Sunday Lesson| July 27

I Kings 3:1-15

Why This Text Matters?

Today’s story doesn’t tell the whole story. When looking at this story within the context of the Solomon cycle, we’d be properly tempted to say that it is the story of Solomon’s one really good moment. Sandwiched before and after the story of this “happy” day are a lot of bad days. In our excellent lesson, Tony Cartledge writes, “…the editor of I Kings manages to praise King Solomon as a monarch of unparalleled wisdom and prosperity, but with a shadow over him.”

This shadow is cast by multiple clouds. First, in verse 1 we hear of one of Solomon’s numerous political marriages. Possessing a harem in which his wives worshipped their foreign, local deities was a fatal mistake for Solomon. Second, we are told David walked in the “statutes of his father David.” We would have expected that he would walk in the statues of a God. In the chapter just before our text, David instructs Solomon in the executions David wants Solomon to perform. Solomon executes them. Interestingly enough, David tells Solomon to reward the sons of Barzillai the Gileadite; yet, we don’t read that Solomon followed through. Third, there is the problem of where Solomon worshipped. For the Deuteronomic editors of I Kings, worship was to be performed only in Jerusalem. Centralizing worship there increased the chances that pagan influences in theology and rituals could be controlled. Verse 3 accuses Solomon of violating this principle by his sacrifice at Gibeon. Verse 2 could be read as something of an “out” for Solomon since the temple in Jerusalem had not yet been built. But, verse 2 says the people sacrificed in the high places outside Jerusalem implying that the king shouldn’t have. Indeed, in verse 15 of our text we see Solomon sacrifice in Jerusalem before the Ark. He could have always sac rifled in Jerusalem. Fourth, verse 14 is conditional. Promises are made to Solomon on the condition that he obeys God. This leaves the reader open to the possibility that the ongoing story doesn’t go well. The story doesn’t go well.

 Solomon inherited from David the largest expanse of territory any Israelite King would have. Solomon’s building projects included his palace, the temple and the Jerusalem wall. These projects were incredibly expensive requiring not only high taxes but even a large “draft” of men to serve in the military and in construction labor. The account is in I Kings 9:15ff. Jewish men were drafted into military service. Non-Jews were enslaved and put on building projects. Solomon’s over-reach may not have been “wise.”  When Solomon died, citizens asked his heir for relief. When he refused, 10 of the 12 tribes split off to form a new kingdom! No King ever ruled over all 12 tribes again (see I Kings ch 12). 

I Kings 11:4ff tells the story of the final rift between God and Solomon. Solomon’s pagan wives turned him to paganism.

 Side Issue

The following quotation is from The Interpreter’s Bible Vol. 3 page 40.  “A Model a Prayer.–Notwithstanding Solomon’s personal imperfections, the prayer ascribed to him is so appropriate for one who has just assumed a place of public power and responsibility that it has served as a model for rulers since his day. Americans will remember that when the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt placed the burdens of presidential office on the shoulders of Harry S. Truman, the new executive offered Solomon’s petition as his own prayer for guidance. His act enlisted the sympathy of his fellow citizens.”

 Possible Questions

Does one story ever tell the whole story? If so, how often?

We speak of people who are book smart but not street smart. Is Solomon “wise”in some ways and “unwise”in others?

 

 

Sunday Lesson | July 20

Lesson 7-20-14

Isaiah 44:6-20

Why This Text Matters? 

God doesn’t just want a relationship with us; He wants a covenant relationship. The first commitment we make when entering a covenant relationship with God is to have no gods before Him. Today’s text has the tone of ridicule and sarcasm directed at the folly of idolatry.

Verse 13 is key. In the Genesis story of Creation, God makes humans in His image. In the story of Idolatry, deluded humans make gods in the image and likeness of humans. The 10 Commandments strongly condemn the attempt to use graven images to represent God. While the Biblical presentation of God makes it clear that He is totally involved in creation, it is also clear that, in His being, He is “totally other” than the world. While imminent in the world, He is transcendent from the world. God is nothing like what can be found in Heaven, on earth, or beneath the earth. A major point of the Creation story is the separateness of Creator and creation.

Biblical scholars have looked at a Old Testament texts like today’s and raised a serious question: Did the Ancient Jews understand idolatry? In the Anchor Bible commentary on II Isaiah, John McKenzie writes: “The image was representational, though of a kind of representation foreign to our thought. The image was treated like the deity; it was served daily with food and drink and care as if it were a human king; resided in a palace, held audiences, and was carried in possessions. It was the earthly counterpart of the god, as the temple was the earthly counterpart of his heavenly palace. It was the symbolic presence of the god, and in this respect was not dissimilar to the Israelite ark of the covenant, which was also the symbol and seat of the presence of Yahweh in Israel. But the worshipers of these ancient religions did not make the simple identification of the god with the image…”

Solutions are difficult. McKenzie writes, “H.H. Rowley suggested that behind the scoffing was a certain Israelite inability to grasp the symbolism. The Israelites did not believe that there was anything behind the image, no reality that was represented; therefore the cult was directed toward the image, since it was the only reality toward which it could be directed.” Rowley’s suggestion makes sense. Idolators believed a real god existed who was represented by the idol, but the Israelites knew, because of the prohibitions of making an image, that no created thing could succeed at pointing to the uncreated Creator. The inability of Israelites to grasp the symbolism of idolatry was driven by their correct theological understanding of the inadequacy of grave images to the task of describing God.

Side Notes

Graven images of God are clearly inappropriate. But what about mental images? While there are a few conceptual geniuses among us, most of us think with images. In Your God is Too Small, J.B. Phillips suggested that we can have woefully inadequate mental images of God. In the first half of the book, Phillips explores the inadequate images–God as cosmic police officer, divine grandfather, bellhop, etc. The second half of the book is constructive. Phillips describes the God revealed as the Father of Our Lord Jesus. 

Historical Issues

Last week we looked at the composition of Isaiah. This week’s text and last week’s are both from II Isaiah. Verses 6-8 in today’s text is in poetry and is from II Isaiah. Verses 9-20 are the only proses verses in II Isaiah and seem to be an inserted essay on idolatry. Scholars are divided as to whether verses 9-20 are from II Isaiah or a later disciple of his.

Possible Questions

Are there idolatrous mental images of God? What are examples?

The Bible is a witness to God. Can it become so central that devotion to Bible displaces devotion to God?

Sunday Lesson | July 13

Isaiah 55:6-13

Why This Text Matters?

The Book of Isaiah is an anthology of writings from a “school” whose founder was Isaiah of Jerusalem. It is best to look at the Book of Isaiah as three writings. Chapters 1-39 were from the original Isaiah of Jerusalem whose ministry spanned the years between 742 BC and 687 BC. While Isaiah was warning the people of the Southern Kingdom to repent, the Northern Kingdom fell to the Assyrian Empire in 721 BC. Judah ( the Southern Kingdom) was a vassal state of the Assyrian Empire and lived under its enormous threat. So, Chapter 39 closes out around 687 BC.

Chapters 40-55 of Isaiah revolve around an event that occurred on October 29, 539 BC. A century and a half of time passes between the close of Chapter 39 and the opening of Chapter 40. A lot happened in this 150 years. The Southern Kingdom did not fall to the Assyrians but to the Babylonians. There were two deportations. The first in 597 BC saw the Babylonians take the leading citizens of Jerusalem into captivity. Stupidly, the remaining inhabitants of Jerusalem decided to revolt against Babylon despite Jeremiah’s message. The Babylonians returned in 587 BC and made sure they would never have to return a third time–Jerusalem was left in ruin. For half a century, the Babylonian Captivity drug on.

Much changed on October 29, 539 BC! The Babylonian Empire fell to a Persian Ruler named Cyrus. Cyrus was a remarkable person. He believed in religious freedom. He allowed conquered peoples to retain their social identity, government, religion, and territory. When he learned about the plight of Exiled Israel, he issued an edict that allowed their return home. The Jewish people could rebuild their temple! It is in light of these events that “II Isaiah” wrote the 20 poems that are contained in Chapters 40-55 of the Book of Isaiah. Our text today is the conclusion of the 20th and final poem from II Isaiah.

All of Isaiah 55 is in the voice of God except for verses 6-7 in which the prophet calls on people to repent. It is interesting and intriguing that we are not told what the prophet wants people to repent from. It doesn’t seem to be idolatry. So, what is it? Some research is required. Just before the call to repentance in verses 6-7, we have the only reference to David in II Isaiah. It is an indirect not a direct reference–God will make an everlasting covenant with collective Israel because of His covenant love for David. Following the call to repentance in verses 6-7 we find God speaking of the mystery of His ways and thoughts. God had saved His people, BUT He had done it through the instrumentality of a pagan, Persian King and NOT by restoring a Jewish Monarch to the throne of David! II Isaiah NEVER hints at a restored monarchy. They were saved alright but not they way they wanted! Repentance required! Conformation of this reading comes in Isaiah 45:9-13 which warns that it is unwise to strive with our Maker. 45:13 is a direct reference to Cyrus in the voice of God–”I have aroused him in righteousness, and I will make straight all his ways; he shall build my city and set my exiles free.” People had trouble accepting deliverance from a very unexpected deliverer.

With this context in mind, Isaiah 55:8-13 becomes a beautiful summons in the voice of God Himself for His people to experience the salvation He has accomplished on their behalf. It should be no surprise that this deliverance would contain elements that were mysterious and powerful and effective and unexpected.
Side Note

That God would use a pagan to deliver the Exiled in Babylon does seem strange. How much more strange that He would use a felon executed by the state to deliver the world!

Historical Issues

In Isaiah 45:1, Cyrus is the only gentile in the Bible to be called an “Anointed One” or “Messiah.”

Possible Questions

What is the role of mystery in faith?

If the deliverance through Cyrus was mysterious, can we comprehend the atonement achieved in Jesus? Can there be a systematic theology of the atonement?

We build our image of God and form our expectations of Him based on His past activity, yet He moves forward in surprising ways. How do we navigate this?

Isaiah often combines images of God’s power to save with His power to create. Is Isaiah saying that He who has the power to create has the power and desire to re-create?

Sunday Lesson | July 6th

Zechariah 9:9-13

Why Does This Text Matter?

A central issue in the text involves the use of power. In exile, Napoleon had time to reflect and write. In his memoirs, he wrote that he had tried to establish a kingdom using coercion with terrible results–defeat and exile. In contrast, Napoleon said Jesus had built a kingdom using persuasion and, as a consequence, Jesus had followers on every continent. Philosophers have written about how different coercion and persuasion are. With coercion, I can restrict the power of another to work against me. In contrast, by using persuasion, my power and energy can be added to the power and energy of another. Coercive power diminishes the more it is used while the use of persuasion results in expansive growth. The power of persuasion is greater and superior to the power of coercion. Coercion and persuasion are represented by the image of the messiah riding an ass or a horse. While the horse was a symbol of power and war, the ass was a symbol of royalty and peace (see Genesis 49:10-11, Judges 5:10, Judges 12:14).

In majesty and mystery, the Messiah Zechariah envisions will oversee a universal kingdom. The 10 Northern tribes of Israel had been defeated by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. The Assyrians erased the nations they conquered by separating husbands and wives and forcing inter-marriages. The Assyrians made the maintenance of social identity an impossibility for the people the defeated. Yet, Zechariah envisions a restored Northern Israel and Southern Judah. Gentiles are included as well. The Hebrew word translated as “nations” in verse 10 can be translated as “Gentiles.” The Messiah will speak “peace” or “shalom” to the Gentiles. “Shalom” is a rich term including connotations of covenant, reconciliation, salvation, and fulfillment.

The use of the phrase “prisoners of hope” is fascinating. When we despair, God doesn’t abandon us to despair. Paul asks a great and leading question, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” The People of God cling to the promises of God in hope.

There is no indication as to when Zechariah’s Messiah would appear. Victor Frankl, who survived horrible Holocaust conditions, was once asked why he survived when so many didn’t. He said many imagined they would be free in a week or month or year. Their disappointment was too much. In contrast, Frankl said he hoped without regard as to when his hopes would come true. He would imagine himself before groups telling his story but he never let himself imagine when.

Historical Issues

The Jews who returned from the Babylonian Captivity had restored the temple. Today’s text expresses the hope of the restoration of the office of king.

The historical background for Zechariah 9:1-17 involves the conquests of Alexander the Great. The city of Tyre was considered the wealthiest city of the time. Tyre was on a rocky island and had never fallen until Alexander succeeded. His engineers built a mole a half-mile long from the mainland to the island which was key to the seven month siege that fell the city. Any Jewish hope that Alexander would be an instrument of God died with his death at the age of 33. Four of Alexander’s generals fought for control of his former empire. Chaos and confusion and strife reigned (see Dan. 8:8). Little wonder that Zechariah had a renewed hope for a Jewish King. Little wonder that “salvation” would involve the “sons of Zion” overcoming the “sons of Greece” (see verse 13).

Side Note

The use of power was also the issue in Jesus’ temptation. Turning stone into bread for his own consumption would mean Jesus would use his power in his own self-interest. Throwing himself off a tower without harm would be to use his power to call attention to himself instead of God and God’s Kingdom.

Possible Questions

We often think of hope as a singular thing. Are there different types of hope? Forms that disappoint and forms that sustain, forms born in patience and impatience, forms that are healthy and unhealthy.

If there are differing types of hope, what kind do I possess?

Sunday Lesson | June 29th

Jeremiah 28:1-17

Why does this text matter?

Ever find yourself asking questions like “What does God want me to do?” or “What does God want us to do?” We can have the sincerity and determination to do God’s will and be clueless as to what God’s will is.

To illustrate we can look at the current situation in Iraq in light of what America should do. Conservatives like John McCain are calling on the President to fire his current team and replace them with the “successful” team former President Bush had. Liberals are questioning Senator McCain’s understanding of “success.” Glen Beck represents a conservative who supported the war in the past but who is saying now, ” Not one more!” He means not one more American dollar, bullet, soldier, etc. Given that America has spent the lives of 4500 service men and women and over a trillion dollars on Iraq, many Americans are watching the savagery and asking, “Can’t we do something?” What should we do? Confusion reigns.

Have you ever found yourself wanting to do God’s will and feeling guilt that you couldn’t clearly see what it was? Worse, have you ever acted on what you “knew” was the will of God only to become uncertain about what you did? Still worse, have you acted on what you “knew” was the will of God only to become certain the actions you took were wrong? Paul is the greatest biblical example of this last example. He was convinced the Church should be persecuted!

We might expect that we mere mortals would have these questions. It is something of a comfort to find a great prophet, whom we expect would know with certainty the will of God at each moment, struggles with them as well. We are taken aback that Jeremiah had no word from God to say to Hananiah in the moment Hananiah broke Jeremiah’s yoke. Jeremiah expresses doubt about Hananiah’s word from God but not certainty about Hananiah being incorrect. There is nothing in the text to suggest that Hananiah knew his word was wrong. In Hebrew, Hananiah means “God has been gracious.” His name coincides with his message. The crowd watching this incident would have seen two sincere prophets expressing opposite messages from God. One speaking of judgment while the other speaks of grace.

How do we tell a false message from God from a true one? That our text leaves a profound question unanswered may be profound in itself. It’s not easy! There is no formula! We need to study and pray and exercise care in whose human voice we hear the voice of God. When we are told the will of God is exactly our will, maybe a large amount of skepticism will take us as far as we need to go.

Historical Issue

In the Anchor Bible commentary on Jeremiah, John Bright writes, “The denouement of the incident is likewise interesting. Hananiah (vs. 16) is sentenced to death. This accords perfectly with the thought expressed in Deut xviii 20 that to prophesy falsely in the name of Yahweh, as Hananiah had done, was to commit a capital crime. We recall that Jeremiah’s enemies had tried to execute him, because that believed he had prophesied falsely (see ch. xxvi…). In this case, however, the sentence was to be executed by no human hands, but by Yahweh himself. There is no reason whatever to doubt that Hananiah, borne down–we may suppose–by this awful curse, actually did die as vs. 17 states: the incident would scarcely have been recorded otherwise.”

Side Note

In Bad Religion:How We Became A Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat identifies what he says are the false versions of the gospel preached in America including the prosperity gospel and what he calls the message of “the God within” in which we are told that experiencing our true self is experiencing “God.” His thesis is that millions of Americans sincerely follow “false prophets.”

Possible Questions

Consider beginning the lesson by asking the class how members go about deciding if a preacher is faithfully or unfaithfully speaking for God.

Reinhold Niebuhr said, “It is true that Christ comforts the afflicted, but he also afflicts the comfortable!” Can a version of the gospel that only comforts us be the true gospel? Would the true Word of God offer comfort and challenge?

What is the role of the social gospel in the true gospel?

 

Sunday Lesson | June 22nd

Jeremiah 20:7-13

Why Does This Text Matter?

Jeremiah is unique among the prophets in that he allows us to see the effects of the prophetic calling on his own individual soul. In six prayers, he pours his soul out to God.

11:18-12:6

15:10-21

17:14-18

18:18-23

20:7-13 (our text)

20:14-18

One of our basic human needs is the need for affiliation. In times of crisis, the need for affiliation increases. We saw this following 9-11. We pulled our SEC football logos off our vehicles and replaced them with American flags replacing symbols of rivalry with symbols of unity/solidarity. Jeremiah needed affiliation. In 16:1-13, God forbids Jeremiah to marry a wife, have children, or even take part in social gatherings. A prophet not only spoke God’s message but lived it out by enacting it. Isaiah walked through the streets of Jerusalem naked for three years as naked was how slaves were taken into captivity. Jeremiah’s social isolation declared that God’s coming judgment would disrupt all social bonds and social rejoicing. The first confession suggests that the people of Jeremiah’s home town, even relatives, plotted to kill him. Today’s text tells us that the verbal abuse was unbearable. Based on his preaching, Jeremiah was given the nickname, Terror-Is-On-Every-Side! It gets worse. The failure and rejection of his message weighed heavily on Jeremiah. In some four decades, he had one convert–Baruch became his secretary. It gets worse still! In Prophecy and Religion: Studies in the Life of Jeremiah, John Skinner suggests a real inner conflict can be seen in 17:16 where Jeremiah declares to God that he doesn’t really want God’s judgment to come on the people. But, how else would Jeremiah’s message be vindicated unless judgment reigned down. In our text, Jeremiah begs for vindication. Skinner believes Jeremiah comes across as conflicted–wanting God’s judgment on the people and feeling guilty that he wants it.

This text tells us a great deal about being a prophet. It also tells us that when life is tough and confusing and full of conflict that the God who made us as emotional creatures can handle our emotional honesty.

It is interesting to note that God responded to Jeremiah in the first two confessions but is silent in the last four. It is as though God helps Jeremiah through the first two and then leaves him to work through the others. In the first two, God has said all that needed to be said (see 15:19-20). Basically, God tells Jeremiah that He is with him and He encourages Jeremiah to stay with Him. God and Jeremiah have each other if Jeremiah will stick with his calling. Abraham Heschel, the Jewish theologian, has written, “…the fundamental experience of the prophets is a fellowship with the feelings of God, a sympathy with the divine pathos.” Bernhard Anderson writes, “In a profound sense Jeremiah’s suffering was a participation in God’s suffering, so much so that God’s concern and God’s pathos, whether anger or love, flowed through his whole life and thought.”

Side Notes

In the tv show The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon has difficulty with sarcasm. 20:13 could be original to Jeremiah’s writing and could be VERY bitter sarcasm directed at God. 20:13 does sound like something Job’s so-called friends would have quoted to him out of theological over-simplicity.

Historical Issues

In the book mentioned above, John Skinner argues that there are historical phases in the development of prayer. “The lowest is that of petition for the fulfillment of some particular desire, or removal of some external evil, solely in the interest of the individual himself. The second stage is that on which Jeremiah enters. Here prayer is the effort of the soul to bring every thought and feeling into harmony with the will of God…it contains a residuum of self-will…in Jeremiah’s case the overthrow of his enemies. There is a third stage, to which perhaps he hardly attains, where the thought of self is entirely lost, and the mind surrenders itself wholly to the divine will as that which alone is truly good. ‘Father, not my will but Thine be done.’”

Possible Questions

What would it be like to feel the feelings of God? His love for the world? His disappointment with it?

Is God the fellow-suffer who understands?

God is omniscient. Does that mean he knows about the world indirectly the way we sometimes read a news report? Or does God have direct knowledge of the world–experiencing what is experienced in the world? Is God’s knowledge informational or experiential?

Does this scripture text tells us that we are to honestly express our feelings to God even when they are ugly?

Mark Todd

jmarktodd@aol.com

Sunday Lesson | June 15th

Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Why does this text matter?

As his last achievement before his death in the fall of 1971, Gerhard Von Rad revised his commentary on Genesis. The following is a highlight of his conclusions.

-The text is magisterial! Most writings reflect the thoughts of a single author in a moment of time. Not so here. This first of two creation stories comes from the Priestly Writer who represents the generational learning and generational reflections of Israel’s theologians whose theology was refined and tried by the very serious challenge of the Babylonian Captivity. Israel could have lost her identity; instead, her best thinkers went to work.

-The terminology and “science” of this creation story are Babylonian. Yet, Von Rad downplays the connection. Rightfully so. The Priestly School so thoroughly reworks the “science” that theological concerns overwhelm the inadequate “science” of pre-scientific Babylon. Every word of our text has been reviewed by generations of ancient Israelite theologians. Every word matters. As Von Rad puts it, this text is “Priestly Doctrine.”

-Verse 1 summarizes all that the following verses describe. The word “create” is the Hebrew “bara” and is used only of God’s creative activity just as the Hebrew word “Salah” is used only of God’s forgiveness. Theologically, the Creator and the Creation have separate existence. There are no divine emanations. The Creator is Wholly Other than the Creation. “Heaven and earth” mean absolutely everything. God has the claim to Lordship over everything.

-Verse 2 is a very important theological digression. The opposite of creation is not Nothingness but the Formless/the Meaningless. When life unravels in Chaos, we experience the unraveling of God’s work in creation.

-Verses 3-5 tell us that “light” was created. Pagans worshipped light as a divine emanation. Is light important? Yes, it was preeminent in creation. Is light Divine? No, it is neither a reflection or overflow of God Himself. Two recurring themes of great importance are introduced in these verses: a God “names” what he creates and declares it “good.” By naming creation, God asserts His Lordship. “Good” doesn’t mean “beautiful” but rather “architecturally sound to the point of perfection” meaning without glitches. Theologically, this means that no evil exists where things work as God ideally wills them to work.

-The text speaks of God making the world with His “word” and by His “hand.” There is appropriate theological tension is these two ways of speaking. The hands-on language suggests God is intimately involved in creation. That God spoke the world into being suggests distance/separateness.

-Verses 3-4 and 14-19 are written with idolatry in mind. Light was created separate from sun and moon and stars. The stars don’t create light! In idolatry, the sun/moon/stars are divine objects giving divine light. Further, in idolatrous thinking, the positions of sun/moon/stars control human fate. In verse 16, their position only controls “night” and “day” and not the destinies of humans.

-Verses 26-28 are about the creation of Humanity. Von Rad writes, “The creation of man is introduced more impressively than any preceding work by the announcement of a divine resolution: ‘Let us make man.’ God participates more intimately and intensively in this than in the earlier work of creation. The use of the verb bara in vs. 27 receives its fullest significance for that divine creativity which is absolutely without analogy. It occurs three times in the one verse to make clear that here the high point and goal has been reached toward which all God’s creativity from verse 1 on was directed.” The meaning of the “image of God” language is mysterious and debated. The author may have meant for it to be mysterious! The result for humanity is clear. Because we are created in the image of God, we can have dominion in our world. It is about correspondence in ability to act. As God and angels can get things done in Heaven and earth, humans can act within the environment created for them. So, humans are co-regents with God in creation.

-We usually think of God completing creation on a Day 6 and then resting on Day 7. The text is more complicated. The rest on a day 7 is the completion/climax of creation. God’s creative activity has a purpose above and beyond calling things into being. Von Rad writes, “…that God has ‘blessed,’ ‘sanctified’ …this rest means that P does not consider it as something for God alone but as a concern of the world, almost as a third something that exists between God and the world.”

Side Notes

What is this third something? What does it mean to Enter into God’s Rest? I don’t think it is about “inactivity” but is rather about the ultimate purpose behind activity–relationship. On a Day 7, it is as if God says, “Let the relationships begin!” The World-making God is a Covenant-making God. The command to rest in the Mosaic Covenant involves a creature made in God’s image participating in God’s activity of rest. God is a relationship creator Who is all about relationships. He not only creates them but also keeps them. Rest is God experiencing the experiences of His world. The Creation story is not about the How of Creation. Look at the relationship groupings: Creator to Creation, chaos to order, light to darkness, light to sun/moon/stars, land to sea, plants to animals, humans to the Divine, humans to the human environment, idols to humans, etc. The creation story is a story of relationships the climax of which is our full participation in God’s Rest–the temporal is destined for the eternal! God keeps all the relationships of all creation in Himself for eternity–nothing is lost to Chaos. In God, our meaning is found and kept. God makes relationships and keeps them. One of Saint Augustine’s prayers captures something of the point: “Oh God, my heart was restless until it found its rest in thee.” The ultimate relating is relating to and in God.

Historical Issues

Along with the other Books of the Law, Genesis is a complicated compilation of four sources designated as J, E, D, and P. Each source has characteristics and perspectives that are detectable. For example, the J writer likes to use the word Yahweh for God while the E writer uses the word Elohim.

Possible Questions

Is the theological story of relationships trivialized when it is read as a “how-story” placed up against modern science?

By entering into God’s rest, do we enter the relationships we were created for?

Being created in the image of God means having “dominion” or power to act. God exercises His power to build relationships in a vast community. Is Paul’s vision of Church exactly that? People using God’s power to build community.

Sunday Lesson | June 8th

I Corinthians 12:4-13

Why does this text matter?

What do we make of all the diversity in the world? In the Anchor Bible commentary on I Corinthians, James Walther says that God overpowers the world with diversity whenever He inspires it and that only the Spirit of God can enable and empower the world to endure (or thrive in?) the diversity God interjects. Navigating this diversity then becomes a key to following God. Much of the violence in our world seems to be perpetrated by people who can’t navigate diversity.

Verses 1-3 are key and lay the foundation for verses 4-13. Paul is establishing THE central spiritual experience–what every Christian must experience as the core from which the diversity of gifts springs. Leaving idolatry for the Lordship of Christ is the foundational work of the Holy Spirit. It is the required spiritual experience. Leaving dumb idols is the required knowledge. Paul is dealing with the role of “ecstasy” in Christian faith. “Carried away” and “led” are references to ecstatic experience in pagan religions. Paul is establishing that it is the content of faith and not its manner of expression that is key. In a world permeated with ecstatic religious experience, Paul is defending the possibility of non-ecstatic forms of genuine faith. The key spiritual experience may not manifest itself as “spiritual.”

Today’s text contains issues that are quite modern–to what extent do we lead individual lives and to what extent are we communal beings? In verse 7, Paul suggests a complicated combination. C.K. Barrett translations the verse as “To each one is given his own manifestation of the Spirit, with a view to mutual profit.”

Historical Issues

It has been said that the Corinthian church had every problem that any church at any time has faced but one–nothing was boring! The divisions in the church were strong and destructive. Parties centered around Paul, Peter, Apollos and Christ. As it turns out, the Christ party was the most problematic! These “Super Christians” needed no human leaders. They could speak the language of Heaven (“tongues of angels” in 13:1). The ability to engage in Heaven Speak enabled them to have advanced knowledge of all spiritual matters. In worship, these Super Christians put their gifts on display by taking over the service. People had gathered to hear a word from God. So, the Super Christians, whose bodies were in the earthly service, would transport themselves into the heavenly service and communicate from there (see Isaiah 6). What Paul is trying to do in I Corinthians is an enormous task. In chapters 1-4, Paul is trying to establish a position from which he can address all the parties in the church as a unified group. In chapters 5-6, he address issues that the church did not ask about in their letter to him but about which he is aware. In chapter 7, he takes up the issues they wrote him about. In chapter 12, he takes up their question about “gifts of the Spirit.”

Side Notes

It is perhaps ironic that the overwhelming diversity of our world may also be God’s primary way of communicating His existence. The Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence says that the world is too diverse and too complex and works together too well not to have a singular mind at its core.

Possible Questions

Does “walking in the Spirit” mean navigating the diversity the Spirit creates?

Can we navigate diversity without the aid of a community?

How diverse does the community that helps us navigate diversity need to be?

When a church coordinates ministry with other churches or organizations or faiths, is this a work of the Spirit to navigate greater diversity?

 

Mark Todd

jmarktodd@aol.com

 

 

Sunday Lesson | June 1st

I Peter 5:6-11

Why does this text Matter?

Doxology matters! The word “Doxology” is formed by two Greek words. “Doxos” means glory. “Ology” comes from “logos” meaning “words of.” So, Doxology involves praising God with our human language for His glory. In the Anchor Bible commentary on Ephesians, Marcus Barth says that Doxology is the highest form of theological discourse. He adds that it is God’s pattern to pursue us in love until we praise Him. It seems fitting that Psalms of praise are in the center and heart of our Bible.

We are taught to end whatever we write with a compact summary. This is exactly what we get in I Peter 5:6-9. One of our earlier lessons was entitled “Paradoxical Living.” Peter reminds us to “humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God so that He will exalt us.” This brings to mind whole strands of gospel narratives about lordship as servitude. “The mighty hand of God” is a reference to God’s power through Jesus’ resurrection that creates New Birth. The power at the center of the universe is not against us but for us. God cares for us. So, some might take this message as a call to relax and enjoy. Peter recommends we not take that course. He tells us to “get real.” We live between two worlds–one where God’s will is always done and another where it is sometimes done. The context in which we experience New Birth and reconciliation is not one where we can simply enjoy the experience. God’s Kingdom is not the Magic Kingdom. New Birth is a complicated summons to experience combined with a call to action–a call to join God in restoring His creation. That call to action may necessitate suffering.

Historical Issues

For New Testament writings that end with doxologies, reference Jude (vs. 24-25). Jude’s Doxology is one of the most beautiful in the New Testament. See also Romans 16:25-27 and Romans 11:33.

Side Issues

Once in a while you run across an idea that you think about often and a lot. Luke Johnson has suggested just such an idea. If you believe human life is a problem to be solved, you experience living very differently than does someone who believes life is a mystery to be experienced.

Possible Questions

Do the Biblical writers believe life is a mystery to be experienced? If so, what happens when readers of the Bible assume life is a problem to be solved? Is this a recipe for misunderstanding the Bible as another “How To” manual?

Is Peter’s insistence that Christian life is paradoxical a way of saying life is mystery?

In worship, we always include the Lord’s Prayer and the Doxology. Shouldn’t we?

 

Mark Todd – jmarktodd@aol.com

Sunday Lesson | May 25th

I Peter 3:13-22

Why does this text matter?

I love what Peter writes in 3:17. He says, “For it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well doing, than for evil doing.” He suggests that not all Christians are called to suffer. Have you ever felt guilty that your faith hasn’t caused you to suffer enough? Time might change that problem quickly! But the text certainly says that suffering may or may not be a central experience for a Christian. Diversity of experience is okay. I remember hearing years ago that Christians in Communist Romania ended every prayer with the words “Whatever the Cost.” My first reaction was “Wow, that is so not my Christian faith.” It bothers me in American Christianity to see some make suffering needlessly central to Christian faith; so, they end up finding disingenuine ways to feel “persecuted.” I don’t sense a “War on Christianity” or a “War on Christmas” in my American way of life. Another disingenuine but unconscious way some call persecution down on themselves is by being an obnoxious Christian–a strategy that is certain to leave one feeling estranged from others. Peters advice is so contrary to the disingenuine. In 3:15, Peter says that the central characteristic he wants to focus on is “hope” that is grounded in Jesus’ resurrection. A hope that will be so evident that others will inquire about it. Peter says we are to be ready to articulate its source with “gentleness and reverence”–nothing obnoxious suggested.

Historical Issues

In the Baptist Today lesson, Tony Cartledge discusses the issues raised by 3:19-20 (see also 4:6). He mentions a division among scholars. Maybe Jesus didn’t preach “good news” to the prisoners in hell but only justified to them their condemnation. How can the “good news” not be good? In 4:6 Peter says that the purpose that Jesus preached to the dead was so they might be “judged in the flesh but live in the spirit.” We find the exact same language in I Corinthians 5: 1-5. Paul says that a Christian in Corinth has had an inappropriate relationship with his step-mother, and some in the Church are proud! They believe that freedom from the law is the freedom to do anything they want. Paul wants this Christian excommunicated. I Corinthians 5:5 tells us Paul’s purpose: “To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” When Peter says the goal of Christ’s preaching is “life in spirit,” he means salvation.

Side Notes

In The Writings of the New Testament, Luke Johnson writes the following about Jesus preaching to the dead: “First Peter suggests a mass of unredeemed people who waited in captivity for God’s definitive salvation. Because of their disobedience, they are farthest removed from God’s presence. Yet, even they are touched by the power of resurrection life. Jesus’ spirit can reach across the deepest spiritual alienation, even into the prison of damnation, and save. From such a seed sprouts the apostolic conviction that “he descended into hell.”(pg 436) See Romans 8:37-39.

 Possible Questions

Many are quick to set up rules condemning people to hell. Is that wrong? Are the rules that clear? I Corinthians 5 suggest the purpose of Church discipline is to save. I Peter 4:6 has Jesus emptying hell of the worst-of-the-worst (those who called down the flood of Noah).

Is “suffering” a possible characteristic of the Christian life while “hope” is an essential characteristic?

If Christians do “suffer,” isn’t it important that it be unjust?