Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Drury Sequence: Environmentalism

Democratic affinity #1: Environmentalism

"Do you not believe that God cares about the sparrows and even knows when one falls?"
~ Keith Drury

Of course, Al Gore recently won a share of the Nobel Peace Prize for his non-stop environmental awareness campaign. He said his recognition would "change the world's consciousness" about the need for imminent change in the ways people consume the Earth's bounty.

It is fitting that Drury lists the environment first among his Democratic affinities. Care for God's creation transcends party politics. It speaks to mankind's spiritual needs for a balanced life, for bodily homeostasis, and for awe before our awesome triune God. At the same time, Democrats - with Gore in the forefront - have most fully comprehended that caring for the environment calls for a change in our consciousness and a renewal of our spiritual wholeness. But it's not just Democratic politicians who speak inconvenient truths: men and women of goodwill do the same every day in every nook and cranny of our planet.

In four months' time, from October 1989 to February 1990, one of my heroes, Vaclav Havel, went from being arrested as a political prisoner to becoming President of free Czechoslovakia. On 21 February 1990, Havel embodied these truths in an astounding address before a joint session of Congress. It strikes me that Vaclav Havel, long before environmentalism was in fashion as it is now, recognized the spiritual dryness that causes degradation and pollution.

He said, "We are still under the sway of the destructive and thoroughly vain belief that man is the pinnacle of creation, and not just a part of it, and that therefore everything is permitted... we are still destroying the planet that was entrusted to us."

So the call to environmentalism - to loving concern for all God's creation - is, profoundly and simply, a call to humility. May our prayer today be to humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Drury Sequence: Abortion

Republican affinity #4: Abortion

"You can get more votes for fetuses in Congress right now than for the pork barrel. Maybe I should change my campaign button from a star to a fetus."

~ Unnamed U.S. House member, quoted in Richard Fenno's Home Style: House Members in their Districts.

Planned abortions kill a living creation of God's right hand. There's not much else to say. Abortion should be apolitical and repugnant to all thinking women and men. It should not be politicized, much less the political football it has become. I agree with Drury, who says, "I want the whole nation to reduce abortions to at or near zero, and neither party helps me there."

American society is sufficiently pleasure-seeking, plastic, and disposable that abortion will never go away through legislative or judicial fiat. The only way that Drury's, and my own, vision will be fulfilled is by persuasion, confession, repentance, and tender woman-to-woman ministries that open the door to women with unplanned pregnancies. Noisy evangelism that averts our gaze from the scarred wombs and scarred lives within the Church suffocates us. Drury calls for the just alternative: a Church that proclaims and lives the message, “We Christians do not kill our fetuses.”

"Why seek ye the living God among the dead?"

Many Democrats carelessly disregard fetal vitality, whereas most Republicans highly value it. That said, it is sheepish and imbecilic for a Christian to vote for Republican candidates on the single issue of abortion. When the living poor, the images of Christ on earth, cry out for their withheld wages, Jesus hears them (James 5:4). Republicans neglect them in their incessant cries for further cuts in a tax system that favors the wealthy as it stands. When prisoners on death row - not all of them guilty - cry to the Crucified one, Jesus hears them (Luke 23:43). Republicans execute them. Neither of our two major political parties consistently respects all phases of human life.

My mother, Kathie, who carried her unplanned teen pregnancy to full term, gave birth to a healthy baby girl, and placed her for adoption, once said to me, "Abortion should not be banned, but it should be discouraged." I can't improve on her words.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Drury Sequence: Gays

Republican affinity #3: Gays

Oh, the Orthodox hate the gays
And the Muslims hate the gays
Roman Catholics hate the gays
Ev'rybody... hates the gays

~ Brett Kemnitz, Milwaukee folk musician, from his song "My Own Religion".

How about a no-party affinity?

There is a political science theorem called Duverger's Law, which says that plurality-vote electoral democracies tend to have two parties just left and right of center. Yet some scholars say that the United States, due to rampant Congressional gerrymandering and our nonsensical presidential nominating system, has become an exception: Democrats run wacko left, and Republicans run nutty right, to win the "real" election - the primaries.

No issue illustrates this anomaly more clearly than gay rights. The Democrats, with a few courageous exceptions [including Barack Obama], believe that gay relationships and gay marriages are no different from their straight counterparts. No sincere, Bible-believing Christian can agree with them. "Male and female He created them in His own image," writes the inspired author of Genesis 1:26-28 - complementary in all ways, but especially so in sexuality and the begetting and raising of children.

To any of my friends reading this who call themselves LBGT: As best I understand, your choice is a venial sin - a sin, yes, but far, far less a divorce from God than pride or stinginess or turning your back on the poor. I am somewhat skeptical of sexuality as a continuum or that some people are born with homosexual inclinations, and (strictly on anecdotal evidence - I've never heard of any 50-year LBGT marriages) a healthier, more lasting alternative awaits you. I'm with Drury when he writes, "I think homosexual behavior is a sin... but I also believe heterosexual divorce and adultery are likewise sins."

As for the Republicans - and again, as with fiscal conservatism, much of the change has happened in the last three years - I have no truck with them here. We have all sinned and fallen short of God's grace, yet He continues to bestow it upon all who believe, not just straight believers. The rank hypocrisy within the Republican Party, where the party hierarchy winks at multiple marriages and affairs but slings mud at gays, nauseates me.

I believe President Bush sincerely acts out of a Biblically motivated desire to uphold straight marriage. But, as with so many other issues, the President has lost control over his party. Dick Cheney, in unholy alliance with the less tolerant wing of evangelical Christianity, effectively controls the Republican stance on LBGT policy.

So, to recapitulate: Our Savior brought the outcasts in. He searches human hearts more intently than we ever will. To insist that gays cannot be saved is a worse sin than to be gay.

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Drury Sequence: Fiscal Conservatism

Republican affinity #2: Fiscal conservatism

It is much more difficult to call fiscal conservatism a "Republican affinity" now than in 2004. Back then, there was unwarranted hope that Republican control of the Senate would rein in the profligacy of George W. Bush's first term. Not only was that a pipe dream, but the leading Democratic presidential candidates are falling over each other to be known as balanced-budget advocates. They're all trying to play catch-up to Hillary Clinton, who can point to her husband's attainment of a fiscal surplus during his presidency.

China and Japan hold most of our $9 trillion ($9,000,000,000,000, or about $30,000 per American) dollar-denominated debt. Right now, neither country could demand or expect to receive payment, except for a barely plausible diplomatic stunt. However, China accumulates its credit in the form of 30-year Treasury bonds. By 2040, China will be much less dependent on the United States as an export market; already, it is cultivating closer trading relationships with Russia, the European Union, and its East Asian neighbors. China won't call our bluff this year, or even in the next decade, but I suspect it will do so sometime in my working lifetime.

If we conduct an immediate, orderly withdrawal from Iraq, as we should, the budget would soon return to the small surpluses of the later Clinton years. If we can't repay our debt as it stands, it would be amazingly foolish to accumulate more debt when our bankbook is already stretched thin. I stand with the Democrats, and I suspect Drury would now agree with me.

The Drury Sequence: Free Trade

Now that I have finished the Book of James, I'm moving on to Keith Drury's 2004 personal political manifesto How could a Christian vote Democrat? Drury, one of the leaders in American Wesleyan thought, names four political issues where he is closest to Republicans and eighteen others where he is closest to Democrats. For the next twenty-two days, I will outline where I stand on each issue.

Republican affinity #1: Free Trade

I agree with Drury here. Free trade is as much a basic human right as bodily freedom or free speech. Autarky, dictatorship, and peonage go hand in hand. The basic principles of free trade, free choice and variety, are also the building blocks for stable democracy. Besides, one protected industry causes ten more to demand equal treatment. Before long, tit-for-tat retaliation by other advanced economies leaves everybody worse off.

Michiganders have always had a hard time understanding secondary consequences. Of course, the auto economy that built metro Detroit is crumbling. Many Detroiters have turned protectionist out of supposed self-interest. Yet the long-term structural weakness of the Big Three is the United States' lack of comprehensive health insurance and pension plans. The Big Three, especially GM, have closed the quality gap of the 1970's-1990's: their cars are nearly as reliable, sleek, and fuel-efficient as Toyotas and Hondas. Nevertheless, legacy costs are bludgeoning their balance sheets.

When Drury says, "I’m willing to reduce America’s standard of living in order to raise the standard [elsewhere]", I agree. Our 4% of Earth's people consume one-fourth of its resources. Yes, we produce one-fourth of global output, too, but at what cost? Would not we benefit from a Sabbath? Letting low-cost producers "undercut" us benefits poor people and hurts rich people, which is what the Gospel message teaches.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

James 5:7-20: God's Purposes

"Elijah was a man like us; yet he prayed earnestly that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain upon the land." ~ James 5:17

"You have heard of the perseverance of Job," writes James, and "you have seen the purpose of the Lord, for He is compassionate and merciful" (v. 11). What an awesome sight! Every Christ-follower has seen, in creation, in the testimony of the prophets, and in the refining of his or her character, the compassion and the mercy of God. These are His purposes. This is what divides Christianity from all other creeds. We believe, not only in one mighty God, but also in He who suffered and invited us into His suffering (the com-passion).

When the springs of our belief run dry - when we enter into a spiritual drought - how do we respond? James gives different variations on one answer: Pray, pray, and pray ever more! Suffering believers should pray, thankful believers should sing praise, and sick people should ask their church's elders to pray over them (vv. 12-13). When we go astray and feel the separation of our sins, we are to confess and to pray (v. 16) for forgiveness and for accountability going forward.

Inquiring minds may ask, "Why pray?" James' reply is typically succinct: It works wonders. He suggests that prayer will heal and forgive the sins of the sick (v. 14) and the repentant sinner (v. 16). Then, he gives a lesson from the Old Testament. In one of my favorite Scripture teachings, the fervent prayers of Elijah subverted the natural order to render judgment on wicked king Ahab.

Jesus, we ask for too little and we want too much. Let us boldly approach you with our needs. May you fill us with your Holy Spirit.

James 5:1-6: People Above Things

"Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud!" ~ James 5:4a

James condemns the rich for storing up treasure that rots (v. 2), gets moth-eaten (v. 2), and corrodes (v. 3). This is the first and greatest condemnation of material wealth: since Jesus has given us a share in His death and resurrection, storing up earthly treasures beyond what God grants us is a blasphemy against the servant King of Heaven.

This is the second condemnation of material wealth: it exploits the sons and daughters of God whom we are to love as our neighbors and friends. We don't have to think hard to discover contemporary workers who are being exploited and paid unjust wages (v. 4). Read about it here and here.

In keeping with the Last Judgment of Matthew 25, James treats insults against the poor - as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta so beautifully called them, "the distressing disguises of Jesus" - as insults to the Messiah himself. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees who sent Jesus to the Cross, these rich people have harassed, beaten, and even murdered their employees without cause.

Mighty God, in Amos 6:8 you say, "I abhor the pride of Jacob." Let we, your new Israel across the earth, seek you humbly and thank you gratefully for the blessings you bestow on us. You fulfill our every need; how can we seek more? Amen.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

James 4:11-17: Boasting

"Therefore, to the believer who knows what is good and doesn't do it, to him it is sin." ~ James 4:17

James says, in verse 10, "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up." We cannot lift ourselves up unaided. Instead, we can only prostrate ourselves before Jesus, who paid our penalty on the Cross, and by God's grace receive our share of Jesus' resurrected life. Without daily - even hourly - awareness of this precious gift from above, we will stumble into Satan's grip.

Boasting, therefore, has two dimensions. Consciously elevating the self over God is its gross form. In essence, this is what atheists and agnostics do. It permeates most of our popular culture; God is absent (or far backstage), and material facts are the only truths. But James doesn't stop there; he draws his readers' attention to the subtle form, in which believers let worldly business choke and smother God's freely given grace.

This subtle form of boasting has several manifestations. James, with his keen eye for hypocrisy, tells us not to judge each other, for above us "there is only one Lawgiver who is able to save and to destroy" (v. 12). In a passage that speaks to the hearts of businessmen, but also to inveterate to-do list writers like me, James mocks people who make future plans without thinking about God's plans for them (vv. 13-15). We know that God is good, but when we substitute our ideas of what's good for us for Creation and the Word, we sin.

Holy Spirit, fill our hearts with discernment, as you filled the heart of your servant king Solomon, that we may know God's will and subsume our wills to His - for He knows what we need. Amen!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

James 4:1-10: Submission

"Submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." ~ James 4:7

Submission to God - "Thy will be done" - is a lifelong challenge for every Christian man and woman. God doesn't want part of us; he wants all of us, for, as Paul preaches in Acts 17, we are also his offspring. We in America, surrounded by plenty, takes a dim view to obligations. Our culture gives us the option to neglect our parents, our spouses, and our children in search of momentary pleasure. There's enough for them; there's even more for us, if we seize it!

James teaches that this attitude leads you to the grave and doesn't get you what you want. He tells his fellow Christians, "You covet but do not possess; you do not possess because you do not ask; you ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions." (vv. 2-3). Returning to the Paul-in-Athens metaphor, these believers are Epicurians, lovers of this world and enemies of God.

Yet there's a danger to being a Stoic, too - the insidious danger of pride, of having a life so well-ordered that God floats around the edges. Our hands may be clean in our homes, our professions, even our churches, but Satan still commands our thoughts and our hidden acts. James tells these believers to wash their hands and purify their double-minded hearts (v. 8).

How, then, to resist the devil, when our stumbling attempts at humility fall short? When all else fails, the best weapon is laughter. In the beginning of one of my favorite books, C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, the author includes an epigraph from Sir Thomas More:

"The Devil... the Proud Spirit... cannot endure to be mocked."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

James 3: Binding the Tongue

"Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you realize that we will be judged more strictly." ~ James 3:1

I aspire to be a teacher. I've spent a lot of time around teachers, both high school teachers and university professors. Not surprisingly, James cuts to my heart when he warns that my chosen path will lead to me being judged more strictly than Christians in other professions. On my better days, James's words goad me towards working hard, telling the truth, and keeping wholesome habits. At other times, his words sound like a terrible judgment over me.

Those who make a profession of teaching rely on their tongues. While books have permanence that talk doesn't (hence, the academic "publish or perish" paradigm), texts lack the human warmth and immediacy of spoken language. Teachers have a special duty to bind their tongues. This is so because the professional teacher, by implication, has something to say that will edify his or her students. A teacher with a loose tongue, or a tongue that speaks what is contrary to God's will for that person, hurts his or her circle of students too.

Yesterday, James said in chapter 2 that anyone who breaks the law at one point has transgressed the entire law. He talks about the tongue in the same way, saying, "Does a spring gush forth from the same fount both pure and salty water? Can a fig tree produce olives, or a grapevine figs?" (vv. 11-12). This is one of many passages in the Book of James that call us to deep humility. Why go against God's will and inevitably stumble? Why try to produce olives when God made me to produce figs? Discernment is difficult, and "we all fall short in many ways" (v.2), but we can flee from jealousy and ambition (v. 14).

Lord Jesus, help me to teach heavenly wisdom ahead of worldly wisdom. Let us remember that your Creation faithfully reflects your majesty and your patient care. Let me regard my students' souls, past and present, in every lesson You assign to me. Amen.

Monday, October 15, 2007

James 2:14-26: Faith and Works

"For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead." ~ James 2:26.

This is one of the most notorious sections of the New Testament. Martin Luther, convinced that confession alone was sufficient for union with Jesus, called the Book of James an "epistle of straw" and (apocryphally) tore it out of his personal copy of the Scriptures.

The link above raises two crucial points: first, that Luther held nuanced views about the Book of James; second, that most Protestants see God, and not humans, as the Author of their works. "Not me, but Christ through me", the old saying goes. To outsiders, this distinction may seem like hair-splitting legalism, but to believers, it is a practical confession of helplessness and hopelessness apart from the triune God.

Still, I disagree with Luther's critique and side with James. Confession is not enough; repentance is necessary, too. Luther argues that repentance precedes confession; the sinner who is not sorry and has not already taken baby steps to change his or her life cannot confess Christ. But, in a society like ours, where Christianity is privileged, confession tends to come first, then repentance - and it's easy to confess Christ hypocritically, even though confession without repentance is useless.

So, because we are Jesus-worshipers, we are to clothe the naked and feed the hungry (v. 15), sacrifice our most precious gifts like Abraham (vs. 21-23), and keep ministering even when we have fallen short like Rahab (v. 25). Alleluia!

James 2:1-13: Partiality

"For whoever keeps the whole law, but falls short in one place, has become guilty in respect to all of it." ~ James 2:10

Mark Twain once wrote a fascinating essay titled "Does the Race of Man Love a Lord?". He argued that people have an innate tendency to view the rich and famous with awe and adulation. Although Twain would not say so, what we give celebrities - even successful, charismatic Christian ministers - is idolatrous lordship. Instead of worshiping the true God who laughs at the pretensions of worldly success, we love earthly lords. Then, when God, in His majesty, permits Satan to topple them (as Job was), we feel disillusioned.

This is not a new, media-driven problem; James identifies this same problem in the first-century Jerusalem church. His congregation, like the Pharisees, gave the rich places of honor and shunned the poor. James doesn't pull any punches; he says the church has become "judges with evil designs" (v.4). He then explains why Christians cannot judge anyone.

We, ourselves, are incapable of keeping the entire law by our own efforts. Some of us may have been judged as lawbreakers by secular courts. Even more of us have a speeding ticket or underage drinking citation on our records. We may not be murderers or adulterers, but we all have shown anger and lusted (Matt. 5:21-22, 27-28). We are all condemned; our only hope is in Jesus the Messiah, whose sacrificial "mercy triumphs over judgment" (v.13).

Let us also commit to a preference for the poor and for poverty of spirit, for James writes (v.5), "Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?" Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A daily discipline

To those who bemoaned my recent lack of posts, take heart: daily blogging will resume tomorrow!

Today marks 60 days until Sally returns from Ukraine. I've set an ambitious goal: 60 posts in 60 days. In case you're wondering, this doesn't count; I will post two entries tomorrow.

I will finish blogging the Book of James, but then I will elucidate my political principles. Keith Drury's controversial 2004 blog post "How could a Christian vote Democrat?" will be my guide as I compare my perspective to his.

In November and December, I will return to the Bible, blogging 1 Peter and 1 John. Between these two books, I will comment on Keith Drury's latest work, There is No "I" in Church. Mrs. Behrenwald, your wish will be fulfilled in due time!

Godspeed and good night to my readers.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

James 1:19-27: Right Actions

"Be not only hearers of the word, deceiving yourselves, but do what it says." ~ James 1:22

James challenges his audience: "Do you believe God's Word can transform your life or not?" Of course so! Yet, in the stillness of our hearts, we have doubts. These doubts can infect our actions and poison our relationships. In these verses, James names some the malign fruits of doubt: anger (v.20), moral filth (v.21), a loose tongue (v.26), and looking into a mirror and forgetting what you look like (v.24).

The last metaphor is peculiarly apt. A mirror doesn't hide or conceal anything; rather, it faithfully reflects your image back at you. This has two fateful implications. First, we have to acknowledge the sin in our lives. If I have a pimple on my nose, the mirror is going to show it every time, no matter how I try to wish it away. Second, looking in a mirror reminds us that we are daughters and sons of God, made in His likeness (Gen 1:27). Zits or no, we can't deny that we have a Maker who loves us, knows our hearts, and wants to enter into fellowship with us.

Hearing is meaningless without acting. If I'm driving down a highway, and I hear over the AM radio that there's an accident ten miles ahead, I'm going to plan an alternate route. No sensible driver would keep going and get stuck in traffic. But with something infinitely more meaningful - the ultimate end of our sould - we have God's Word and His creation to warn us to take a new path, but we persist in our sin down the road that leads to death.

Praise be to God and his Son, Jesus, that with your Spirit we can "humbly accepted the word planted in you, which can save you" (v.21)!

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

James 1: 12-18: Temptation

"Each man is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed." ~ James 1:14

Yesterday, we heard that God wants each of his beloved ones to be "mature and complete, not lacking anything" (v. 4). James confronts, head-on, the greatest obstacle to mature belief in Jesus Christ: temptation. Earlier this summer, in the context of Jesus's desert temptation, I noted that Satan is the source of temptation. Growing believers struggle with this fact, sometimes for years. My own record humbles me - though I sense that victory is drawing near.

When men and women choose to put away their old lives and dedicate their bodies and souls to Jesus, it's hard not to expect imminent, drastic transformation. I suspect that certain kinds of evangelism (not all) condition new converts to expect instant change in their lives solely by the act of believing. James writes to correct this false teaching, which prevailed in his time too!

He is clear that God loves good and hates evil: "When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone" (v. 13). God permits Satan to extend a hand over certain portions of our lives, but only so we can say No to sin and Yes to grace. Then, we will receive "the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him" (v. 12).

Alleluia to our God whose Spirit brings us out of sinful death and gives us abundant life!

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

James 1: 1-11 - Perseverance

"Brothers, consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of any kind." ~ James 1:2

James, the half-brother of Jesus and pastor of the Jerusalem church, wrote what is perhaps the earliest book of the New Testament. It's as fresh and relevant today as it was nineteen hundred and threescore years ago. The book is a energetically argued guide to true holiness - that is, lived holiness, in contrast to loud professions of faith. In essence, it's a call for all of us believers to reject Pharisaic pride, that most stubborn of sins.

Trials are part of the Christian life. Jesus promised his followers comfort in an ultimate, cosmic sense, but he never promised a comfortable life. My annotated Bible wisely notes, "Whenever you face trials." Christ-followers will face trials; it's not optional! James says that if we can't withstand trials on our own, we must sincerely ask God for wisdom. The one who doubts God's provision is "a double-minded man, unstable in all he does" (v.8), doomed to estrangement from God when his half-hearted prayer goes unanswered.

Since we will face trials, regardless of earthly station, being poor or rich is inconsequential to God. James mentions the honor of poverty and the futility of riches throughout his epistle. Once, at St. Colette's, a man from the Haitian relief organization Food for the Poor preached. He was born into dire squalor, but rose above it, guided by the word he preached in suburban Detroit that morning:

"The Lord God is King! And He is a wealthy king. He has given me everything I need."

Monday, September 3, 2007

Welcome back!

This blog, after a long hiatus, is up and running again. I'm going to reflect on a different portion of Scripture: the epistles of 1 Peter, James, and 1 John. I heard these epistles on the road in August as part of a "Bible on CD" program sponsored by Lake Pointe Bible Church. The pith of these three texts struck me; each one sounded like an effective sermon.

Yet these texts are inspired words of God, not mere human sermons; what's more, their authors (I have doubts about 2 Peter, but I'm not a revisionist like Bart Ehrman either) effuse the texts with their personalities and their leadership roles in the early Church. If I were to introduce someone with no knowledge of Scripture to Christianity, I'd begin with the Gospel of Mark and immediately follow with these epistles.

I promise to blog daily, but slowly and thoughtfully. I anticipate each book to take about four weeks, which should wrap it up near Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Matthew 4: Temptation

"Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one God. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength."
~Deuteronomy 6:4-5

When the prince of night came to Jesus, our Savior came very close to reciting Shema Yisrael.

Jesus awaited Satan in the desert wastes of Judea. Matthew includes the odd note that "after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry." Of course he was; who wouldn't be? That's where Satan enters, literally: the gospel's very next words are "The tempter came to him." Just maybe, Satan could ally the incarnate Son of God in rebellion against the Father. Surely Jesus was not so restrained as to have his stomach rumble for food? But he was - and we are called to the same judicious restraint.

The Israelites were not so restrained. Jesus answers the devil's second temptation, the call to fling himself from the temple, with "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." The quotation is partial; Deuteronomy 6:16 finishes with " the test, as at Massah."

Exodus 17 tells the story of Massah and Meribah, where the wandering Israelites in the desert could not restrain their thirst and grumbled to Moses. In Numbers 20, we read a fuller account of the story. God instructed Moses to speak to the rock; instead, he struck it twice with his staff. God in His mercy enabled water to gush forth, but the Lord told Moses [20:12] that he would be denied entry into Canaan for his disobedience.

If even Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, submitted to the tempter in the desert, who could withstand Satan's lies in the same place of privation, fifteen hundred years later? Only Jesus. Who knows and shares in the distress of our brothers and sisters who are hungry? Only Jesus. Who is our model when the world taxes our patience beyond our level of comfort? Only Jesus.

Tonight's prayer: Jesus, no power of hell or scheme of man could pluck you away from the purpose of your Father. You came face to face with Satan and prevailed. How petty and insignificant the rewards he offers us, compared to those he set before you - and yet how quick we are to grasp those empty promises. May you renew in us the strength to love our only Lord, the God of heaven and earth and our hearts. Amen.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Matthew 3

"I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
~Matthew 3:11

John the Baptist heralds the coming of the Messiah. Such a simple fact, and yet such a profound one. One site goes so far to proclaim that "Christianity begins with John the Baptist". This hyperbolic statement, nonetheless, has some merit to it. The radical breach of the Incarnation changed Mary and Joseph's lives forever, but God the Father ordained Joseph as foster father and Mary as mother to the growing child Jesus. John's ministry begins the unveiling of Jesus' divinity - an ongoing process that began with Jesus' baptism and ended with His resurrection.

My annotated NAB points out that nearly thirty years have passed since the end of Matthew 2, when Joseph hears of Herod's death and moves Mary and the toddler Jesus out of Egypt to Nazareth. Both the Father and the Son waited patiently, knowing that the time had not yet come to fulfill the divine plan.

When John comes, he says, "Repent!" The Jews hear him, confess their sins, reform their lives, and submit to his baptism in the Jordan River. Baptism was a common practice among the Essenes, and some scholars speculate that John, with his ascetic lifestyle, was himself an Essene. But why baptism now? John does not call the Jews to repent for their own sakes; rather, he says, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!" (v.2). The baptism of John makes no sense apart from the imminent public ministry of the Messiah. Hence, he warns the Pharisees who seek him not to boast of their Abrahamic descent (v.9), for one man greater than Abraham already walks among them.

And so John, protesting his own insufficiency for the task, baptizes his cousin Jesus. The heavens open, the Holy Spirit rushes upon Jesus (as it did upon the young King David when Samuel anointed him), and God the Father announces His pleasure with His Son. With John's baptism, Jesus has passed the first test of his young life: growing to maturity in submission to his Father's will. But a far greater test awaits him.

Tonight's prayer: Jesus, you submitted to baptism by John in the Jordan River not because you needed to be cleansed, but so your plan for our salvation could be fulfilled. We are full of sinfulness and hypocrisy, just like the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to John. But, because you persuaded John to baptize you in water, we are beneficiaries of your baptism in the Holy Spirit. Kindle a fire in our hearts so that we may be continually cleansed by the living flame of the Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Matthew 2

"On coming to the house, they [the Magi] saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him."
~ Matthew 2:11a

O exalted faith of the Magi! Jesus, newly born, "one healthy, little giggling, dribbling baby boy" according to Dave Matthews, would not be a fit subject of worship in respectable Jewish thought; the Levitical priesthood waited for the Messiah to come in power, but Jesus came in weakness. Fittingly enough, then, the first ones to worship Jesus as God Himself are obscure men "from the East" (v.1) who appear nowhere else in the Gospels. They alone recognized God's sign of the star when all Israel remained ignorant.

Even worse, tradition holds that the Magi were astrologers - a disreputable practice in first-century Judaism. The Pharisees absolutely forbade it, based on an expansive reading of Deuteronomy 18:10-13. In his very infancy, Jesus drew near to him outcasts and lawbreakers, just as he would do during his public ministry.

The Magi's visit, however, has an unforeseen consequence: King Herod hears of the birth of the Messiah. This leads to an extraordinary scene (vs. 4-5). Herod urgently asks, "Where is the Messiah to be born?" The chief priests and teachers of the law nonchalantly answer him, "Oh, in Bethlehem." Unlike the Jews of Jerusalem, Herod, to his credit, understands that the Messiah might well be in his midst. To his everlasting shame (and, quite possibly, to his eternal torment), Herod's gut reaction is to kill him.

Of course, God's plan triumphs over Herod's petty scheming. The Magi hear and heed a dream to return home by another route. Joseph, as in Chapter 1, hears an angel's call to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt, where the family remains for several months. But all is not well; Herod, though the Messiah eludes his grasp, pitilessly slaughters all the boys of Bethlehem two years old and younger (v.16). Herod's decision to deny Jesus'
Messianic reality causes an act of senseless, tyrannical brutality.

Tonight's prayer: Almighty God, you give all humans have one of three choices: to remain ignorant of the Messiah like the chief priests and scholars of Jewish law, to know him and reject him like King Herod, or to know him and worship him like the Magi. Help us to adopt the humility of the Magi, who traveled hundreds of miles just to kneel and give good gifts before our Lord and Savior in the cradle. As we go forth and do your Son's work, let us be overjoyed by your presence (v.10). Amen.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Matthew 1

"All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'The virgin will be with child and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel', which means, 'God with us'."

~Matthew 1:22-23

The Gospel of Matthew begins with Jesus' genealogy. Philip Yancey's fantastic book The Jesus I Never Knew tells how King Herod ordered a genealogical survey for himself. Dissatisfied with the base social status of his ancestors, he destroyed the survey.

Matthew's genealogy is not so simple. He calls Jesus "the son of David, the son of Abraham", begins with Abraham, then traces down through the house of Judah and the royal Davidic line. But - after the Babylonian exile - the list consists of fathers and sons unknown to history. This Messiah would not be born in regal pomp. Instead, Matthew finishes with a humble carpenter named Joseph, the pivotal man of the chapter.

Joseph finds his fiancee, Mary, pregnant. Under Mosaic law, he could have had Mary (and the child) stoned to death. Instead, he decides to break the engagement - not much better, for Mary would have returned to her family with the stigma of an unplanned, unexplainable pregnancy. Malcolm Muggeridge, among others, has argued that a 2007 C.E. incarnation of Mary might have been coerced into an abortion.

At this critical point, God defends His own living integrity in Mary's womb. He sends an angel to Joseph, telling him about Mary's supernatural conception and his own mission as foster father to the Messiah. Joseph obediently "did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him" (v. 24).

Tonight's prayer: Joseph exposed himself to shame and ridicule for the sake of the woman he loved greatly and the God he loved still more. Let me not turn away from the narrow path because I may be put to worldly shame. You do not see as the world sees, and your spiritual rewards far surpass fleshly pleasures (v.25). Amen.

Readers, welcome!

I came to believe in Jesus as Messiah and Lord through countless human agents of the Holy Spirit. My parents, Dave and Kathie, taught me goodness, discipline, and the value of frequent reception of the Lord's Supper. They also instilled a love of knowledge into me that has only strengthened with the passage of time. My one sibling, my younger brother Nathan, taught me that being an intellectual and being a generous person are distinct attributes. My girlfriend, Sally, a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Ukraine, taught me to cling to God's Word, to find solace and inspiration in it, to read it often and lovingly, and to let it sanctify me through the transformative power of the Spirit.

Within my family, I would be remiss to omit the example of my grandmothers: Elenore Lenart (who is with God) and Joanne Ardanowski (who retired today after fifteen years as Christian service director in her church).

The Gospels - the church's only authentic records of Jesus' life - are my point of entry into all the rest of Scripture. Together, they are divided into 89 chapters (28 in Matthew, 16 in Mark, 24 in Luke, 21 in John). There are 91 days from today to August 1, so I will blog a chapter per day, with two days left in reserve.

Tonight, the beginning: Matthew, chapter 1.