Fear and trembling?: Easter reflections

Should we come in fear and trembling

Our first sisters imitate?

Should we come in doubt and torment

Like disciples look to hide?

Ask for nail scars, finger spear slash?

Wait for ghost to slide through wood?

 

Should we come in cheer and gladness,

New traditions legislate?

Sunrise breakfast at mid-morning

Gowned or sashed in joyful hue.

Flower deck our place of gathering,

Easter lilies, tulips, too?

Four part anthems, special music,

Happy greetings, family gatherings,

Bunnies, eggs, then ham at noon,

Marking Resurrection Day?

 

First disciples still our models,

First experience our guide?

Riding high on giant’s shoulders?

Celebrators’ modern pride?

 

Should we come in fear and trembling,

Law and prophets comtemplate?

Till our hearts begin the burning

Till the bread is broken new?

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On being chips off the Old Rock

On a recent Sunday morning, we sang a chorus calling God a rock.  That surprised me.  I recalled the satisfaction my father expressed at not having to farm around rocks after he moved from Pennsylvania to Iowa.  The deep sandy loam soils of Iowa and Illinois where I grew up yielded few rocks.  Visits to relatives in the east left me wondering why people tried to farm or garden around the rocky interferences common there.  Rocks were what stuck up out of fields making plowing and harvesting difficult.  Later, living in southern Michigan, I often found fist-sized rocks, even some basketball sized rocks ground smooth and round and spit out by the retreating glaciers. They were a nuisance to gardening. I built a sifter to remove the rocks/stones from the garden soil.  I did enjoy collecting round smooth rocks and took a bucket of rocks with me when we moved to Virginia (as if Virginia needed more rocks).  But, calling God a rock, “an impediment to agricultural activity” seemed unworshipful.

I remembered the wise man built his house on the rock and the stories of David hiding in the rock (caves).  Of course, I had read about the Dead Sea Scrolls protected and preserved in “the rock”.  Maybe I was not understanding the Biblical metaphor, rock.

What images does the phrase “God the rock” suggest to you?  A pickup sized chunk of granite with wheels (“buy our truck”, “built like a rock” the ads said)?  Jesus the cornerstone? *  But Jesus said the wise man built his house on the rock, not on a cornerstone.  Can distinguishing between these images expand our perception of God?

A geological map of Palestine, shows the Biblical land to be a jumble of rock between the Mediterranean and the Jordan.  Swampy land between the sea and the hill country on the west and the Jordan River swamps to the east and the shifting sands of the Negev to the south contrasted with the solid rock of the central highlands.  Several commentaries tracing the origin of the Hebrew for “rock”, show it and “mountain” may be interchangeable.

Then I read:

He said: “The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation. He is my stronghold, my refuge and my savior– from violent men you save me.  2 Samuel 22:2

God, the Rock.  God’s people in Palestine did not think of God as an obstruction to farming and gardening or sign of eroded farmland!

be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me.  Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me. Psalms 31:2, 3

He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave more a firm place to stand.        Psalms 40:2

But the LORD has become my fortress, and my God the rock in whom I take refuge.  Psalms 94:22

A place of strength, safety, protection, a “firm place to stand”.

He alone is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.  Psalms 62:2

Permanence and security; a cool place in a hot land:

Each man will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.  Isaiah 32:2

What God is for us, we are to be for others.

Isaiah encourages us to be a “chip off the Old Rock”:

“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; Isaiah 51:1

They drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. 

(1 Corinthians 10:4)

To learn what the new nature of the Rock is, we turn to Jesus.  But not only is he our security, refuge, our strength,

As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” (Romans 9:33; see Isaiah 8:14; 28:16)

When we turn to God,

They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts; he made water flow for them from the rock; he split the rock and water gushed out. (Isaiah 48:21)

He made him ride on the heights of the land and fed him with the fruit of the fields. He nourished him with honey from the rock, and with oil from the flinty crag, (Deuteronomy 32:13)

Nourishment, refreshing water, security, permanence, refuge.  Where do we find these?  In the ROCK.

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ode to a pet rock

Rough times, rubbings

Sand scoured, wave buffed

Grinding fellow stones

Hard center

Christ solid;

Smooth, polished rock.

 

        *(In an earlier essay I sought to clarify the “cornerstone” image from the world of construction.  I pursued that topic when I came across a definition of cornerstone as “a largely ornamental architectural feature”.  I will post that essay later.)

“Tell him I am faint with love” Seeking the Bible’s model male lover

 

With that declaration (Song of Songs 5:8 NET), the woman in the “Songs” comes close to a declaration of her feelings, even though indirect.  But, what about males.  How do we determine the ideal Biblical male lover?  What criteria identifies him?  Big, strong?  Handsome?  Ready to verbalize his feelings and commitment?  Where do we find an example to follow?

Hosea is often seen as a model of God’s mercy and forgiveness.  Aren’t mercy and forgiveness qualities of an ideal lover?  But, wait, Gomer, Hosea’s lover was a prostitute.  She left him after bearing Hosea a child to go back to the street.  He showed his love by rescuing her again from that life.  Was that romantic?

One should, of course, go to the Song of Songs.  Most versions of the Bible these days prefer to use this name rather than “Songs of Solomon”.  Modern ideas of monogamy can’t comprehend the number of wives and concubines ascribed to Solomon by his biographers.  Building a separate palace for an Egyptian princess didn’t really seem romantic (Did she nag? Have bad breath? Just need a place to do strange-to-the-Hebrews religious things?).  The “Song” has some wonderful lines and should be read by lovers, but why doesn’t he/she come out and say the right words to the other.  And the guy, to say “Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon looking toward Damascus.”  What was he thinking?  But, then there is 7:12. . ..  —But, these days where can you find a grove of pomegranates?

Then, there is David.  Which of his loves do we begin with?  Abigail has a good publicist: “Abigail. She was an intelligent and beautiful woman, but her husband was surly and mean in his dealings—he was a Calebite.”  (I Sam. 25:3)  Did her actions show her to be such?  Show David to be a model lover?

“Then David sent word to Abigail, asking her to become his wife. 40 His servants went to Carmel and said to Abigail, “David has sent us to you to take you to become his wife.”41 She bowed down with her face to the ground and said, “I am your servant and am ready to serve you and wash the feet of my lord’s servants.”

I have read some Christian romantic fiction and none of them ended that way.

Then, there’s the next verse:David had also married Ahinoam of Jezreel, and they both were his wives. 44 But Saul had given his daughter Michal, David’s wife, to Paltiel[d] son of Laish, who was from Gallim.”   (But remember seven chapters earlier?  “Now Saul’s daughter Michal was in love with David, and when they told Saul about it, he was pleased. -I Sam 18:20)

Let’s not move on to Bathsheba or wonder about who David’s mother or why David’s children had so many problems with their love lives.  Maybe we should look elsewhere for model Biblical lovers?

Maybe Jacob?

Since Jacob had fallen in love with Rachel, he said, “I’ll serve you seven years in exchange for your younger daughter Rachel.” 19 Laban replied, “I’d rather give her to you than to another man. Stay with me.” 20 So Jacob worked for seven years to acquire Rachel. But they seemed like only a few days to him because his love for her was so great.  (Gen. 29:18-20)

Well, then he settled for Leah and waited for another seven for Rachel.  Fourteen years?  Well, that’s romantic!  At least we know he had fallen in love.  Wonder if he had told her that.  At the well?  At Leah’s wedding?  After 14 years?  Maybe after he was given Leah’s or Rachel’s servant for a concubine?  I guess Biblical loves were different.

What about Boaz?  There was something a bit romantic about the way they got together during the harvest festival (with coaching from Naomi), but without much clarity about Boaz’ style as a romantic hero.  At least that pile of newly-harvested grain was warm.

Then there is Isaac who had a servant to do his courting.  But, it turned out all right, apparently.

    Then Isaac brought Rebekah into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took her as his wife and            loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death. Gen. 24:67 (NET)

Background

One needs to remember that the Hebrew Bible was written by men and has as its focus the relationship between humans and God.  From that we understand why many have seen the Song of Songs (or Solomon) as an allegory of the human-God relationship.  Modern romantic traditions have been shaped by medieval times when arranged marriages were the norm.  Women were a means to unite families, fortunes and property, usually without their consent.  Wandering singers/instrumentalists called troubadours wrote and sang about love.  Verbalizing about love was important because love was not often considered important in marriage.  During this time, often the songs and poetry were about, at least indirectly, illicit love relationships.

What does the New Testament show us about communication between lovers?  Zachariah may have written a love note or two to Elizabeth, but we are not told.  Joseph and Mary had a lot of time to talk on their four or so days on the road to Bethlehem.  Wish we knew about their conversations.  About Ananias and Sapphira, we won’t inquire.  Aquila and Priscilla should have left us some guidance on this topic.  They sound like good communicators.  Paul wasn’t interested in that sort of thing.  But he did give us a bit of help.  Husbands (and I suppose wives as well) are to love the other as Jesus loved the church.  What was Paul referring to?  What words?  Perhaps it was the actions of Jesus:  giving good news, dealing with sickness, bring release in bad times, providing food and so on.
But back to our original question.  Who, in modern romantic terms would be our model male lover?  That leaves us with the only Biblical lover, who we know to be big and strong and who is recorded to have fallen in love and to have told a woman, “I love you”.  Who is our model lover?  Samson, of course.

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Ascension Journey: A Lenten alternative

As the time drew near for him to ascend to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. Luke 9:51 NLT

 

Introduction

Lenten materials arrived in my church mailbox.  They included scripture references.  I wondered which New Testament passages would explain Lent.  Not finding any, I started asking questions and doing some research.  The passage above helped me raise questions.

Background

In the late Middle Ages, as sermons began to be given in the common language instead of Latin, the English word lent was adopted for the period before Easter. This word initially simply meant spring (as in German language Lenz and Dutch lente) and derives from the Germanic root for long because in the spring the days visibly lengthen. The original Greek term for the period is tessarakoste, for the “fortieth day” before Easter. This form is preserved for the period in Romance, Slavic and Celtic languages (for example, Spanish cuaresma, Portuguese quaresma, French carême, Italian quaresima).  Depending on the tradition the 40 days are calculated in different ways.  Sundays are skipped in the Roman Catholic tradition because they are “mini-Easters.”  Some have connected the fasting of Lent to an imitation of Jesus time in the wilderness (which would end possibly about the beginning of Lent).  Later, Lent “floated” to connect with “Holy Week” observances.  The roots of Lenten observance are believed by some to extend back nearly to the time of the apostles.   It is interesting to note that observation of Lent became part of expected religious observance after Christianity became the official religion of the empire.

Practice

Traditionally, church guidelines for Lent include prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  In addition, some people feel experiencing suffering during this time is important.  This takes the form of not eating a favorite food, for instance. (!) We know Jesus spent time in meditation and prayer. Luke tells us that he went out to pray “a long time before day”.  Other places we are told of Jesus fasting.  No specific mention of meditation is made but the words of Jesus various places, esp. John 14-17 suggest that times of meditation preceded the talks/prayer. Jesus gave up material goods and comforts even before the days leading to his death.  This is made clear by his words to the prospective follower:  “Birds have nests and rabbits their hole, but the son of man has no where to lay his head.”  I would affirm the blessing of these spiritual disciplines, not just for a period in the spring, but throughout the year.

Questions from my study

The question being asked is what is the nature of what Jesus did during his last days: forty-five to fifty days of Lent or the eighty days to the ascension?  I wondered why in the nearly fifty years that I had been a Christian I had never heard this question.  (I think during the first part of that period we had revivals, rather than Lenten observances.)  An internet search revealed that I could order an “I gave up Jesus for lent” T-shirt but little more.  Since the Mennonite Church emphasizes following Jesus’ example, it seemed appropriate to review the practice of Lent in light of that focus.  Many questions have come to me as I reflected on Jesus activities during his last 45/80 days.  What questions would you ask?

Luke 9:51 marks the beginning of Jesus last days on earth, those associated with Lent, Easter and the Ascension. Some see the transfiguration in Luke 9:28ff as the beginning of this period.  There are very few indicators of time elapsed in these chapters.  The NT writers are fond of the number 40, so it is surprising that Luke does not mention forty days (or 45 if weekends are included) or some time period. (Articles referenced below on the origins of Lent do not refer to Luke 9:51 and what Jesus did during his last days on earth.)

Last days’ activities

What did Jesus do during those last days before his death as he anticipated his ascension?  He clearly had a sense that this was a crucial time in his ministry. How did the pressure of his coming death and ascension influence his activities?  Surely the activities of Luke 9 through Luke 22 arose out of Jesus declaration in his first sermon (Luke 4).   Beyond that, Jesus, I believe, was preparing the way for continuation of kingdom work.  He began a new phase outreach by sending out seventy of his followers (chapter 10) to announce the coming of the kingdom. Once ascended, he would reign and provide intercession for his followers as they lived as they were created to live.  During the last days of his life, didn’t he continue to do what he announced what he would do? What indications are there that he simply prepared for his death? (Of course, he prepared for his death or the manner of his death at Gethsemane.) Just before the ascension declaration in 9:51, Jesus had told the disciples that he was going to Jerusalem where he would be killed and then raised from the dead.  Did he change what he was doing under the threats from religious and political leaders? To what extent is it true that the way he lived led to the cross; to the tomb; from the tomb to his exaltation as King?  Was this why Jesus came, to draw people to God, to establish the Kingdom of Heaven? to be acknowledged as king in the kingdom of God?

Conclusions

Much of the Christian church uses the period before Passion Week to anticipate Jesus death. Jesus, according to Luke, “As the time drew near for him to ascend to heaven, steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.”   The question I am asking:  what does one do about the disconnect?

What does this suggest we should do to honor Jesus last days on earth?  Perhaps we should see the last days as he did.  We should be announcing the kingdom, doing the works of the kingdom, accepting the consequences of kingdom work and recognizing the vindication by God of what has been done through Jesus’ giving himself.   Then, praising God for raising Jesus to his right hand to be our intercessor.  I will be posting a list of readings from Luke 9:51 through Luke 24.  Later I will add scripture from Acts and other sources for the period leading up to the ascension.

The Origins of Lent, MARCH 31, 2014 BY BILLY KANGAS
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/billykangas/2014/03/lent.html#FcsZTBaACGK4XXs5.99

Accessed 1/29/2018

The Early History of Lent, Nicholas V. Russo, 2013 The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University, accessed 1/29/2018 through

https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/193181.pdf

The Beginning of Lent
“Like all Christian holy days and holidays, Lent has changed over the years, but its purpose has always been the same.”  TED OLSEN, Christianity Today, August 8, 2008

Accessed 1/29/2018

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Immanuel: A warning to Joseph about power politics

Isaiah and Ahaz

The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.  He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. Isaiah 7:14-16

What if Ahaz (king of Judah) had believed Isaiah’s word from God that God was with him?  Isaiah gave Ahaz a timeline for the future of the kings of Israel and of Aram.  A young woman/virgin would conceive, give birth to a son who would be named “God with us”.  That boy would reach the age of knowledge of right and wrong, probably twelve years.  By that time the neighboring kings of Israel and Aram, who Ahaz feared, would no longer be a threat. But, only if Ahaz believed God was with “us” [and not trust in a military alliance with Assyria].  Read verses 17 and following to discover the terrible things that would happen if Ahaz did not listen to the word from God.

What happened:  Ahaz made an alliance with Assyria and traveled there.  He liked the altar he saw there and had one made to use in Jerusalem—he may have been required by the treaty to erect an altar for Assyrian gods.  Israel became a dependent of Assyria.  During the time it took the young woman’s son to reach twelve, the kings threatening Ahaz and Judah were defeated and, one of them, Israel, ceased to exist as a nation.

What would have happened if Ahaz had trusted in “God with us”?

Five hundred years later

 “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 This all happened so that what did the Lord through the prophet speak would be fulfilled: 23 Look! The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will name him immanuel,” which means “God with us.” Mt. 1:20-23 (NET) [Emphasis from NET]

Was the angel was reminding Joseph of Isaiah’s word to Ahaz (Joseph’s ancestor) of the importance of trusting “God with us”?  (I am not dealing in this essay with the questions of the nature of Jesus’ birth and the incarnation.) Then we might conclude that part of the message was that Joseph’s trust in God (Immanuel) was essential in the days to come. Challenges included social disapproval due to Mary’s pregnancy, immigration to Egypt under the threat of death, and a son would be born into a world hostile to the message of “God with us.”

Warning about power politics

For Isaiah, “Immanuel” meant trusting God, rather than turning to military alliances (violence).    Joseph was in Bethlehem because of the Roman occupation of his country.  The occupation came in part because of a choice of violence over trusting God.  The freedom fighters of a century and a half before Joseph, the Maccabees, decided that only by violent revolt against Syria and a military alliance with Rome could the people of God practice their religion as they should. Their contemporary, compiler of the Daniel experiences, opposed that call to violence.  The Daniel writer called for faithful living like Daniel and friends, teaching wisdom, and trusting the visions of God’s control of history. The “chief priests and rulers” of Joseph’s time were part of the ruling class that gained power after the successful revolt against the Seleucid (Syrian) government.  The Jewish leaders had chosen violence as a way to protect the temple and their way of worship.   After the Hebrews gained their independence, the Romans used the treaty with them as a pretext to take over Judah.  Some of the chief priests and legal experts maintained their alliance with Rome for personal economic advantage as well as to protect their religious freedom.

During Jesus ministry, the legal experts or “chief priests and rulers” were frequent opponents of Jesus.  At the time of Jesus’ torture and execution, we know that the chief priests worked with the Romans to seek the death of Jesus – Immanuel.  Did the angel bring a word of warning to Joseph because they, like Ahaz, had made accommodations with the superpower of the day, rather than trusting Immanuel?

What if the Persian astronomers had continued to look for the star they had seen in the East and gone directly to Bethlehem, rather than to Jerusalem?  Although Bethlehem was only five miles from Jerusalem, it is possible to plot a path from “the East” directly to Bethlehem.  One could conclude that they gave in to popular notions of kingship and went Jerusalem because it was the center of political and military power.  If the Persian astronomers had continued to seek the star’s guidance, would the deaths of the boy children around Bethlehem have been avoided?  The “chief priests and keepers of the law” were more concerned with maintaining their alliance with Herod than seeking “God with us”.  Could the astronomers have refrained from telling Jesus’ location to Herod?  What did Joseph learn from the Persian astronomers that prepared him to quickly respond to the Spirit’s warning to leave Bethlehem ahead of Herod’s search?

A dark shadow extends from Ahaz, through the Maccabees and their descendants, the “chief priests and rulers” of Joseph’s time and to Herod.  It continues through Caiaphas and his allies who were willing to allow the Romans to kill Jesus to protect the place of the ruling classes in Palestine.  We are compelled to ask whether it extends to “collateral damage” of drone strikes and assassinations by order of governments ostensibly seeking peace, freedom and order.  Does it extend to the displacement of Palestinian Arabs and Syrian Arab Christians from land owned by their families for many generations?  The question must be asked even if we acknowledge some moral distance between Herod’s massacre of Judean boys and drone strikes.

Consider, then, the line, connecting Isaiah’s understanding of Immanuel with the wisdom teachers in Daniel-who anticipate shining like stars if death came (Dan. 12:3)-rather than doing violence.  The line extends to the angel’s challenge to Joseph to trust Immanuel and to the angel’s message of peace at Jesus’ birth. The line extends to and beyond Jesus’s weeping over Jerusalem: “If only they knew what made for peace.” *

For Joseph, the “Immanuel” message was a warning of difficulties leading to violence, but also the assurance that God was with him.  But he was encouraged to be faithful.  Today many people of God argue that goodness/justice/freedom of worship can only continue through ultimate reliance on military solutions (although some acknowledge the need for development and diplomacy).   Christians want to use political power to protect, ensure and enforce Christian practices on society.   The consequences of this choice in Isaiah’s time, in Joseph’s time, and Jesus’ time should challenge us to reexamine these texts for guidance today.  The answer begins with our willingness to hear the Isaiah and the angel’s message, Immanuel:  God with us.

 

*[Isaiah, the Daniel editor and the gospel writers see faithful covenant living as an essential base for trusting Immanuel.  I hope I have not obscured that base by focusing on the issue of political/military alliances and the reliance on violence versus trust in God.]

[revised blog reposted from November 2017]

Not Slaughtered bulls or scorched grain: Sacrificial living according to Romans 12

Sometime during his growing up years, son Nathan asked: “Why did people have to kill animals to make God happy?”  I do not remember what I answered then, but I have thought about the question since.  Recently, I have looked at the question of sacrifice in the Bible again. Due to the complications of the different types of sacrifices, especially in Leviticus, I decided to look at a reference to sacrifice in the New Testament and try to understand what I needed for living the Christian life.  Romans 12:1 and following provides an opportunity to better understand sacrifice, at least, its implications for today. Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. (NIV).

God’s Mercies

Paul first reminds that we can enter God’s presence (that’s what a sacrifice helps us do) only because of “the mercies of God”.  We can enter God’s presence, experience forgiveness and come to a right relationship with God only because of God’s “steadfast love”.  What does Paul write elsewhere about God’s love and mercy? “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).  “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8).  We have been brought into God’s presence through His love and mercy shown in Christ. In Romans 9-11 Paul writes of mercy and compassion, especially to Israel, but also to Gentiles as he explains how they can be part of the people of God.    At one time, you Gentiles rejected God. But now Israel has rejected God, and you have been shown mercy. And because of the mercy shown to you, they will also be shown mercy.  All people have disobeyed God, and that’s why he treats them as prisoners. But he does this, so that he can have mercy on all of them. Romans 11:30-32 (Contemporary English Version)

Sacrifice

Several things I have learned that sacrifice is not:  1. A mechanical means of making God like us again.  Sometimes we get the impression that the performance of a one of the sacrifices describe in Leviticus required God to be gracious to us again and that doing the sacrifice automatically turned on God’s grace.  Hosea 6:6 says that God is interested in mercy, primarily.  2. Sacrifice is not about suffering (however much it “costs” to give one’s best animal), because in Jewish practice having a very sharp knife is important so that the animal does not suffer.  3. Sacrifice is not primarily about death.  In the case of the grain offering which was burned, of course, that is evident.  In the case of the “sin offering” ((Lev. 16) one of the two goats used was driven into the wilderness, rather than killed.  In the peace or fellowship offering (Lev. 3), parts of the animal were burnt, but the rest eaten by the family and friends of the one offering the animal.  In this case, the death of the animal was not much different from any other butchering of an animal.  4. Sacrifice is not the only or even the primary image or metaphor for the work of Jesus in life and death. What kind of sacrifice did Paul have in mind?  Other terms used are reconciliation, fellowship/peace, purification and sin.  Did he have a particular one in mind?  What definition of ‘sacrifice’ did Paul have in mind when he wrote Romans 12?  We know the purpose of the sacrifice was to bring reconciliation between God and humans (I prefer reconciliation to “atonement” which is used for reconciliation in some translations.  The word “atonement” was coined in the 16th century and may not clearly translate the words ‘reconciliation’, ‘expiation’ and ‘propitiation’.)  Leviticus, especially, provides many details about proper enactment of the worship service of sacrifice.  Sacrifice, a reconciliation worship service, expects that repentance has already taken place, confirms forgiveness and restores the humans involved to the community of God.  Also, participation in sacrifice carries with it the expectation that the participant will live his or her life according to the previously agreed upon covenant with God.  Could Paul have been thinking this of sacrifice?  It is a ‘worship service’ that affirms that we have repented (and are repenting of) our sins and are seeking forgiveness from God that confirms that we have been restored to membership in the family of God and will be living our lives according to God’s covenant.  Not only that, but we will be living the kind of ‘sacrificial’ life that Jesus lived:

and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.  (Ephesians 5:2)

Reasonable Worship

Paul tells us that our living sacrifice and reasonable worship will lead to being transformed by renewal.  What does the Hebrew Bible Paul used tell us about sacrifice and covenant living?

“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Psalm 51:16-17. “With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:6-8: For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6) “When you offer me holocausts, I reject your oblations and refuse to look at your sacrifices of fattened cattle…but let justice flow like water and integrity like an unfailing stream.”(Amos 5:21,22,24 JB) For I did not speak with your fathers, Nor, did I command them in the day of My bringing them out of the land of Egypt, Concerning the matters of burnt-offering and sacrifice, Jer. 7:22  Young’s Literal Translation 

Paul would have remembered these verses that point out that right relationship with God and living according to the covenant is more important than performing sacrifices.  So, I find the slant that we get from Peterson makes this point.

So, here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life–your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life–and place it before God as an offering.  Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. (The Message)

Everyday worship

How we live our lives is determined by our “continuing gift” of our “reasonable worship” and also ourselves.  (It has been helpful to me to substitute the words “continuing gift” for “living sacrifice” in Rm. 12.  How does that help or hinder us in understanding Paul’s meaning?)  Most commentaries note that the NIV translation “spiritual service” does not provide the most direct translation of the Greek word used here which is usually translated “logical” or reasonable.  The “reasonable” translation connects to the word “mind” in the verse following.  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will. Rm. 12:2 (NIV) (Perhaps I should remind Nathan that a Sunday-morning-only faith comes under the same kind of censure that the prophets and Paul had for “sacrifices”.)  Transformed living (spiritual service, nonconformity, reasonable worship), then, is the subject of Paul’s writings in Rm. 12:2 through 15:13.  He writes about the variety of worship of God we should be doing from brotherly love to joyful hope to fervent prayer to making love, rather than government requirements our highest value.

Sacrifice and life

Paul understood, I believe, that dead sacrifices did not accomplish God’s purposes for humans.  Animal sacrifice was not effective in helping God’s people live according to the covenant.  The prophets realized that a new heart and mind were required.  God’s love and mercy in sending us Jesus taught us that a “continuing gift” of oneself is what God desired.  In Heb. 10:7-10 we are assured that doing God’s will is better than sacrifice. So, what should I have told Nathan about God and animal sacrifice?  My current understanding is that God used what people were doing anyway (sacrificing humans, animals and grain is nearly universal) to prepare us to understand Jesus life, death and resurrection.  I would remind him also, that there are five major metaphors or images used in scripture of give us a glimpse of what God has done in Christ.  1. Redemption (from the world of war and commerce), 2. Reconciliation (from world of personal relationships); 3. Sacrifice (from the world of religion and worship); 4. Victory (from the world of national/international relationships and the battlefield; and 5. Justification (from the world of law and the courts).  None of these images is sufficient in itself to lead us to God or help us understand how becoming what God created us to be happens.  Even if we understood all of these Biblical images, we would not fully comprehend “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”

     ___________________________________________

Nothing separates us from God’s love

God has taken charge; from now on he has the last word.”  Ps. 22:28 (Message)

 

Psalms of lament usually begin with the psalmist’s declaration that he is in a really bad place.

Psalm 10

Why, Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you pay no attention during times of trouble?
The wicked arrogantly chase the oppressed;
the oppressed are trapped by the schemes the wicked have dreamed up.
Yes, the wicked man boasts because he gets what he wants;
the one who robs others curses and rejects the Lord.
The wicked man is so arrogant he always thinks,
“God won’t hold me accountable; he doesn’t care.

 

Other Psalms such as Psalm 34 and 69 have similar beginnings.  But, when we read a psalm, we have an expectation that things will change; that God has been present throughout the difficulties, that God will provide help. We read the whole Psalm to understand and interpret and understand the beginning of it.

The first words from Psalm 22 are much more familiar in the King James.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  What from this Psalm would Jesus have us understand?  On the cross, nailed in such a way that he could hardly breathe, he spoke no more than that first line.  Surely Jesus, just as the Psalmist, was speaking from his immediate pain and isolation.  Soon he would be thinking about remembered trust and confidence in God.  Had Jesus not been nailed to the cross in such a position, I believe he have quoted the whole psalm with the movement from a sense of distance from God to full confidence that God was with him.  Consider the context of the scripture to see if there is support for this view.

Context is everything:

An insurance company’s lawyer was questioning an old farmer in court.  The company did not want to pay his claims for injuries. These occurred when their client ran a stop sign and hit the farmer’s trailer that contained his favorite mule.

Lawyer: “Didn’t you tell the police officer “I fine” when he arrived?

Farmer:  Well, that morning I loaded Old Bessie into the trailer and started down the road.  Hadn’t gotten far . . .

Lawyer (interrupting): “Just answer the question.  Did you say, “I’m fine”?

Farmer:  I loaded old Bessie into the trailer  … .

Lawyer:  Just answer the question.  Judge, please instruct the witness to answer.”

Judge:  Why don’t we let the witness continue?  I want to hear what he has to say.

Farmer:  I had Old Bessie in the trailer and we were driving down the road to the vet’s when this red car came zipping through the stop sign and hit the truck and trailer.  I was trying to get out of the truck to check on Bessie who I heard moanin’ and groanin’.  I was afraid she was a goner.

About that time a trooper came up and saw Bessie was a goner so he pulled out his gun and shot Bessie.  I was still trying to clear my head and get over to Bessie when the trooper came up to me with his gun still in his hand.  He said, Hey, old guy, how are you doin’?

I said: “I’m fine, I’m fine”!

Context!

Jesus’ Context:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  So, what is the context?

I think there are three parts to the context.  First, is Jesus’ situation.  Nearly all the disciples have deserted him.  Jesus has pressure on his lungs due to the pull of his arms from his nailed hands.  He feels the burden of the sins of people of all ages have put him on the cross.  As a loving son, he asks John to take care of his mother, Mary.  Jesus knows that like in the parable of the tenants (Matthew 21:28-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19) we have tried to put ourselves in God’s place.  But, as the loving Jesus still speaks words of forgiveness to the criminal crucified with him.  He includes us in the words “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”  We were forgiven, not because Jesus was “forsaken”, but because Jesus interceded with a loving God on our behalf.  A contemporary Christian song include the words “the Father turned his face away”.  Another contains the words “The wrath of God was satisfied when Jesus died”. *  Where do those phrases come from in scripture?  Doesn’t scripture say that God wants to forgive?  How can one say that God deserted Jesus without saying that the Trinity was split apart?  When Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing” he clearly assumes his role as our intercessor in the model of Moses and Ezekiel.  After the resurrection, Jesus would be seated at God’s right hand to continue that intercessory role.  Finally, Jesus concludes with a commitment to the Father.   “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”

That is the immediate context.

Context of the original words

Psalms of lament like Psalm 22 frequently begin with the psalmist in a bad way.  Awake! Why are you asleep, O Lord? (Psalm 44:24) “You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.” (Psalm 88:6)  Do we conclude that is the whole truth about the Psalmist?  What is the usual way of interpreting a Psalm of lament?  “Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness: and I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.”  Psalm 69:20.  Would Jesus use the first words of Psalm 22 in a way to contradict the later verses?

Then look at the context of the words Jesus quotes from Psalm 22, especially the latter part of the Psalm.

28 God has taken charge;
from now on he has the last word.

29 All the power-mongers are before him
—worshiping!
All the poor and powerless, too
—worshiping!
Along with those who never got it together
—worshiping!

30-31 Our children and their children
will get in on this
As the word is passed along
from parent to child.
Babies not yet conceived
will hear the good news—
that God does what he says.

Psalm 22, The Message

 

Broader Biblical context

Several passages in John tell us that Jesus and the Father are one.  Especially note John 10:30 and John 16:32. Jesus speaks further of this identity in John 17.    Paul understood what Jesus meant when he wrote: “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself.”  God was present with Jesus in his hour of deepest need.  This text, for me, does not say Jesus was forsaken and condemned that I might be forgiven and accepted.2  Therefore we can be confident that God will be with us when we experience great need.  Surely, in this hour, Jesus temptation to despair was greater than any we can experience. The writer of Hebrews assures us, that Jesus was “tempted in every way as we are”.   Did Paul think about Jesus at the cross when he wrote these words?

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39 NET

How do we embrace the whole of the Psalm in our understanding?  I would like to believe that Jesus, with the Psalmist would affirm:

God has taken charge;
from now on he has the last word. Psalm 22:28

 

 

*Michael Card, “Love crucified alone”;  Stuart Townsend, “How deep the Father’s Love”.  Other similar:  Natalie Grant, In Christ Alone; Chris Tomlin:  “You Are My King” 2I’m forgiven because you were forsaken” These songs do an excellent job with most of the Gospel story.  But they obscure an important part:  God was always reconciled to us, God always wanted to forgive us and God always wanted to restore us.  It is we as humans that need to change and be changed. I am still working out the implications of this.  Our understanding of God and how he forgives and restores leads to important actions.  Believing in a punishing God leads to sentences for persons guilty of crimes that feature jail first, rather than restorative justice; solitary confinement rather than opportunities for education and improvement; and capital punishment rather than compassionate care.  I am still thinking through this aspect of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

My thinking on this topic was shaped by reading Darren Belousek, Atonement, Justice and Peace.  Any confusion is mine.

 

Other scriptures to consider:

“When you all run away from me and leave me alone, I won’t be alone, because My Father is with me.” (John 16:32).

Corporate Lament

  • Examples include: Psalms 12, 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 83, 85, 90, 94, 123, 126, 129

Personal Lament  (these psalms fit more than one category)

  • Examples include: Psalms 3, 4, 5, 7, 9-10, 13, 14, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27*, 28, 31, 36*, 39, 40:12-17, 41, 42-43, 52*, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 59, 61, 64, 69, 70, 71, 77, 86, 89*, 120, 139, 141, 142