No Strength to Answer

This past Sunday we were examining the first few verses in Luke 14. I try to follow along in my Greek text, not that I am a Greek expert, but I am trying to recover what I lost, or gain what I never had. Anyway, we were reading along and I came across a word in v. 6 that I thought I recognized, and lo and behold – I was right!

Luke 14:6 is one of those innocuous verses that on first reading just gets filed away under “interesting, but let’s move on.” But there really is a fascinating phrase here that Luke chose to use. This verse is one of those verses that cannot have a direct “one-to-one” translation – and no translation that I looked up even attempts such a thing. The basic meaning is found in every translation I researched – the Pharisees and those at the meal could not respond to Jesus’s questions (note the context).

What I found to be noteworthy, however, is that the word Luke chose to convey this inability is also the word that has the meaning of strength, or power. The meaning of “ability” is also present in the word, so it is not like our English editions have mistranslated the word. But it is this nuance of strength, or power, that got me to wondering if Luke did not have more in mind than just saying the Pharisees were flummoxed, stymied, mentally stuck.

A purely colloquial way of translating the sentence would be that the Pharisees were mentally gassed, they were brain fried, they had brain cramps, their brain muscles no longer worked. Jesus asked them a question that just short circuited their synapses. It was not just that they could not come up with the right words to answer Jesus – they didn’t have anything left in the tank to even come up with any words.

All of this got me to thinking – I just wonder how we would be able to answer any of Jesus’s questions. We who are so smart, who have learned to take God’s word and “contextualize” it so that it no longer offends anyone. We who have realized that with the concept of “progressive revelation” all we have to do is to decide what we want the Scriptures to say, and then teach that God really wanted his word to agree with us. We, who with the passage of time, have come to realize that God could not have possibly meant all those mean, nasty, ugly things that the Old Testament says could actually have any meaning for good, polite Christians like us.

Jesus took one command, one seemingly tiny little fragment of the Old Law, and just obliterated the Pharisee’s defenses. The keeping of the Sabbath might not have been the only linchpin in the Pharisee’s theology, but it was certainly a key component. Jesus proved, with one itty, bitty little question, how fragile that theology was.

The scary thing is, the Pharisees had far, far more evidence on which to build their theology of Sabbath keeping than we have for most, if not all, of our cherished traditions. (Through Ezekiel, the LORD excoriated the Jews for their violations of the Sabbath day. The Pharisees were, at least on one level, simply trying to obey the teachings of Ezekiel, and to a lesser degree, Jeremiah.)

All of which simply goes to support the major thesis of this blog. We had better be careful – extraordinarily careful – that what we say and teach comes from the mind and heart of God. We must always make sure that we are standing under Scripture, and not above it. We do not explain to God what his writings teach, we correct our beliefs, attitudes and actions according to his words. If need be, we let Jesus’s questions blow up our theology – and short circuit our synapses.

We ascend by climbing lower.

Living in a Negative Image World

Showing my age here – the title of this post is not about negativity (although, that is a part of it). What I am thinking about relates to the world of photography when you actually had to expose an image onto film, then take that film into a darkroom and develop it onto a sheet of photographic paper. The image on the film was the negative, the final product was the picture, or print. It’s just mind-boggling how we live in a negative image world today. Consider:

  • If a criminal resists arrest and is forcefully detained, it is the policeman’s fault.
  • If a child does not perform adequately on an exam, it is the teacher’s fault.
  • If a worker is lazy, unproductive, uncooperative, and is therefore fired, it is the employer’s fault.
  • If a person drinks to the point of drunkenness and then goes out and kills someone in a car, it is the victim’s fault for causing the drunk person’s mental anguish.
  • And, as I have pointed out in my last couple of posts, if someone rejects the message of Jesus, it is the church’s, or more specifically, the preacher’s fault.

Somewhere along the line we have reversed truth and error, cause and effect. It is as if we have reversed our magnetic poles – positive is now negative, and the negative has now become the print. When I was growing up my peers and I rebelled against what we thought of as an oppressive truth, but at least we had a uniform concept of what that truth was. Today there is no truth – or, to be more accurate, truth is whatever the single, solitary individual decides it to be.

If you can choose your own sex, if you can reject anything that displeases you as “fake news,” if your entire concept of reality begins and ends with what you are feeling in the moment, then what is to become of a society that depends on some form of permanence, some reality that transcends the ghetto of this rampant narcissism?

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20, ESV)

How we as a culture arrived at this point is instructive, but I’m not sure it is entirely prescriptive of how we are going to recover – if that recovery is even possible. This journey into negative images spans at least a half-century, and the case could be made that it extends much further back than that. But, the reality is that at least one entire generation, and maybe a second, is alive that only views the world through a reversed image – they have no concept of what the final, and true, picture is. All they see is the negative.

In the darkness that this reversed-reality world creates, I am reminded of what I believe to be the three central themes of the book of Revelation: Endure Patiently, Overcome Faithfully, and Worship Joyfully. I cannot change an entire culture by myself. But I can, and must, worship the One who sees and knows and ultimately controls all.

Let us show the world the beauty of the real image – the print that the negative is designed to reveal! Let us ascend by climbing lower.

The Bible’s Greatest Silence . . . and the Church’s Loudest Cry

I don’t know what got me started on this, but something dawned on me the other day. The Bible says absolutely nothing about a topic that, you would think from the amount of ink (and pixels) it receives, is the most important subject in the entire canon. That subject is making the message of the Bible relevant, or “contextualizing” it, to the culture to which it is spoken. You can search from Genesis to the maps in the back of your Bible and you just will not find God telling his prophets (or authors) to make sure they write, and speak, so as not to offend or criticize their audience. Yet, again, you would think that the greatest offense of the church in the twenty-first century is doing just that.

I guess I started thinking about this because in my daily Bible reading I am reading through Isaiah and Jeremiah. Both of these prophets are just brutal when it comes to pillorying their opponents, the idolaters. Or, if you would like, read Ezekiel and see what he thinks of those who say they are married to God and yet sleep with other gods. Keep going and see how Micah, Amos, Hosea, and the other “minor” prophets deal with apostasy, idolatry, and social injustice. I think Amos calling the aristocratic ladies of Israel a bunch of “fat heifers” (in the West Texas translation of the Bible) was a brilliant stroke of political correctness (not!).

Yet, in today’s limp-wristed, namby-pamby world of emotionally insecure snowflakes, such language is just atrocious (see what I did there?). Preachers have to be “culturally sensitive” lest they be accused of being “tone deaf,” “judgmental,” and “unfeeling.” Grrrr. If you remove all the “tone deaf, judgmental, and unfeeling” sections out of the Bible, what are you left with? Remember Jesus called his opponents a bunch of snakes? I am not suggesting we today have the same kind of clairvoyance that Jesus had, but honestly . . . to think that he never offended anyone is just ludicrous.

But, but, but – what about Paul and the Athenians, you ask? Okay – let’s go there. First, Paul was invited to speak at the Areopagus because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection, not because he was espousing Plato and Aristotle. Second, it did not take Paul long at all before he got to the point about God’s judgment and the need for the Athenians to repent. And finally, while he did have some success in Athens, Luke leads us to believe that the majority of Paul’s audience either mocked or just ignored him. The problem was not Paul – it was the Athenian refusal to hear God’s word.

God never berates his spokesmen (and women) because they do not “contextualize” their message. In fact, it is the very opposite. God only blames the hearer, not the preacher, for unbelief. Such audiences have “ears to hear, but do not hear, and eyes to see, but do not see.” If the message is God’s message, then the responsibility is on the hearer, not the preacher, for acceptance. God never  reprimanded Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel or any other prophet because the people’s ears were plugged up or because their hearts were hard as stone.

I don’t think today’s problem in the church is that we do not contextualize the message.

I think the problem today is we don’t believe the message ourselves – so why should the world think any different?

Stop Trying to Defend God!

Add the name Andy Stanley to the list of “mega-church pastors” who feel like they have to defend God from himself. The list is long and shameful. Poor God – without guys like Stanley and Rob Bell and Brian McLaren (and a few others who hit much closer to home) – God would not stand a chance in this world. But, with their apologies and explanations, God can sleep comfortably at night, knowing his honor is well protected.

C.S. Lewis was much more than a Christian defender. He was also a prophet, of sorts. He recognized that in his day something profound had occurred, and whether Lewis knew it or not, it was only going to get worse. What Lewis observed was that prior to the Enlightenment (and really maybe even closer to his day), man lived with the reality that God was right, and therefore mankind had to adjust its understanding of “right” to line up with that of the Divine. However, Lewis noted, in his day it was not God as the judge and man as the accused, but it was Man that was the judge and God that was in the dock (in our judicial system, at the defense table). Today, more than ever, God has to be defended, protected, and absolved of many pernicious crimes.

This is exactly what so many “Christian” leaders espouse today. God might not be wrong, per se, but he is clumsy, rash, intemperate. He has a really bad P.R. department, and it is up to this new generation of preacher/apologists to set the record straight. They do this by “explaining” the text in such a way that it really doesn’t say what it says. So, God “really” did not destroy Sodom because of sexual deviancy – it was because of social injustice. God did not “really” command the Israelites to destroy nations – he only wanted them to nudge them out of the land a little. And, if they cannot set the record straight – they simply expunge the record. If the Old Testament is embarrassing, simply “un-hitch” the Old Testament from your Christianity and then you will not have to carry around all that excess baggage.

Of course, none of this can fit the definition of biblical Christianity – it is decidedly unbiblical. The sad thing is that these mega-pastors have such a star-struck and devoted following that the issue, the teaching, cannot be questioned because to do so casts aspersions against the teacher – and that simply cannot be allowed.

I worry a lot about the church. I worry because I see and hear so much that resembles this noxious teaching – that somehow or another we have to sanitize the Bible, that we have to make the church “relevant” or we have to “make the gospel appealing” to our culture. I hear and read so much about how we have to change our message. All of this ultimately puts the blame on God and the biblical writers for our unbelief or outright rebellion.

Let’s face it – at the core of the biblical message there is a very unpleasant and disagreeable fact – all men and women have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. There is only one way for God to deal with this sin, and it is through his divine judgment. For those of us living today, the central event of that judgment was the cross of Jesus where he took our guilt and shame and paid the price for our rebellion. The light and beauty of the sacrifice of Jesus can only be properly understood in the depth of the darkness of human sin. God does not have to be justified or defended – man does. This is what the Old Testament and the New Testament both attest. To be embarrassed by the Old Testament – or for the New Testament, for that matter – is to be embarrassed by God himself.

Just stop trying to defend God! He doesn’t need your help, and you only make yourself look like a fool when you try. If what you read in the Bible does not line up with your sensibilities – who is wrong? You, or God? Before you accuse God of sin, I think you had better review your facts.

Let us ascend by descending lower.

Political – or Biblical?

As a preaching minister I have long made it a goal to avoid overt political posturing in the pulpit. One of the most egregious violations of this principle occurred while I was actually not preaching, but the offending preacher did everything in his power except name names in attempting to get the congregation to vote for one particular candidate. I do my best to avoid overt political issues for one very important reason: I believe doing so cheapens the message of the gospel. Our political system cannot be placed on a par with the message and mission of the church. In my opinion, there should be a very clear boundary separating preaching the gospel from advocating for a political party or candidate.

The question arises, however – just what constitutes political posturing and what constitutes biblical preaching? Let me explain with a simple scenario:

Let’s say one Sunday I stand and preach a sermon condemning homosexual behavior, and along with that the behavior all of the associated gender-bending issues that our culture is being inundated with today. If I were to assemble a cross section of all of the congregations of which I have been a member, I would hazard a guess that the overwhelming majority of them would compliment my lesson, tell me I was very brave, and generally not even consider whether the sermon was political or not. So, the very next Sunday I get in the pulpit and preach a “hell fire and brimstone” sermon condemning greed, covetousness, and the racial/economic discrimination that our free-market capitalism has produced in America. Without any firm numbers, I can say almost without hesitation that those very same people who were so supportive of my condemnation of sexual perversions would have a very negative reaction to my sermon on economic perversions. Whether they would actually confront me or not (and a few would), my guess is that the overwhelming majority of them would categorize a sermon condemning racial and economic discrimination as being “political,” while a sermon condemning sexual sins as being “biblical.”

Yet, from cover to cover, does the Bible have more to say about racial, social, and economic injustice, or sexual sins? Consider the teachings of Jesus – which subject occupies more of Jesus’s time and attention? This is not to say that sexual sins are never addressed – the New Testament is replete with exhortations toward sexual purity and condemnations of sexual misbehavior. I am only illustrating a point – which subject receives the majority of discussion? In my understanding the results are not even close. While either or both subjects could be addressed as political topics, it is perfectly possible, and I would say necessary, to address both as matters of biblical doctrine

Speaking only for myself here, but I think the answer to this problem lies not with our desire to re-write the Bible. Its just that, in the words that I saw on Twitter the other day, it is so much easier to confess other’s people’s sins than it is to confess our own. It is easy to condemn sexual sins because, at least for the majority of Christians, that condemnation has been a part of our vocabulary since we were little children. Greed, covetousness, avarice, racial discrimination – all of these things have been singled out as being sinful, but how does one identify a greedy person when everyone in the community is bent on buying the latest model car, the newest cell phone, the most popular makes of clothing, etc.? It is easy for “conservative” Christians to wag our finger in the face of an adulterer or practicing homosexual, but who wants to condemn covetousness while we are standing in line for the newest and greatest smart phone?

So, I will continue to maintain my aversion to preaching overtly political sermons. I refuse to preach “get out and vote” sermons just before elections, because I do not want the cross of Christ to be seen as some platform for our American political system. But – and read me careful here – faithful preachers should reserve the right to preach on every issue discussed in the pages of Scripture that has a direct bearing on the manner in which a disciple of Christ lives his or her life. That means when the text demands we preach against sexual sins, we will preach against sexual sins. And when the text demands that we preach against issues related to racial discrimination, legal justice, and economic fairness, we will preach on those issues as well.

I just pray that when I do preach on any subject, I do so with the humility of Christ (and his apostles), knowing that the first person that hears any of my sermons is the man in the mirror. Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it “theology from below,” and its a pretty good description. Let us all realize we are called to live under Scripture, not above it as its master.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Ezra’s Prayer (Ezra 9)

I’ve been preaching on prayer (if you do not get the irony of that, let me know) and I’m finally getting around to examining some of the prayers in Scripture. This past Sunday I started with Ezra’s great prayer of confession. Some passages just preach themselves without any comment from preachers like me – but I went ahead and added my thoughts on this great chapter. Probably ruined the sermon. Here are some highlights (or low lights, depending on your perspective.)

I wrote my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry on the topic of confession, so I guess you could say I’m kind of nerdy about the topic. Having worked for about 2 years in general, and several months intensively, on this subject, there are passages regarding confession that just jump out at me. It should be obvious that Ezra 9 relates to confession, but there are some aspects of this prayer that stand out to me as being unique – or at the very least – instructive regarding the practice of confession. Here are just a few (and you may discover others!).

First, this prayer is pure confession! There are no dodges, no excuses, no explanations, no sniveling. One of the major hindrances to our prayers of confession is the word “but.” We may have the intention of confessing, but that little three letter word sneaks in and blows the whole process up. We say things like, “God, you know I sinned today, BUT you know I am just a human.” Or this, “God, I sinned today, BUT honestly, the situation I was in was just too much for me to handle.” You will search in vain for anything resembling a “but” in Ezra’s prayer. It is pure confession, from beginning to end.

Second, Ezra owned the sins of his ancestors. He did not try to excuse the behavior of his generation by making his contemporaries look better than their fathers – in fact it was the exact opposite. He owned the sin of his ancestors, and therefore admitted to the sin of his own generation. In a common figure of speech, he admitted that the nuts did not fall very far from the diseased tree. But, look even deeper – by admitting the sin of his fathers, he actually compounded the contemporary sin of his generation. He is saying that instead of being more likely to sin the same sin, his generation should have known better, therefore are guilty of a greater sin – sin upon sin. It takes courage to admit our parents – or grandparents – were wrong. It takes monumental courage to admit that we have compounded the sins of our parents and grandparents.

In Ezra’s specific situation the sin was intermarriage with the pagan peoples surrounding Jerusalem – and therefore opening up the possibility (and even reality) that their worship of idols would soon follow. Ezra confessed the sins of his fathers, and then the sin of his compatriots. I am not suggesting here that every public prayer should include every single sin of every member – there is a clear line between confession and voyeurism. But in our private (or family) prayers I believe specificity is absolutely necessary. Don’t just say, “God, I sinned today.” Be specific. “God, you know I lost my temper and used profane language.” “God, you know I had impure thoughts and sinned with my eyes today.” “God, you know that story I told today was pure gossip, and damaged the reputation of another person.” I do believe that it is possible for a congregation to sin (read Revelation 2-3), and when that sin is realized it must be confessed as well. The point is let us be done with salving our consciences with generic prayers of confession when specificity is demanded.

Third, and this is what I  find very interesting about this prayer, there is not a single word asking God for forgiveness. There is no seeking of absolution here – just pure confession (see point #1). I have been in church services ever since I was just days, or maybe weeks, old. I cannot remember a single prayer that was simply, pure, and unmotivated confession. In fact, except for the generic “Lord, forgive us of our many sins” I have not heard that many prayers of confession at all. Shame on us.

Our culture today teaches us not to make confession – it punishes those who confess and rewards those who dodge confession. Consider the most common form of apology today – “I apologize if I have hurt or offended anyone.” Did you catch what we did there – we put the blame of offense on the other person. In effect what we are saying is, “I don’t think I did anything wrong, but if you do, well, I am so sorry that you have this issue and I deeply regret your thin skin and your hyper sensitivity.” It’s what I call the “Bill Clinton Apology.” Or we could call it the “Donald Trump Apology.” (And, if you are offended that I used the name of Bill Clinton or Donald Trump, I am sorry that you are so thin skinned and hyper-sensitive.)

Just try that with God. “God, I did not do anything wrong, but I am very sorry that you were offended.”

Ezra is frequently seen as a second Moses. Just as Moses led his people out of Egypt and brought them to the mountain of Sinai, so Ezra leads his people out of Babylonian captivity and supervises the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. There are striking parallels. Just one of those parallels is the manner in which Ezra “stands in the breach” here to intercede for the people of Israel. It is a beautiful prayer, a powerful prayer, a dangerous prayer if we fully comprehend it’s import.

What we see in this prayer is the essence of confession. It is pure, it is specific, and there is no begging or cajoling of God to wheedle out a statement of pardon.

It’s what I call ascending by descending lower.

Book Review – Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (John H. Walton)

John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006) 334 pages plus and appendix listing Ancient Near Eastern gods.

I like some books because they are rich and satisfying. I like some books because they challenge and goad me. I like some books because they explain in far greater detail or provide the evidence for what I already intuitively believe to be true. I like some books because when I finish with them I consider myself to be a wiser, or at least more knowledgable person. This book by John Walton elevates each of those reasons to heights I rarely experience.

In phraseology of common digital conversation, My. Mind. Is. Blown.

Many books written on subjects as esoteric as Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) thought can be, and are, so specialized that they are virtually opaque to the average reader. Thankfully, this is NOT one of those books. I do have to admit to a certain degree of eyes-glazed-over and bewildered response to part 2  of the book (a summary of the literature of the ANE) because in my very limited exposure to such literature, it all seemed so repetitive. However, the remaining sections of the book (and the first, for that matter) are simply wonderful in terms of content, ease-of-reading, and application.

A couple of disclaimers are appropriate: first, if you are looking for a book that simply equates the Old Testament with ANE literature, you will be horribly disappointed. Second, if you are looking for a book that proves the Old Testament has nothing in common with ANE literature, you will be horribly disappointed. What Walton sets out to do, and in my opinion accomplishes with great success, is to demonstrate both the similarities and differences between the Old Testament and ANE thought. Here the reader must take careful notice of the title: this is book that examines the Old Testament in light of the conceptual world of the ANE.

I believe one way modern people view the Old Testament is through the idea that the Israelites lived in a protective bubble – that God’s covenant with Abraham through Moses and extending through David and the monarchy somehow protected and insulated the writing of the Old Testament from any outside influences. What Walton demonstrates is that while there are marked differences between Israelite culture and the surrounding nations, the authors of the Old Testament were fully aware of the thought world in which they existed, and that this familiarity shows up in in the text of the Old Testament. By more fully understanding the conceptual thought world of the ANE, both the similarities and the differences between the pagan cultures and the Israelites becomes more explicit.

While my “book reviews” are not actual reviews in the technical sense of the term, I do want to share one aspect of the book that I thoroughly appreciated. Walton devotes the majority of each chapter to the thought world of the ANE (hence, the title of the book). However, within each chapter he pauses to draw attention to a specific aspect of the Old Testament that has a bearing on the subject at hand. These discussions are set off in a grayed-out “side-bar” type of arrangement, and come with their own footnotes. In a pure lecture format, it is as if Walton is stepping back from his main topic and saying, “Okay, that is what the thought of the ANE is, now let’s see how the Old Testament either reflects, or does not reflect, this particular aspect of ANE thought.” While the basic text provides the meat and potatoes of the book, these shorter illustrations provide the icing on the cake, so to speak.

I have honestly rarely been so engrossed in a technical book to the point that I did not want to put it down, and actually looked forward to continue my reading. Maybe I am a nut (okay, that point is not up for debate), but this book was just that good. If I was an instructor in a course of Old Testament study, this book would be mandatory reading. I assure you, if you take Walton’s thesis seriously, you will never read the Old Testament the same way you have always read it (unless, of course, you already accepted Walton’s thesis without knowing it.)

Do not be put off by the technical nature of the subject. This book is easily understandable. All foreign language words are transliterated into English, and if I can follow the author’s train of thought with my embarrassingly limited understanding of ANE literature, anyone can. With all of the usual caveats duly noted (“you are not going to agree with everything the author says,” etc., etc.), I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I so wish I had this material presented to me when I was either in my undergraduate or graduate studies. But, I am thankful I have it now, and I plan on making further examination of this material a point of emphasis in my continued growth in biblical studies.