Saturday, September 13, 2014

Four Curious Examples

God doesn’t always speak through his prophets. There are at least four instances in the New Testament where God’s message is made known through what we might think of as surprising sources.

1.  The Magi. These are the “wise men” that Matthew mentions in the Nativity story. History tells us that the Magi were essentially astrologers who originated in the Zoroastrian religion of Persia. Our English word “magic” is derived from a similar root as the Old Persian word “magus”.  In the Greek world, which was one of the dominant cultures of the Middle East in the First Century, the word “magian” often carried a negative connotation, as hinted at in the book of Acts (Chapter 8), where we are introduced to the Samaritan charlatan Simon Magus. Yet, it was through these Magi from the East that Herod received the startling announcement that the true King of the Jews had been born.

2.  Pilate’s wife. We know neither her name nor much about her except for what some subsequent traditions have purported. Her moment in history is in Matthew 27:19. This one significant event happens when Pilate finds himself struggling with how to deal with the confluence of Jesus’ obvious innocence, the political pressure applied by corrupt religious leaders, and the mob scene demanding action under the threat of a riot. Pilate’s wife enters the scene through a written message to her husband: "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him."

Pilate’ wife was telling the truth and giving a warning. and it raises a curious question related to Amos 3:7: “Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” Was Pilate’s wife an unwitting prophet?

3. The High Priest. John’s gospel relates a comment of Caiaphas the High Priest (“You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish") and of this John says, “Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.…” (John 11:50-52).

The High Priest, as we know, was one of the chief instigators of the persecution and execution of Jesus with the motive of retaining his political power at the expense of seeking truth and justice.  Yet here he is, spouting out inspired prophecy about what Jesus’ purpose was all about. “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation should perish.”

4.  The Girl at Philippi.  In the city of Philippi Paul is preaching the Gospel of Jesus, when he captures the attention of a young female soothsayer. She proclaims, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved." Day after day she makes this proclamation until she becomes such an annoyance that Paul finally has to rebuke the demonic spirit behind this and driving it way.

What should we make of this? Is it as Jesus said, "Forbid him not, for he that is not against us is for us" (Luke 9:50)? 

Maybe it's to realize that God can use whomever he chooses, whenever he chooses, wherever he chooses? Maybe God will get his word out regardless of the receptiveness of the people, using messengers that hostile people might give an ear to? That he in fact will do nothing without first revealing his plans, whether to true prophets or unwitting ones? 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Baseball and Apple Pie

It has been decades since the Kansas City Royals have been a contender. During that drought and growing fan disinterest, I forgot how wonderfully and uniquely American the game of baseball is.

Baseball is a game where everyone takes turns.

Baseball is a game where the defense has the ball.

Baseball is a team sport, but the focus is on individual accomplishment.

In baseball, a 5’ 6” 140 pounder can compete successfully with a 6’ 4” behemoth.

Baseball is a game best watched on the radio.

Baseball is like the US Supreme Court. Even when the umpire is wrong, the decision still stands.

In baseball you can fail seven out of ten times and still be an All Star.

Of the two great American traditions – apple pie and baseball – baseball is better because it doesn’t have any calories.

Baseball’s unique construct -- a team sport where individual effort is spotlighted, honored, and rewarded in real time for all to see --  places it in a unique position for both player and spectator. When you are at the plate and the pitcher is hurling 95 mile an hour fastballs in your direction, your teammates can cheer you on, but you are basically on your own.

When you are standing in left field and the batter launches a shot down the line, it’s up to you to break properly toward the ball and maybe dive to catch it. Your teammates might be there to pick you up, but, again, you are on your own.

Tell me, what could possibly be more American than that?

Maybe that’s why fans bond with individual baseball players in a way that is different from any other sport. Ballplayers from Ty Cobb to Babe Ruth to Joe DiMaggio to Jackie Robinson to Willie Mays to George Brett are to this day, decades and even a century later, cultural icons in a way that other sports find difficult to match. And these players are remembered more for their individual exploits than the teams they played for.

And the ballplayers who broke the rules of good taste and fair play are held in ill repute more, or so it seems, than athletes from other sports. Players are held in derision who juiced their stats through steroids, and prominent players have been banned from the game for actions that brought embarrassment. Thus, for breaking the public trust and breaking the hearts of little boys, justice was served.

On the dais at Cooperstown, Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. spoke about the special bond between player and fan, and more importantly the obligation of player to fan. Said Ripken:

“When I realized that I could use baseball to help make life better especially for the kids, baseball became a platform. By trying to set a good example, I could help influence young people in positive and productive ways. And some of this became apparent to me in my earliest playing days. So as my major league career unfolded, I started playing a little more attention to my actions. I remember when Kenny Singleton showed me a tape of me throwing my helmet down after a strikeout and all he said was, ‘How does that look?’ I remember learning about a family who saved their money to come to Baltimore to see me play. I got thrown out in the first inning and their little boy cried the whole game. I remember how I reacted with anger when dad was fired after an oh and six start, and after each of those events and others, I vowed to act better the next time. …

“As the years passed, it became clear to me that kids see it all, and it's not just some of your actions that influence, it's all of them. Whether we like it or not as big leaguers, we are role models. The only question is will it be positive or will it be negative.”
With apologies to Cal Ripken, Jr., I would add that if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you are also a role model, and as the man said, “the only question is will it be positive or will it be negative.” You represent someone, and when people see you, they expect to see a reflection of the one you represent.   “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Colossians 3:17)  Throwing one’s helmet does no honor to the game or to your calling.  We must be better than that, for people are watching.

I love both baseball and apple pie, but somehow I believe that Whom we represent is bigger than both.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

On Being Right

Let’s admit that politicians flip flop, and they often do it because of the expediency of the moment.  But these people are people just like we are and therefore subject to human weaknesses.  We can say we expect better from our duly elected officials, but we have what we have and often we have the leadership we deserve.

At the same time, what looks like a flip flop might not be a flip flop.  Sir Winston Churchill, who many would say was more statesman than politician, began his political career as a Tory, switched to the Liberal Party, and then between the two world wars flip flopped back to the Tories.

Ronald Reagan as governor of California signed pro-choice legislation into law, but after consideration became a strong advocate for pro-life.  George H. W. Bush took the same path in spite of wife Barbara’s still pro-choice position.  Said Barbara, “With George, it’s a religious question.”

Even Benjamin Franklin initially favored the Crown over the Continentals, but as history unfolded before him, he took the patriot’s position, pledging his life and sacred honor to the cause.

Change is the essence of life, including the Christian way of life.  When confronted with the evidence of God’s existence and interest in the affairs of mankind, we come to belief.  When convicted of our culpability, we become motivated to change our lives.  That happened to Paul on the road to Damascus, to the Eleven in the Upper Room, and to the three thousand on Pentecost.  And it happens every day in profound and startling ways, so profound that some people refer to it as a born again experience.

Yes, the essence of becoming a Christian is to flip flop.

But here’s the difference.  We don’t flip flop to pander, as is the habit in the world of politics.  We flip flop because it is the right thing to do.  Once I was lost, but now I am found.  I was wrong, but accepted the right.  I repented of my faulty words and actions and became a new creature in Christ.  The facts change, so I change.  What else can I do?

Legend has it that someone once confronted Churchill about his vaults back and forth between political parties.  Wasn’t he being inconsistent?  Churchill is said to have answered, “I would rather be right than consistent.”  I would like to be both, but will sacrifice the latter if I must.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

We Shall Judge Angels

The Corinthian church was a piece of work. This cosmopolitan city bred a talented crew, but they were also a cantankerous bunch. Church member sued church member in courts of law, and naturally, Paul felt the need to admonish them.  “If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints?” (I Cor. 6:1)

After that he says something very intriguing, almost as if we should already understand it. “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (verse 3)

What did he mean by this?

A judge sits in a court of law, judges the innocence or guilt of a party based on the evidence and the law, and then pronounces a sentence on a guilty party. Did Paul really mean that we are to judge angels?

This begins to make sense if we realize that some angels do need judging. The world beyond the physical has some strange goings on, a good deal of which is on the Dark Side. Scripture and tradition from many religions, not just the Judeo-Christian ones, speak of these forces, and some even openly worship them. Much of the evil in the world can be traced at its root to the influences of the gods of this world.

You bet they need judging.

Which brings us to the question that some amateur and not-so-amateur theologians have bandied about: what will be the fate of such demons? We know that at the return of Christ these spiritual entities will be dealt with (Luke 7:31, Revelation 20:1-10). But people disagree on what that fate might be.

Some, quoting Ezekiel 28, claim that Satan will be destroyed.  “I threw you to the earth. I made you a spectacle before kings. By your many sins and dishonest trade you have desecrated your sanctuaries. So I made fire come out from you, and it consumed you, and I reduced you to ashes on the ground in the sight of all who were watching”. (Ezekiel 28: 17 – 18)

Others, looking to Jude, say they will be banished to the outer reaches of the universe, in exile forever. “And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home – these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day … They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars for whom blackest darkness is reserved forever.” (Jude 6, 8)

Some would consider this to be an even more excruciating punishment than annihilation.

This brings us back to Paul’s enigmatic statement to the Corinthians: “Do you not know that we will judge angels?”

So let me put a third theory on the table. Maybe the final fate of these angels – these fallen angels – will be annihilation, or maybe it will be banishment forever. Or maybe, just maybe, the final decision is yet to be made because it is we who will judge these angels. Maybe their fate will be in our hands. Maybe we will get to decide.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Rich Fool

“Fool! This day your life will be required of you!” (Luke 12:20)
Once there was a rich fool, Jesus tells us. We don’t know if he started off as a fool, but for certain something happened that made him that way. One year his farm was so productive that his barns were full, his storage bins were full, and his silo was full. His harvest was so great that he was dumping it on big heaps on the ground.

He decided to solve the problem by tearing down every building he had built and replacing them with ones newer, bigger, and better. In fact, the way he calculated it, his harvest was so successful he would never have to work again. It was now time to just kick up his feet and party for the rest of his life.

And that’s when God calls him a fool.

It sure would be nice to win the lottery or find the estate of a long-lost uncle, but would it really be a blessing? In the neighborhood where Jesus lived it was assumed (as is sometimes assumed today) that if someone had riches, it was a sign that God held him in special regard. While we don’t want to talk for God, common experience should inform us that this isn’t always the case. The wicked often do prosper. The fact is, this man had something unusual but pleasant happen to him (sudden, great riches), yet he is held forth as a miserable failure.

If we’re looking for a reason for this verdict, the text hints at the answer: “So is he who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” (Verse 21)

This is not to suggest that prosperity and wealth are of themselves a special kind of evil. Nor is the intent to limit the discussion to riches alone. The intent here is to illustrate that whenever God or the vagaries of life hand us good things, whether monetary or otherwise, they are essentially worthless and definitely meaningless if we want to hoard everything for ourselves. Blessings only take on meaning if our vision is greater than ourselves.

This rich fool had great material wealth, but that was only part of the story.  His wealth also freed up time. That time could have been used to serve others. He was clearly a man of talent, or else he would not have been such a successful farmer. But he used his time, talent, and treasure to serve himself. This is where he failed. This is where he was a fool. Taking your time, talent, and treasure and hoarding it all up for yourself does advances the Kingdom of God not one whit. Great blessings can be curses if the center of attention is inward.

Whether it’s your time, talent, or treasure, use those gifts to honor God. Enjoy them, exercise them, but do all to the glory of God.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Harry Truman Was Right

“Do you want to know what I think causes the ruination of lots of men? Three things ruin a man, if you want to know what I believe. One’s power, one’s money, and one’s women.” (Quoted in Merle Miller’s Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry Truman, Page 355, Berkley Publishing Corp., Copyright 1973, 1974).

Truman said he came to that conclusion based on his study of history. “You read your history and you’ll find out.” (P. 356)

It’s well documented that Mr. Truman was an intense student of history, much of which was self-taught. But we might suspect that history was not his only guide, that his take was validated by another source with which he was well acquainted: The King James Version of the Bible, specifically Deuteronomy 17:16-17. It reads as follows:

“But he [the king] shall not multiply horses to himself [i.e., military power], nor cause the people to return to Egypt, to the end that he should multiply horses: forasmuch as the Lord hath said unto you, Ye shall henceforth return no more that way. Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away: neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold.”

The Contemporary English Version phrases it this way:

“The king should not have many horses, especially those from Egypt. The Lord has said never to go back there again.  And the king must not have a lot of wives—they might tempt him to be unfaithful to the Lord.  Finally, the king must not try to get huge amounts of silver and gold.”

Think in terms of every sleazy or disgraced public official that you can think of. It’s an odds-on likelihood that the Truman/Historical/Deuteronomic template fits.

Here’s Harry Truman’s exegesis, again from Plain Speaking:

“If a man can accept a situation in a place of power with the thought that it’s only temporary, he comes out all right. But when he thinks he is the cause of the power, that can be his ruination. 
“And when a man has too much money too soon, that has the same effect on him. He just never gets to understanding that getting enough money to eat and getting a roof over his head is the thing that throughout history most people have spent their lives trying to do and haven’t succeeded. … If you’ve got too much money too soon, it ruins you by setting you apart from the most of the human race.  
“And a man who is not loyal to his family, to his wife and his mother and his sisters can be ruined if he has a complex in that direction. If he has the right woman as a partner, he never has any trouble.” (Ibid)

Truman claimed he could name former colleagues who “got mixed up in that way. But we won’t do it now.” Mr. Truman, you don’t have to tell us now. We get the point. We see it all around us.

It’s no wonder that one of the sauciest quotes to come out of his mouth was this little gem: "My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there's hardly any difference." 

These days we could use a little touch of Harry’s plain speaking, and along with it his other qualities of historical and scriptural perspective.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Passover Bread

What kind of bread was used at Jesus’ last Passover? In Greek, it was called “artio”, which literally means “bread.” Noting that there is a perfectly good word for “unleavened bread” (“azumos”) in the Greek language and correctly noting that this word in the Gospels is used to describe the bread that Jesus broke, a number of people have begun to use leavened bread at their Passover, or Lord’s Supper, services.

They further make the point that when Jesus was introducing the bread and wine as Christian symbols, it was not yet the Days of Unleavened Bread, and therefore using leavened bread would have been perfectly appropriate.

It’s instructive to look at another place where the word “artio” appears in the Greek New Testament.

For purposes of this study, we’re going to take a look at an event that occurred just after the resurrection, the account of which is described in Luke 24:13 – 35.  In verse 30 we find the Greek word “artio”: “Now it came to pass as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” (NKJV)

Note that the text does not use the word “azumos” (unleavened), but instead uses the word “artio” (bread).  Jesus is here depicted as breaking “artio” and giving it to the two disciples in whose home he was a guest.

The context of this event begins in verse 1, where some women discover that the tomb of Jesus is empty. This was “the first day of the week, very early in the morning.” The women hurry to the apostles, and Peter goes to the tomb and verifies that it is indeed empty. We know from the entire crucifixion/resurrection story that all these events happened during the Days of Unleavened Bread.

We are then introduced to two disciples on the road back to their home in Emmaus, one of whom is named Cleopas (verse 18), and presumably the other being his wife Mary. The risen Jesus approaches them and begins a conversation. Verse 13: “Now behold two of them were travelling that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was seven miles from Jerusalem.”

“The same day”. That would still be the first day of the week, and the events described here could have carried into the evening of that day. The point to be made is that this was still during the seven-day festival we know of today as the Days of Unleavened Bread, or Passover season, and these two devout disciples would have been eating unleavened bread during these days.

Based on this we can reasonably conclude that they would not have had any leavened bread in their house, that they would have offered only unleavened bread to a Jewish guest, and that this Jewish guest who was also the risen Messiah would not have broken leavened bread and offered it to fellow countrymen.

So why does Luke use the word “artio” in this passage? Maybe because “artio” is a simple generic word for bread of any kind, just like the English word “bread” is a generic word of the same order?

None of what is said here proves one way or another what kind of bread Jesus shared with his disciples on the night he was betrayed. It only shows that “artio” can be either leavened or unleavened, just like the word "bread" in an English-speaking household.