19 November 2007

The End of the World!

Well, not really...but kinda.

Our lessons this last week had a 'end of the world' flair and some people took it literally -- both in the texts and the study groups I was in. Our Old Testament Lesson was taken from Malachi:
Malachi 4.5-6. Look, I am sending you the prophet Elijah before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives. His preaching will turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. Otherwise I will come and strike the land with a curse.

In one group I led, I asked the men they understood this passage. The ones who answered said that is was still in our future. I'm sure that many people, especially here in the States, do too. But let's do a little theme study.
Matthew 11.11-15. "I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he is! And from the time John the Baptist began preaching until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing, and violent people are attacking it. For before John came, all the prophets and the law of Moses looked forward to this present time. And if you are willing to accept what I say, he is Elijah, the one the prophets said would come. Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand!"

Matthew 17.10-13. Then his disciples asked him, "Why do the teachers of religious law insist that Elijah must return before the Messiah comes?"

Jesus replied, "Elijah is indeed coming first to get everything ready. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, but he wasn’t recognized, and they chose to abuse him. And in the same way they will also make the Son of Man suffer." Then the disciples realized he was talking about John the Baptist.

One of the gentlemen at a study questioned that this meant that John was the reincarnation of Elijah. But if we look at Luke 1, we will see this is not the case.
Luke 1.17. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.

So the answer is no. John the Baptist is not Elijah reincarnated. He is John but he has 'the spirit and power of Elijah.' Heck, John even dressed like Elijah (2Kings 1.8; cf. Matthew 3.4)!  Something else that proves this assertion is the fact that the angel stated that John would 'turn the hearts of the fathers to their children.' This is exactly what we read in Malachi, thus showing that, just as Jesus said, John the Baptist was the Elijah that was to come before the 'great and dreadful day of the Lord'.

Now, I know what you're thinking. 'This can't be right. The "great and dreadful day of the Lord" is the "Great White Throne Judgment".' Well, perhaps. But perhaps not. To see where this is going we need to look at another one of the Lessons for last week.
Luke 21.5-19. Some of his disciples began talking about the majestic stonework of the Temple and the memorial decorations on the walls. But Jesus said, “The time is coming when all these things will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!”

“Teacher,” they asked, “when will all this happen? What sign will show us that these things are about to take place?”

He replied, “Don’t let anyone mislead you, for many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and saying, ‘The time has come!’ But don’t believe them. And when you hear of wars and insurrections, don’t panic. Yes, these things must take place first, but the end won’t follow immediately.” Then he added, “Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and there will be famines and plagues in many lands, and there will be terrifying things and great miraculous signs from heaven.

“But before all this occurs, there will be a time of great persecution. You will be dragged into synagogues and prisons, and you will stand trial before kings and governors because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell them about me. So don’t worry in advance about how to answer the charges against you,for I will give you the right words and such wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to reply or refute you! Even those closest to you—your parents, brothers, relatives, and friends—will betray you. They will even kill some of you. And everyone will hate you because you are my followers. But not a hair of your head will perish! By standing firm, you will win your souls.

Now there is a lot packed in here but I just want to focus on a few things. First, Jesus was answering their question about the destruction of the Temple (v.7).

Second, notice the word 'you'. It is used roughly 18 times in this short passage. Clearly, the disciples would have understood that Jesus was talking to them about things that they would experience before the destruction of Jerusalem.

Third, we see that the disciples would be 'dragged in synagogues' (v.12). This means that there would be a time of persecution led by the Jews.

Lastly, if we take just a glance at the Acts of the Apostles, we will see this taking place just as Jesus predicted. In Acts we see earthquakes (Acts 16.26; see also, Josephus, War.VI.5.3); famines (Acts 11.28); false Messiahs (Acts 5.33-37); and the persecutions, well, just read the whole book of Acts and you will see that it was mostly the Jews who were persecuting the early Christians.

Therefore, the most shocking realization comes to us...Jesus was not talking to us. We weren't even thought of in this passage. This passage has everything to do with the disciples.

Later, we will look at the rest of the chapter and see if what we have discovered so far continues to fit.

Peace be with you.

+ OD

18 November 2007

Affirmations

I like it when I get affirmations about things I see in the Scriptures. A couple of examples of this took place this last week.

First, in Education for Ministry (EfM), Year One is reading the Old Testament (or Jewish Scriptures). Our lesson was over the call and covenant of Abraham. Well, the whole Abraham story, actually. Anyway, there is a great scene when YHWH makes the covenant with Abraham. In Genesis 15.17-18a, we read:
After the sun went down and darkness fell, Abram saw a smoking firepot and a flaming torch pass between the halves of the carcasses. So the Lord made a covenant with Abram that day (New Living Translation, emphasis added).

Notice again the 'smoking firepot and a flaming torch'. What is the first thing that pops into your head when you read that? For a number of years I have seen the Exodus in those symbols. In the Exodus, YHWH lead the people by a 'pillar of cloud' during the day and a 'pillar of fire' at night (Exodus 13.21). In the EfM lesson book, referring to Genesis 15.17ff, it stated, 'We see later how God is present to Israel in the wilderness in the form of "pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night".' Finally! I'm not the only one who sees this! Or, perhaps there are plenty of others who sees this too, but that was the first time (I can remember) of someone else pointing it out.

The next affirmation came today during our adult Sunday School class. A couple of years ago, I was talking to a couple of very close friends of mine. We were discussing our mutual journeys and how we think that Western Christianity (particularly in the US) must change. (There is a lot of background to this story that I won't get into here). At one point, however, I had an epiphany. I said, 'Do you remember when Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life"?'

'Yes.'

'What if that is a process?'

'What do you mean?'

'Well, for the longest time, at least the length our lives in the faith, the church has gone straight to 'the life' part. "This is it. This is the only thing that is important." We have been seeing that that is not the case. There is more to it than that. We see that it's more like a journey. What if it would be better if we said, "I'm on this journey. I'm going this 'way'. Why don't you come with me?" And then, along this way, we discover some 'truth'. And then, as we continue on this 'way', learning 'truth' we discover 'life'. What if that is more of what Jesus is meaning there in John?'

This morning in Sunday School class our teacher said basically the same thing. We read the story known as 'The Road to Emmaus' and he said, 'Notice the direction of the story. The couple was heading this way (away from Jerusalem toward Emmaus) and along the way, this person shows up and travels with them. During this journey, going this way, the couple tells their companion why they are down. The companion (Jesus) says, "Let me show you in the Scriptures why these things happened." Then, the couple stops and show hospitality to the companion. And during the meal, they recognized the companion as Jesus. But then what happened? They went back the other way, toward Jerusalem. That is called a "conversion experience"; a "turning around". For the longest time, most churches in America have told people a set of rules, "This is it. This is what you are to believe." But what if we told them a story? What if we walked with them and they with us in this story. And along the way, they discover some truths. And they change their own lives. We don't force them into a set of rules. We invite them on a journey. We ask them to join us in an ongoing story. And we tell them the story.'

I was thinking, 'Yes! Exactly! Someone else sees it.'

Perhaps I have always been an Episcopalian but just didn't know it.

Peace be with you.

+ OD

~~~~~~~~

Have you ever had experiences like that?

08 November 2007

Ministry of Reconciliation -- Part 4

The Gateway of Hope

Previously we have learned that the ministry of reconciliation has (at least) four parts: 1) definition; 2) reconciling ourselves to God; and 3) reconciling with other people. In this fourth and final part we will be looking at how we can be reconciled with all of creation.

Before we can see where we are going, it might be helpful to see from where we have come.
Genesis 1.27-31. God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.”

Then God said, "Look! I have given you every seed-bearing plant throughout the earth and all the fruit trees for your food. And I have given every green plant as food for all the wild animals, the birds in the sky, and the small animals that scurry along the ground—everything that has life.” And that is what happened.

Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good!

All of creation was in harmony with each other. People were created to reflect God's love and care into the rest of creation. There was no fear or shame. There wasn't any violence or death. There weren't even any carnivores or omnivores for both humans and non-humans alike were vegetarians.

But we know the rest of the story. Humans rebelled and the entire thing has spun out of control. Fear and shame entered the garden. Human responsibility was replaced with 'passing the buck'. Expulsion and community breakdowns occurred. The shock and horror of violence and death emerged. Simply put, sin entered creation and spread like the cancers it brought with it until all of creation was filled with violence and corruption (Gen 6.11-13). Because of this cancerous, sinful rebellion humans became so wicked that 'everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil' (Gen 6.5).

Now, if we left this story right now, it would be horrible! But we know that God did not leave it that way. God set in motion a plan that would reconcile the entire created order back to Godself. What would that look like? We are given some hints in Isaiah 65.

Isaiah 65.17, 25. “Look! I am creating new heavens and a new earth, and no one will even think about the old ones anymore...The wolf and the lamb will feed together. The lion will eat hay like a cow. But the snakes will eat dust. In those days no one will be hurt or destroyed on my holy mountain. I, the Lord, have spoken!”

Here we see that YHWH promised to create 'new heavens and a new earth'. This new creation does not represent a complete annilation of the current creation. The idea here is to take the existing creation and reshape it; recreate it. Notice the word 'creating'. This implies an ongoing action. God is not destroying this world. God is recreating this world. How is this being accomplished? When will it happen?
Hosea 2.14-23. "But then I will win [Israel] back once again. I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her there. I will return her vineyards to her and transform the Valley of Trouble into a gateway of hope. She will give herself to me there, as she did long ago when she was young, when I freed her from her captivity in Egypt. When that day comes," says the Lord, "you will call me 'my husband' instead of 'my master.' O Israel, I will wipe the many names of Baal from your lips, and you will never mention them again. On that day I will make a covenant with all the wild animals and the birds of the sky and the animals that scurry along the ground so they will not harm you. I will remove all weapons of war from the land, all swords and bows, so you can live unafraid in peace and safety. I will make you my wife forever, showing you righteousness and justice, unfailing love and compassion. I will be faithful to you and make you mine, and you will finally know me as the Lord.

"In that day, I will answer," says the Lord. "I will answer the sky as it pleads for clouds. And the sky will answer the earth with rain. Then the earth will answer the thirsty cries of the grain, the grapevines, and the olive trees. And they in turn will answer, 'Jezreel' — 'God plants!' At that time I will plant a crop of Israelites and raise them for myself. I will show love to those I called 'Not loved.' And to those I called 'Not my people,' I will say, 'Now you are my people.' And they will reply, 'You are our God!'"

This passage just oozes with New Creation! There are several things about it but I don't want to make this post longer than necessary so I will just hit the highlights. Notice the progression: YHWH woos Israel > YHWH transforms Israel > Israel will experience a New Exodus > Israel becomes YHWH's bride > YHWH makes a covenant with the animals 'so they will not harm' people > YHWH will remove 'weapons of war' so people can live in 'peace and safety' > 'Israel' will 'finally know [God] as 'Lord' > YHWH will restore creation > YHWH will 'plant a crop of Israelites' > The 'Gentiles' will become YHWH's people.

Please be aware once more of a transformation and not a destruction/creation. This is a re-creation of the cosmos. It starts with the winning of Israel. When will that happen? It already did! That is what the New Testament is all about. God sent Jesus at just the 'right time' to woo Israel; to purchase her and her children from their captives (Gal 4.4-7). Jesus was the new Moses (Acts 3.22ff; 7.37) leading the people out of bondage into a new way of being Israel; into a new way of being truly human (Matt 4.19; 9.9; 16.24; John 1.43; 8.12; 12.26; 21.19-22).

So when does new creation begin? It, too, has already begun! This took place at his resurrection. John wrote that Jesus was raised on the eighth day the 'first day' of New Creation (John 20.1, 19). Jesus was seen as the 'gardener' (John 20.15) -- just like Adam (Gen 2.15). St Paul wrote that Jesus is the 'last Adam' (1Cor 15.45). The New Testament states that the resurrected Jesus is 'the faithful and true witness, the beginning of God’s new creation' (Rev 3.14).

Furthermore, Paul quoted Hosea 2 in Romans 9. There, his point is that YHWH extends grace and mercy to anyone God wishes. This grace even extends to the 'Gentiles' (those people who were not natural Jews). This incoming of the Gentiles into the 'Israel of God' (Gal 6.16) is, according to Paul, fulfilling Hosea 2. What does this mean? It means that Christians are part of God's New Creation (2Cor 5.17). It means that Christians are to be praying that God's kingdom, God's New Creation, will come 'on earth' as it is in heaven (Matt 6.10). It means that Christians are to be implementing New Creation now (John 20.21-23). It means that the only thing that matters now is New Creation (Gal 6.15).

Therefore, if the only thing that matters now is implementing God's New Creation, i.e., since it is already started we should be coming up with ways of expanding it 'on earth' as in heaven, what should we do? I think that the list from Hosea is a great place to start. We need to treat the earth with respect, letting her replenish from our use of her (Lev 25.2-7). We need to show the non-human creation the same love and compassion as we do the human creation. YHWH cares for the birds and flowers (Luke 12.22-34) therefore so should we (as you know, for me, this includes not eating meat). We need to come up with peaceful means to end disputes with our enemies all the while knowing that we are commanded to 'love our enemies' and 'do good to them who hate [us]' (Luke 6.27-36).

Lastly, I realize the above paragraph is so short on application. It's because this is the improvisational part of our story. Each moment brings new challenges; new opportunities to implement God's New Creation. We need to pray. We need to listen. We need to act. We are now 'priests' of God. We are called to reflect God's love in everything we do or say. We are to be the Word (of Jesus) made flesh.

Peace be with you.

+ OD

<-- Go to Part 3 or Go to Part 1 -->