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Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

Kid holding little World Globe on her HandsI grew up near the Texas-Mexico border. My mom was a Spanish teacher, and I played with Mexican American friends and didn’t notice any differences between us.

Then in college and grad school I studied missions and intercultural communication and was blessed with several international mission trips, so those kinds of cultural differences haven’t been big problems for me.

But in college I had a roommate who was a member of a group that my culture had taught me to despise. Because of where I had grown up, that was my Nineveh experience.

That was when I had to choose to participate in the reconciliation that God is working out in the world. I had to get over myself, my own assumptions and preferences and comforts, and embrace a person who was noticeably different from me and was a child of God, created in the divine image.

Intergroup conflicts plague humanity – conflicts along lines of ethnicity, class, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and other demographic distinctions.

These conflicts have challenged the universal reconciling work of God.

We see that sad truth in our own day. Maybe you see it where you live. I see it here in Memphis.

We see it in church history, and we see it in the Bible.

One place where we see it in the Bible is the book of Jonah.

God tells Jonah to go minister to the Ninevites, a group of people that Jonah despises. Jonah travels by ship in the opposite direction because he can’t stand the idea of preaching in Nineveh.

God sends a great storm. The sailors do what they know to do to save a ship in such a storm, but nothing works.

Jonah sleeps, careless about what happens. The sailors cry out to their gods, and the captain wakes up Jonah and tells him to call on his god.

The sailors cast lots, and the lot falls to Jonah. The sailors question Jonah, who toss him overboard. The storm is targeting him.

They don’t want to throw Jonah into the sea. They try other options to no avail. They pray to God and toss Jonah. The storm calms, and the sailors worship God.

God send a big fish to swallow Jonah, who is in the fish for three days and three nights. There Jonah prays, and at God’s command the fish vomits Jonah onto land.

Jonah receives his mission from God again and goes to Nineveh, announcing coming calamity. The people of Nineveh fast and repent, and God relents.

Jonah gets mad. He says that he knew that God was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (ESV). That was why Jonah had resists the call to Nineveh. He hated the Ninevites and wanted them to suffer God’s wrath.

God’s mercy on Nineveh makes Jonah want to die. (He says so three times!)

In great disgust, Jonah goes outside the city, sets up a shade tent, sits under it, and waits to watch the city’s destruction.

God provides a shade plant for Jonah and then sends a worm to destroy the plant. Jonah gets a sunburn and feels sorry for himself.

God wants to redeem a group of people that Jonah despises, and Jonah lets his prejudice limit his involvement in God’s mission. Jonah gets so upset that he wants to die!

Place yourself in the Jonah story.

See yourself in the character of Jonah. God tells you to go minister to ______; and you think, “No way! Those people are evil. They’re disgusting. They probably won’t even listen to God’s message. And even if they do listen, they don’t deserve God’s mercy. And if I minister to them, my people will despise me for it.”

Now ask yourself, “Who’s in the blank? Who are the people I can’t stand? Who are the ones I’m so uncomfortable with that I would rather die than share God’s mercy with them?” When you answer that, when you fill in the blank, you can get a sense of what Jonah experiences when God tells him to preach to the Ninevites. He chooses to go in the opposite direction. And when God extends mercy to Nineveh, Jonah is angry.

A major turn happens near the end of the story. In chapter 4 God questions Jonah about his anger, and we see that God is right in extending mercy to a people group that Jonah despises.

This story of intergroup conflict reminds us that God is working out a mission of reconciliation.

As we see in the New Testament, God is bringing all people groups together under Christ. When we live in that mission of reconciliation, we participate in the life of Jesus, who crossed cultural boundaries. He talked with people despised by his own group. He even empowered a Samaritan woman to be a missionary. In Christ we find and live out peace, unity, reconciliation, and love that transcend and transform cultural differences.

In that mission we can rejoice instead of being angry.

The “new creation” is coming. God is working it out in the world. One day all cultural conflicts will be transformed into a beautiful peace in which diverse people groups live and worship together in Christ. In the meantime we get to participate in that reconciliation that God is producing.

This can be hard for us, but I see a glimpse of hope when I watch children, still innocent of the hatred that pervades our world. My white son plays with black children and Jewish children without even knowing that they come from different cultures. That day is coming for all, and God calls us to participate here and now in its coming.

 

What’s your Nineveh experience?

 

Who’s in your blank?

 

Whatever our answers, God wants to empower us to reach diverse groups of people, even people we’re uncomfortable around, especially people we’re uncomfortable around. God calls us to join the mission of universal reconciliation in Christ. How will you participate?

God of mercy, God of reconciliation, we praise you for your love that reaches far beyond our own groups. We thank you for giving us opportunities to proclaim your mercy and to participate in your reconciliation. We pray for strength. We pray for boldness. We pray in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace who said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Amen.

This blog post is a slightly modified version of a chapel sermon I preached at Harding School of Theology on Monday, June 16, 2014.

 

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God calls us to participate in God’s mission, and we should respond in worship and obedience. However, we can get distracted by concerns that hinder our right responses to God.

In Jonah 1:1-16, God comissions Jonah to carry a message to a city called Nineveh. Jonah travels by ship in the opposite direction because he doesn’t want to preach to people he doesn’t like. God responds, and people on the ship respond, but Jonah ignores. The people on the ship cast lots and question Jonah, who admits his identity and responsibility and tells them to throw him into the sea. They try to avoid that by taking other actions. After praying to God, they reluctantly toss him. Then they fear, worship, and vow to God. (Note that the sailors are not members of Jonah’s religious community.)

God wants us to worship. When we lose focus on God and worship our own desires instead, God is not without worship. Others can worship God. Our preferences for our own groups and our prejudices against other groups can blind us to that beautiful truth, which calls us to embrace diverse people who worship God.

Instead of focusing on our own desires or worrying about who is or is not worthy to worship God, let’s just worship and obey God! Worship and obedience lead us to recognize and live out God’s love for all people groups in the spirit of Jesus, who died for the whole world.

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Most of what the Bible says about God appears in the first two thirds of the book. Many Christians call it the Old Testament. Some call it the Hebrew Bible. Our understanding of God’s character would shrink greatly if we were to look only at the New Testament, and we cannot understand the New Testament without the story we find in the previous books of the Bible.

For these reasons, the church needs to maintain (or, in many cases, to reestablish) a prominent place for the Hebrew Bible. That’s why I get excited about works like Fleming Rutledge’s And God Spoke to Abraham: Preaching from the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2011). The book contains fifty-five sermons; and the author’s goal is to nurture a passion for the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and a desire for communicating its world and message.

And God Spoke to Abraham

The author’s passion for the Hebrew Bible, which began early in her life through familial influence, continues in And God Spoke to Abraham. She points out that the Old Testament was the early church’s only scripture, and she claims its importance for today in two ways. First, the Old Testament functions as “the operating system for the New Testament;” “the Old Testament is indispensable for the New, and… it is not only possible but vital to preach from the Old Testament for the way it drives the New.” Rutledge challenges her readers to approach the Old Testament as Christians, not as if the New Testament were nonexistent. Second, Rutledge challenges preachers “to teach the Old Testament for its own sake.” One reason for this is respect “for the integrity of Jewish heritage… [reverence] for the story of Israel in light of the past hundred years.” A stronger reason is that the church needs a robust picture of God. “Thus we must read the New Testament in light of the Old.” In relation to this second reason, Rutledge also mentions that embracing both the Old Testament and the New Testament can prevent an unhealthy division of them, as seen in Marcion. Although the church long ago rejected his view, “the insidious tendency to reject or downgrade the Old Testament on the grounds of its inferiority is with us still.” Rutledge advises preachers to proclaim the Bible as “a seamless garment” but not to ignore “the individual biblical voices in their distinctive form[s].”

Rutledge approaches the Old Testament as a theologically informed explorer of the Bible. Her greatest contribution in And God Spoke to Abraham, however, is as a preacher, not as an academic theologian or Bible scholar; so let me shift from Rutledge’s passion for the Old Testament to her communication of it.

When I was in eighth or ninth grade, an English teacher taught my class that, as young writers, we needed to learn the rules before earning the right to break them. Rutledge seems to have accomplished both feats. Some of her sermons fit the standards of a college public speaking course; in others the preacher effectively takes great liberties.

Most of these fifty-five sermons begin with what speech teachers call “attention-getters” (e.g., news stories, poems, stories, hymns) to involve her listeners in the preaching experience, and some of the sermons end with connections to their openings. These openings, as well as illustrations throughout the sermons, frequently arise from the preacher’s higher-than-average familiarity with literature. That characteristic can benefit literate audiences or irritate listeners who prefer Madden over Milton.

Rutledge’s occasional spurts of linguistic artistry compel me to continue reading: “squirming desperately like worms in a can,” “a culture so lost to us that we know it only from digging it out of the ground,” “left the taste of ashes in my mouth,” “as though Death were shredded Kleenex.” My favorite of the rhetorical relishes appears near the end of the Easter sermon titled “A Way Out of No Way.” Looking at the resurrection through the exodus, the preacher assures her congregants that in “the face of death… there is another, greater Way; there is another, greater Life; there is another, greater Power.” Then, rhythmically, musically, in the spirit of Miriam, she thrice invites, “listen, listen, people of God… Listen, listen, people of God… Listen, listen, people of God…”

Scripture, theology, history, literature, music, movies, recent events, and personal experiences converse energetically in Rutledge’s sermons. The theological questions impress me; Rutledge guides her people through pondering that leads to answers (or at least to more faithful perspectives). At times, however, by using this skill the preacher can abandon the text; so preachers should be careful.

I earlier identified Rutledge’s dual call (1) to embrace a relationship between the Old and New Testaments and (2) “to teach the Old Testament for its own sake.” Some of the sermons in this volume clearly do the first part of that call. While her movement between the Testaments is smooth, impressive, and helpful, I benefit more from her preaching when it arises from the Old Testament itself without reference to the New Testament. Different opinions exist on this subject, and I do not claim any authority here. I simply am refreshed by examples of preaching that let the Hebrew Bible speak. Must we preach Jesus in every sermon, or may an Old Testament text speak on its own without input from the New Testament? Rutledge’s exploration of that question seems unfinished, as is mine.

Much of this post is modified from a review I wrote for the Biblical Preaching course at Harding School of Theology in February 2013.

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Hurting with GodGlenn Pemberton was one of my professors at at Abilene Christian University and has been a preacher for decades. He recently wrote a book called Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms. It is informed and relevant, and it arises from the author’s personal experiences with pain and loss.

Dr. Pemberton points out the church’s lack of lament, and the reasons vary: “the wishful optimism of our culture, discomfort with ambiguity, impatient need for quick solutions, and… well-intended but misguided theology.” Some researchers have studied the lament psalms; others have written on the use of lament psalms in preaching, prayer, and public life. In the midst of this literary expansion, however, “the practical translation of this work has yet to take much hold in our churches.” Pemberton’s goals, therefore, are “to make a complete and persuasive case for the restoration of the language of lament in the life of the church and in the lives of believers” and “to teach the language of lament by careful examination of the lament psalms.” He hopes that “this volume brings further attention to the loss of lament in our churches, exposes what this loss is costing us, and stirs our minds to imagine what might happen if we spoke and prayed the full spectrum of the biblical faith languages,” whether used “for personal reading,” “in church Bible classes and small groups,” or as an academic textbook.

The first chapter establishes that humans share a story of “unpredictable, unstable, and life-threatening seas and storms… chaotic forces that stand against human life and well-being.” The author anchors this claim in Genesis, the Psalms, and Job, which provides “good news… that the sea/chaos does not have free reign in this world” and “bad news… that the sea still exists and works chaos in our world.” Such observation leads to the following questions: “How do we live with and relate to God when the waters pound and choke us? What do we say to the God who has the power to restrain the storm but chooses instead to let it pour?” Instead of seeking an explanation for the storm, the author proceeds in an attempt to find a way “to swim” when “this storm is flooding my life.”

Chapter Two teaches about biblical lament language, highlighting the diverse forms’ “commonality: deep faith in God in the midst of pain.” The Book of Psalms contains more lament psalms than any other kind, but the church has largely lost this language of lament. The author documents this loss through the research of his student, T. Austin Holt IV, who analyzes three contemporary hymnals that heavily voice thanksgiving and praise to the neglect of lament.

The third chapter establishes lament as a practice of Jesus and the early church. Chapter Four explores the details and dynamics of lament language. The next seven chapters investigate the problems that give rise to such language: sin, discouragement, health, opponents, and God. The twelfth chapter shows the relationship between lament and thanksgiving, and Chapter Thirteen suggests practical ways to restore lament language in the life of the church. There Pemberton wisely prescribes incremental changes instead of pendulum swings, and he encourages us to practice lament in a “healthy balance of faith languages modeled for us by the Psalms.”

The primary strength of Pemberton’s work arises from his background in both academics and ministry, combined with his personal experience of loss and pain. His scholarly competence provides intellectual substance that more devotional works avoid. His pastoral heart leads to suggestions for ministerial improvement that more academic texts miss. His experience of lament gives his writing a tone of authenticity that compels readers to finish the book and to find points of connection with their own lives. The textual analysis and ministerial suggestions cooperate to “help us regain the wholeness of expression to our God and include the hurting more fully in our worship” (Lowe), and the relevance to everyday life gives readers a reason to recommend the book to a broad and diverse readership. (I gave a copy to my mother when she visited me last week.)

This strength can be a weakness, too. Scholars may prefer more academic texts; Pemberton minimizes his references to scholarly literature. Church leaders may prefer less academic books; the author connects his study to ministry but largely provides textual and theological insights. The blending of approaches, however, exemplifies ministry-related scholarship that empowers theologically informed worship.

Pemberton’s approach from a “low church” experience can be a weakness for readers in more liturgical traditions. Some large portions of Christianity still maintain a substantial place for lament psalms in worship (Wagner-Wassen). While those churches might benefit more from books with other approaches, this one speaks meaningfully to the author’s own and similar heritages; it “provides refreshing corrective for churches inundated with a thin, borrowed and Evangelical liturgy” (Fleer).

Especially helpful is the author’s application of his study to issues of justice, most notably in Chapter Nine. Churches in cultural contexts of affluence and power, even when they fail to recognize their privileges, need this call to speak for and with the oppressed and hurting. We in worship leadership must ask what the lament psalms say to us, to people experiencing lives drastically different from our own, and to our responsibilities as God’s people in and for the world.

I highly recommend Dr. Pemberton’s book to anyone seeking to swim life’s stormy seas, needing permission and place to voice raw emotions to God, or simply wishing to learn more about the Bible, specifically its lament psalms. In the words of Mike Cope on the back cover, “For its biblical insight, this book will sit proudly on my shelf next to Brueggemann’s works on the Psalms; for its pastoral care, I’ll be handing it out to many friends… and church leaders.” The work’s integration of scholarship, ministry, and personal struggle makes it well worth the sticker price and reading time.

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This review is modified from one I wrote for a course at Harding School of Theology.

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Let me live that I may praise you,
   and may your laws sustain me.
I have strayed like a lost sheep.
   Seek your servant,
   for I have not forgotten your commands.

Those closing words of Psalm 119 speak to me. I too want my life to praise my Maker and Sustainer. I too have at times “strayed like a lost sheep.” I too pray for God to seek me and to uphold me with words of scripture.

At my deepest lows, the words, stories, and truths of scripture have given me strength and hope. Every time I open the Bible, I’m preparing for future spiritual slumps.

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The blameless are blessed, so says Psalm 119. But I’m not blameless; I make mistakes.

I am not alone in this. None of us qualifies for membership in that elite group of people who “do no wrong.” Even the writer of this psalm doesn’t qualify: “Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees!”

Blamelessness is not a present reality in our lives, but it is an ideal to which we can aspire. Psalm 119 provides a way to pursue the ideal: scripture. When we read, study, meditate on, and seek to live the Bible, we invite God to gradually transform us by its words, stories, and truths.

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People in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) experienced a cycle common to countless generations from ancient times to today. It’s a cycle of faithful and unfaithful living.

Psalm 78 reveals a key to faithful living. To challenge the cycle we need more than human effort, more than intellectual determination, more than uplifting worship. We need the words of scripture.

Living biblically is not automatic. It requires effort. It requires us to read, meditate on, and study scripture; and it requires us to teach the Bible to younger generations, letting the Holy Book shape our own lives and those of our children and grandchildren.

He decreed statutes for Jacob
   and established the law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors
   to teach their children,
so the next generation would know them,
   even the children yet to be born,
   and they in turn would tell their children.
Then they would put their trust in God
   and would not forget his deeds
   but would keep his commands.

God, please empower us to live as people of the Book.

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