For many years I have made it a personal devotional practice to read through the Bible each year, beginning with the creation stories in Genesis on January 1 and finishing with the poetic description of a restored universe in Revelation on December 31. Although I’ve tried other reading schedules, this is the one that has worked best for me. If I get behind and miss a day or two, it’s easier to play catch-up. Since I don’t read Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek, I try to use a different translation each year. The invention of apps like YouVersion allow easy switching between translations, which has broadened my choices considerably. This year I’m using The Bible Project for my daily readings, which includes a video element.
Over time, the results of this practice have resulted in the Bible truly becoming a living, breathing book for me. Each time I read it, I find it has something new to say to me, which often speaks to me at the point of my deepest need of the moment. It may be something I find relevant or applicable to something that is going on in my personal life, or something that is going on in the world around me. This phenomenon is not limited to the time I spend actually reading the scripture passage for the day, or even the selected passages. I can be going about my ordinary activities of the day and find that a verse pops into my head that offers assurance or direction, and I understand this as God speaking to me.
Reading the Bible from start to finish multiple times also helps me to see connections between different parts of the Bible. The scriptures that make up our Bible were written by many different people over thousands of years, each bearing the stamp of the writer’s individual perspective in time and space, yet also attempting to communicate a consistent message. Keeping that message in mind helps me better understand the weird parts…and there are some weird parts. It’s a mistake to construct an entire theology based on a few passages taken out of context (including their historical and cultural context) especially when other passages may say something completely different.
So what is the consistent message of the Bible? Here’s how I understand it: There is a God, and it’s not us. In fact, we humans consistently fall far short of God’s design for us and mess things up when we try to assume the role of God. We can’t even manage to follow one simple rule which is supposed to govern our interaction with others: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Yet God has never given up on his creation, and God never will, until all is as God intended it to be.
Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried. -Gilbert K. Chesterton
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18-24
Constantine got it wrong, and in my opinion the popular understanding of what it means to be Christian has gone downhill ever since.
You may remember the legend of Constantine’s conversion. Prior to the Battle of Milvian in 312, he looked up in the sky and saw a cross of light, accompanied by the words “In this sign you will conquer”. He commanded his troops to paint their shields with a Christian symbol and sure enough, the battle went his way. Subsequently he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. Christians went from being persecuted for their faith to being favored for it. Constantine used the power of his office to exempt clergy from paying some taxes and elevated them to high office. Non-Christians were required to pay for the building of Constantinople, thus giving people a financial incentive to convert. The church became rich and powerful, and in so doing obscured the message of the cross. “Whoever wants to be first among you must be last, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.“
The message of the cross contrasts rather starkly with the popular understanding of how people are to find meaning and purpose in their lives, and that’s why it seems foolish to those who do not understand it. But to those who seek to incorporate the message of the cross into their daily lives, it is transformative. The message of the cross has the power to transform not only individual lives, but to transform society as well. I think tha’s what Jesus was getting at in his parables of the kingdom: it is like a tiny seed that start small, but grows into an enormous sheltering tree that gives sustenance to all living things. How different our world will be when the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ!
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. John 16:12-15
Let’s play a little word association game. When you hear the word “God” what is the first word that comes to your mind? If you ask different people, you will get many different responses, because God is complicated. How we understand God depends an awful lot on our own experiences. It’s like the story about the blind men and the elephant. The one who touched the trunk thought it was like a snake, the one who touched the tusk thought it was like a spear, the one who touched a leg thought it was like a tree, and so forth. Due to their visual limitations and the size of the elephant, they could not see the whole elephant at once, and each came to a limited understanding of what an elephant is like.
The Bible uses a lot of different metaphors to try and explain God. God is often compared to a father, and that’s the term Jesus used when he taught his disciples to pray. But God is also compared to a woman in labor and a nursing mother. God is called King of Kings and Mighty Warrior, but God is also described as a shepherd, a gardener, and a potter.
All these, and more, are true at the same time, and none of them gives a complete picture of God. Metaphors can only go so far in describing the indescribable. If you fixate on certain ones and exclude the others, if you try to take the metaphorical literally, or if you rely too much on your own understanding of them, you will have at best an incomplete and at worst a harmful understanding of God. In other words, you will have bad theology, and theology matters.
Bad theology often leads to bad actions as people desperately try to please not the real God, but the god of their imaginations. Often that is a scary picture, what my atheist friends like to disparage as “an angry sky god” ready to dish out the lightening bolts whenever we step out of line. And as Yoda has said, fear is the path to the dark side.
History is replete with examples of this. If you believe that God hates all those who worship differently, you wind up with Charlemagne forcing conversions at the point of a sword, and the Crusades. If you believe that God hates heresy, you wind up with the Spanish Inquisition, and the bloody Catholic/Protestant internecine warfare that swept through Europe. If you believe that God cursed some races to perpetually serve other races, you wind up with centuries of enslaved black Americans. If you believe God rejected the Jews because they rejected Christ, you wind up with pogroms and the Holocaust and that young man who went into a synagogue and started shooting people as they prayed. No, we can’t ignore bad theology.
I think the concept of God as Trinity is a helpful way to combat our human tendency to limit God in ways that fester into bad theology. God is one, yet God is also three. If that makes your head hurt, that’s because it is a paradox that helps get us out of our boxes of binary thinking. God is our Father, the creator and sustainer of the universe, but God is also the Son, the God who became human in the person of Jesus, and God is also the Holy Spirit, the God who is within us and permeates all living things. God is all of these things at the same time. Here are a couple more metaphors: Like a fidget spinner in motion, we can’t focus on one to the exclusion of the others. They are not all the same, but they all work together to accomplish the purposes of God. Like the Three Musketeers, “All for one, and one for all”.
The kind of love that Jesus is talking about, the kind of love Jesus showed us, the kind of love God has for us, takes a lifetime to even begin to learn. And the way that we learn it is by listening to the Holy Spirit, that voice of God’s truth that lives within us, and is continually pulsing with the drumbeat of God’s love.
Here’s the kicker: The Holy Spirit didn’t stop guiding us into truth at the conclusion of the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit is still working on that, and God is still speaking to those who have ears to listen, and to learn. We’re still learning about God, and how God wants us to apply that love in a world that desperately needs it.
There is a great deal of symbolism in this 15th century artist’s depiction of Trinity. What’s most interesting about it to me is the little square between God the Father and God the Holy Spirit’s feet, which has been found to contain glue residue. Some art historians believe that the square once held a mirror. Do you see the symbolism there? God is inviting the observer to the table of fellowship. No matter who you are, no matter where you come from, no matter how you identify yourself, YOU are welcome here.
(I got the idea for the liturgy of welcome I used in church from here, and adapted it to fit our congregation.)
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped. Revelation 5:11-14
Warning: This post will contain actual spoilers for “Avengers:Endgame”, so if you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want to know what happens, read no further. You have been warned.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few months, you are undoubtedly aware of all the hoopla surrounding the release of the final chapter in a 22-movie saga that has been playing out over the last eleven years. I was in nerd-vana for the entirety of its three-hour duration and found it exhilarating and satisfying. I like movies where the good guys win, and I prefer happy endings to dystopian or ambiguous ones. Post-movie, I’ve been avidly reading some of the reviews and discussions about what happened in the movie, and what that might mean for the next book in the Marvel universe. It’s interesting reading, but I think too much dissection of the details of the plot is a distraction. And I think the same thing about the way some people approach Revelation, the final book in the Christian Bible.
What happened when Captain America returned the Soul Stone? Since it was obtained in exchange for Black Widow’s’s life, did returning it bring her back? What’s with Peter Parker going back to school and finding all his friends there? Wouldn’t at least some of them have survived the initial snap, and be five years older? If Captain America stayed in the past to marry Peggy and live happily ever after, is there a second Captain America frozen in the ice? Is Loki alive somewhere? And by the way, where is Goose?
It may be fun to speculate, but when people critique the movie on the basis of these alleged plot holes, I think they’re forgetting that it’s a story. Stories don’t have to make logical sense; they make sense on a level that is deeper than logic. Stories express truths that are not necessarily constrained by the bounds of reality. Joseph Campbell and C S Lewis both understood that the reason myths from different cultures share common themes is because they are expressions of universal experiences. Although Lewis and Campbell answered the-which-came-first- the chicken-or-the-egg question somewhat differently, they both believed that all stories are retellings of “the great story”. The problem with demythologizing stories in order to make them fit into an Enlightenment pigeonhole is that the attempt to make them real often serves to obfuscate their most essential truths. You can spend your time speculating about time travel paradoxes and alternate universes, or you can go along with our heroes on their journey, cheer them on as they attempt to take down Thanos, weep with them as painful sacrifices are made, and rejoice with them in final victories great and small. We can be reminded anew of the importance of family; that teamwork is better than going it alone; and that friendship can transcend immense personal differences and perspectives.
Revelation is a very strange book, and people either love it or hate it. That’s nothing new, for it had a prolonged and difficult journey into canonicity. Its inclusion in the Christian Bible has been questioned by many, including Martin Luther. And much like the Avengers comic books, it has provided plenty of material for popular books and movies, such as the Left Behind series. There’s a large Christian subculture that finds endless fascination in trying to decipher Revelation’s more cryptic visions, such as who “666” and other characters might be in real life, what the “mark of the beast” is, or how to predict the timing of the End of Days. So far, time has not been kind to any of these speculations. I can remember when bar codes were first introduced, some were claiming they were the Mark of the Beast. In the 1984 edition of “Bible Trivia” board game, there are several questions which attempt to relate then-current events such as the emerging European Common Market to passages in Revelation and Daniel. These haven’t aged well. People like Hal Lindsey and Harold Camping are remembered primarily for being famously unsuccessful in predicting the end of the world as we know it.
When we try to dissect Revelation as if it were a kind of divine Da Vinci code that must be deciphered to be understood, we’re missing its point, just as we’re missing the point of Avengers: Endgame when we expect it to all make logical and consistent sense. When we try to fit Revelation’s weird imagery into scientific, literal explanations, we’re in danger of missing its primary truth. The point of Revelation is that “ though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet“. The truth of Revelation is that in the endgame, God wins.
In Infinity Wars, Doctor Strange says that he sees 14,000,605 futures, and in only one of them is Thanos defeated. Following his vision, he willingly gives the Time Stone to Thanos, seemingly ensuring Thanos’s victory. He can’t tell the other Avengers what he sees, because if he did, they would lose. There is no opportunity to debate, because shortly thereafter he gets dusted and disappears. The remaining Avengers must act using their own unique gifts and strengths, without knowing whether they are making the right choices. And many find themselves in positions where the right choice is not in using their superpowers to fight, but in the strength of their characters to sacrifice. Black Widow gives her life so that Hawkeye can recover the Soul Stone. Iron Man first gives up his idyllic life with his wife and child, then sacrifices his own life so that others might continue to live.
In the verses leading up to today’s scripture passage, John has a vision of a scroll sealed with seven seals. It seems imperative that the scroll be opened, for John weeps when no one is found worthy to break the seals and open the scroll. One of the elders in the vision reassures John that the Lion of Judah has triumphed and is thus able to open the seals. But when John looks, he sees not a lion, but a slaughtered lamb in the place of honor. The Lamb is praised as “worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Nerd alert: I can imagine that scene in heaven as not unlike the reaction of the theater audience when Mjolnir flew into Captain America’s hands)
On the first Sunday of Advent we light the candle of hope.
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
a quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.
As the nights lengthen and temperatures drop in December, we remember that the times in which Mary lived were metaphorically dark and cold times for people like her. The descendants of Abraham lived under the heavy thumb of the Roman Empire. Income inequality and political and religious corruption were widespread. Caesar proclaimed himself “son of God” and lord of all the known world, and disloyalty was severely punished. The latter would have been especially difficult for faithful Jews, who were uncompromisingly monotheistic and whose loyalty belonged only to God.
This was the world into which God sent his messenger to a Jewish girl named Mary, with an unbelievable announcement: she would bear a Child who would be able to put right everything that human beings had made go wrong in the world. The moral universe, as designed by God, had been horribly warped by the wrong and self-centered choices of human beings. But the child Mary would bear would begin the repair process. Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the arc of the moral universe would begin to bend in the right direction.
It’s interesting to me to note that, in order to accomplish his purposes, God chose to act through and with the cooperation of a human being. Mary said “yes” to God, even though what she was told seemed impossible. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Her “yes” to God resulted in great difficulties and challenges for her personally, yet she was able to break forth into the joyous song we know as the Magnificat in the midst of these. It seems to me that, more often than not, God chooses to work through willing human beings who “get” his message and are willing to be “doers’ and not just “hearers” of that message.
Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ “Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness[a] will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Isaiah 58:1-11
As a relative newcomer to the liturgical tradition, I’ve found the tradition of Lenten fasting rather an alien concept. Several years ago, I was asked to preach on the subject of fasting but wound up declining the opportunity when I learned that I was expected to talk about the spiritual benefits of going without food rather than what I wanted to talk about, which was more along the lines of what Isaiah says in this passage. I don’t mean to denigrate those who have found fasting a helpful spiritual practice, but as Isaiah observes, there’s a great deal more to the concept of self-denial than not eating. In some cases, I think “giving up something for Lent” can be rather self-serving. Nobody seems to give up vegetables for Lent. The most common options seem to be less healthy choices like sweets, alcohol, and meat.
Isaiah says that God isn’t impressed with fasting when it is self-serving. If one does a little reading between the lines, it seems that the Israelites are fasting in an attempt to manipulate God, trying to perform a sort of magic ritual that will get God to do what they want. They dress and act the part they think God wants them to play, but God is not impressed. God wants to see transformed lives, not actors playing the role of true believers. Isaiah goes on to give specific examples of what God is looking for in the lives of those who claim to worship God. Don’t use people in pursuit of your own ends. Stand up for those who cannot or dare not speak for themselves. Don’t just say you oppose injustice; do something to stop people from being unjustly treated. Help those who are in need instead of blaming them for their mistakes. Stop the hate speech and rumor-mongering, which all too often culminate in violent acts. God isn’t impressed by empty words and rituals. In fact, God probably thinks it is blasphemous to claim allegience to God when you ignore God’s consistant commands to seek justice and demonstrate kindness. God would rather see you doing the kinds of things that might demonstrate your ultimate loyalty is to God and not yourself, such as treating other people the way you would like to be treated if you were in their place.
I am afraid that in today’s world, religion has been similarly emptied of meaning in too many ways to discuss in one post. Like the ancient Israelites, we try to use God to get what we want. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’s day, we mouth the words and perform the rituals, but our lives are not transformed. It seems to me that although holding onto a form of Judeo-Christianity, many people’s loyalty is not really to the one God we see revealed in Jesus. Rather, we give our hearts and minds and souls to a pantheon of other gods including Mammon, Ares, Dionysius, Aphrodite, Narcissus, Caesar, and Trithereon, along with the gods we have created in our own image. I don’t think the real God is any more pleased with this kind of idolotrous synchronism than God was pleased when the Israelites tried to cover all their bases by adding the worship of Baal and Astarte to the worship of Yahweh. I don’t think the real God is particulalry impressed when people act more like followers of the Pharisees than followers of Jesus. And from what I understand from studying the Bible and from history, our society is in a very dark place right now and the outlook for its future is not good. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Lent is a reminder that humans are mortal and neither they nor the societies they build will last forever.
The good news is that God never gives up on us. Isaiah 58 goes on to say that if only Israel will change her ways, things can be different. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” Even Ninevah, which was about as high on the axis-of-evil badlist as they come, was spared when they changed their ways. The arc of the moral universe is long, but God is bending it inexorably towards justice. We can either help or find ourselves pushed out of the way.
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
The second commandment overlaps the first quite a bit, so much so that in some faith traditions the two are combined. While the first commandment is concerned with putting God first, the second specifically deals with symbols for the kind of things that might be given priority over God. Depending on the translation, these may be called “idols”, “carved images”, “likenesses”, or “statues”, and the categories used to describe these were quite broad. Most scholars believe that it was not images per se that were forbidden, but the worship of those images. However, there are some Biblical literalists who disagree. The Protestant reformers in Tudor England went about destroying religious works of art quite zealously. and there are many other examples of iconoclasm throughout history. An internet search on the phrase “graven images” will show you that there are people who hold to that line of thought today. One site I visited even suggested that allowing children to play with stuffed animals was a violation of this commandment, and might create an opening for demonic attack. (Cue theme from “The Exorcist.”)
Since I am not a literalist, I tend to agree with the idea that it is not the “likenesses” themselves that are a problem, but idolatry, or prioritizing anything above God. God is not particularly concerned with the family pictures or artwork I display on my walls, or my Instagram pictures of cats, but God is concerned that I have the right priorities. Anything that is given priority over God’s prime directive of love can become an idol. It is not things themselves that are bad, but the wrong use of things, and even good things can become idols. Each one of the “seven deadly sins” can be seen as idolatry: the result of taking something good and elevating it to a bad extreme. And symbols which might have represented one thing at one time can come to represent something entirely different at another time. When the created symbol becomes more important than the reason it was created, bad consequences are sure to follow.
There’s a story in Numbers about a bronze snake that God commands Moses to make intended to be an instrument of divine healing. Many years later, the writer of the book of Kings commends Hezekiah for destroying it because it had become an object of worship.. It seems to me that the meaning of the symbol had changed over the years. Where once it was used by God as an instrument of healing, it came to mean something different in Hezekiah’s time. Perhaps they still saw it as a source of healing, but one that was under their control instead of God’s. Burn a pinch of incense, say the right words, and you would be healed. God has become a peripheral part of the equation, subject to the magical properties of the symbol. The story reminds me of the proliferation of relics in the medieval Catholic church, which were often viewed as having magical healing properties.
When I think of the de-evolution of the bronze snake into an idol, I can’t help but think of the quasi-idolatry demonstrated by some in connection with the American flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the National Anthem. As I understand it, the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance were meant to be symbols of the freedom and unity enshrined in our Constitution.”One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”. The brouhahas over standing vs sitting vs kneeling when the National Anthem is sung have eclipsed the original meaning of these symbols; it seems the symbols have become more important than the reasons they were created. If the flag “still stands for freedom, and they can’t take that away” why shouldn’t a person have the liberty to stand or sit or kneel as they choose? I suppose freedom also means a person attending a sporting event has the right to drink beer, talk to neighbors in the stands, or peruse a smartphone during the national anthem, although I personally wouldn’t opt to do those things. As I understand it, those who choose to kneel are doing it because they do believe in freedom, liberty, and justice for all, and love America enough to want to see those ideals more fully realized. And I’m really not sure how the idea that not standing is meant to convey a lack of support for those serving our country in the military got into this equation at all. Just as the Israelites forgot the original purpose of the bronze snake, I’m afraid that the meaning of the flag as a symbol of freedom and equality has become distorted into something different. Unity in conformity has replaced unity in diversity.
“Thou shalt not make any graven images”. I’m afraid the human race hasn’t outgrown the siren song of idolatry. And as Moses warned, when we listen to it we endanger not only ourselves, but our children and our children’s children and our children’s children’s children.