Category Archives: Narrative Lectionary

Rebellion and Love

Why do we do the stupid things we do? Why would Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden? Why do I continue to trust in my own abilities and not God’s direction and commands?

“Woman gives her man to eat” by Lucile Butel, 1989

I ask those questions whenever I read Genesis 3, the story of Adam’s and Eve’s choice to disobey God. The story is often called “The Fall” since it describes humanity’s fall from God’s loving, eternal presence, yet I prefer the title “The Rebellion” since it is our human tendency to rebel against God’s commands. We rebel when we place ourselves in the center of our lives, and not God. We listen to the crafty voice of the serpent that says “you will not die, but will find pleasure, riches, knowledge, significance, or fame” if we yield to our own temptations. The story of Adam and Eve’s rebellion is our story of rebellion; our human choice to sin. And if we try to blame anyone or anything else, we are only echoing their response when God confronted them afterwards. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent (Genesis 3:11-13).

The Bible introduces sin and brokenness as an essential piece of our humanity. Though the biblical story begins with humanity created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), the image is quickly twist and stained by our rebellion. The next eight chapters of Genesis highlights how the infection of sin penetrates all of life: Cain murders Able, The Flood, and the Tower of Babel. Each story hammering home the sinful quality of humanity.

You Will Be A Blessing by David Hetland

Yet each story also shows elements of God’s mercy and grace. After Adam and Eve rebel, God provides them with animal skins for clothing. After Cain murders his brother, God provides a place of sanctuary for him. As God contemplates destroying the sinful world with a flood (Genesis 6), God provides a new beginning through Noah and his family. And after God scatters the people when they build the idolatrous Tower of Babel, God selects Abraham to become a blessing to all people (Genesis 12).

Even our rebellion will not stop God from loving us.

Lord Jesus, have mercy upon us.

Garden of Eden

This Sunday I am preaching on the first story in the Bible, Genesis 2 and 3. The story begins with God creating man from the mud of the earth and breathing into adam/man the breath of life. The story has word-play because the Hebrew word for man ‘adam’ sounds like the Hebrew word for ground or dirt is ‘adamah.’ Then the Lord God places the man in a garden in Eden that has “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:8).

The Garden of Eden has fascinated humanity. My initial impression was of a small compact garden, sort of like a resort on the edge of a river. At the center of the garden is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, with the crafty serpent nearby. I tend to push the story forward to the temptation scene in chapter three, where both the woman and the man disobey and rebel against God.

But that tight image has been challenged by the painter Thomas Cole and his painting called “The Garden of Eden” (1828).

Philip Tallon, a Methodist seminary professor, writes about the painting,

As painted by Cole, the garden seems to encompass the whole earth. It is an infinite playground in which Adam and Eve are dwarfed by rivers, mountains, trees, and even sparkling gems that erupt from the earth. As Cole himself wrote in an 1828 letter about the painting, “I have endeavored to conceive a happy spot where all the beautiful objects of nature were concentered.” This conveys first to me the magnificent, plurality of creation: a Christmas stocking so overflowing with treats that we will never get to the bottom.

The abundance and wonder of the God’s creation can be seen in the scripture. It is essential for understanding the story to rest a moment in the awesome beauty of God’s gift to humanity before moving to the fateful confrontation with the serpent. The wonder of that creation remains all around us, if we have eyes to see.

Lord Jesus, thank you for the beauty of your creation.

Pilgrims, Property and Piety

During my daily commute I have been listening to Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, a history of the Pilgrim’s first decades in New England . One episode caught my ear.

During the first years of the settlement at Plymouth, the colony struggled to produce enough food for the harsh winters. They were a pious refugees who were seeking a more perfect Christian community.  They decided at first to have a communal farm and share both the labor and the harvest equally. However their harvests were so meager that the Governor Bradford decided in 1623 to stop communal farming and allowed each family to grow and keep their own corn crop. After this decision the colony rarely struggled for food.

The failure of the communal farm reminded me of a short passage in the book of Acts. (Resurrection LC has been reading the book of Acts in worship as part of the Narrative Lectionary.)

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. (Acts 4:32)

This early vision of communal living seemed to be short-lived in the church as well. Paul does not refer to it in any of his letters directly. Rather he practiced his own tent-making vocation and funded his own missionary journeys (Acts 18:3, 2 Cor. 11:7-9). The early church met in people’s houses, which means that someone must have owned the homes. Private property was never abolished by the church.

There have been some successful versions of communal living in church history, the monastic communities being the best example. Yet the vast majority of Christians continue to own private property and prosper from a free market society.

The Acts 4:32 experiment still has a purpose for all Christians: the call to be good and generous stewards of our possessions. Like the early pilgrims, we may be more industrious when we directly benefit from our labor. Still Christ calls us to be compassionate neighbors, one to another. Our new relationship with God calls us into compassionate service towards others.  Generosity will always be part of a mature Christian piety.

Lord Jesus, teach me to be generous as you are generous towards me.

Beginning the Gospel School

Beginnings need special attention. On the first day of school I would wait with my children at their bus stop and snap a picture to mark the occasion. My first day at Resurrection, I arrived early in the morning and walked the grounds, thinking and praying for the congregation’s future. Our western culture declares a holiday to begin each New Year. The Bible starts with the awesome statement, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

The New Testament begins with four gospels, each declaring Jesus Christ as Lord, but in unique ways. Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus, showing his Jewish heritage through Abraham and David. Mark begins with the words of the Old Testament, “I am sending my messenger ahead of you,” an introduction to John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism. Luke begins in the temple of Jerusalem where an angel announces to the priest Zechariah that in his old age he will have a son, John the Baptist. John has perhaps the most auspicious beginning, directly echoing the words of Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and was God.”

All four Gospels want to make clear from the beginning that Jesus is a central actor of God’s ongoing story to redeem a corrupt and broken world. The story of the Old Testament set the stage for Jesus’ entrance into the cosmic drama. His entrance shifts the story in a radical new direction, but it is still connected to God’s ongoing redemption.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are called Gospels (Good News) and not biographies. Their purpose is not simple to inform the reader about Jesus’ life, but rather to transform the reader into a passionate follower of Jesus. They make no claim to be unbiased. They have an announcement to declare: Jesus is Good News for those who embrace his mission.

As 2012 begins, I pray that you will embrace this news and seek to follow Jesus as you read from the Gospels. At Resurrection, our Sunday morning Bible texts will be from the Gospel of Mark and we will follow Jesus chapter by chapter to his death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter. Good news is coming in 2012 as we begin our study of Jesus.  Let’s start with joy.

Lord Jesus, show me the way.


From the Old to the New

After four months of studying and preaching on the Old Testament story, I confess I am ready to celebrate Jesus’ birth and to refocus on Jesus’ story of  life, death and resurrection.  Though I greatly appreciate the marvelous stories and themes of the Old Testament, I remain a devoted Christian who reads the Bible with Jesus-tinted glasses.  I strongly believe that Christians need to have a basic understanding of the Old Testament story to fully understand who Jesus is.  The God of the Old Testament is the God of Jesus.

Yet Jesus reinterprets some of the Old Testament teachings in a radical new way.  For example: the Old Testament has many stories of violence and ethnic warfare.   From Moses attack on the Midianites in Numbers 31 to Elijah’s slaughter of the 450  priests of Baal in I Kings 18, violence is often condoned by the Old Testament.

But in Matthew 5, Jesus reinterprets the whole “love your neighbor” to include my enemies.  Here is how Eugene Peterson interprets Jesus’ words,

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’  I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer,  for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best – the sun to warm and the rain to nourish – to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.  If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that.  If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.  (Matt 5:43-47, the Message)

Jesus’ words certainly make more sense to me, but they are so a greater challenge by which to trust, live, and serve.  I recognize my need for a saviour, a deliverer, one who can transform my heart, mind and life.  I am sure glad God sent one 2000 years ago.

Lord Jesus, save us from ourselves.

Recognizing Our Foolishness

As Resurrection Lutheran nears the end of the Old Testament portion of the Narrative Lectionary, I look forward to Christmas and the birth of Jesus. Though I have enjoyed our survey of the Old Testament, I now long for the familiar story of promise held in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The stage is being set for Jesus entrance into God’s drama. Two more Sundays of Advent remain.

This Sunday we will embrace one of the last written books of Old Testament: Daniel. The stories and visions of Daniel are from the time of the Exile when the leaders and skilled labor of Jerusalem were taken to Babylon as captives. The Babylonians wanted to re-indoctrinate the Jews to forget their Jewish heritage and God so as to become productive participants in the empire. Daniel and others resisted such practices.

Daniel chapter three is familiar to many from their childhood. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are to be thrown into the fiery furnace but God delivers them. But our childhood version often misses the humor or farcical nature of the story. As you read the text, consider how the repetition and exaggeration  demonstrate how crazy King Nebuchadnezzar is.

King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits and whose width was six cubits; he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon. Then King Nebuchadnezzar sent for the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, to assemble and come to the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. So the satraps, the prefects, and the governors, the counselors, the treasurers, the justices, the magistrates, and all the officials of the provinces, assembled for the dedication of the statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up. When they were standing before the statue that Nebuchadnezzar had set up, the herald proclaimed aloud, “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.” (Daniel 3:1-6)

Is it not comical to read that a human being could “set up” a god? Yet that is how ridiculous King Nebuchadnezzar has become with his power. But are we not as ridiculous when we “set up” something as having ultimate importance? Whether it be our sports teams (think how “over-the-top” the Super Bowl has become), or our careers, or our expectations for Christmas celebrations or our greed. Such humor can disarm our defensiveness and open us to God’s healing. We need to laugh at ourselves when we try to “set up” our mini-gods and see our foolishness.

Lord Jesus, come quickly and deliver me from my foolishness.

Zeal Gone Too Far?

Temple of Baal in Shamin Syria

Having preached Sunday on King Josiah’s renewal of God’s covenant in 2 Kings 22, I am fascinated with his reforms afterwards. According to the book of 2 Kings, Josiah was one of the few kings who followed in the path of God. Despite being raised in a palace where the fertility idols of Asherah and Baal were preferred, Josiah placed his trust in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David. And when he heard the Book of the Law for the first time, he became zealous to reform the religion of Jerusalem and surrounding Judah.

First he cleaned out the temple of Solomon, the house of the Lord, removing all the foreign idols (2 Kings 23:4). He burned them outside of Jerusalem and scattered their ashes on public graves, which desecrated these ancient cultic objects. He marched out into the countryside to destroy the “high places” or non-Temple worship sites. He also expelled any foreign priests.

Such “zealous” action may sound excessive to our tolerant ears. Living in our pluralistic culture, we may read such harsh actions as bigotry and intolerance. Yet Josiah and the people of Judah had been given a very specific mission from God: to trust in the Lord God alone. Without this radical obedience their mission could easily be diluted into cultural irrelevance by the neighboring nations. No one would be following God’s covenant. Still, I doubt that we are called to burn or destroy the temples of other religions today. Such a brutal attack would not be honoring Jesus command to love our neighbor (Matt 22:39).

There is a second part to Josiah’s reforms that speaks more directly to our day and culture. It was a revitalization of worship towards the Lord God. He reintroduced the celebration of Passover in Jerusalem, a celebration of God’s victory in releasing the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. (2 Kings 23:21-23). The same holds true today. As Christians we need to more completely understand and celebrate our heritage as God’s people. The narrative lectionary has helped our congregation rediscover some of the Vibrant Life of Faith that can be found in the Old Testament. We don’t need to burn “high places,” but we can certainly burn with the light of faith in God. Our light can beckon our neighbor to a Vibrant Life of Faith in Christ.

How do you bear witness to faith in God in our pluralistic society?

Lord Jesus, may I be faithful as you are faithful.

Words of Death and Life

The Old Testament prophets were poets and strong words were their tools. The prophet Hosea used offensive language to stir up the people and to call them back to God. The graphic words were to be a shock to the community in hope that they would repent.

Hosea and Gomer by Artist Cody F. Miller

In the first chapter, Hosea was directed by God to marry an unconventional wife.

The Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” (Hosea 1:2)

His chosen wife, Gomer, may have been a temple prostitute from one of the fertility cults or a simple street prostitute of the city. She bore children to Hosea to whom Hosea gave symbolic names, No-Pity and Not-My-Children, demonstrating God’s strong disfavor with the fickle people of Israel. Afterwards Hosea spoke an extremely harsh word to the people.

Plead with your mother, plead— for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband— that she put away her whoring from her face, and her adultery from between her breasts, or I will strip her naked and expose her as in the day she was born, and make her like a wilderness, and turn her into a parched land, and kill her with thirst. Upon her children also I will have no pity, because they are children of whoredom.

God was angry with Israel’s infatuation with other religions. Instead of being a shining beacon of the Lord God for other nations, they had embraced the gods of other nations, forsaking their unique covenant with God. They had become like a spouse caught in adultery.

The harsh violent language of Hosea can be a shock to our spiritual sensibilities. How can God speak in such cruel severe words?

Perhaps the words are so harsh, because the people’s hearts were so hard. Or perhaps they are so cruel because our hearts are so hard. The words of the prophet “killed” the people (including us the reader), so that God can create a new heart, a new life: a kind of resurrection.

Therefore I will now allure her and speak tenderly to her, . . . I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. (Hosea 2:14,19)

Finally the Lord declared, “I will have pity on No-Pity, and I will say to Not-My-Children, ‘You are my people’” (Hosea 2:23). I cling to these words of hope and restoration.

Lord Jesus, the Word of God, you absorbed our sin in your death on the cross. Speak to us again the Word of Life.

Sanctuary Light

On Sunday, our Biblical focus will be King Solomon’s building and dedicating the temple in Jerusalem. His father, King David, had wanted to build a temple, but through the prophet Nathan, God instructed him to wait.

Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?  I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.  Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word  saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” (2 Samuel 7:5-7)

The temple was a mixed blessing to Israel. Like many beautiful cathedrals it provided a place for the worship of God to flourish. Awe and wonder could be expressed in multiple ways within its walls. The book of Psalms captures some of the beauty of that magnificent structure.

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. Psalm 27:4

But as I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the danger of a fixed structure is that we compartmentalize God’s activity and restrict God’s presence to the “box on the hill.” A temple, church or cathedral should draw us into the wondrous presence of God yet also send us out renewed and refreshed to be God’s people in the world. The light of Christ is to shine both inside and outside the sanctuary.

I have been rereading Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion.  A Quaker, Kelly testifies to how the light of prayer is to be transformative wherever we are:

A practicing Christian must above all be one who practices the perpetual return of the soul into it inner sanctuary, who brings the world into its Light and rejudges it, who brings the Light into the world with all its turmoil and it fitfulness and recreates it (p. 35).

Having worshipped in a simple Friend’s Meeting House, I know that it was not the magnificent space that inspired Kelly’s deep conviction, but rather the Light in the people who gathered to listen and be in the Light. The Light calls us together where we amplify its wavelength in community but then the Light directs us back into the world. Our meeting places are to be launch pads.

Lord Jesus, let your light shine in me.

The Price of Loyalty

King David by artist Rae Chichilnitsky

King David’s complex story fascinates me. Samuel, the prophet, anointed him as king at a young age and “the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him from that day forward” (I Samuel 16:13). Saul was still on the throne and would use David in his battles against the hated Philistines (David and Goliath), but then Saul turned against David out of jealousy and rage. Yet David remained loyal to Saul, keeping a secret friendship with Saul’s son Jonathan and sparing Saul’s life at least twice (I Samuel 24, 26). When Saul was killed in battle, David executed the messenger who claimed to kill Saul in hope of reaping a reward from David (2 Samuel 1:14-16). David then sang a song of Lament for Saul and Jonathan,

Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!
In life and in death they were not divided;
they were swifter than eagles;
they were stronger than lions (2 Samuel 1:23).

Though chosen by God to be king, David remained faithful and loyal to the first king of Israel, Saul. David must have known that if he was not faithful as a follower of a king, how could his future followers be faithful to him when he did become king? Throughout his struggles with Saul, David turned to God for strength, wisdom and guidance. He had both a strong sense of God’s sovereignty guiding him, while at the same time knowing he had the freedom to choose his path. First and Second Samuel are great books to reflect upon the interplay between our human freedom and God’s ruling, guiding power.

Loyalty remains tricky today. How does one remain loyal to an organization, a congregation, a friend, a family or to God? As a pastor I sometimes stuggle with being loyal to the people of a old congregation while embracing God’s call to be pastor of a new congregation.  I recognize that God has called new pastors to serve in my former congregation who are faithful and compassionate, yet the deep relationship still pull at my heart string.  I also recognize that it takes time and energy to build new pastoral relationships in my current setting and that God will be faithful here as well.

Have you ever struggle to be loyal to God or to others?

Lord Jesus, your kingdom come, your will be done, through me and through your people.