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Jacob’s Blessings

From my daily Bible readings:

IF“Then Jacob called his sons, and said: “Gather around, that I may tell you what will happen to you in days to come. Assemble and hear, O sons of Jacob; listen to Israel your father.”” — Genesis 49:1-2 (NRSV)

Jacob offers a fierce blessing to his sons. His words of reproach, counsel, and comfort cut and soothe with the clarity of truth and anticipate the future as cast from his sons’ characters. This is a powerful activity shared from parents to children, children to parents, and among friends as well! When said with loving and righteous intention, the blessing of truth-telling invokes the powers of forgiveness, empowerment, and transformation.

When words of blessing are intoned at the end of a worship service, truth is invoked — we are claimed as God’s own with all the responsibility and grace that entails.”

— Comments from The Wesley Study Bible.

This great man was now one hundred and forty-seven years of age; though his body, by the waste of time, was greatly enfeebled, yet with a mind in perfect vigor, and a hope full of immortality, he calls his numerous family together, all of them in their utmost state of prosperity, and gives them his last counsels, and his dying blessing. His declarations show that the secret of the Lord was with him, and that his candle shone bright upon his tabernacle. Having finished his work, with perfect possession of all his faculties, and being determined that while he was able to help himself none should be called in to assist, (which was one of the grand characteristics of his life,) he, with that dignity which became a great man and a man of God stretched himself upon his bed, and rather appears to have conquered death than to have suffered it. Who, seeing the end of this illustrious patriarch, can help exclaiming, There is none like the God of Jeshurun! Let Jacob’s God be my God! Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his! Reader, God is still the same: and though he may not make thee as great as was Jacob, yet he is ready to make thee as good; and, whatever thy past life may have been, to crown thee with loving-kindness and tender mercies, that thy end also may be peace.

— Comments by Adam Clarke (1760-1832).

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A House of Prayer for All Nations

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In Mark 11 we read that when Jesus entered Jerusalem — that final time — he “entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.” It was a provocative thing to do. Mark tells us that this incident is one of the primary reasons the religious leaders wanted to kill Jesus. It was a strong protest against the way religious service was being conducted.

And, then come these remarkable words:

He was teaching and saying, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”

And, as I read this passage I say to myself: if that was the case then, how much more now! Our various places of worship — wherever they may be — are intended to be places of prayer for all people. They are meant to point to God. They are meant to bring people into connection with God. They are meant for all people. Is that what they are? (more…)

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Reflections on the Song of Solomon

“The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” (Song of Solomon 2:8-13, NRSV).

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It seems strange to some people that words like these are found in the Bible. It goes against what we think we know of the Bible.

These words are from a book of the Bible few people know about. This little book of the Hebrew Bible is variously called ” Song of Solomon” or “Song of Songs.” It is a long poem about erotic love. Really, it seems to be a collection of poems that have been brought together into one. A church group would not want to do a verse-by-verse study of this book because of the frankly erotic imagery in the book.

It’s about sex. It has at least an R rating. (more…)

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The Goodness of God’s Creation

My current stroll through the Bible is slow enough that it allows me to notice and think about things. I’m reading about a chapter a day, and that gives me the chance to mull it over in my mind.

IFLike this:

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” — Genesis 1:31 NRSV

This verse appears at a significant place. It is a summing up statement, coming at the end of the sixth day it is also a statement about the whole world that God had created. The seventh day will be a day of rest.

So, it represents God’s evaluation of the world that has been created: “very good” (ט֖וֹב מְאֹ֑ד).

How often I have lost this perspective of the essential goodness of the world. Part of this is my scientific background, by which I learned about the concept of entropy. Entropy is random disorder. The second law of thermodynamics asserts that natural processes favor the increase of random disorder. With the apostle Paul I have a strong sense that the world is in “bondage to decay.” (Romans 8:21 NRSV). I see the cruelty of life more often than I appreciate its beauty and wonder. I used to have trouble singing: (more…)

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Praying With A Sincere Heart – Psalm 17:1-5

Wesley Study BibleThe Wesley Study Bible contains this little overview of the themes of Psalm 17:

Has anyone ever said to you, “Life is not fair,” and you thought, “Well, it should be!”? Life is filled with ups and downs, times when what seems fair to you is not fair to another. Psalm 17 begins with “Listen to what’s right, LORD; pay attention to my cry!” (17:1a). This is a prayer for deliverance from the wicked and for the freedom to live in God’s righteousness. While life is not fair all the time, it is right at all times to pray to God for deliverance from wrongdoing and for justice for all the children of God.

The Psalmist (David, we are told) begins by declaring his own faithfulness. Why would God want to listen to those who are not faithful to God’s purposes? Why would God listen to the deceitful? Surely God hears the prayers of the repentant and remorseful, but sincerity of heart is always a precondition of effective prayer. (more…)

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Ministry is Servanthood – Colossians 1:25

As I mentioned before, in Colossians 1:24-29, the apostle Paul talks about his own ministry.

paul-iconIn verse 24 he talks he says “I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” I have commented on that verse here: Sufferings for Christ’s Sake. Now he goes on to talk about his ministry in terms of servanthood.

I have sometimes encountered resistance to the idea of the “Servant Leader.” A colleague in the ministry, many years ago, was contemptuous of the idea. If you are the leader, you are in charge — that was his point of view. If you were a servant you served at the wishes of those were in authority. To him, it was a matter of who gave orders, and who served. Yet, in the New Testament, both Jesus and the apostle Paul take a very different view. Jesus said: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28 NRSV). It seems strange to me that my old colleague in ministry could not wrap his head around this principle from the teaching of Jesus. But, it is clear that the apostle Paul also subscribed to this view. To him, true leadership was also a form of servanthood. (more…)

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When God’s People Fail – Amos 3:9-15

Amos0615Notice how the ideas in Amos chapter 3 are organized:

  • The opening verses of chapter 3 identify the people against whom Amos is prophesying: “against the whole family that [God] brought up out of the land of Egypt.” (Discussed here.)
  • Verses 3-8 speak of Amos’s own role as a prophet. (Discussed here.)
  • Verses 9-15 speak of the destruction that will fall upon the nation.

The prophet calls the surrounding nations to witness against YHWH’s Chosen People.

Verse 9:

הַשְׁמִיעוּ עַל־אַרְמְנוֹת בְּאַשְׁדּוֹד וְעַל־אַרְמְנוֹת בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וְאִמְרוּ הֵאָסְפוּ עַל־הָרֵי שֹׁמְרוֹן וּרְאוּ מְהוּמֹת רַבּוֹת בְּתוֹכָהּ וַעֲשׁוּקִים בְּקִרְבָּהּ
“Proclaim to the strongholds in Ashdod, and to the strongholds in the land of Egypt, and say, ‘Assemble yourselves on Mount Samaria, and see what great tumults are within it, and what oppressions are in its midst.’”

The people of God are on display. Their behavior is being judged by the nations around them. The tumults (מְהוּמֹת) and oppressions (וַעֲשׁוּקִים) in its midst shock even the nations. The witnesses are to assemble on Mount Samaria — indicating, as usual, that the Northern Kingdom is the main focus of this prophecy (though, compare verse 13). Amos chooses two nations as his witnesses — he mentions Ashdod, a major city of the Philistines, and then Egypt. It is, of course, significant that the invited witnesses are also traditional enemies of the nation. Before them, Israel is put to shame — before these nations who are not the chosen of YHWH. Yet, the prophet implies, they have a better sense of right and wrong. They become the judges. (more…)

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Sufferings for Christ’s Sake – Colossians 1:24

IFIn Colossians chapter 1, verses 24-29, the apostle Paul talks about his own ministry.

I find passages like this some of the most interesting parts of Paul’s letters. Here we see his motives in ministry. Here we see what kept him going. Paul is often very open about his discouragements and failures, as well as his successes. In that regard, I have always found 2 Corinthians interesting as well. Here we get to see the apostle’s motivations, his discouragements, his goals.

In the verses before, he has dealt with more theological issues — though these are issues which have very serious bearing on their lives. He writes to correct misconceptions which have become prevalent in the Colossian church. He believes that ideas influence behavior — and that is why is is so often concerned to correct mistaken theological ideas. (more…)

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We Need Prophets – Amos 3:3-8

Amos0615The opening verses of chapter 3 identify the people against whom Amos is prophesying: “the whole family that [God] brought up out of the land of Egypt.” They are the people that God has especially known. But, their special relationship with God implied a responsibility to live a life that reflected the character of the God who redeemed them.

Now, in verses 3-8, Amos talks about his own role as a prophet.

It begins with a series of cause and effect questions: when you see a certain effect, you can infer its cause? Or, as we might say: “Where there is smoke, there is fire.” They go like this:

 

  • Two people are walking together —> they must have made an appointment
  • A lion roars in the forest —> the lion must have caught something
  • A bird falls into a snare —> there must have been a trap
  • A snare springs up —> it must have taken something
  • A trumpet is blown in the city —> the people must be afraid

 

This is another one of Amos’ rhetorical devices, he is leading up to something — the last cause and effect is a little different: (more…)

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The Cross: the Means of Reconciliation – Colossians 1:21-23

IFOn March 3 I wrote about the theme of reconciliation in Colossians 1:21-23. Yeah, but I left something out.

I said that the passage seemed (to this person who has spent a large part of his life looking for such things) to fall into a nice, neat sermon outline:

  1. The need for reconciliation: “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds….”
  2. The purpose of reconciliation: “…as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him….”
  3. The condition of reconciliation: “…provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard….”
  4. The scope of reconciliation: “…which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.”

Nice little (old-fashioned) sermon outline, huh? Yes, but it’s missing something. At the time, I was very consciously leaving out point #5: The means of reconciliation. (more…)

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The Bronze Serpent – Numbers 21:4-9

Hebrew_bible_4The Old Testament is a wonderful gift from God to us. It is wonderful that we have this record — so ancient, so fascinating. These were the Scriptures of the earliest Christians — who turned to them to understand what God had done in their midst in Christ. It was the context of these Scriptures in which Jesus himself had taught — to a community shaped by it’s stories and laws and prophecies and poetry.

And if anything is central to the Old Testament itself, it is the first five books.

No doubt the material we currently know as the books of Moses (or the Pentateuch, or the Torah — that is, Genesis through Deuteronomy) were assembled and edited in the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon — they became especially valuable to the people in the times of the exile and then the re-establishment of the nation — they served to teach the people who they were in the light of their history as the people of YHWH. But, the stories themselves go back much further. The people of Israel knew themselves to be a nation that had been delivered by God from Egypt — and the exile, no doubt served as a time to gather those stories together. (more…)

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Reconciliation – Colossians 1:21-23

greek-nt-openIn this early part of the letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul has been emphasizing the greatness of Christ. The verses just before this speak of Christ as the Head of the Church.

Paul now personalizes the message: reminding his readers of the way Christ has changed their lives: reconciling them to God.

Καὶ ὑμᾶς ποτε ὄντας ἀπηλλοτριωμένους καὶ ἐχθροὺς τῇ διανοίᾳ ἐν τοῖς ἔργοις τοῖς πονηροῖς, νυνὶ δὲ ἀποκατήλλαξεν ἐν τῷ σώματι τῆς σαρκὸς αὐτοῦ διὰ τοῦ θανάτου παραστῆσαι ὑμᾶς ἁγίους καὶ ἀμώμους καὶ ἀνεγκλήτους κατενώπιον αὐτοῦ, εἴ γε ἐπιμένετε τῇ πίστει τεθεμελιωμένοι καὶ ἑδραῖοι καὶ μὴ μετακινούμενοι ἀπὸ τῆς ἐλπίδος τοῦ εὐαγγελίου οὗ ἠκούσατε, τοῦ κηρυχθέντος ἐν πάσῃ κτίσει τῇ ὑπὸ τὸν οὐρανόν, οὗ ἐγενόμην ἐγὼ Παῦλος διάκονος.“And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him — provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.” (NRSV)

Jesus Christ is the reconciler. Paul writes in verse 20: “and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” The ideas here remind us of 2 Corinthians 5:19: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself….” (more…)

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Melchizedek – Hebrews 5:5-10

“So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,’ You are my Son, today I have begotten you’; as he says also in another place, ’You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’ In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” — Hebrews 5:5-10 NRSV

Meeting_of_abraham_and_melchizadek

Very often, when we consult a commentary on this passage, we get enmeshed in a long, confusing discussion about Melchizedek. Some of the old, classic commentaries go on and on about this character: who he was, what was his connection to Christ, was he some sort of mystical being, was he Christ himself, and on and on it goes. A reader can get lost in it — and end up being none the wiser for it.

But, I always figured the interpretation was simple and the commentators were making a mountain out of a mole hill.

It seems pretty simple to me.

The name Melchizedek (מַלְכִּי-צֶדֶק) means “King of Righteousness.” (Thus, it is a title rather than an actual name — but that’s neither here nor there.) (more…)

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God Speaks Out Against the Nation – Amos 3:1, 2

hebrew-scrollIt is amazing how self-critical the Hebrew Scriptures are. They do not glorify the nation or it’s heroes. The nation’s critics were remembered — they were remembered as prophets who told them, in advance, of the danger that lay ahead for them. The Scriptures really aren’t an exercise in glorifying the nation and it’s people and it’s leaders. It isn’t really an exercise in bragging about their greatness. One would naturally expect that it would be. It is their national literature, after all — in which they found their identity. They copied and re-copied it. They kept it safe. They recited it and memorized it.

They remembered the words of the prophets. They remembered: even though the prophets had preached a message of judgement against them, criticized the way they practiced their own religion, exposed their evil and selfish motives.  (more…)

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The In-Breathing of the Spirit (John 20:22)

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.””— John 20:19-22 (NRSV).

40-days-with-the-holy-spirit-17Jack Levison’s new book 40 Days With the Holy Spirit is filled with insights about the Holy Spirit. The book is divided into several brief meditations on the Spirit — and the language the Scriptures use to  speak of the Spirit’s role. Dr. Levison holds the W. J. A. Power Chair of Biblical Hebrew and Old Testament Interpretation at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University. He has written about the Holy Spirit before: The Spirit in First Century Judaism (1997), Of Two Minds: Ecstasy and Inspired Interpretation in the New Testament World (2000), Filled with the Spirit (2009),  Fresh Air: The Holy Spirit for an Inspired Life (2012).

And, in reading this new book, I came across a insight about the passage above that was new to me. I am quite familiar with the passage that reads: “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”” Some scholars call this the Johannine Pentecost — the Gospel of John’s way of speaking of the coming of the Holy Spirit into the lives of the Christian believers. More traditional believers have had some difficulty reconciling this bestowal of the Holy Spirit with the later event of Pentecost — wondering when the Spirit really came upon the first disciples of Jesus. (more…)

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