February 24, 2016

Wednesday Writings - Good and Very Good

In my time formerly as a Discipleship Pastor and currently as the Discipleship Coordinator of my church I have done a lot of reflecting and teaching on various parts of the Scripture.  During those times I have sought not simply to bridge the world of the academy to the church, but to take that one step further and gleam those thoughts into devotional material that would go beyond the classroom.  On Wednesdays I will be posting excerpts and drafts from things I have already written, with minor tweaks.  Hope you enjoy!

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth...God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.
(Gen 1:1, 31)

There are many stories out there in competition for our interest, to become a part of our worldview, the foundational set of beliefs we hold about reality which help us make sense of how we live, move and have our being.  The creation story in Genesis is one such story in this competition for centuries.  It forces us to ask the questions: who really made the universe, how did it come into being, how did humans get here, and is there any significance to this?  Is the world some meaningless void that appeared by chance and now we are simply moving around trying to give significance to an existence that is absurd and without purpose, or is there some reason, order, and intellect to this universe, a story perhaps to make sense of it all?  Is there some master plan that we are a part of, like a play where the first few acts have been laid out for us but we are left to improvise the rest?  If so, how might we know whether some scenes are better than others?  The answers your give to these questions are the first steps to the beginning of your journey.
My suggestion is that we begin where the Bible begins that, “in the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth” and He called them good.  It is the belief that God has set all things in order and put them in their proper place: fish in the water, cattle on the land and stars in the heavens.  Each thing is where it ought to be.   It is the belief that he created humanity in his image and likeness to watch over or rule his creation, to reflect who he is, and when he was finished he called all of it very good.   Once we accept this twin belief, that God is the orderer and creator of the universe then we can begin to understand the foundation of Jesus' worldview.

Now, if God has created the universe and set it in order, giving each thing he created its own place, and humanity a task, we must assume then that we have a purpose and there is a task for us, there is a story then that we can look at to make sense of it all.  Essentially, we are not here by chance.  However, more than that, we also know that we are created in the image and likeness of God, meaning that in order to understand ourselves we must understand the God in who's image and likeness we are made.  Therefore, the drama of scripture, the story of God and his creation, has something to teach us not only about us but about God as well.  We have the ability not only to know good, what it is and why God called creation it, but we can known something about the very one who called creation good in the first place.

Moving Forward 

1.  How does your belief in God affect your outlook on the world around you?  Does it change the way you think, act, and live?  
2.  If God is the creator and orderer of the universe, what has he created you for and where has he ordered you to be?

February 20, 2016

Revelations from Revelation - Look Up!

Life is full of tragedy and moments that don't seem to make sense. This past week I heard the news about the tragic funeral of a young man, near my age, who was killed in an accident.  That weekend he was planning to propose to his girlfriend.  In an instant the celebratory sound of wedding bells would be replaced by ominous toll of the funeral bell.  In an instant tragedy redirected the gaze of his loved ones from the future towards the present.  Tragedy, trial, and tribulation have a way of redirecting our gaze.  It is during these moments of fear and anxiety that Jesus directs his church to turn their eyes in a different direction.

As the early church in the late first century was beginning to face persecution for their faith, which John describes as tribulation (1:9) Jesus attempts to reorient their focus.  He begins with an invocation of blessing whose source is none other than the Triune God in all their heavenly glory.  He begins with YHWH (who is and who was and who is to come), the seven Spirits, and from Jesus Christ.  Here They are equally joined together as the fount of the river called "grace and peace."

Yet, something is different because John decides to expand one figure above the rest, namely Jesus.  In verses 5-6 we are told he is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.  During a time when the early Christians in Asia Minor were threatened to give up their faith, bend to the whim of the culture, or perhaps be threatened with death by the social and political powers, Jesus comes to them and declares that it is he who is in charge and not the so called rulers.  Therefore, like Him, they would need to remain strong.  They would need to cling to their witness, but how?  In the face of so much potential fear and pain, what encouragement could they have?

John continues in verses 12-18, where Jesus is lifted up in all His magisterial glory, described as YHWH.  In fact, as John turns to look on him, the very sight of him is so overwhelming that John fell at His feet as if he had died.  Then in full resurrection power, He raises John up and declares that He is the one over all things, holding the power over Death and Hades itself.  In one swift descriptive move John disarms the only thing that the powers (namely Rome) who held them in bondage could threaten them with, death.  As the one who overcame death, and conquered the grave [Hades], Jesus encourages his followers to do something unnatural.  Instead of looking around at the circumstances, Jesus invites them to change the direction of their gaze upward, above all the threats, toward Jesus to see Him as the victorious one.

Life can be downright difficult at times, and it is so easy to look at and name all the things that are going on around us.  But in the midst of adversity and tribulation the book of Revelation encourages us to do one thing first, look up. 

February 19, 2016

What's the Problem with Grace?


In his book Paul and the Gift, professor John Barclay does something that needed to be done a long time ago, set the idea of a gift, or GRACE, within its social-historical setting.  Why is this important, because all of us tend to use the word within our own modern contemporary thought-world.  However, we know that each culture has customs that are different from the others, and we need explanations of those customs in their cultural situatedness in order to grasp their intended meaning.   Otherwise we aren't communicating.

Let me give you a real world example of this from American to European culture (at least some of the Europeans that I have encountered).  When it is someone's birthday in America and you are going out to dinner with them, the friends usually chip in and pay for the person who's birthday it is.  However, some of my European friends tell me that on their birthday they have to pay the entire check, for everyone.  The same invitation in two different contemporary cultures takes on a different meaning based on cultural expectation.  

So when Paul uses the word gift [grace], his original hearers understood it to mean something which was probably different than how we understand it today.  Therefore, Professor Barclay has done us all a service with his book,  by helping us go back into their world to understand the meaning of gift.  However, this book was written for the specialist in mind, and would put most people to sleep.  Therefore, I heartily encourage you to take the time to listen to this podcast where he talks about his book and some of the issues surrounding it.  I know it helped me.

February 15, 2016

Revelations from Revelation - Part 1

Currently I am teaching a Sunday morning Bible Study at my church through the book of Revelation.  While many cannot be there for all the exegetical gymnastics I am performing at least everyone can certainly benefit from some of the ideas and thoughts I am tumbling through.  In this series I will be relaying some of those thoughts and ideas that I have skimmed off the top. I hope they enrich your reading of the Bible.

John begins his letter to the churches in Asia Minor with a declaration about the source of his information, particularly that it is not from himself, but is a "Revelation of [from] Jesus Christ." Whatever involvement John has in relaying this revelation (passively or creatively) John's claim is that he is not the source of this river.  Rather, John claims that he is just in the flow of things because he says that he was in the Spirit (1:10).  It is from that posture that he received something from Jesus, which was given to Him by God, and it was signified (that is communicated through the use of symbols) to John by an angel.

Revelation then, invites its audience into a world to see things from God's perspectives, or more precisely from John's vision of God's perspective.  This invitation is not to be shunned, as many have done (myself included), but welcomed because a double blessing is proclaimed on both, the reader to the congregations, and those congregations who hear it.  These prophetic words were intended to speak powerfully to their audience, as their meaning had direct significance to their current situation for John declares "that the time is near."

So where does that leave us?  Though the impact of these words were directly for their 1st century audience, that does not mean that they cannot, and will not find significance for us today.  In fact, I believe that much of what John says will be important for us to hear.  Yet, something is required of us first.  Like John, we need to be open to the journey, taking the posture of humility by being in the Spirit in order to hear a word from God. This means being people of prayer, the word and worship.

So my challenge to everyone who begins the journey of this book (or any book in the Bible for that matter) is to pray that the you will have the posture required "to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches."

Looking forward to our next steps together.

January 30, 2013

Reflection on Christian Hope

This is a short sermon I gave last night during a Grief Share meeting.  It was a reflection on Christian Hope.  I you enjoy it and find it encouraging.
There are probably few events that shape the lives of people, more powerfully, than the loss of a loved one. This past week I was reminded of the sting of death, when someone I know, posted a Happy Birthday to their loved one on Facebook who passed away some time ago. I know that they still feels that sting of that death and the empty place in their heart every year during those little moments that bring this person into the front of their memory. Being a pastor, I was invited to speak at that funeral, read some scriptures, and say a prayer. It was a difficult and reflective time for myself and I can still hardly imagine what they was going through. I knew that no amount of words or encouragement would be able to console them in that moment because of the loss that they felt in their hearts. My only hope is that my prayers for them and the words that I spoke might somehow help to reorient the pain and see the light that is on the other side.
The sting of death is a double edged sword. In some sense it can be a freeing and liberating moment where the pains of this world are left behind and the hopes of life after death are welcomed and embraced. I have known this to be the case with more than a few people in my life who have been battling with terminal illnesses and debilitating diseases. They become tired and weary from the battles that they are waging with their diseases, and death seems to be a release from that pain when the hope of healing has all but vanished from their hearts. Though the families and the one's who love them so dearly are left with a sense of brokenness and doubt, these people want to feel the warm embrace of their Father in Heaven and be welcomed into the arm's of the Lord. They like the Apostle Paul felt, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain...My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.”
Death for some can be the end of the battle, the victory that they had been waiting for, as they embrace their release from this world. Peter Jackson in the Lord of the Rings, eloquently places these thoughts in the words of Gandalf while he is talking with Pippin. Pippin says to Gandalf, “I didn't think it would end this way. To which Gandalf replies, “End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path... One that we all must take.” We can say in the end that death for the Christian is the embrace of God and the beginning of the journey into “eternal life.”
Though there is another side of the sword of death, it is a bitter ripping apart, a crippling experience. This path leaves us with heavy hearts, great sadness, and a deep dissatisfaction. In these moments, we are left with, long sighs and questions of “why does it have to be this way? Why do they have to leave us.” It is during these troubling times, I believe that we are invited to look at the twin pictures of the Easter story. Of the Christ of the Cross and the of the Resurrection of the Son of God.
“Where there is no cross, there is no Christianity,” one writer put it, reflecting on his experience after being in a Prison Encampment during WW2. The Cross of Christianity, stands at the center of the faith, the climatic moment, when God decisively dealt with the powers of sin and death. It was their that God, had said that he would become the lamb that would be slain for the sins of the world so that death would pass over us. Therefore, sin would lose its hold over humanity, and through our trusting in him, we would share in his victory and be brought into a relationship with God once again. One ancient writer put it, that he “trampled over death by death.” This death secured for the early Christians a hope, a hope that said, “Whatever, the world throws at us we can overcome!” The cross was a symbol of Roman power, and anyone who came against Rome would be executed in this fashion. And so Jesus turns the symbol of Roman power against them by turning it into the symbol of our liberation. Thus, our relationship with him is secured in the present. It is through the cross and the blood of Jesus that we can approach the Father, and so we have a great hope that when we die, we will be united with him in Heaven, and experience the continuation of our present relationship, in Life after Death.
The problem however, still remains. When we die, Death still wins. Thankfully, the Easter story does not simply end with the death of Jesus. Rather, it truly reaches its climax in the resurrection of the Son of God. It is there, in that moment, that the promises of God break forth, and cascade down from the future into the present, so that we can experience the promises of God to his people. While Israel was in exile, God had spoken words of promise and hope that he would redeem his people, rescue them from their oppressors, and bring them back home from their exile. So that they would be his people and he would be their God. This would be a time of great liberation where sin and sickness would loose its hold over humanity, God would dwell in their midst and death would be defeated. Jesus as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, brings us into the this new Exodus. It allows death to passover us and the Resurrection of Jesus is God saying, “Yes!” to those promises.
Writing to the church in Thessalonica, Paul says, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep...For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” The church has always believed, and will always believe that the Resurrection of Jesus means our resurrection. This was the hope of the Christian faith, that God would reverse death and therefore, we would be able to live with him forever. 
Paul writing to the church at Corinth expounds on these words and says, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain...and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” 
Death is an enemy! Therefore Christians have and always will believe in the hope that their IS Life after Life after Death! That at his coming we will be raised from the dead; just as he was and we will experience new life, as Paul continues, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed...When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" ...thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
On that day when “Death is swallowed up in victory” we will all sit down at a great feast with one another, a grand party, with the Lord and all his saints and we will celebrate the salvation of the Lord. The Prophet Isaiah proclaims, “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine...And...He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces...It will be said on that day, "Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us...let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation."
In the end their will be a great feast, a great party, and celebration for what the Lord has done. After seeing the New Heaven and the New Earth the Apostle John writes, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." 
Ultimately the Christian Hope is this: that whether in life or in death we will be with God! Through the Cross of Christ he has tempered the sting of death, by trampling over death by death. Though we will all face this fate, we know that because he has overcome and we will overcome as well. That in Christ we will have just a sliver of victory in death because there will be Life after Death. However, through the Resurrection of the Son of God, we know that the ultimate victory is ours, that Death will be Defeated, the Grave will be no more, and we shall celebrate that day the salvation of the Lord. On that day we will experience the Life after Life after Death. With a great feast filled with the best food among friends, family, loved ones, and people who we don't even know we will celebrate the victory of our God. So until that day comes, we can all breathe a little deeper, and sigh with a bit more relief, knowing that our relationship now with the Lord, secures our relationship with him in the future and thus our reuniting with our loved one's in the end. So until that day comes: we wait with expectation, we hope with great assurance, and trust that the Lord will do what he always promised to do, “To dwell in our midst, so that he would be our God and we his people.”

January 21, 2013

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Epiphany

Welcome to the Party: John 2:1-11
Sermon Delivered at the First United Methodist Church in Freehold, New Jersey
January 20, 2013
 On Monday, the 21st of January the 57th Inaugural Ceremonies will take place, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and President Barack Obama will be sworn into a Second Term of Office as the President of the United States of America. This for some will be a day of great celebration and for others a day of sadness. Whatever you response is to this day, it is a historic occasion that will be met with great anticipation and be filled with enormous amounts of symbolism. The President will be sworn into office not only on President Abraham Lincoln's Bible but also on Dr. Martin Luther King's Bible. These symbolic actions are meant to transform this ceremony and give them even greater historical significance, they are meant to take us up into a larger historical narrative of the country and speak in ways that words cannot. I am sure that these actions in the future will be lauded by historians, saying that we have entered a New Age, or perhaps a New Dawn broke forth in American politics, or quite possibly the President himself will draw on the Lincoln/King narrative in his address and say that he is going to take a country that is broken and fractured and unite them once again as these great figures did. Whatever the language that will be used by either the President or Historians in the future I can assure you that these symbols are meant to invigorate the event with monumental meanings.

In today's text we find another such inauguration on the 2nd Sunday of Epiphany, the Inauguration of the ministry of Jesus. This story the writer proclaims is meant to show us and reveal something to us about his nature and his character.

What Does the Text Say
Written near the turn of the 1st century the Gospel according to John is one of the most beautiful attempts at a theological poetic prose. It attempts to dance between theology and history in artful way that invites the reader to transcend the historical perspective and see it from the divine. Furthermore, the author of this Gospel is extremely helpful because he gives us his interpretive key for the entire book in order to guide this transcendence. He writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ (that is the Messiah of the Jews), the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” The key to unlocking the theological nature of John's Gospel is understanding the signs that Jesus was performing, because they were recorded that we might believe, and the first of those signs is presented to us our text in John 2:1-11.

Our story begins by given us the setting, “On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee...” Having just been married 3 months ago I understand how weddings can be and the craziness that involves the nature of these events. However, Jewish weddings culturally at this time where not just one day affairs, but were multiple day extravaganzas that could last up to one week. One scholar writes describing them, “The atmosphere of this joyous occasion consisted of a procession in which the bridegroom's friends brought the bride to the groom's house, and that was followed by a wedding supper that could have lasted as little as one day but as long as one week. Presents were given and the hosts were expected to supply plenty of food and wine for the guests.” So in some respects they are not unlike modern weddings.
Secondly, we are introduced to the characters and the problem of the story, “...The mother of Jesus was there. Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. When the wine ran out the mother of Jesus said to him, 'They have no wine'” Jewish weddings were a large family and friend affair, numbering around 100 guests, with prominent figures being invited. I believe that Jesus was a young Jewish Rabbi who was invited shortly afterward because his mother somehow knew the family. However, because disciples followed their Rabbi everywhere they also came along with Jesus. Quite possibly, some have suggested it was because they came with him that they ran out of wine and this is why Jesus' mother comes to him. Others have suggested that the wine would be stored near the brides chamber and thus Mary would have noticed and thought to tell Jesus in order to get him to help somehow.

Regardless of the reason why they ran out of wine this was a serious social problem, the couple and the bridegroom whose family was responsible for providing the food and drink, could have faced a law suit from the bride's family because of the shame that would have incurred on them due to the lapse in hospitality. However, before any else can find out Mary tells Jesus most likely because she wanted to avoid the embarrassment and social shame that would have incurred. Upon hearing of the issue Jesus replied, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” This exchange between Jesus and his mother has been met with difficulty among the commentators, and myself. If I talked to my mom like that she would have smacked me. And I say to all the youth and children here this is the one time not to follow Jesus' example by calling your mother Woman and say, “what does this have to do with me.”

Jesus' response of woman however, is more like saying, “Ma'am or Ms, but still no one, not even back then called their mother Ma'am and his follow up statement is the same thing that demons reply to Jesus, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth.” Clearly, there is something combative going on here between Jesus and his mother. However, Jesus' response must be coupled with his second thought, “My hour has not yet come.” The phrase my hour in John's Gospel relates directly to mission of the cross where his Glory and God's glory will be fully revealed when it culminates in his resurrection and so that time has not yet come, we are only in the 2nd chapter on the third day, yet you ask me for a foretaste of that, for what reason?

However, the text shows the great example of faith, “His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” She knew the character of her son and she knew that he somehow had the ability to deal with this situation, despite his apparent apprehension at first. So the text continues, “Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, "Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast." So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew)...”
Certain Jews at the time of Jesus, believed in washing and cleansing rituals and they were probably there to aid in that process. Their size is enormous, if we take the pots being 25 gallons each then we have 150 gallons of water, that will become wine. If you want to know how much wine that is, it is 567.8 L or approximately 757 750mL bottles of wine, and not just any wine but the best wine. This means that a wedding that had most likely been going on for several days, lets' say 3 days, and the longest they would last is one week we shall say that there were 3 days left of partying, if they are breaking for the Sabbath. Therefore, Jesus produced if it was an average wedding of 100 people about 7.5 bottles of wine per person or 2.5 bottles of wine per person per day. That is the equivalent, given a 6 fl oz wine glass, of almost 11 glasses of wine per person per day, for the next three days. Jesus said, “Welcome to the Party!” It wasn't like a frat house party where the question is, “Who brought the keg, but this was who brought the beer truck!” It was a super abundance of wine, an over indulgence of wine.
Now some might protest, why would Jesus produce that much alcohol, or possibly he wouldn't have produced alcohol. The issue in the scripture isn't drinking it is drunkenness but at this party, Jesus gives the possibility for over indulgence, and it is up to us to decide what we will do with that, he is not going to violate our free will.

The story continues, “The master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Wine would be diluted by people in the Mediterranean Culture by mixing as much as 1 part wine to 20 parts water, especially for children but also in order to stretch it. The exact ratio that was used typically is unknown. However, a wedding would start with the strong wine and then move to the more diluted wine. It seems that the Master of the Feast, who was responsible to control the quality of the wine and its distribution, was allowing free drinking to go on and they had run out. So when he received this new he was surprised because he did not know where it came from and then he congratulates this young man because as it reads in the Greek, “Everyone serves the good wine, and when people have become drunk, then the poor wine.” However, in this case you have kept the undiluted stuff until now! Welcome to the PARTY!

The author goes on to note, “This is the first of his sign, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.”

What Does it Mean
This passage invites us to ask the question, “How does this reveal that Jesus is the promised Messiah to Israel and therefore to the World?”
First, it reveals to us the compassion of God towards his people. This would have been a huge social embarrassment and would have brought tremendous life long shame to their marriage. People would have forever remembered them as the couple who ran out of wine, and not only them but their families because they were supposed to have provided for this. However, Jesus saw their need and despite his initial apprehension, he comes to their aid, he comes to their rescue, when they didn't even realize they needed it and freed them from their shame. Shame, was the initial feeling that Adam and Eve felt in the garden when they ate the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. However, just as God covered them in the garden Jesus covers this couples shame, but this covering exceeds the first covering in that it is not just merely a blanketing over of the problem. Rather, Jesus brings a super abundance of the very thing they lacked so that now their shame would be turned into honor, so that the celebration of their marriage would be remembered as a great party. So it wasn't before kings or priests that the first miracle was performed but at a poor village wedding ceremony.

Secondly, this is the wine of God's New Age. Jesus places this miracle on a time table, by saying, “His hour had not yet come.” Jesus knew that as the Messiah of God his responsibility was to bring into the present the promised Age to Come. If you remember I have talked about this in the past. During the time of Jesus Jews thought of time in terms of two distinct ages, there was the Age and the Age to Come. Currently they were living in the Age which was a time of Evil, Death, Destruction, Sickness, when the Law was not Obeyed and God was not known, essentially they believed that they were in a time of exile from God. However, they also believed there would come a time when God would fulfill his promises to Israel which he made to them while they were in exile in Babylon and liberate them completely from their enemies at their repentance, thus ending the exile. This meant that God would defeat the powers that were holding them in bondage and thereby establish himself as King and Lord. This was the Promised Age to Come a time of Wholeness and Peace where the Shalom of God rested over the land, it was a time of life where death would be defeated, that which was laid to waste would be built up again and become like the Garden of Eden, Sickness would loose its hold over humanity, the Law would be obeyed because he would write it on our hearts and God would be known for he would dwell in their midst. When Jesus preached that this world was breaking into their present, he said, “The Kingdom of God was at hand.” Because that metaphor doesn't make a lot of sense for us in our contemporary context, I say, “This is the World that God imagines coming into our present.”

One of the controlling images that spoke of this inauguration of the World that God Imagines was wine, and not just a little wine but wine in super abundance. One of the central acts of Jesus' ministry was that he was celebrating this inauguration by eating and drinking with sinners and tax collectors, which caused the religious elite to say that he was a drunkard and a glutton. However, they were missing the point, Jesus was giving a sign in the present that was anticipating the day when he would as it says in Isaiah, On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, "Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation." It would be on this day, that mountains will drip sweet wine and all the hills will flow with it.” Therefore, Jesus, out of the old system of ritual purification takes water and transforms it into the wine of the New Age, he makes the wine of the Kingdom of God, which shows to the people who have eyes to see and ears to hear that he is the Messiah of God, and the one who is going to ushering in this promised World that God Imagines.

What Does it Mean to Us
So what does this all mean for us? I want to invite you to think about two things in closing:
1. God cares about the little things and the big things. His first miracle wasn't to raise someone from the dead or regrow a limb but to reveal his glory in removing the shame of a young couple who didn't even know they were in danger of it. He came to their rescue when they didn't even ask. I tell you that God wants to and is willing to come to our rescue, and he is able to do exceedingly and abundantly more than we could ever dare to ask or hope for. He has things dreamed for us that we haven't even thought of, which he is waiting to fulfill.

2. God is looking for us to be the people who celebrate the inauguration of his promised Age to Come. He is looking for us to be a people who can come together and share feasts that will be a foretaste of the great meal that we will share with him in the Age to Come. Anything less than a joyous celebration of his inauguration of the Kingdom is not living up to the potential that he desired for us. The earliest Christian Gatherings were called Agape Feasts, and people literally thought they were having wild parties, but it was only because they were celebrating the Resurrection, they were celebrating New Life and we should be celebrating this New Life in Jesus together. I invite you, to celebrate this inauguration wherever you go whenever you go in whatever you do, and invite people to celebrate it with you. I say to you, Welcome to the Party!

December 18, 2012

Thoughts to Help us Find Hope in the Darkness

Since becoming of aware of the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut I have seen a lot posts coming from people expressing their solidarity with those who suffered in the wake of this disaster. I too have even shared a prayerful thought as I began to reflect on it myself. Now as the initial shock has worn off I have read some of the commentators, both religious and political, on the attacks and listened to an Advent Sermon on Joy shaped by the atrocity. In the season where we celebrate the Lord's Incarnation, his becoming flesh, I thought it would be helpful to offer a few framing thoughts for the conversations that will occur in the days, weeks and months to come.

First and foremost, in Jesus God has been revealed to us. So it follows that any questions regarding theodicy, questions regarding the goodness of God in light of evil, need to keep that in mind. God's ultimate commitment of his revelation of love for us is that he literally became one of us. He put on flesh and reconciled humanity and divinity in himself, and that relationship is not divorced in the incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension or Second Coming, he is and will always be both Fully Human and Fully God. Essentially, God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son...to be united to us forever.
Secondly, where there is no cross there is no Christianity. The revelation of God in Jesus will always be cross shaped. Meaning that God does not sit over and above humanity condemning them, watching passively or even apathetic to their concerns. Rather, in and for love, he is the God that came to humanity and suffered with and for humanity. Therefore, God understands what it is like to lose a son and even understands the pain and sting of death. However, now through our faith/fulness in him we can too can say with him, “O death, where is your sting?”

Lastly, the hope of Christianity, the world that God imagines, is already and not yet. In a world that seems so overcome by darkness we are called to be the Light and we know that the darkness can not overcome it. We as Christians through the Holy Spirit have felt, seen and even tasted of the powers of the age to come. We are co-laborers with God in bringing about his Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven through our work and prayers. We are the people who have been transformed, renewed and revived in the Spirit and that process continues in the present until the redemption of our bodies at his Second Coming when he will redeem and reconcile all things to himself. Therefore, in this Christmas time as we reflect on Hope, Peace, Joy and Love we must remember to be the embodiment of these things until his coming and partner with God in the transformation of this world until all things are made new and God wipes every tear from our eyes because the last enemy has been defeated, death.

December 11, 2012

Review of The Historical Figure of Jesus – An Outline of Jesus' Life

Chapter 2

Sanders previous chapter began by setting the scope of his project, “...to lay out, as clearly as possible, what we can know, using the standard methods of historical research, and to distinguish this from inferences, labeling them clearly as such (p. 5).” Therefore, we need to understand the world into which Jesus was born and the sources of how we can ascertain the information of, “who he was and what he did.”
From here Sanders decides that it is best, “...to begin with a very brief sketch of his life, which will serve partly as framework and partly as a launching pad for a fuller account.”(10) His assumption lies in that, “There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus' life” when and where he lived, approximately when and where he died, and the sort of thing that he did during his public activity.” Essentially, Sanders offers a list of the key points in the life of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels, however he remains agnostic about the resurrection itself.

After laying out his framework and overview of the life of Jesus he continues by discussing dating issues involving the calendar and dating of historical events surrounding the life of Jesus. He attempts to quickly elaborate on the various moments of Jesus' life concluding that his crucifixion happened because they saw him as an insurrectionist. Furthermore, his disciples claimed to find his tomb empty and began talking about resurrection experiences. These experiences convinced his disciples that Jesus was coming again and that faith in him was pivotal, therefore, they began talking about him in relationship to God, giving him important titles, i.e. Messiah.

He concludes, “every sentence of this sketch requires explanation, and we shall examine most of these points in some detail.”(14) This chapter provides the reader with a scope and sequence that functions as a key to understand the areas of Jesus' life that are important to Sanders' study. He does not want to try to delve into speculation about what could be known about Jesus from obscure ideas, rather he wishes to look at the data and see what we do know.

Question for Moving Forward

How we tell the story matters. The way that we arrange the events makes a difference in what is important to us. Think about the way the 4 Gospels choose to arrange the material from the life of Jesus. In what ways does their arrangement of the information affect the picture we get of Jesus?

December 10, 2012

Review of The Historical Figure of Jesus - Introduction

Chapter 1

Since being introduced to N. T. Wright during my 2nd pastoral position I have become a huge fan of the so called 3rd Historical Quest of Jesus. I had begun with reading Wright and his extensive body of literature, then I moved onto Keener and Witherington. However, all the while I kept hearing everyone mention E. P. Sanders and how he was a foundational thinker to this whole movement. Therefore, I decided it was time to read Sanders and so I begin with The Historical Figure of Jesus.

Sanders beings his Preface with qualifying what we can know about a figure in the ancient world, “knowledge can at best be partial and that certainty is seldom attained” especially when we are dealing with a figure “in a rather unimportant part of the Roman empire (xiii).” This qualification about knowledge is important and sets the key for the upcoming chapters. Sanders, as far as I have read, tries not to grab at too much information as a historian, rather he tries to make careful considerations based on the data at hand.

His Introduction starts with the crucifixion of Jesus setting it in a political context, a criminal crucified as King of the Jews, and continues with outlining the task of his work, “...to understand who he (being Jesus) was and what he did (1, parenthesis mine). However, this book is not a theology about Jesus, but will discuss some of the theology of Jesus and his followers who transmitted his ideas. This work then is akin to studying people like Thomas Jefferson or Winston Churchill, but unlike them we do not have as much access to Jesus' direct thoughts and ideas. Therefore, this quest is much closer to finding the historical Alexander the Great, but again we do not have access to Alexander's thoughts and ideas. Whereas we do at least have partial access to the thoughts of Jesus' followers and those who attempted to transmit his ideas. However, these ideas are given to us in a language that Jesus did not speak and were often quoted for the authors own theological purpose.

Finally, in clear terms Sanders tells us his purpose in this book, “...to lay out, as clearly as possible, what we can know, using the standard methods of historical research, and to distinguish this from inferences, labeling them clearly as such.”(5) This is accomplished by first looking at the historical, political, and religious context and then moving onto discussing the sources from where we access information about Jesus. Therefore, Sanders hopes to convey a historically accurate picture of what can be known about Jesus given our limited access to historical and personal information and that the Gospel writers themselves had “theological convictions and that they may have revised their accounts to support their theology.”(8)

Sanders aim then as I read him is to understand Jesus in light of the historical and theological information that we have understanding that the historical information about Jesus is also at the same time theological.  Therefore, we can not reach too far in our claims about Jesus historically, but we do have some access to them.  This positive view of the Gospels is refreshingly critical in that it makes us reflect on the Gospels not only as historical but also theological in their own right.

Question for Moving Forward

Does viewing the Gospel writers as being historians and theologians help or hurt the Gospels as accounts of the Life of Jesus?  Why or why not?

December 9, 2012

It Has Begun!

For sometime now I have wanted to start an official blog, unlike those premature attempts on Myspace and Facebook, where I posted random thoughts about this and that from time to time.  No, this time I wanted something different, something where I would really have to be disciplined about it and begin blogging and discussing my ideas with the larger community.  Now with so many different blogs out there discussing a wide variety of topics, why another?

First, this blog is going to be a place where I can share my ideas, my latest theological projects, and my reading lists.  It is essentially the place where I can have a public conversation with people.

Second, it is going to help keep me accountable to reading.  The most valuable thing I have taken away from each blog that I have read in the past are the book reviews.  Every time I see someone posting on a new, or even perhaps an old book, that they are reading brings me excitement.  It helps me to know what is out there, what people are into at the moment, and quite possibly if I have read that book already what they have seen in it that I may not have.  This critical engagement with the literature is one of the primary reasons I would like to begin blogging.

Third, from time to time I get into theological projects.  While working through these I mostly have myself and my wife as a dialogue partner.  Therefore, as my professor once said, "The goal of school is to make you into better thinkers.  Therefore, if you want to become better thinkers you must become better writers because it is in writing that you have to actually organize and work out your thoughts.  So I want this to be a place where I can exercise my thoughts in community and dialogue with others so that I can become a better thinker and writer.

Looking forward to the conversations ahead.