Category Archives: Theology

Instruction and Counsel (Ps. 32:8-11)

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Do not be like the horse or the mule,
which have no understanding
but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you. (Psalm 32:8-9)

Good theological education leads to independent thought and judgement. Even for the Old Testament writers, it wasn’t about mindless obedience to detailed regulations. Do NOT be like a broken horse being led here and there! This is what Paul is yammering about in Galatians and Romans. Judaism itself isn’t simply about obedience. As the passage goes on to say, it is about trust; it is about heart:

Many are the woes of the wicked,
but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.
Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous;
sing, all you who are upright in heart! (32:10-11)

There Was No King (Judges 17:6 and //s)

Four times in the book of Judges, we run across this formula: “In those days Israel had no king” (17:6, 18:1, 19:1, 21:25). The first and the last time, the author adds the phrase “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.”

Now, make no mistake, Judges is in scripture as a negative example: do not act like this. It has become common then, to read this repeating formula as if it were saying that the bad morality displayed in this period is because there wasn’t a king — that is, if they’d had a king, they’d have been better. There is a glaring problem with this: it’s clear from the book of 1 Samuel, which follows Judges, that having a king is itself part of the bad thinking, and not what God or Samuel want.

Mary Evans, in her new commentary on Judges, suggests a nuanced interpretation, one which doesn’t occur to us because we’re not living in the kind of monarchy that the biblical writers would have been writing in. If we lived under a dictatorial monarchy that we knew God didn’t really want, when things went badly, we would be tempted to blame everything bad on the monarch.

Into such a situation, Judges could be telling you about the old days, which were not good old days, and using our repeating phrase to say: yeah, but things were awful even before the kings; the problem is not the form of government, it’s deeper and wider than that. The problem is the unfaithfulness of the people.

Imperfect Followers (Mt 28:16-20)

Bart Tarman preached on the Sunday morning, the final session of SimplyJesus 2017. His text was from the end of Matthew’s gospel. And he said something simple, but true and reassuring. He read this about the Jesus, who was back from the grave, and his first followers: “then the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him…” there Bart paused before reading the end of the sentence… “but some doubted.”

Bart looked at us and said, “I don’t know about you. But that makes me feel a whole lot better about my doubts and fears.” They saw him, they worshiped him, and still there could be doubts.

And these are the people — we are the people — Jesus sends and promises to be with. “Surely I am with you always.” To which we might add, “but some doubted.”

Lord, is THIS the time? (Acts 1:6)

Put yourself in the place of the disciples. That’s hard. But imagine yourself as one of the guys who walked around with this miracle worker.

You believed in him when your family and friends were telling you to get real. In the real world, they insisted, his little miracles and big ideas didn’t count for much. The Sanhedrin were still calling the shots in the Israel, not him, and in the wider world, Rome’s military might and administrative control was unstoppable. But you believed Jesus, even when the Sanhedrin flexed its muscles and arrested him and then had him appear up there on stage with the Roman governor. Your blood boiled to see him act submissive — this man who could raise the dead and still the storms. Perhaps you felt a twinge of doubt at that point — clearly the crowds who didn’t know hom as well did. They turned on him, understandably. They had briefly shared your high hopes that he would confront and defeat the oppressive government as he confronted the moneychangers and dovesellers in the Temple. Instead, when push came to shove, confronted by the real powers, he was silent as a sheep before the slaughter.

But now, it’s the beginning of Acts. He rose from the dead and it shows — he’s different. Power leaks from him even more than before. You’re imagining the looks on the faces of High Priest and of Pilate when he enters Jersalem again to confront them to reply with their politics of violence with his peaceful, unstoppable Presence. It won’t be just the moneychangers he’ll be after this time. They’ll have to bow down, won’t they? The Sanhedrin, the Roman governor, even the Caesar. This time, it’s clobbering time. His first coming to Jerusalem was only the prelude. This will be his Second Coming! He’s back!

Remember that, when it was time, your God told his general Gideon “You have too many men,” and to whittle the forces down to a few (Judges 7:2); remember that, when it was time, your God told the armies not to beat against the city walls with hammers until they fell, but only to march round it, making noise (Joshua 6:2-5). Here we are, few in number and not impressive in fighting prowess, but there he is, resurrecrted from the dead, and he promising that we will soon be drenched in God’s Spirit, as John — who predicting coming judgement — had promised. If he says it’s time, then it’s time. We don’t need a huge, trained army.

Wouldn’t you ask, as they did, “Lord, is this the time when earthly governments fold and you become all in all?” Wouldn’t you?

And when he gently, cryptically replies and it becomes clear that the answer is “not now” and then — this man who death could not take away from you, this man who has the power now to set everything right — chooses to leave you. He just disappears into the sky. How do you feel?

He Believes in You

I enjoyed meeting and sharing the stage with Carlos Rodriquez at #SimplyJesus 2017 — he’s full of energy and his talks presented such an infectiously positive take on our relationship with Jesus.

In particular, the first of his talks was about the sending out of the 70 (or 72; Luke 10:1-24). The ultra-simple point that nevertheless really struck home was this: we often talk about how we need to believe/have faith in Jesus, but a story like this shows how much Jesus believes/has faith in us! The room was filled with tired Jesus followers and it was good to be so enthusiastically reminded how much Jesus likes us.

 

Proof-Text for Sleeping In Sunday Mornings

Ps 149:1 Praise the Lord.
Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of his faithful people.
2 Let Israel rejoice in their Maker;
let the people of Zion be glad in their King.
3 Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music to him with timbrel and harp.
4 For the Lord takes delight in his people;
he crowns the humble with victory.
5 Let his faithful people rejoice in this honor
and sing for joy on their beds.

*smirks*

Transposition

I was conversing with colleague William Atkinson this morning and he reminded me of a sermon CS Lewis gave in Oxford, published with the title “Transposition.” It features the lovely analogy of a symphony transposed for solo piano. It’s astonishing that such a feat can be done at all — but when it is done well, the person who knows the richer form — the multi-voiced orchestra — hears echoes of that in the simplified form — the lone piano. Lewis uses it to explain how larger multi-dimensional spiritual truths might be represented on the relatively flat canvas of the physical portion of space-time which we mortals can perceive and process.

Caring About Other People

A recent article from Kayla Chadwick at Huffington says it simply and clearly:

I don’t know how to explain to someone why they should care about other people… 

I’m perfectly content to pay taxes that go toward public schools, even though I’m childless and intend to stay that way, because all children deserve a quality, free education….

If I have to pay a little more with each paycheck to ensure my fellow Americans can access health care? Sign me up.

If this seems unfair or unreasonable to you, we are never going to see eye to eye.

I am so grateful for the healthcare here in the UK where I live; it just makes so much sense that I and my colleagues pay towards the wages of health professionals while I’m well and earning, so that when I’m sick and cannot earn, I’m looked after without having to worry about the finances of it. Why would you want to live in a society where it’s the people who are under pressure from illness who also get put under pressure to provide money for the health professionals?

Rejected Silver (Jer 6:26-30)

Metallurgy is arguably the most important technology in the ancient world. We even measure time by it: Iron Age, Bronze Age, and so on. We don’t think of it this way, but to them metallurgy may have been sexy and advanced high-tech — it’s their cyberspace, their augmented reality, their rocket-science. I have long found it interesting that so frequently Old Testament authors make reference to metals and even metallurgical processes as analogies for spiritual truths — they do not always draw their metaphors from nature or from relationships, but also from ‘the artificial.’

This passage in Jeremiah is such a case — the author’s knowledge of the tech includes not just the processes, but also how the processes fail. The bellows aren’t burning away the impurities in v 29, which means the refining isn’t working. Isn’t that interesting? The author knows enough that he doesn’t only write that the website is unreachable but that there’s been a DNS error. How much detail was common knowledge? Surely some matters must have been trade- even state-secrets?

Hebrews and Brevity

Hebrews 13:22 says “I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for in fact I have written to you quite briefly.” Ok, well… that’s kind of a stretch. ER Richards, in his book Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, concludes a section about the size and shape of pieces and scrolls of papyrus says that the letter of Paul to Philemon was “a fairly typical letter in length, perhaps even a trifle long.” If he’s right, then even 1 Peter 5:12 is stretching it “I have written to you briefly.”

Probably what these writers are comparing their efforts to are not letters as such, but almost as transcriptions of talks. We are pretty sure that most writing was written to be read out loud in public rather than read in silence at a desk somewhere. Hebrews takes less than an hour to read aloud, not outrageously lengthy for a lecture even by today’s standards. Commentators have pointed to words like encouragement in Peter and exhortation in Hebrews as more important in their self-evaluation than the words that mention these things as writings. It’s also frequently said that the appeal to brevity was conventional, and the writer/speaker might mean something more like “I want you to know, my subject is so vast, I could have gone on for much much longer.”

One commentator paraphrases Hebrews as saying “I’ve had a lot to say. Now I’ve said it. I hope you didn’t find it too long.” I like that.