Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Surprising Father

While this parable is commonly named for "The Prodigal Son" who is presumed to be the star of the story, what really stands out in Jesus' telling of the story is the surprising Father. As I understand the Prodigal represents you and me, running off and trying to live without God. Sometimes preachers have focused on how repentant the Prodigal becomes and how clear the confession he makes when he has returned to his father. The problem with this interpretation is that it completely ignores Jesus' Middle Eastern culture and how his first hearers would have understood the parable.

Sons rebel and run off. That's a terrible thing, but it happens. We all know that. In the culture of Jesus' day, such a prodigal son as in this parable would be cut off from the family. The father would never speak to such a son again. It would be as if he was no longer part of the family. This helps us to understand the reaction of the older brother; he lives within the cultural norms. But the father acts in a totally surprising way. No self-respecting father in Jesus' day would do what this father does.

When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech.... (Luke 15:20, 21; The Message)

The focus should not be on the son's speech or even on his repentance, for the Father runs out to him, filled with compassion, his heart pounding, and embraces the son before he can even speak a word. God's grace, mercy, love and compassion precede our acts of repentance. The prodigal is forgiven and restored to the family. And to everyone who has tried to forge a life without God, this is what Jesus offers: a place in his family.

P.S. I was actually studying a different passage of Scripture and was in the midst of doing a word study on the verb splagchnizomai (to have compassion for) when I wrote this blog entry. I find the typical translation of this verb ("he was filled with compassion," NIV & most) to be a bit bland, the Greek is quite dramatic, like being overcome with emotion ("his heart pounding," The Message which often translates the verb along the lines of a person's heart being broken). I'm really interested in any comments on this verb and how it was translated above, "his heart pounding," versus the more common "he was filled with compassion." More to come on this....

Related Sermon

The Surprising Father
You've heard the story of the Prodigal Son. You may have even lived it: been there, done that and got the t-shirt. In this fresh look at Luke 15:11-32, I will guide the congregation into Jesus' story to experience anew the amazing love of God for all people with wayward hearts.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Beyond Physical Pain

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” (Mark 15:33-35, NRSV)

imageApparently they understand Jesus’ words in Aramaic about as well as we do! But talk about adding insult to injury—in such a desperate cry as this, even then Jesus is alone, completely misunderstood. There is a pain beyond physical pain. Jesus’ passion, his suffering on the cross, is not just the intense physical pain and torture, but it’s also this pain beyond physical pain—it’s wrenching pain of the soul, deep suffering from within; pain which we describe with words like anguish, despair and dread.

In reflecting on Jesus’ words, I remember this pain, I carry it with me, it has changed who I am. It is the time in my life which I dread to recall, it was at the point of darkest despair, when hope was gone and anguish settled in my soul. I feared that I would die, alone. I was isolated, untouchable, unforgiven. And God was silent. My prayers felt like they were unplugged. Ancient Christians call this experience the dark night of the soul; I suspect they too were reflecting on Jesus’ words from the cross. Desolation—where is God when it hurts so bad?

It took significant time for me to realize that God had not abandoned me and that he was unmistakably present with me through this dark night of my soul. I did not perceive it that way in the experience. This is what is profound about Jesus’ experience on the cross. What we perceive, this desolation, the silence of God, the pain of anguish, despair and dread—in the dark night of the soul, what we perceive, Jesus experienced it, beyond our pain. For the first time ever, Jesus, the Son of God, felt the distance, the darkness, the disconnection from the Father. “Eloi, eloi, lema sabacthani?” Can’t you feel the anguish, the despair and the dread? “My God, my god, why have you forsaken me?”

I remember singing in an Easter cantata, “The Father turned his face away.” The Son was left alone in agony feeling the anguish in his human soul beyond the pain we’ve suffered. Because he knows this depth of human pain and suffering, I know that I am never alone. So great is his love for me that he suffered and died.

Related Sermon

The Palms & The Passion
I have found there is great power in just hearing the Word of God on that Sunday before Easter rather than hearing a sermon. Each of the four gospels record various events and teachings from the triumphant entry into Jerusalem to the Last Supper and through to the crucifixion. I have prepared dramatic readings of the Biblical text (Matt, Mark, Luke or John) and would happily make them available to your congregation if you would like to try this on Palm Sunday or during a special worship service during Holy Week. I also have a short seminar, "Reading Scripture in Worship," for readers who like to make the Word more clear to their hearers.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

What Still Can Be

Wow! What an extraordinary week in U.S. politics! In my previous post, I described the challenge of moving past "what might have been," suggesting that Hilary Clinton might soon need to do this. It is taking me a long time myself to learn this vital life lesson. Sometimes I still catch myself daydreaming about what might have been had my life not taken the turns it did. Hilary Clinton seems to have learned this life lesson much quicker than I have; she said this in her suspension/endorsement speech on Saturday:

So I want to say to my supporters: When you hear people saying or think to yourself "if only" or "what if," I say, please, don't go there. Every moment wasted looking back keeps us from moving forward.hilary

Life is too short, time is too precious, and the stakes are too high to dwell on what might have been. We have to work together for what still can be. And that is why I will work my heart out to make sure that Sen. Obama is our next president.

And I hope and pray that all of you will join me in that effort.

Related Sermon

The Transforming Power of Grace
John & Bobby Kennedy made famous the George Bernard Shaw quote: "Most people look at things as they are and say 'Why?" But I dream of things that never were and say 'Why not?'" It is hard for me to accept that Christians can be so lacking in vision when God's grace is such a powerful dynamic producing a vision for the future for each one of us. "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory..." (Ephesians 3:20-21a). Because of God's grace, we cannot give up hope! It's not over and there's so much more God can and will do in our lives.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Indiana Jones & The Raiders of Another Lost Ark

It was really fun to watch the latest Indiana Jones movie. I enjoyed it and the sense of being transported back to a younger age when I first watched Indiana Jones. Anyhow, it was a great break from research and reading. Lately I've been inundated by a flood of material on Noah's Ark and the Flood:

  • the Ryan-Pitman Black Sea hypothesis
  • geological surveys of Mesopotamia and evidence of flooding
  • Robert Ballard's (the Titanic guy) exploration of the Black Sea
  • theoretical considerations of what event(s) would be necessary to cause a global flood and more
  • ongoing reflection on how a little koala bear could make it all the way from southern Australia to the Ark even with 100 years to travel given the absence of eucalyptus trees along the way

Then a tidal wave hit me! What if Genesis 6-8 (the account of Noah and the Flood) is not primarily a polemic against 21st century science and geology in particular?

Just as Genesis 1-3 is not primarily an apologetic defense against evolutionism, so perhaps Genesis 6-8 is not primarily an apologetic defense against geology and the scientific dating of the age of the earth. (Making no assumptions here, I say this because in much of my reading the Flood is used to explain why the earth appears to be older than 6000 years as is claimed by those holding to a particular view of creation and a young earth.)

At the risk of being branded a heretic, I better explain what I'm getting at. After all, I am a conservative Bible scholar who believes that Scripture interpreted well can have a tremendous impact on our lives, the force of which most Christians today have barely felt. All too often we are content with splashes in a swimming pool rather than being radically showered by the full force of the Tsunami of Scripture. That said, why would I say that Genesis 1-3 is not really an apologetic defense against evolution and modern cosmology?

To interpret Genesis 1-3 well, it's vital to consider original intent. What was the inspired author of Genesis (Moses) trying to communicate in the telling of the creation account? What did it mean to the original audience who read and listened and believed Genesis? What was God telling his people? Though it is certainly common to view the early chapters of Genesis as a polemic against Darwinian evolution, we can be certain that this is not the main point. Genesis 1-3 had meaning for the people of God long before Darwin posited his theory of evolution. And while these verses may offer some corrective to some evolutionary ideas, that was not the author's original intent. I suspect the points Genesis 1 makes are more like:

  • ONE God created, not many gods involved in cosmic battles (like many pagans of Moses' day believed)
  • God created out of nothing , not out of some failed world of the gods (like many pagans of Moses' day believed)
  • God said his creation was GOOD, not evil or locked in battle between good and evil (like the pagans of Moses' day believed)
  • God created humanity in his own image, not as some kind of mistaken transmutation of deity to the animal kingdom (again like many pagans of Moses' day believed)
  • God made this world to operate in an orderly way, not in hopeless chaos unless the gods are appeased (as many believed in Moses' day)

This list is probably not exhaustive. What's important is that we begin with good interpretation, taking into account authorial intent and the original hearers of this Scripture. We must never forget that we are not the first to read any given passage of Scripture. Plus, it seems to me that this list of points has a lot more to say to people today than an argument as to why six literal days of creation is a powerful argument against evolution.

It seems to me that forcing Genesis 1-3 to be a biblical argument against evolution is just monkeying around with the Scriptural text. Forcing Genesis 6-8 to be an extensive argument as to why the earth really is younger than it appears contrary to the geological evidence is just constructing for the church a leaky boat doomed to sink in the floodwaters of science. Not only that, but it is also completely missing the point! "God remembered Noah" (Genesis 8:1). The rainbow is an affirmation of the covenant established with Noah by which God will find a way to work within humanity to redeem as many as possible. There is hope for humanity. Just as God "protected Noah" so "the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials" (2 Peter 2:4,9; see also 2 Peter 2:4-9, 1 Peter 3:20-22). Imagine that! The Apostle Peter did not consider the account of Noah's flood to be primarily about an obscure theory as to why the earth really is young contra the apparent geological evidence, but rather an affirmation of the hope of redemption when all the circumstances around us lead us to despair. The Bible has much to say to us and it says it best when we allow it to speak out of its own cultural situations rather than imposing our alien ideas on the text.


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