Thursday, December 22, 2011

Exodus 32.15-34 (Christmas: Why Jesus Came to Us)

I am reminded once more the reason why Jesus came to us.
In Exodus, Moses spends forty days and forty nights with God on top of Mt. Sinai being blessed by God’s presence. At the end, he receives two tablets written on front and back – the Ten Commandments (Ex 32.15-16). He comes down from the mountain and is shocked at what he sees – the Israelites in a drunken dance before the golden calf. Moses is so overcome with anger that he hurls the holy tablets down at them, breaking them into pieces.
After executing the most egregious wrong doers (about 3,000), he heads back up to meet the truly offended. There, in front of God, he begs, “But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written” (32.32). Essentially, Moses is saying, “I am willing to die on their behalf!” How Jesus of him to say that! How great of Moses! He's so good.
So what is God’s response to his passionate plea? It's a rather unemotional, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book” (v.33).
Huh? I expected God to respond in one of two ways: he could have said, “Oh, how nice of you Moses! I am so moved by your display that I will forgive them! (sniff…sob…)” or second, “Move aside Moses! My anger will not be lessened by your plea! They deserve my wrath!” One of those two responses was what I expected from God.
But God responds with something unexpected. “Whoever has sinner against me I will blot out of my book.” What does this mean? That’s God turning the table on Moses and replying, “Who do you think you are, Moses?” It’s God saying, “Do you think you are somehow different from them? Sinless? Pure? Holy? Is your name so secure in my book? Answer me if you can.”
When God has gotten his attention, He continues with an instruction for Moses to lead them as God directs him and let God be God: “when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin” (v.34). It’s God’s way of saying, “Moses, you are called out to serve me. That's it. You cannot blot out their sin. You have no power nor right to do that work. You are no different from them. A sinner. Don’t be so full of yourself.”
And so God sent Jesus. The one with the power and the right to declare, “I am willing to die on their behalf!”
That’s why we celebrate Christmas.
When the day came for us to receive punishment, God sent his only Son who would declare on the cross, "I am willing to die on their behalf!"
That's why it's Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Matthew 15:21-28 (Canaanite Woman's Faith)

In the Gospel of Mark, she is called the Syrophoenician Woman (7.24f). During one of his travels, Jesus is walking in the northeastern region along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. While there, a local woman comes to Jesus because her daughter is deathly ill, tormented by a demon. Jesus' response is surprising to us. He avoids her (v.23). When she persists with louder plea for help, Jesus throws out a discouraging reply, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs" (vv.24-26). Wow. Just wow. Harsh words. Did he just call her a dog?

She doesn't let those words hurt her, even though I bet they did. That's because her daughter needs help and she is certain Jesus has the power to heal. And so she begs at the one that has just put her down, "Yes, Lord." I bet that was hard to say. "yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table" (v.27).

Jesus is smiling now. She has passed the faith test. I want to talk about this more later. But he declares, "Woman!" She is no longer a dog. "Great is your faith!" And with those words, the demon is cast out and her child is healed completely.

I wonder how the disciples are reacting to this...And this is important, because Jesus was teaching two groups this day -- the Canaanite woman, and his disciples.

I want to try to make sense of Jesus' initial reaction to the Canaanite woman. What's with his harsh words of discrimination? It's so unlike him to do so. No, he wouldn't do it because he doesn't believe what he said. So why did he do it? Why did he call her a dog and that she doesn't deserve his attention? Many believe Jesus' motive was to test her faith and she came through with flying colors, "Great is your faith!" But I think that's only half of his motivation. He had another audience beside him -- his disciples.

Jesus was certainly repeating the generally held view of the Jews. In this case, his words are in accord with the view of the disciples that surround him. That is why they agree with Jesus, "Send her away!" And when Jesus called her a dog, I bet the disciples were nodding in approval. "That's right Jesus! Tell her off!" I can see them encouraging him. But the woman doesn't back off. Her persistence changes Jesus! It's as if Jesus turns to his disciples as he shouts, "Woman! How great is your faith!" Look, she's not a dog. She has great faith! And I am going to do what she asks. That's because I have also come for her. From this perspective, Jesus is teaching the nationalistic disciples that Jesus is the Savior of the world!

1) The disciples and the Jews. The Jews in the time of Jesus held onto a sense of entitlement calling themselves "God's children" while others weren't. And if others weren't God's children, then they are less...they are dogs. But the true plan of God from Abraham on was for the Israelites to be "God's children" so that God can use them to reach the world. There were called to be a blessing to others. We see that clearly with the story of Jonah and God's desire for the Gentiles to receive God's love and mercy. In the story, Jonah reflects the erroneous selfishness of the Jews - You are our God! And I refuse to go to the Ninevites and share You with them!

Not much had changed by the time of Jesus. The Jews prided themselves on being called God's children. But then they turned around and called others "dogs." That's not the way God wanted it. For the Creator God, the Canaanite was his child just as a Jew was his child.

By speaking from their discrimination and error, Jesus was teaching his disciples, and later Jewish readers the harshness of their position, but also that if Jesus came to the Jews first, he would be going to the Gentiles next. And they more than deserve it -- look at the woman! What great faith she's got! She's no dog.

In some way, we can replace the Jews with us Americans. We certainly feel privileged and so sing, "God Bless America!" We certainly are blessed. Founded upon Christian values and faith, God has been good to us. And like the Jews, we are to go forth and bless others. That's a command. And there are so many that need Jesus!

2) The Canaanite woman was certainly tested by Jesus. But really, it was not so much of a test, as a proof of her faith. I bet she didn't know how much faith she possessed. She knew Jesus could heal her daughter, but she didn't know how much she was willing to let herself go for it. Jesus showed her the greatness of her faith. He refused her. He rejected her. He rudely called her names. But she clung on. When Jesus exclaimed, "Woman, great is your faith!" I think she went, "Really? Oh, that's true!"

Our faith is shown in moments of crisis, in desperate need. How much are we willing to trust God? Even when we feel rejected by God and spurned by Him, how much are we willing to say, "No matter what, you are the one I trust!"

Philippines 2006. Visit to a local prison (talk of overcrowded jails?)
Sometimes God places crises in our lives to cultivate faith. Cling onto God and allow God to reveal your great faith. And sometimes, God calls us to let go of what we have so that we come to a place of need. Don't you worry. That's a great time to cultivate your faith! That's a chance for you to hear, "Woman, Man, My daughter, My son, great is your faith!"

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Genesis 34 (Rape of Dinah)

It's a horrible story. The family of Jacob arrives at a new land. While they are getting adjusted, their daughter is taken by the prince of the land and raped. In anger, Jacob's sons devise a plan of revenge and effectively kill all of the men of the region.

This story is usually understood this way - Shechem, the loose prince of the land wrongs Dinah and her family by raping her. He is evil. And his father is awful for trying to cover it up. In righteous indignation, her brothers exact divine wrath against the evil people. This is told as a symbol of God's anger against human sin.

But I believe there is a better, more accurate way of understanding this story and so God's truth. We need to put on our cultural sensitivity hat and look at it for what it is - a story of one family with one culture entering another region with another culture. To do this properly, we need to step away from looking at this story from our modern American perspective (our sense of right and wrong, as well as our view of men and women) and view it as a story of two cultures butting heads.

First of all, we all believe Shechem's violence towards Dinah was wrong. Jacob and his family are burning mad! But it's certainly surprising to read that Shechem and his father never apologize. Rather, Shechem's feelings toward Dinah is described, "he loved the girl, and spoke tenderly to her" (v.3) and longed to marry her (v.4). In our culture, if this is the case, Shechem should have done anything and everything to get Dinah to like him! But the narrative reads like Shechem's act of rape was his expression of love. Could it be that this was a accepted way a young man in his region carried out love? Or was Shechem simply evil and deranged?

Shechem's father's reaction is instructive here. When Hamor approaches Jacob, we know that he wants Jacob's approval of marriage between their children. I would think Hamor would approach it with great apology and regret at the wrongful action of his son. No apology is offered. Rather, it's a simple, "the heart of my son Shechem longs for your daughter; please give her to him in marriage" (v.8).

Is it possible that in this culture, Shechem was carrying out a suitor's method of courtship? As crude as it may seem to us, maybe that's simply the case. And that is not too much of a stretch. Among the Kyrgyz people in the Central Asian region, there is practice that is commonly called "bride stealing" or "bride kidnapping." Even though the practice has been officially outlawed, the practice continues with the approval of the village elders. The man will kidnap a woman they want to marry and hold her in his home for a night. The next day, he visits the woman's parents and asks for her hand in marriage. The understanding is that the woman has spent the night with the man and so has become sexually active; the parents therefore cannot reject the request. It's an accepted practice.

If Shechem was following the method of his culture, then his action is no longer as personally evil as it appears. Obviously Jacob and his sons abhor it. But they are the ones who have entered a new culture. They are visitors; they must accommodate to the new culture, or if they cannot not, then they need to move out. But they will not move, and they will not accept. Of course, they are filled with anger over the rape. And so they will violently uproot it. Their method -- kill all of the men. Their trick -- religion -- they will use the holiest of acts (circumcision) for murder. In the end, no one comes out looking good.

Shechem's act is sinful (whether cultural or personal), but so much more so are Jacob and his sons. They show their mixed intention when they plundered the city with all her wealth and women. They are all workers of evil.

Kyrgyzstan 2002. Sarang Church young leaders.
There are a handful of teachings that arise from this. How to respond to evil is probably the most important. Jacob and his sons teach us how NOT to respond. By killing all the men, they upped the evil and began the cycle of revenge. So how are we to respond? When Jim Elliot and his friends were killed by the Auca people of Ecuador, the response of the family stand in contrast. Forgiveness first and then sacrificial acts of love. Their method allowed God's grace to overflow. Read about it online by searching for it.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Exodus 16 (Manna in the Desert)

In Exodus 16, we find the Hebrews escaping out of Egypt with Moses leading them forth. Chapter 14 records their Red Sea crossing, and in our text, they are heading toward Mt. Sinai. On their journey, the people run out of food and they complain (they are going to continue to complain for the next 40 years!).

On the face of it, it looks like the miracle of manna was a direct result of their complaining. But seeing how the manna was going to be given daily for the next 40 years, it is safe to assume that the giving of manna to them was a part of God's plan all along. The question before us is "what's the purpose of the manna?"

First of all, "what is it?" That's what manna means -- "What is it?" According to our text, it's a "fine flaky substance" (v.14), "like a coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey" (v.31). It is referred to as a "bread from heaven" (v.4) as contrasted with quails that are called "meat" (v.12). And so it was like fine flour and the Hebrews will make different types of bread and cake, biscuits and cookies with it.

Secondly, God gives the Hebrews a clear direction on how to go about getting them. This "bread from heaven" will fall from the sky in the early mornings and by the time the sun rises, the dried ground will be covered with it readied to be gathered by the people. Each person is to gather only an omer per person (omer is a tenth of ephah and ephah is about 22 liters. That makes omer about 2.2 liters or about 1/2 gallon -- a milk carton). That means that a family of five will gather 5 omers. That's it. If anyone gathers more than that, the leftover spoiled and rotted.

What is the purpose of the manna from heaven?

1) "In the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord" (v.7) declares Moses and Aaron. That's what manna was to be -- a revelation of God's glory or presence. Up to this point, God was known as the Protector and Savior of his people. He saved them from the hands of the cruel Egyptians, and he continued to Protect them through the pillars of cloud by day and of fire by night. During the days when the desert heat beat down upon the people the cloud covered them, and cold desert air of the night was softened by the pillar of fire in their midst. Now, God wanted to show them that He is also their Provider and Sustainer. He would feed them and care for their needs. And they will know this every morning when they rise up and look outside and see the provisions of God.

In truth, manna became routine for them. Rather than thanking God for his consistency and blessing, they complained that the menu was always the same. God's glory revealed became ho hum for them. But before we point fingers at them, it's reflective of us as well. Every morning is a blessing of God and each new day, a chance for us to enjoy God's provisions. But we too are full of complaints. We are no better -- but it is easy to the speck on someone else's eye, isn't it?

2) Omer to each person. In this, God shows no distinction between individuals. Men don't get more than women, and the older don't get more than the younger. A baby and a large man receives the same amount. Our God is consistent with his love and he makes no distinction between individuals. Praise God! We see that our social structure and valuing of individuals by their sex, talent, money, power, color of one's skin, nationality are a product of our invention and sinfulness, and not a method God uses -- he sees us individually and each one is special in his eyes, worthy of his care and provisions. Amen.

3) But omer of manna cannot satisfy a large man, but it's too much for a little baby. Some need more and some will have leftovers. But that's the point! Our God is promoting communal sharing. Those that don't need as much ought to give to those who need more. This can be done within the community and that promotes love and bonding. Sharing and looking out for the interest of others. That's so....Christian!

Mongolia 2007. Concluding the missions trip with Lord's Supper
4) Jesus will call himself the "Bread from Heaven." He is the new manna -- through consuming him, we are fully satisfied (physically & spiritually), and rather than going out daily to gather it, once eaten, we are full once and for all. But some of the principles of manna still apply -- we are to recognize God as the provider of all things, and we are to go forth and share this manna with others.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Matthew 9.2-8 (Healing of a Paralytic)

I am presently reading the Gospel of Matthew and came upon a healing story that made me pause and do a reread:

And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9.2)

On the face of it, it’s pretty amazing. Even though the story implies it, there is no explicit request made by either the paralyzed man or his friends. Where were they going with that man? If we didn’t have Mark 2.1-12 or Luke 5.17-26 where the story is told more fully, we might think that they were carrying their friend somewhere and just happened to encounter Jesus. It is through Mark and Luke that we are told they had to climb to the roof of the house and then lower their friend down because of the large crowd surrounding Jesus. I wonder why Matthew didn't mention that...

And certainly, the request of the men would have been for their friend's healing. Namely, they wanted for Jesus the healer to remove the paralysis and offer their friend the freedom of mobility. Since they had rudely barged in on Jesus, he had several options at his disposal; I think I would have scolded them for breaking into the line -- "Wait your turn! It's not fair to others." Or he could have quickly touched the man to heal him and moved on to what he was doing. But Jesus does things differently; he stopped whatever he was doing and now they had his full attention. This was more important.

Even though I am reading between the lines, I believe Jesus noticed two things. 

First of all, he saw the wonderful commitment to friendship – the men went to extreme lengths to see their friend healed. They treated this situation most personally and so with urgency and desperation, they pushed themselves upon Jesus whom they believed had the power to heal. That was their faith that Jesus saw and noted, “Jesus saw their faith.”

But Jesus noticed, I think this is what caught his attention, the hesitancy of the paralytic. The urgent plea of the friends contrasted with the bowed face of the man who refused to look into Jesus’ eyes (I know it's not in the text; I am creating a scene in my mind). Most probably, the paralytic felt he deserved his plight, he felt it was somehow justified when he considered his sinful life. I believe that is what Jesus saw…a man who was confronted by Perfect Holiness and in front of him, he lowered his head.

And so Jesus healed him. Jesus freed him from paralysis – both inside and out. He was free to move about. But he was first freed from guilt and a sense of judgment. “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”

Remarkable story in several ways. I want friends like that. When I am down and paralyzed, outside or inside, I want friends who will go out of their way, climb the side of the house, push through the roof top and lower me down, using all of their strength, so that I can encounter Jesus and receive my healing
Inside Iglesia Evangelica Peruana San Antonio, Peru
And I am so thankful that Jesus cares about our whole. Nothing is more important than that. He will push aside whatever he was doing and give us his full attention. And he will heal us completely. But it requires our initiative. In some ways, that's the hardest part, isn't it?

In the Beginning

I have always wanted to create a "blog" for my Bible reading. When I read Scripture, I tend to jot down notes that I want to come back to. They may be questions, or new discovered truths. In any case, I am certain I am not alone. And even though I have not scanned the internet blogging world, others are probably keeping their own blogs that arise out of their Bible study. And so I know that I am not unique in this venture.

My hopes are several.

1) I am a pastor of a church in the East Coast, Bethany Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). I would like for my church members to visit this blog frequently and engage in a biblical dialogue with me. Use this forum or talk to me at church about what I have written and how I can better help you understand the Bible.

2) For those who are serving in small churches and need someone to help them understand the Bible, I hope this blog will be helpful. Please glean from my study and don't be afraid to ask questions and ask for further clarifications. I hope my study can be used by you to teach the Bible and preach if asked to do so. I want to help you -- please let me know how.

3) For my peers, fellow pastors who are called to be experts in the study and understanding of Scripture, to discuss truths together. Obviously, I read and write about the Bible from my limited perspective and learning; please feel free to make comments that better us all. I do ask one thing from you -- please keep our dialogue simple -- you are going to lose me if you begin quoting historical theologians and philosophers and their views -- and quite frankly, I want to understand Scripture personally without having to rely too much on other quite brilliant people -- as Paul would write, "I think that I too have the Spirit of God." (1Cor 7.40).

And so my goals:

1) I want to keep it going. I don't want to begin this and then let it fizzle out. I am afraid that if my three hopes above go unfulfilled, I will lose steam, I hope not. There is a fourth hope that I have not written above. I enjoy studying the Bible and jotting down notes, and the internet is an important medium to share those things with the world. I hope that God will use it in ways that I didn't expect. To that end, I want to keep it going.

2) I will be writing from both the Old Testament and the New Testament. That's because I enjoying reading from both sides. At this time, there won't be any set order to what I write. I will probably take a portion of the passage that I am reading and write on it. Maybe when I get enough content, I will need to organize it by books. I hope so.

Mission trip to Peru 2011. At Machu Picchu with my two boys
3) Now and then, I am going to put photos from my missions trips that may or may not relate to the topic at hand. I don't know, I hope the photos will give it a more personal touch.

God's peace to you.

December 9, 2011