Jewish Themes in the Book of Acts – Dietary Laws

Read the Introduction, Holy Spirit, and Festival of Pentecost posts in this series.

To begin, here is a brief refresher on the narrative of the first 12 chapters of the book of Acts:

The Christian movement began as a sect of Judaism. The first disciples were Jews. There was not a neat, clean break between the Jewish faith and the new thing God was doing among first century Jesus followers. The laws and rituals that guided the Jewish faith were expressions of holiness, intended to set Israel apart for God’s purposes, to be different from the rest of the world. As the church slowly branched off from its Judaic origins all of these preexisting conceptions of God and spiritual practice had to be reckoned with.

One of these conceptions was dietary law. Leviticus 11, “establishes dietary laws for the Israelites, specifying which animals can be eaten by them and which cannot be eaten. It is difficult to discern the reasoning behind the distinctions. For instance, clean land animals are those that have divided hoofs, chew the cud, and are cleft-footed. Any animal that meets only two of these three criteria is unclean (11:1-8). Scholars speculate that in the priestly mind-set, animals of each distinct group (land animals, fish, birds, insects) must exhibit certain characteristics emblematic of that group. For instance, a fish must have fins and scales in order to be ‘clean.’ Those water animals that do not have fins and scales (like crustaceans) are ‘unclean’ (that is, they do not fit within their category) and are therefore unlawful to be eaten (11:9-12)” (Enter the Bible, http://www.enterthebible.org/oldtestament.aspx?rid=23).

 

In Acts 10, Peter has an episode that causes him to throw out the window all of his preconceived ideas about the dietary laws found in Leviticus 11. Here is a dramatized version of the story:

The work of new creation begins with transformed minds. God sets into the recreation of all things after the resurrection by changing Peter’s mind about what is clean and what is not. The restrictions and condemnation that had been handed down through the people of Israel from ages before were being lifted. Only the Creator can declare what is unclean, and God was telling Peter that things are different now.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

How is God doing both a new thing and continuing an old thing in the meeting of Peter and Cornelius from Acts 10? My interpretation has to do with a small detail from the story: three visitors arrive for Peter (Acts 10:7, 19). This harkens back to an old story that contained a promise that was made. In Genesis 18, three visitors who predict the birth of a son visit Abraham and Sarah in their old age. That son would be the realization of the covenant God made with Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation…so that you will be a blessing…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).

The narrative of Acts tells of the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham. Through Jesus, centuries later, all the families of the earth are finally able to be welcomed as brothers and sisters into the people of God. The veil of who was clean and who was unclean was also being lifted. The inclusivity of God’s love was breaking free from the laws that restricted it to one nation.

For further study check out:

  • Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Acts of the Apostles. Sacra Pagina. Liturgical Press, 1992.
  • Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. Acts. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Abingdon, 2003.
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Jewish Themes in the Book of Acts – Festival of Pentecost

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Holy Spirit

Photo: “The seven Species of the Land of Israel are listed in the biblical verse Deuteronomy 8:8: a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and [date] honey.” WikiMedia Commons רוליג

Often when we hear the word “Pentecost” we immediately jump to the episode with the Holy Spirit recorded in Acts 2. Pentecost, however, was a Jewish festival before it was a Christian event.

Leviticus 23:15-22 describes the appointed festival: 15 And from the day after the sabbath, from the day on which you bring the sheaf of the elevation offering, you shall count off seven weeks; they shall be complete. 16 You shall count until the day after the seventh sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the Lord. 17 You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread as an elevation offering, each made of two-tenths of an ephah; they shall be of choice flour, baked with leaven, as first fruits to the Lord. 18 You shall present with the bread seven lambs a year old without blemish, one young bull, and two rams; they shall be a burnt offering to the Lord, along with their grain offering and their drink offerings, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord. 19 You shall also offer one male goat for a sin offering, and two male lambs a year old as a sacrifice of well-being. 20 The priest shall raise them with the bread of the first fruits as an elevation offering before the Lord, together with the two lambs; they shall be holy to the Lord for the priest. 21 On that same day you shall make proclamation; you shall hold a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. This is a statute forever in all your settlements throughout your generations. 22 When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.

Pentecost is the Greek name for the Jewish festival known as Shavuot. Shavuot was “one of the three pilgrimage festivals (along with Pesach [Passover] and Sukkot [Booths]) that attracted many Jews to Jerusalem” (Gary Gilbert, The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 201). Shavuot, also called the Feast of Weeks because you had to count seven weeks, took place 50 days after Passover and was a celebration for the wheat harvest. Later it came to be associated with the giving of God’s covenants: the covenant with Noah, but especially the Torah as given through Moses.

Here is an description of how some Jews celebrate the feast of Shavuot today:

How is God doing both a new thing and continuing an old thing in the Pentecost scene of Acts 2? Similar to how Jesus reinterprets Passover at the last supper in the gospel of Luke, now Peter is reinterpreting Shavuot for the church. Shavuot was meant to foster an attitude of thanksgiving at the time of harvest. “Then you shall keep the festival of weeks to the Lord your God, contributing a freewill offering in proportion to the blessing that you have received from the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 16:10). The gratitude for harvest was meant to overflow to the most vulnerable members of Israel’s society (see Leviticus 23:22 above). Prompted by Peter’s speech at Pentecost, the new converts fulfill the purpose of Shavuot: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). Everyone had enough because of the just and equitable distribution of goods.

The scene in Acts 2 can also be interpreted in another way connected with the history of Israel: the reversal of the curse of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). At Babel God confused the language of the people because of pride in their technological advancements. In Acts 2 the people that God scattered are reunited and able to understand in their own languages. God was doing a new thing connected to a very old thing.

Here is a reenactment of Shavuot from a Jewish group in Jerusalem:

For further study check out:

 

 

Jewish Themes in the Book of Acts – Holy Spirit

 

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(Photo: Andreas Praefcke, WikiMedia Commons)

Read the Introduction

One of the most well known events detailed in the Book of Acts is the Pentecost episode and the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. It continues to be a major festival day in the life of the church nearly 2,000 years later. Do you ever wish that you could have your own personal Pentecost…

In Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit moved and empowered the words of the disciples on Pentecost, was God doing a new thing or continuing an old thing? If we think that the movement of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was only a new thing we put ourselves in a potentially dangerous theological position. The Holy Spirit can be thought of as a version of God that doesn’t show up until the New Testament. That can lead us to thinking God the Father was present with the Israelites in the Old Testament, then God the Son came to in first century Palestine as Jesus, and after that the church received God the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Unfortunately that idea dabbles in Marcionism.

God the Holy Spirit is mentioned often in Acts as the acting presence of God. The Holy Spirit, however, is not a new thing God does in the Book of Acts. It is a continuation of God’s presence from the very beginning. Throughout the Old Testament we have references to God’s Spirit, breath, and wind (ruach in Hebrew). These references are all connected to God the Holy Spirit that empowers the disciples at Pentecost. Our impression of the Holy Spirit becomes richer and more complex through the Book of Acts, adding layers of descriptions to our understanding.

The Spirit was at creation. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:1-2).

The Spirit was at the anointing of King David. “Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13).

The Spirit was the theme of Israel’s ancient songs. “Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:11-12).

The Spirit was with the voice of the prophets. “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1).

“Over 25% of references in scripture to the divine Spirit (Spirit of the Lord, Spirit of God, Holy Spirit, Spirit of Jesus, etc.) appear in the Old Testament (26.5% using the NRSV). A relatively consistent pattern we find with the Spirit’s activity in the Old Testament is that it creates (e.g., Gen 1), anoints for leadership/service (e.g., Samson, King Saul), and initiates new life and movements (e.g., Ezekiel 37). Now consider what kinds of things the Spirit does in Acts. Is it much different, or more similar than not” (Forum post from Professor Troy Troftgruben, New Testament Narratives, November 16, 2017)?

The work of the Holy Spirit in the world did not begin at Pentecost. God is working and has been working in the world, through all times, with God’s own two hands, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. God’s Word is carried on God’s breath to redeem and renew God’s people for the life of the world.

Check out this animated narrative about how God’s Spirit was moving and working all the way through the Bible…

For further study check out:

Jewish Themes in the Book of Acts – Introduction

Some have suggested that the Book of Acts is mis-titled. I guess the question would be whom do you consider the main character of the story? Some say it is the Apostles, others say it is the Holy Spirit who shines as the star, or maybe even Jesus. I would suggest Acts is the second half of the gospel of Luke, or an account of Christ’s body in the Spirit. Acts is still Jesus’ story, just the story of his body in growth and action.

The Book of Acts

The Book of Acts in the New Testament is partly a historical account of how the church came to be. As Powell puts it, “It’s got earthquakes (16:26), shipwrecks (27:41-44), avenging angels (12:23), harrowing escapes (9:23-25; 21:30-36), riots (19:23-41), murder plots (9:23; 23:12-15; 25:1-3), political intrigue (16:35-39; 22:24-29; 24:26-27), courtroom drama (23:1-10), and so much more” (Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament, 191). It tells the story of how the gospel of Jesus spread after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. But the Book of Acts isn’t just about new beginnings. The content of Acts also carries the narrative of God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel. Acts is set up to continue the work of the gospel of Luke in connecting Jesus’ ministry to the history and mission of Israel.

If you haven’t read Acts recently you should to refresh your memory. If you don’t have time to read the whole book of Acts but want to get the gist of it, I would like to submit…

For the people of Israel, covenant relationship with God had always been a way of life. It was engrained in the fiber of their lives. The yearly observance of Passover recalled and renewed the release from captivity in Egypt through God’s faithful deliverance. The laws and rituals that guided their daily lives were expressions of holiness, intended to set Israel apart for God’s purposes, to be different from the rest of the world. As the church grew out of this Jewish perspective all of these preexisting conceptions of God and spiritual practice had to be reckoned with.

Is God only doing a new thing in the Book of Acts or is God continuing an old thing? Strangely enough, Acts tells of the people of God being community in totally new ways that are also entirely consistent with things from the past.

I think the central message of Acts is that God is bigger than Israel, yet inclusive of Israel. God is both doing a new thing and continuing an old thing. This is a great reminder for our day and time because God is bigger than the church, yet inclusive of the church. In the next post I will describe how Acts wasn’t the first time the Holy Spirit made an entrance…

The Gospel According to Kesha (Part 2)

Part 1 here

If you’re going to read something in the Bible, it helps to also know the background story. Who wrote it? Why was it written? What was going on in the surrounding culture at the time?

If you’re going to listen to Kesha’s new album, it helps to also know the background story. I don’t know all the details. To best understand why these songs were written, it helps to know what was going on in her life that led to this. There are lots of allegations and legal actions. But with the climate of our current culture and the systemic way that women are treated, we can assume what the truth is. You can read all the details here. To sum it up, she was in an abusive situation and contractually bound to be in it.

Out of that situation comes the song “Praying,” the fifth track from Rainbows:

Well, you almost had me fooled
Told me that I was nothing without you
Oh, but after everything you’ve done
I can thank you for how strong I have become

‘Cause you brought the flames and you put me through hell
I had to learn how to fight for myself
And we both know all the truth I could tell
I’ll just say this is “I wish you farewell”

I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’
I hope your soul is changin’, changin’
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, prayin’

I’m proud of who I am
No more monsters, I can breathe again
And you said that I was done
Well, you were wrong and now the best is yet to come

‘Cause I can make it on my own
And I don’t need you, I found a strength I’ve never known
I’ll bring thunder, I’ll bring rain, oh
When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name

You brought the flames and you put me through hell
I had to learn how to fight for myself
And we both know all the truth I could tell
I’ll just say this is “I wish you farewell”

I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’
I hope your soul is changin’, changin’
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, prayin’

Oh, sometimes, I pray for you at night
Someday, maybe you’ll see the light
Oh, some say, in life, you’re gonna get what you give
But some things only God can forgive

I hope you’re somewhere prayin’, prayin’
I hope your soul is changin’, changin’
I hope you find your peace
Falling on your knees, prayin’

Songwriters: Kesha Rose Sebert / Ben Abraham / Ryan Lewis / Andrew Joslyn
Praying lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc
(Photo by AugeeKim, Wikimedia Commons)

Lyrical Analysis

Prayer is not an unexplored metaphor in pop music. Bon Jovi was living on one and Madonna’s name was called like a little one. But what is prayer? Is it dead ritual? Is it recitation of ancient words handed down through the ages? Is it conversation with a deity?

We can think of prayer as many things, but it might be best understood as connectedness. When I’m being prayerful, I am aware of my connection to God and my connection to the people and things around me. Because of these connections I become opened to what God desires from me, and how I can serve the people and things around me.

Knowing Kesha’s story, the events that led to the composition of this lyric, we can assume they are directed at an antagonist. If prayer is really connectedness then why would you hope that your enemy is somewhere praying? That hardly sounds like revenge. Who wishes prayer, soul change, and peace on their enemies?

Jesus.

Don’t let this nugget of truth and justice slip away. This is not an insignificant detail. Perhaps one of the most Christo-centric lyrics to be produced in all the world in the last year, both within and without the church, just came from Kesha.

This lyric echoes the words of Jesus from the sermon on the mount: “You have heard that is was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

It should not be so surprising for such lyrics to come from pop music. Jesus regularly found a home among the disenfranchised, the social outcasts, and women falsely accused. Kesha says for herself that she neatly fits in all those categories. Kesha prays that her enemies find peace. So what do you pray for?

The Gospel According to Kesha (Part 1)

Prologue

Anyone that knows me will find my willingness to blog about mainstream popular music curious. If auto-tune is being used to the point of it sounding like an effect then I am typically not a fan. My musical tastes have not changed much since the 90s. So let me begin with the story of how I came to discover Kesha’s latest album.

Shortly after “Rainbow” was released, Kate heard about it and played the song “Praying” while we were driving in the car one day. I listened to it with my musically analytical brain and found it interesting (“Huh, this pop song is about prayer and she jumps up an octave. Interesting.”) Fast forward a few months and I learn that Ben Folds is a producer on the album. Now I’m intrigued. Ben Folds is one of my favorite artists and I’ve seen him with the Houston Symphony the last two times he came to town. So, I listen to the whole album to hear for myself what is going on.

The album has grown on me. This is the first of three posts about the spiritual themes I picked up on in three consecutive tracks from Rainbow: Hymn, Praying, and Learn to Let Go.

Even the stars and the moon don’t shine quite like we do
Dreamers searchin’ for the truth
Go on, read about us in the news
Pretty reckless, pretty wild
Talking s*** and we’ll just smile
Don’t you see these f***in’ crowns?
If you know what I mean, you on the team

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion

Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, backseat of the Hyundai
Pull it to the front, let it run, we don’t valet
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

After all we’ve been through, no, we won’t stand and salute
So we just ride, we just cruise, livin’ like there’s nothing left to lose
If we die before we wake, who we are is no mistake
This is just the way we’re made
You know what I mean, you on the team

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion
Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, backseat of the Hyundai
Pull it to the front, let it run, we don’t valet
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

This is a hymn for the hymnless, kids with no religion

Yeah, we keep on sinning, yeah, we keep on singing
Flying down the highway, yeah, we do it our way
High as outer space, we don’t hear what the rest say
Sorry if you’re starstruck, blame it on the stardust
I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up
Hymn for the hymnless, don’t need no forgiveness
‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, live, live
This is a hymn, hymn, hymn for how we live, for how we live

Songwriters: Cara Salimando / Eric Frederic / Jonny Price / Kesha Sebert / Pebe Sebert

Hymn lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

(Photo by AugeeKim, Wikimedia Commons)

Lyrical Analysis

News flash: Millenials don’t trust the church. There are lots of reasons: Millenials don’t feel heard or appreciated, their culture receives the blame for the world’s problems, and they exhibit a general disdain for institutions. Their perception is that church is more filled with empty words that action (HT: RecklesslyAlive.com). From the perspective of this generation we get these words: “a hymn for the hymnless.”

But why a hymn? A hymn is specifically a song of praise or adoration typically directed toward a deity. Why is this a hymn? What makes it for the hymnless? Saying the song is for the hymnless implies that it is for the disenfranchised and the outcast. In the gospels, Jesus was typically the champion of the hymnless. Jesus came to defend those who were marginalized and on the edges of society. He restored hope to the widows, cleansed lepers, and ate with sinners. Jesus was the hymn for the hymnless.

Kesha explains, “So when I sing the words to this song, I do so as a reminder to myself as much as anyone that we can’t let the haters and the negativity win. We are all ‘dreamers searching for the truth,’ and we know the unexplainable universal goodness in people — their innate love and light and compassion for one another — will bring us together to do great things.”

There is also a thread of simul justus et peccator in these lyrics. “I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m f***ed up.” Our mistakes and flaws don’t define us. We are saintly sinners and sinful saints.

“Yeah, we keep on sinning. Don’t need no forgiveness. ‘Cause if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in.” This lyric reveals how disenfranchised popular culture has become with the Christian church (especially the evangelical wing). Whatever carrot the church is dangling in front of the culture is meaningless – even “heaven” (the meaning of salvation in evangelical Christianity being wrapped up in avoiding eternal damnation). Even if the true idea about heaven and salvation is more to do with connection, wholeness, and healing from God, the church has lost the ability to convey that message due to the prevailing cultural perception.

My theory is that in the context of North American Christianity the church has lost the substantive content of its spirituality and the medium has become the message to the surrounding culture. In the popular culture, a hymn is no longer a song of praise used to unite an assembly in lifting their voice in adoration. Hymns, sin, forgiveness, and heaven are now metaphors used by pop songs. The spiritual reality beneath them is vanishing. How will the church embrace the hymnless today?

Weekly Worship Thought – The Immigrant Apostles’ Creed

(this was tweeted by Shane Claiborne yesterday)

THE IMMIGRANT APOSTLES’ CREED
by Rev. Jose Luis Casal

I believe in Almighty God,
who guided the people in exile and in exodus,
the God of Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon,
the God of foreigners and immigrants.

I believe in Jesus Christ, a displaced Galilean,
who was born away from his people and his home,
who fled his country with his parents when his life was in danger.
When he returned to his own country
he suffered under the oppression of Pontius Pilate,
the servant of a foreign power.
Jesus was persecuted, beaten, tortured and unjustly condemned to death.
But on the third day Jesus rose from the dead,
not as a scorned foreigner but to offer us citizenship in God’s kingdom.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the eternal immigrant from God’s kingdom among us,
who speaks all languages, lives in all countries,
and reunites all races.
I believe that the Church is the secure home
for foreigners and for all believers.
I believe that the communion of saints begins
when we embrace all God’s people in all their diversity.

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)?

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?