Wednesday, January 6, 2016

By Fire

First installation in things that I've missed in the my own reading of the Bible.  Hopefully Ryan will add a few of his also.  This is the gospel text for the weekend.

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah, John answered them all, 'I baptize you with water, but one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear away the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.'  And with many other words, John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news.'

But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother's wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: he locked John up in prison.

When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.  And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son whom I love, with you I am well pleased."

Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.  He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph.
Luke 3:15-23

How many times have I overlooked this.  Every time I have read this before, my assumption was blanketed with my religious tradition.  I took it for granted that John the Baptist took the holy sea shell and scooped the Jordan River water onto Jesus' head while his sponsors stood by his side ready to receive the obligatory candle and a version of the small catechism.

Read again closely.  It doesn't seem that John the Baptist could have baptized Jesus.  According to the gospel writer Luke, John was already in prison so Jesus was baptized by someone not even mentioned in a biblical footnote.  I think that's strange - both Mark and Matthew have included that it was John who did the ceremony, but Luke seems confused.  So confused that he doesn't even seem to know who Jesus' father was.  What does this say?  Are the gospel writers unsure?  What does this say about biblical unity?  What is really going on here?

We know that Luke has a different audience and, because of our historical understanding of him as a doctor, he is writing to a different demographic.  Addressed to 'Most Excellent Theophilus', it seems that Luke is giving an account to a Gentile who needs to know the 'reason for the season' if you will, and, moving quickly through Jesus' early years, through his baptism and right into his ministry, Luke is intensely interested in Jesus' ministry; the details of the baptism are relatively vague, which doesn't bother me at all.  Does it really matter who baptized Jesus?  Do not John the Baptist's pre-incarceration words give us an understanding of Jesus' role?  John is not even worthy to untie his sandals and the baptism he is providing sounds a lot more gentle than the baptism of fire that's coming with the one whose sandals need to be untied.

Jesus is coming to clean out the threshing floor, prepare the barn and set fire to the chaff.  Of course he is speaking metaphorically - biblical authors and speakers are given that opportunity; Jesus does it all the time, which means that not everything in the Bible is always to be taken literally.  Is John speaking about people as the chaff?  Or, is he speaking about the sin that so easily entangles that is the chaff that needs to be burned away with an unquenchable fire?  It seems like the latter would be the 'good news' which John needed so many words to use, otherwise, if people are the chaff that are to be burned with unquenchable fire, there are a couple of things that need to be clarified:

1.  How do I know when I've reached non-chaff-worthy status?  If this is about people who are to be swept from the floor into the fire, how do I know that I'm not amidst the dross?  There are too many things in my life that could possibly make me worthy of the fire, and I vacillate between sinner and saint so often that the world spins.  What if I die while I'm caught on the sinner side?  What if I haven't confessed all of those sins?  Am I destined for the fire?

2.  How is this good news for people who don't even know that they are chaff?  I'm sure they've been told ad nauseum by preachers and prayers alike that they are 'a poor and miserable sinner deserving of rejection by God' that it would be easy to toss up one's hands and say, what hope do we have?

But if Luke is writing about Jesus' ability to sweep out the sin in our lives, to burn it in a fire so hot that it is cinder, we are given something greater.  Isn't this the good news?

Meanwhile, back at the baptism...

It seems that John is in prison, and Jesus is hanging out with the multitudes being baptized.  In Luke's gospel, we aren't given a location (it doesn't seem important), we aren't told who is doing the service (that, too, doesn't seem important) but what is deemed noteworthy is the fact that Jesus is not incising himself from the general populace for a private baptismal ceremony.  Certainly, we don't even know why he is being baptized in the first place because it has nothing to do with forgiveness of sins, but it seems like an opening of a new chapter in his life: a consecration for his ministry, and it is blessed by the attendance of the Holy Spirit - the Trinity shows up: God, the voice, the one who speaks all creation into time; Jesus, the physical form, God's voice wearing clothes of flesh and the Holy Spirit, strangest of all, looks like a bird - the same bird that announces that the flood is over.  The destruction of humankind is over.

In other words... It is finished.  All this tomfoolery about questions like: Am I good enough?  Am I acting good enough?  Am I doing enough good?  That's all odiophera.  Small potatoes.  God is finishing the power of sin, death and the devil in one fell swoop beginning at the baptism of Jesus, in the midst of his people.

He is always in community with people.  That's the beauty of Jesus; there is no selfish bone in his body - no addiction to selfies; only a constant sense that people are the most important thing in the world, and he's coming to cleanse the world with the Holy Spirit and with fire - the same fire that is about to purify the world of chaff and dross and the power of sin (there is still sin, unfortunately).  All is burned with unquenchable fire and by fire we are left with only one thing.


It is by two opposing forces which we are saved: water and fire.  Water drowns our old self and all its needless addictions to selfishness.  Fire burns our innermost thoughts of how we despise God and hate our neighbor. 

It is in this baptism that Jesus brings us freedom.

There's the good news.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

I Can't Go With You

The book of Exodus destroys most of the warm, fuzzy feelings we normally attribute to God.  Although there is a sense of real relationships with Moses, God comes across as an incomprehensible tyrant. 

And that's just it.  I can't comprehend it.  I don't can't understand the depths of God's jealousy for the people of God.  And I write that intentionally - not jealousy of but jealousy for.  It seems like in God's ultimate cosmic mind, there is no other option for his people - there is only him and for them to disregard him and his power for their lives, it taints the relationship.  It colors it in a way that cannot be repaired and he can no longer even be around them because of his holiness.

Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey.  But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way. 

When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments.  For the LORD had said to Moses, 'Tell the Israelites, "You are a stiff-necked people.  If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you.'   (Exodus 33:3-5a)

But our human perception of tyranny is not one of oppression, it is a misunderstanding of the completeness of God's holiness and righteousness.  God's rightness.  We live in a world that believes it is a human right to not have consequences for our decisions, that somehow we are not bound by any law or rule because when we are caught, 'we didn't mean it.'  In order to continue on the selfish road, we expect that those in authority will have mercy each and every time and when they respond with discipline or punishment because of bad behavior, we cry out "Bully!" 

But God is neither a bully nor a tyrant: he is holy.  And he desperately desires something entirely different for his children.  Even though our scriptures seem to make out that God wanted to destroy the people of Israel at the mountain, he cannot because they are his treasure.  His discipline is postponed which (hopefully) we'll look at tomorrow.


1.  What is one time you deserved punishment and received it?

2.  What is one time you deserved punishment and avoided it?

3.  From which one did you learn more?  What did you learn?

Friday, July 24, 2015


Some of my relatives still write letters.  It's a beautiful thing - a long, lost art if you ask me, but writing letters, of course, has regressed to the point of near extinction by the facility of e-mail or text messaging.  The instantaneousness of receiving information far outweighs the benefits of a paid envelope, right?

Every birthday or anniversary, my parents send me a card.  Yes, cards are nice and they make me smile, the sentiment helps to brighten a day, but what I really search for is their handwriting.  They both have amazing script, loops and lines all in place.  If their handwriting was put in a 'lineup,' I could probably be able to pick them out at first choice.

And beyond the visible swirls and twirls of the writing itself, is the deeper appreciation for taking time to write something to me that will take almost two weeks to reach me.  By the time the letter arrives, everything in our lives could have changed, but that one letter that reaches me is a lasting impression about what was important to them at the moment, so it becomes important to me also.

It's the beauty of writing a letter: time, focus, legibility, depth of foresight (you have to know what you are going to write beforehand.  There's no erasing)

Moses was on top of the mountain a long time receiving a letter.  Forty days, we read, and the Israelites were getting a little impatient about this fated family vacation in the desert.  They approach Aaron, Moses' brother, and push him, "Come make us a god who will go before us.  As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what happened to him.'

When life becomes stagnant, stale or full of nervousness, we tend to think that God has abandoned us.  We need instant gratification for the calming of our senses and we have a penchant for quick, non-thought-out action.  It doesn't matter what we do as long as we do something.  For the Israelites standing in the shadow of a Mountain of God, their assumption was that God had done something to Moses so it was time to not only get a new God but get a new Moses, too.

But during the time that they had been waiting, God was crafting his own Magna Carta.  When the Lord finished speaking to Moses on Mt. Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.  (Ex. 31:18)

The tablets were inscribed on the front and the back.  (Can you imagine that?  God's own handwriting?)  Unlike writing an e-mail, scratching the entire covenantal law into stone takes time.  You all know how much focus it takes to write a neat, concise letter - preparation and careful legibility.  These forty days God was preparing the gift of the Law for the Israelites, that which would keep them safe in the community and in close connection with God.  But the Israelites ruined it with their impatience.


1.  When was the last time you got a handwritten letter?  What was it about?  Did you keep it?

2.  What kinds of things are you most impatient about?  How does that affect your decision making processes?

3.  If you could write a handwritten letter today telling them about the most important thing in your life, who would you write it to and what would it entail?

Thursday, July 23, 2015


I stumbled across this in devotions this morning from Exodus.  Naturally, I had passed over it multiple times because I am an impatient, clumsy reader, but chapter 30: 11-16 struck my fancy.  I'll put a few questions at the end.

Then the Lord said to Moses, 'When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the LORD a ransom for his life at the time he his counted.  Then no plague will come on them when you number them.  Each one who crosses over to those already counted is to give half shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs.  (5.8 grams per half shekel)  This half shekel is an offering to the LORD.  All who cross over, those twenty years old or more, are to give an offering to the LORD.  The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the LORD to atone for your lives.  Receive the atonement money from the Israelites and use it for the service of the tent of meeting.  IT will be a memorial for the Israelites before the LORD, making atonement for your lives.

I don't know why this passage irks me.  Perhaps because it makes it sound as if we can answer the age old question, "How much is a life worth?" by responding, "Well, it seems like it's weighing in at 5.8 grams of metal."  God speaks to Moses, and it would be interesting to get Moses' thoughts about the atonement, the reconciliation of humanity to God.  Did Moses wonder what It was about money that could appease God's wrath through coinage?

But there is a deeper question here, I think.  At base we are getting to the root of all evil - the love of money.  Perhaps there is a point to which God says, "I've blessed you all be freeing you from slavery, I've brought you out from Egypt on your way to the Promised Land, and I don't want you encumbering yourselves with the love of financial stability.  God provides.  To give back only reemphasizes how great is his goodness."

I love, though, that the rich cannot give more in an attempt to buy God's mercy and the poor cannot opt out.  It levels the playing ground and even though the poor may or may not be able to shoulder the weight as much, there is a sense of joy to be on the same ground as your neighbors.


1.  Does your church, or your ministry group, ever talk about money?  (Alternatively, do they ever stop talking about it?)

2.  In what ways does the sacrifice of money make an atonement, a reconciliation between you and God?  In what ways does this seem strained?

3.  Does God really need the money?  How are the finances of the church used?  Do you know?  Do you want to know? 

4.  The scripture speaks of crossing over to be counted.  This is a very public place where the perception is that once you've crossed over to be counted among the faithful, there is not only atonement, but safety from plagues.  What plagues modern day faithful who refrain from being counted?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Slog

I'm back to reading through the entire Bible - from front to back; from 'In the beginning' to 'The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God's people.  Amen.'

It's a daunting thing to read this book, one that feels like I have read so many times but in truth, I'm not sure I've read it deeply ever.  I have the tendency to skip over vast swaths of OT genealogies and laws/statutes/ordinances and dive headfirst into the fresh water of the narrative stories and then the New Testament. 

But I bought this new Bible and its got two inch lined margins on the sides which are dedicated to scripted thoughts from the texts and as much as I like to write, how do you go deep when reading through sections of the OT like the one I'm currently battling through - Exodus 25-31, where Moses is receiving the exact requirements for what will be included in the tabernacle. 


I don't care about Aaron's vestments, or the size and composition of the lampstands, the numbers of curtains and what hue they are to be dyed.  No wonder people don't read the Bible from cover to cover.  Reading through this is like walking through two feet of fresh snow wearing a full snowsuit and boots.  A real slog.  It's tiring and sweaty and, frankly, I just want to skip it but as I read through all of the ordinances about the worship space, I realized the beginnings of our fascination with getting the esthetics right for worship.  It's demanded and required for the good of those who are leading it. 

Chapter 28 verse 34,35 the gold bells and the pomegranates are to alternate round the hem of the robe. Aaron must wear it when he ministers.  The sound of the bells will be heard when he enters the Holy Place before the LORD and we comes out so that he will not die.

I don't get it.  Aaron will die if he doesn't wear the bells on his robe?  I'm not trying to sound irreverent, but is God really going to be snuck up on?

But our fascination with the adiaphora, the small things of insignificance in the realm of Kingdom things, can be talked about at length.  Some of it is great conversation specifically when talking about tradition and why we do things.

Here are some questions to ponder:

1.  What are some of the things that occur in my worship service that I don't pay attention to anymore? 

2.  What are some of the esthetics of space that occur in the sanctuary where I attend?  What is the artwork?  What is the symbolism?  How has the space changed since I've attended? 

3.  What does the pastor, or worship leader, wear?  Is this essential?  Is it distracting?  What is symbolically being said by the garments of the worship leader?

4.  In the worship service, what are the most important things?  What is it that is not adiaphora?

Friday, May 1, 2015

Raider's of the Ark

We had some pretty decent rains in the last couple of days here in southeast Queensland; enough water to cause minor flooding, but not enough to send streams of animals heading for the nearest ocean liner.  Ironically, as the gates of heavens have opened (not the springs underneath as the Bible bespeaks) I have been reading the biblical account of the Flood.  As we bypass the Sunday School version about what a wonderful, nice story this is about a bearded five hundred year old Moses standing on top of his ark, zebras and kangaroos surrounding him, waving at whomever is drawing the picture, we notice the darkness of the story - what's at the root of this aquatic episode. 

"The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.  The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth and his heart was troubled.  So the LORD said, 'I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race that I have created - and with them the animals, the birds, and the creatures that move along the ground - for I regret that I have made them."  (Genesis 6:6,7)

This story isn't about how nice the animals pranced with each other trapped up in a wooden cage for almost half a year.  This is not a story about the animals as it is always made to be - the story of the salvation by wooden beams, this is what the ark is about.  The entire human race, the writer of Genesis proclaims, has nothing but evil emanating from its heart.  Enough evil to actually cause God's heart to be troubled and to have God himself be rueful about the actual creation, one he intended and saw to be 'Good!' 

This is a story about the continued desecration of relationships (angels and women?), thoughts and actions overwhelmed with evil so that God's plan A is to erase the terrestrial chalkboard and start again.  If only one could be found righteous, then everything could be started again.

Enter Noah - "Comfort."

We know the rest of the story, that after riding out the months, trapped up with all sorts of zoological, veterinary and scatological problems, not even to say what the squabbles between the carnivores and all the other species would be, we get this amusing blessing after stepping out of the boat. 

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, 'Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.  The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands.  Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you, just as I gave you the green plants, now I give you everything.  (Genesis 9:1-3)

If I'm Noah, I'm thinking these three things:

1.  Yes, vegetarianism ended!
2.  You mean, now they're going to be afraid of me?  For the last five months I've had two cows walking in front of me and I've been wondering what it would be like to cut one of them up, throw some nice pieces of it's ribs over a warm fire and eat them?  Now you're telling me its okay to eat them?  Now I have to chase them?  (Did you ever wonder how Noah decided which ones would taste good?  I have this vision of him chasing after a skunk...)
3.  What am I going to do with all this wood?

Once again, that's not what this story is about, but my brain goes different places at different times.

To me, as we read the Flood account again, its important that we reflect on the purpose of the story; that humanity's turn away from the creator was actually the reason for the flood.  It makes me wonder where our world is going today.  God isn't going to flood the world again, but...  Let's hope we can raid the ark for some idea of how to change the tune of hearts today.  I'd hate to be put onto another ark with a pair of every kind of spider in the world.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Dump

Yesterday, I went for a run at the local park.  In the middle of the park is a generous sized pond; its circumference is 1.2 kilometers so I know exactly how far I'm running.  As I ran, I saw various waterbirds, ibises, reed runners, ducks and geese, swimming contentedly in various patterns near the shore picking through the weeds for bugs and pond scum alike. In the middle of the pond are two islands with beautiful trees gracing the islets like toupees on a submerged head. It's a nice place to run laps, but sometimes there are things there that make me scratch my head. 

As I was coming down the hill to the park, I spotted a man and his best friend - his dog.  This scene probably plays itself out time and time again throughout every town and city where dogs and people walk, but the man's best friend was in the middle of a bowel movement carefully laying a log cabin in the middle of the grass while his watcher stood above him gazing at the setting sun over the pond.  Then, when the dog had finished adding the roof to his cabin, the man looked around intently to see if anyone was watching...

And then he moved on leaving Fido's steaming summer home alongside the path.

Oh no he didn't.  I'm not one who is usually a stickler for rules, but there was something about the man's attitude that frustrated me more than the actual dump left glistening in the grass.  I cleared my throat and he saw me coming.  So he kept going.  Oh, yeah, I'm going to give this man a piece of my mind.  He knows the rules.  He looked around before leaving the crap there.  It's my moral obligation to do this, to stick it to him, to rub his face in the mess that he left.  That will make him think twice about leaving his dog's excrement in the park next time.

I ran faster to catch up with him and the pooch, and in my righteousness I was concocting various biting remarks for his inability to pick up after himself.  And then I passed him.  It was apparent that he knew what he had done wrong, but he gave me the death stare as if willing me to say something so that he could respond in kind and escalate my own inflated sense of self-righteousness.  Maybe it was self-preservation, maybe something else, but all that I could do was smile.  It was not a smile of commiseration (I didn't know why he was in such a hurry) but of condescension.  I don't need to say anything because I've got the law on my side.  I could destroy you if I wanted to.  I kept running.

The longer I think about yesterday's episode, the more I think about how I was wrong.  I acted like a modern day Pharisee.  How many times have I done something that was not necessarily within the rules - left my own metaphorical steaming mess behind - and someone has not pointed it out to me?  How many times do I sit in judgment over those who are in a hurry because I am not currently being caught in the midst of my sin.

Jesus seemed to catch people in the act all the time but instead of acting like the Pharisees, he responded with grace - go and sin no more.  (As if that is possible).  He didn't rub their faces in it, creating a dislike for him (nobody likes to have their face rubbed in their own sin).  Unlike the disciples, he didn't demand God to send destruction from above; he didn't complain about the mess that has been left.

He just cleaned it up. 

He picked up all the crap and got rid of it.  And sometimes people aren't even aware of what he did.

That's what I should have done.  I should have grabbed a plastic bag and without the condescending look, without the self-righteous attitude, I should have done what seems more like what a Christian should be doing in this world: sometimes it is akin to washing feet; sometimes it is doing the unthinkable to administer grace.  Not for our own bolstering, but for the fostering of God's kingdom here on earth.  Some might say this enables the sinner to keep on sinning, to not take responsibility for their own sin, but I'd say, the next time they make a lap back to that place where they left the dump, they might notice that someone else had to pick it up and then, this small kernel of guilt might lead them to repentance and changed life.

I'll see if I can follow my own advice next time.