for taking three weeks to deliver the answer to Daniel’s prayers. He was delayed by an evil force, and ultimately the archangel Michael, known for his prowess in battle, had to arrive on the scene to make delivery of the message possible.

In this story, we receive a rare glimpse of what is usually unseen, the struggle between the forces of good and evil on a spiritual plane. And yes, what happens there affects world events.

The Sorcerer’s Folly

This story in Acts reminds us of how humans and evil spirits can combine forces to contend for the allegiance of one person, particularly if that person may have some worldly influence. The sorcerer’s motive is made clear in the text: He wanted to keep the governor from believing. The governor is described as an intelligent man, so we can presume this sorcerer kept his victim spellbound with an impressive bag of tricks, gifts from the evil spirits who worked within and alongside the sorcerer.

Paul dealt with the situation head on, trusting in the Holy Spirit to take the lead. He declared precisely for whom the sorcerer worked. The Holy Spirit won out, and the governor became a true believer.

Porcine Possession

Modern people often want to re-orient biblical stories about the spiritual world toward a more modern understanding of events, chalking up behaviors seen in the Bible to epilepsy or mental illness.

Yes, epilepsy and mental illness are very real conditions that can occur in our broken bodies. But at the same time, there are stories in the Bible that show us the negative direct effects spiritual powers can have upon us.

The demons in this story know Jesus’ full identity more clearly than any of the disciples would have known at this time. And yet the demons are pulling hard in the other direction, wreaking havoc in the lives of these two men in need of healing.

Modern minds also should note that mental illness is not directly transferable to pigs. This story is rooted in the spiritual world, not a medical journal.

The Victorious Life

Spiritual evil is real. It has a powerful influence on our lives, and the battle for our minds is real and should not be ignored. For a Christian seeking truth in Scripture, these are undeniable biblical principles.

Paul initially joins us in a universal lament, acknowledging the despair we can feel. “Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death!”

But remember the core message of Romans: We are freed from the trap. Christ’s death on the cross and ensuing resurrection represent a victory over sin and death we could not win. Through belief, we gain a new power.

Often as Christians, we focus on the moment of belief, the day and time we were saved. As we proceed in Romans, however, Paul is going to tell us more about how we tap into and use the power we are graciously given by our loving God. We are going to learn from Paul how to grow in strength as we contend with evil every day.

We are about to learn how to live life in the Spirit.


The featured image is a detail of Michael the archangel, from a 1488 painting by Bartolomeo Vivarini.