Weekly Worship Thought – Why did Jesus have to die?

(The beauty of a blog is that I can write about whatever I want. Sometimes I offer personal updates and sometimes I recycle seminary assignments. Today’s post is the latter.)

Did Jesus have to die in order to forgive the sins of the world? Consider this:

First, a few ideas about sin. Consider the creation and fall narrative from Genesis. Adam is perhaps best understood not as a historical person, but as a metaphorical character based on the people of Israel. Adam was created in the dust (Egypt), brought into the garden (promised land), given regulations (Torah), and was removed from the garden for breaking them (exile). The point I make is that the story of Adam is less about how sin entered the picture, and more about the wisdom of how God works amidst the people of Israel. In fact, sin is not mentioned as a punishment for Adam’s mistake. Death is the consequence of Adam’s trespass (Genesis 2:17). God’s response to the disobedience is the curse of labor (both in childbearing and cultivation, Genesis 3:16-19). The idea that sin entered the world through a historical couple is not found in the Old Testament, but is a theological development that occurs much later. (Check out this podcast from Pete Enns, from whom I borrowed this idea: https://www.peteenns.com/5-things-jesus-wants-know-adam-story/)

Second, I think death is the real issue being addressed in Jesus’ own dying. God comes to us (the whole world) in human form to live and die that death might be defeated. Jesus goes face-to-face with death in his own dying, so that the decay, sorrow, brokenness, and all the other messed up stuff in our world can be undone. Jesus dies to defeat death and bring new life. Why are things not perfect after Jesus death then? Because of the already-but-not-yet-ness of God’s kingdom and the new creation. We see slivers and peeks now.

Third, I feel that substitutionary atonement is less favorable when trying to explain all this. The Christus Victor motif, in my feeling, helps us understand this defeat of death in Christ’s dying. It helps us understand the shift from things decaying to things being in an everlasting state. It is in Christ’s weakest state that the true power of God is displayed. I would spin this as the triumph of life over death. Jesus’ death destroys our image of a wrathful God. God, “refuses to be wrath for us. He refuses to be the wrath that is resident in all our conditionalism” (Forde, p. 30). Left to our own theological deplorability, we make God out to be like us: vengeful, bean-counting, and insecure. Jesus came to take that notion of God to the grave and replace it with love. Jesus takes the mantle of a wrathful God and buries it down in the grave, rising to a new life where God is love.

Fourth, I think it is significant that the gospel writers tell us that Jesus quoted Psalm 22 from the cross. Was Jesus claiming forsakenness? Or was Jesus defaulting to the ingrained liturgical patterns of his Jewish heritage by speaking/singing David’s words? Or was Jesus starting to quote Psalm 22 with the intent of making it to the end and fulfilling the words, “To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it” (vs. 29-31)?

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Weekly Worship Thought – Was Jesus Political in His Day?

The degree to which Jesus Christ was knowingly involved in the politics of his time is a widely debated subject. Truthfully, we cannot say for certain. As much as we think we know the mind of Jesus, and as many books and sermons that have been written to give us insight, we still do not know whether his life and ministry were purposefully plotted for political reasons.

We do know King Herod, the political leader of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth, was terrified at the prospect of a newborn child that would threaten his power (Matthew 2:1-12). We also know that Jesus lived in a time and region that was politically charged. The Roman Empire was the latest in a line of regimes to claim control of the Palestine territory. There were several factions of Jewish people that presented ideologies for how they should be in relationship with Rome. Jesus didn’t completely align with any of them. John the baptizer influenced Jesus (Mark 1:4-11). It is thought that John was part of the Essenes, whose solution to the political question was to withdraw completely and not participate. Jesus caught the attention of the Pharisees when he ate with the wrong people. The Pharisees’ political agenda was to maintain purity through strict observance of Jewish laws (Mark 2:15-17).

In the end, Jesus was executed by the Roman state, at the request of the Jewish people, for sedition (Matthew 27:1-66). Jesus’ death was certainly for political reasons.

Weekly Worship Thought – Changing God’s Mind

Next Sunday (Sept. 24) I will have the opportunity to preach at church. This is something I have done before, although not very often. As a seminary student working toward being a pastor, these are opportunities that I really look forward to. Preaching a sermon is like exploring an undiscovered territory. There is so much to learn, try, and experience.

The first lesson for 16 Pentecost A is the end of the book of Jonah (3:10-4:11). Since I’m planning on spending some time there, here are some of my first thoughts on this well-known story:

  • Jonah is a whiny brat. His behavior reminds me of my children when they are at their most unpleasant.
  • Do I think that there was a real person named Jonah who was swallowed by a fish for 3 days? No. This story is more of a prophetic parable. Besides, it doesn’t matter if it really happened or not, because the story contains truth.
  • Everyone knows that Jonah fled from God’s plan. But the truth behind Jonah’s 180° turn is less obvious: he hated the Assyrians. His prejudice against them ran deep. Jonah’s preference would be for the whole city of Nineveh to be damned. And it makes sense. Assyria had invaded and defeated Israel.
  • Jonah fled from God’s plan because he knew that God was too gracious. Jonah knew God’s love was bigger than Israel and he didn’t want Nineveh to know it.
  • I love how the book ends, “and also many animals?” Whereas Jonah’s prejudice against Assyria won’t even allow him to acknowledge they are worthy to receive God’s mercy, God’s concern is so profound that it reaches past the Assyrians all the way down to the animals. It’s that deep.
  • The lesson picks up with God changing God’s mind. It reminds me of another time when God changed God’s mind. Moses was receiving the 10 commandments on the mountain and the people were at the bottom making idols. God, insulted by the idolatry, tears down the mountain after them, ready to teach them a lesson. But Moses stops God, and intercedes for Israel. And it says that God changed God’s mind. Maybe Jonah had that merciful episode in mind when he decided to go the other way?

Weekly Worship Thought – What Do You See?

Did you ever look at those 3D hidden image posters when you were younger? I think you were supposed to cross your eyes and slowly uncross them. Or stare at the center intensely. Or put your nose against the image and then ease your way backward. Then poof! A 3D image was supposed to appear. I have to confess – I don’t think I ever saw anything in any of them.

What we see matters. Sometimes it is the things we don’t see that matter most. There’s a story in the Bible about a time that Jesus noticed someone that couldn’t see (John 9). The disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” What the disciples saw was someone cursed. Jesus saw an opportunity for healing and restoration. After he was cured of his blindness, the people were baffled. “The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man.’”

The blind man had become invisible. The community was blind to his poverty and need. As a beggar, he had faded into the background of his surroundings. No one noticed him anymore. The story shows that his neighbors couldn’t distinguish if it was really he or someone else; they forgot what he looked like. The greatest sin of this story didn’t have anything to do with the parents. The sin was a community that had forgotten their own needy.

Perhaps you’ve noticed something different at the baptismal font this Lent.

Several people have stopped me and asked what this installation symbolizes. Some have offered their own interpretation. That is the beauty of art – we can see many different things in it depending on our interpretation. When someone asks me what it is, my first response is usually to turn the table and ask them what they see in it. I’ve heard some very interesting and insightful interpretations:

  • The purple cloth could represent the robe that was mockingly placed on Jesus before the crucifixion. (The appointed liturgical color for Lent is purple because purple has long been associated with royalty. In this case, Christ reigns from a cross.)
  • The branches could represent the crown of thorns. Or they could remind us of the desert and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.
  • The large, flat stones could represent the tablets that the Ten Commandments were recorded on.
  • The broken vessel could represent the vinegar that Jesus was offered on the cross. The broken pot reminds me of our brokenness and need for God to make us whole.

The point of the installation is simple: to help us recall the themes of Lent. What about you – what do you see?

Weekly Worship Thought – Cultivating Discipleship

rgypr4aysma-zbysiu-rodakBrothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:1-9)

Reflecting on the upcoming second reading for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, I think about the process of disciple making. The church in Corinth was getting a word of rebuke from brother Paul because of their lack of spiritual maturity. What was the sign of their immaturity? Dividing and separating themselves into factions. Not only were they splitting up based on which leader helped ignite their spiritual flame, they were also not treating each other with respect because of socio-economic differences (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). We might think we are so much farther down the path to maturity than the folks of Corinth were, but are we?

Then Paul gives this terrific agrarian image of what really happens in the process of discipleship. We are God’s field. Some people help plant us. Other people help water us. Some people make sure our soil is rich with fertilizer. Other people help prune us to ensure the best overall yield. Some people help us keep the pests away. God is everything else: the solar system, the earth, the seasons, the environment, and the atmosphere. Every bit of growth hinges on God. No growth is possible without God.

I cannot make a disciple. I can help cultivate discipleship in others.

I cannot be a disciple without others cultivating me.

Weekly Worship Thought – Worship Leader Banter

4b2husoh_m0-zachrie-friesenJared C. Wilson has a post about 10 phrases that worship leaders need to avoid. I do my best to not say these things because they get under my skin when I hear others say them. For the most part they are theologically weak and hype-inducing babble-speak. Especially cringe-worthy is “God showed up.” As if the God of heaven and earth could be controlled or summoned by an incantation.

What is the alternative to babbling like a hype jockey? I am a fan of beginning worship and connecting moments in worship using short, scriptural phrases that center our heart and mind. Here are a few examples of what you could say instead:

  • Sing to the LORD a new song! (Psalm 96:1)
  • I will sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. (Exodus 15:1)
  • Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts. (1 Chronicles 16:9)
  • Sing to the LORD, all the earth; proclaim his salvation day after day. (1 Chronicles 16:23)
  • Sing the praises of the LORD, you his faithful people; praise his holy name. (Psalm 30:4)
  • Taste and see that the LORD is good. (Psalm 34:8)
  • But as for me, it is good to be near God. (Psalm 73:28)
  • I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. (Psalm 146:2)
  • Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. (James 4:8)

Weekly Worship Thought – Punishment

I have written about the song “Immanuel” by Stuart Townend before. I love using it during Advent because I think it provides a great narrative arc that compliments the story of the season.

Previously I’ve talked about altering the fourth stanza of text to deal with the “fear of hell.” In Jesus, there is no fear. The idea that God is looking to eternally punish anyone is suspect. “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” (1 John 4:18)

As we sang the song recently, a new lyric jumped out to me. In the third stanza it says, “he was punished for a world’s transgressions.” As I have personally drifted away from a punitive, substitutionary atonement theory, lyrics like these stick out all the more. Violence begets violence. The idea that God violently punished the Son to make things even might be the source of many of our world’s problems.

I found this quote from Rene Girard helpful, I hope you do as well.

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Weekly Worship Thought – Whole Heart

photo-1469571486292-0ba58a3f068bPsalm 111:1 says, “Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.” At the very center of all true worship is an attitude of thankfulness. The word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” We call communion “thanksgiving” because the scripture tells us that when Jesus was eating with his disciples “he gave thanks, broke it, and said, this is my body….” Following Jesus’ lead, our worship at God’s table is centered in an attitude of thankfulness. Back to Psalm 111. It says “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart.” I’m interested in the idea of whole-heartedness. What does it look like to give thanks with a whole heart? What are the things that divide our heart and keep us from wholly giving ourselves in thanks to God?

Weekly Worship Thought – Food

photo-1448794363755-de84d6a770bcLuke 14:1: “Now it happened that on a Sabbath day he had gone to share a meal in the house of one of the leading Pharisees…” One of the centerpieces of Jesus’ ministry was eating. Over and over again, Jesus shared food with people. Jesus shared food with his friends, the disciples. Jesus shared food with those who opposed him, the Pharisees in this story. Jesus shared food with people that got him in trouble with the Pharisees: the unclean, the prostitutes, and the tax collectors. Jesus shared food with people by way of miracles that fed thousands. On the night before he was crucified he shared a Passover meal with his disciples and gave us a new commandment to love one another. Even after the resurrection, Jesus was still sharing food with people. He cooked breakfast for the disciples when they had returned to fishing. He appeared as a stranger to the two on the road to Emmaus, explaining the meaning of God’s plan of restoration, and then when they sat down at the table, he was revealed to them. The reason why we eat bread and drink wine every Sunday is because Jesus’ life was mostly about eating with people. Jesus still eats with us today.

Weekly Worship Thought – Pillar of Cloud

photo-1446857985102-74988d169c8cLast week I started a reflection on the text from the hymn “Guide Me Ever, Great Redeemer.” The text was written by William Williams in the 18th century (read more about him here). The second stanza reads, “Open now the crystal fountain where the healing waters flow; let the fire and cloudy pillar lead me all my journey through.” The biblical imagery is stark. The fire and cloudy pillar refer to the symbolic objects that God used to lead Israel in their exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 13). You might not realize it, but the Paschal candle in our sanctuary (the tall, white candle with the cross on it, near the baptismal font) is designed to recall this biblical image. It is a tall, white pillar, like the cloud that led Israel. Just as the cloudy pillar symbolized God leading Israel into their liberation from Egypt, so does the Paschal candle stand at the baptismal font, reminding us of God’s endless provision for our freedom in Christ.