Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My apologies to Leviticus

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 9

Read Leviticus 14:33-26:26

Verse that stood out: Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD - Leviticus 19:18.

I need to apologize to the book of Leviticus. Yesterday, I questioned its relevance. I called it tedious. I wrote that it was weird. Sorry about that. Today, it was still a little strange, and still tedious in places, but it was also moving, convicting, and yes, even hope inducing. What was the change? Well, once I got past all the ceremonial rules and those strange regulations concerning bodily fluids, there in the middle of this book were commands that championed justice for the least of these and mercy for the poor, the downtrodden, and the foreigner.
  • When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest . . . Leave them for the poor and the alien (19:9, 10)
  • Do not hold back the wages of a hired man overnight (19:13)
  • Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God (19:14)
  • Do not pervert justice; do not show paritiality to the the poor or favortitism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly (19:15)
  • Love your neighbor as yourself (19:18)
  • Have the same law for the alien [foreigner] and the native born (24:22)

These laws speak to both issues of justice and mercy. God's people are to treat all people, not just the ones who are related to them or beneficial to them, fairly. God's people are to watch out for the least of these, those folks who because of their position in life have limited resources with which to defend themselves. God's people are to be generous to the poor without regard to the reasons of their poverty. Sure, these laws don't go as far as some of Jesus' words on these same topics, but the basic ideas are there.

Also, in these pages is the hope for more, a hope for not only justice and fairness, but a desire for God's abounding grace. Chapter 25 presents the concept of the Year of Jubilee, a year that was to occur every seven years. Jubilee was a time when debts would be forgiven, slaves released, land returned, and fields left fallow. Jubilee was to be a regular interruption of grace into the daily grind of just desserts; a release valve set to prevent God's people from spiraling into a slavery of their own making.

Scholars doubt that the year of Jubilee was ever practiced. It is a concept filled with difficulties primarily related to our own sinful hearts. And yet here it stands, a commandment of God. The prophets of Israel, like Isaiah, picked up on the idea of Jubilee as what would happen on the great day of the Lord - a day when God himself would return and enact the Jubilee promises. It was from one of these passages that Jesus would announce his own ministry, a ministry of Jubilee, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Remarkable words out of our Savior's mouth, from the prophet Isaiah, and first presented in the most underappreciated of texts, the book of Leviticus.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Let bald headed men rejoice!

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 8

Read: Leviticus 1-14:32

Verse that stood out: I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy - Leviticus 11:44

Let's admit it. Leviticus is weird. With its cleanliness laws, dietary regulations, and offering protocols, this priestly manual stands a world away from modern life. While I was comforted to know that if I ever go bald I'd still be able to participate in worship (13:40), most of the book left me scratching my not-yet-bald head.

I don't have an easy answer about how to make these passages "relevant" to our day to day lives. I'm not even sure that's the point. After all, the Bible wasn't just written for us, but rather for God's people throughout the ages. As strange as the book of Leviticus is to us, it played an important role in the life of ancient Israel, both during the time in Canaan but also during the Babylonian exile when Israel found itself surrounded by a foreign culture and the worship of foreign gods. Whatever else Leviticus was meant to do, it served as a way of setting Israel apart from her neighbors. That distinctiveness is an important part of the overall story of God's people.

While the individual guidelines in the book might not translate into the lives of modern day believers, the call to be set apart for the Lord remains. Just look at the apostle Peter's words to the early church which draw from Leviticus 11:44-45, "Prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: 'Be holy, because I am holy'" (1 Peter 1:13-15).

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Some things need repeating

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 7

Read: Exodus 29-40

Verse that stood out: And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin" (Exodus 34:6-7).

One week in. Today's been the toughest day so far. Sundays are long days for me and the reading was especially tedious tonight. Lots of details about the tabernacle. Lot's of repetition. In fact, that's one thing lots of folks at church have been asking me, "Why do they repeat so many things in the Old Testament?" The basic answer is that most people through the ages haven't read the scriptures so much as they've listened to them. And when you hear things orally, you need to have things repeated so that you have ample chance to catch everything that's being said. For instance, lets say on the first go round the guy next to you sneezes right as they explain why the Israelites wanted Aaron to make a golden calf (Exodus 32:1). You've still got another chance to hear the reason explained (Exodus 32:23). Of course, what's good for oral communication becomes a little tedious when put in a literary form.

We modern readers shouldn't look down our bespectacled noses at our illiterate forerunners. Even we need to re-hear, or re-read, things from time to time. It's easy to think that because we can look something up, we know it. But having access to a piece of information and knowing something are two different things. The knowledge that's buried deep in our hearts (even through something as tedious as repetition or memorization) stands a better chance of informing our behavior than anything we've read once and then stashed away on a shelf for later referencing.

So let's read and re-read even the tedious parts of the Bible trusting that if we'll hide God's word in our heart, his character will begin to make itself known in our day to day lives.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Around the Web

Two recent blog posts that spoke to me. Enjoy.

1) Why the Bible is a tough book for Americans by Don Miller. A good read for all but especially those who are joining Southland as we attempt to read the Bible through in 90 days.

2) Lift Up Thine Eyes at Where Good Things Run Wild. A beautiful post by my friend Patrick on art, worship, and caring for one another in a hurried and harried world.

Redemptive movements

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 6

Read: Exodus 15:19-28:43

Verse that stood out: "Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt" (Exodus 23:9).

About here, the going starts to get a little rough in attempts to read the Bible through. The Ten Commandments are fairly interesting, mainly because there are just ten of them. But from here on out, law after law, tedious specification after tedious specification can tend to wear the modern reader out. All the ancient rules for daily living and descriptions of religious paraphernalia seem so far removed from our day to day lives. Not only that, some of the rules seem either outrageously weird or worse, yet, immoral in themselves.

It helps to remember that these many laws were written to a specific culture and time, and the laws that seem quite regressive to us, might have appeared incredibly liberating to the original hearers. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth sounds pretty great if the previous law had been a life for an eye. I find the best way of reading all these ancient laws is to look for such redemptive movements. That is, I look for places in which God's redemptive character shows up in these ancient laws, even if it's only a glimpse of what would later be revealed in Christ. When I do that, I start to find God throughout these tedious texts.

For example, in 23:9, I see something introduced into the "law" that is almost unheard of even in today's legislation, empathy. "Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt." God is challenging his people to carry out the law not with an unyielding sense of justice, but rather, to approach the application of the law in others' lives with a healthy dose of mercy. We've not quite arrived at Jesus admonition to "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," but we're getting closer. "Don't oppress" is not the same thing as "Welcome in," but a redemptive move has clearly been made in the right direction.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Not Moses, too!

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 5
Read: Exodus 1:1-15:18

Verse that stood out:
Moses was eighty years old and Aaron eighty-three when they spoke to Pharaoh (Exodus 7:7).

OK, confession time. We all read the Bible from a pretty self-centered point of view. Point in case - today I read the first half of Exodus, some of the most exciting chapters in the Bible. In these few chapters you have Moses as a baby afloat in the Nile, the burning bush, the plagues, the Passover, the crossing of the Red Sea! What do I notice? Moses is younger than Aaron. I'd never noticed that before. And it made me mad. Really, God, another younger brother gets to steal the show?!

If you haven't noticed, the Bible's fairly skewed in favor of the younger sibling. God accepted Abel's offering; Jacob got Isaac's blessing. Then right before his own death switched his hands to give Joseph's younger son his blessing (something I noticed earlier in the week!); Joseph, himself, was a younger brother just like the future King David would be. In the NT, younger brothers, even the prodigal ones, end up the good guys while the respectable, older ones end up outside the house. And now I find out, Moses was a younger brother, too! Salt in the wound.

What's an older brother like me to do?

I get that God is making a point in all this - traditional ways of assigning worth and leadership and inheritance don't transfer to the kingdom of God. God chooses the foolish things to shame the wise, the things that are not to nullify the things that are. I know, I know, that's good news for all of us. But couldn't just once, the older brother get a little time in the sun?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Don't bury me in Egypt

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 4

Read: Genesis 40-50

Verse that stood out: "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accmplish what is now being done, the saving of many live" (Genesis 50:20).

This week I started a new book. Fratricide, revenge killings, adultery, drunkenness, false imprisonments, and endless lying has taken place – and that’s just from the supposed good guys in the story! Not what most people expect to find in the first few pages of the Bible, and yet, there it is. Our Holy Book tells the story of some of the most unholy of people (who, once you strip away the cultural differences, look a lot like people today).

It’s difficult to find a human protagonist. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, even Joseph are each deeply flawed in their own ways. Joseph is probably the most righteous of the bunch, but his righteousness is carried out in a foreign land. His success in Egypt seems to be taking the Hebrews further away from the promise not nearer. Even the scoundrel Jacob seems to recognize this. Shortly before his death he makes Joseph swear not to bury him in Egypt, “When I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me where they are buried” (Gen 47:30).

Where were they buried? Canaan, the Promise Land. It dawns on me, that the real protagonist, the driving force of the story isn’t to be found in the human characters but in the promise of God. It’s God’s promise to Abraham and his descendents that moves this story along. Or better yet, it is the God of the promise who sticks with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob no matter how much their actions run counter to the promise. God keeps this story on the move as he keeps showing up, keeps casting the vision of future day, and keeps redeeming what we intended for evil, for our good and his glory.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Inbetween times

Through the Bible in 90 days: Day 3

Read Genesis 28-39

Verse that stood out: "So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak" Genesis 32:24.

Let me begin today by saying that the main thing I notice from today's reading is that the characters in the Bible are a bunch of screwballs. Anyone who speaks longingly of biblical family values hasn't been paying very close attention to the families of the Bible. They're pretty dysfunctional!

On a more pastoral sounding note - I was struck by the fact that Jacob's two significant encounters with God happen while he is on the move. The first one, the dream at Bethel, happens as he is fleeing Esau and headed to Laban's house. The second, the wrestling with God at Jabbok, happens on the return trip. Jacob is leaving/fleeing Laban and preparing to encounter Esau for the first time since stealing his blessing. Both are in-between times. That is, both are times of uncertainty, fear, anxiety. And yet, both become places where God shows up in miraculous ways.

I don't know about you, but I hate the ambiguity of an in-between place. These places which are really no place, places without names. I hate not feeling at home somewhere. I hate the uncertainty of not knowing what comes next. Truthfully, I hate the way in-between places uncover my lack of control over life itself. And yet, as I look back on my own life, like Jacob, I have discovered God most often during these times of uncertainty and unrest. Maybe the vulnerability of those moments leaves us more open to hearing from God? Maybe its the absence of false hopes that have us wide open to meeting Hope, himself? I don't know. What I do know is that I should probably spend less of my time attempting to control all of the circumstances in my life and spend more time on the lookout for God. For when it's all said and done, all of this life is an in-between place, and we're just passing through until we're at home with him.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 2

Read: Genesis 16-27

Verse that stood out: "May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?" [God] answered, "For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it" (Genesis 18:32).

How often have you heard it said (or even said yourself) that bad company corrupts good character? No doubt there is some truth to this old saying. It's even found in the scriptures in a couple of different forms (1 Cor 15:33; Psalm 1; some of the Proverbs). We all know folks who found themselves led astray into immoral ways of living largely because they surrounded themselves with bad company. An yet, in the scriptures, there is another truth that stands in tension with this common cliché - that is the truth that the presence of a few righteous people can stay the hand of God's judgment on a people at large. We might call this the saving power of a few.

The tension of these truths came to a head in the life of Jesus Christ. The Pharisees held fast to the first truth. So sure that bad company corrupts good character, the Pharisees lived as if "sinners" and people who were "unclean" were contagious. They put up all kinds of barriers to exclude those they felt were "bad company". Jesus, on the other hand, kept tearing these barriers down, certain that what was ultiamtely contagious was not sin (he knew perhaps that all suffered from that afflcition already) but holiness.

In doing so, Jesus' life completes the inquiry of Abraham. Abraham boldly asked God if he would spare Sodom and Gomorrah if just fifty, forty-five, thirty, twenty, even just ten righteous people could be found in it. Each time God affirmed he would show mercy in that case, but apparently not even ten could be found. Abraham stopped the negotiation at ten. Even this patriarch of faith could not imagine a mercy greater than that. Left unasked was the question, "What if just one could be found?" How would God respond then? In Jesus, I think we have our answer.

The apostle Paul clearly picks up this truth as applying to Jesus recognizing that God has delayed judgment on sins, “To show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:25-26). In the small minority of one, the righteous Jesus Christ, the punishment of God has been removed for all. The saving power of a few, indeed.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Through the Bible in 90 Days: Day 1

Read: Genesis 1-15

Verse that stood out: Genesis 2:16-17 "You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die."

Isn't it amazing, that when we read this verse we tend to concentrate on the one prohibition - don't eat from this tree - and not the endless possibilities of the permission God grants (You are free to eat from any tree in the garden). God when he gives life, gives life that's wide and abundant and free. It is, of course, not a life that is unboundaried. There is no such thing as an unboundaried life. But the boundaries God places on us are minimal, the permissions grand. But what do we focus upon? The one prohibition. We think that there on the other side of the "thou shalt not" freedom can be found. We miss out on the deepest truth that freedom is found in God's "thou shalts" - "You are free. . .," God says.

Christianity, at its best, is finding that freedom once more in a relationship with Christ. A relationship that, along with all relationships, has some boundaries, but one that for every boundary abounds in permissions, in freedom. G. K. Chesterton said, "The more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild." I tend to agree even if I still struggle to remember to run wild.

Through the Bible in 90 Days

OK, it's been a busy summer and the posts have suffered. But I'm ready to get this thing back in gear. One way is by *attempting* to blog daily during the next 90 days. My church has just begun a 90 day challenge to read the Bible through. The goal is to get the big picture of the scriptures rather than just settling down in a handful of verses that we really like. On Sundays I'll be preaching through the scriptures. I started with Creation, yesterday. Obviously, this won't be a verse by verse study, but hopefully we'll get a glimpse of the larger story of God's efforts to redeem his creation that ties all the bits and pieces together.

To be honest, I'm a little nervous about this - I'm not nervous that I won't be able to do it (although that's a possibility); and I'm not fearful that my church members might not do it (some of them might not); my biggest fear is that they will! It's a lot more comfortable for me if we at church only talk about the verses that I like to talk about. Having everyone actually reading the Bible, asking their own questions, coming to their own conclusions - well, that's enough to terrify the bravest of preachers. What if people ask questions I don't know the answer to? What if people read the embarrassing parts of scripture and call into question their entire faith? What if people hear a radical word from God and decide to obey (this one always inevitably challenges the comfort level of everyone else in the congregation)? I might have to do some changing myself - that makes me really nervous.

All this reminds me of a quote by Barbara Brown Taylor in her book The Preaching Life, "[The Bible] is a book in which wonderful and terrible things happen by the power of an almighty God, whose steadfast love for us does not seem to preclude scaring the living daylights out of us from time to time." I like the steadfast love part - am I ready, though, to be scared to death? Yes, if on the other side of that death is new life!