Leaving the past in the past…

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Romans 13:1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4 for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6 For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. 

This is a good example of a passage in which it’s important to consider context. The apostle Paul is writing to the church in ancient Rome, to people who lived in a particular time under a particular set of circumstances. When I read this section it sounds to me like there are persons in the Roman church who are considering some act of rebellion.

1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

Paul is trying to keep some Roman believers from defying local authority and compromising the safety of the entire Christian community. Given Paul’s wisdom and discernment revealed in his many writings it’s logical to believe this was good council – for that particular people living in that particular time. However, where a modern reader can get in trouble is by taking a teaching about a specific time and place and applying it as a general principle for all times and situations.

As one example, consider the 20th century. If Christian people were to have taken this teaching to heart in the 1940s the United States would never have entered WW2 to defeat Hitler. Good Christians would have assumed it was God who placed Hitler in power, which would have meant fighting Hitler was akin to fighting God himself (see v.2 above). Mass murder and tyranny would have spread across the globe! It would have been unthinkable.

This is why Christians must continually balance the desire to be faithful to scripture in the present with the occasional need to leave the past in the past. Holy Spirit give us wisdom to know the difference, for this is very tricky business indeed. Amen.

The mind of God…

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Romans 11:33 O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

This verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans jumped out at me this morning, particularly since we are reading the Old Testament book of Job at the same time we’re reading Romans. Job is such a brilliant and disturbing book because it challenges the cause-effect relationship between God and people. When people do what’s right, good things are supposed to happen to them. Conversely when people do wrong, bad things are supposed to happen to them. It’s a logic that makes sense. It’s the first covenant in a nutshell.

But the story of Job disrupts this logic because Job, a righteous man, suffers terribly. What gives God? How is that supposed to make sense? Answer: it doesn’t make sense – nor does it have to.

“How unsearchable are (God’s) judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”

Gods ways are not our ways. In the place of logical understanding I am called to trust God, to have faith in the Lord when my reality doesn’t line up with my understanding of the way things are supposed to be. Lord help me because this is a tough one. Amen.

It just doesn’t make sense…

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Job 4:1 Then Eliphaz the Temanite answered:2 “If one ventures a word with you, will you be offended? But who can keep from speaking? 3 See, you have instructed many; you have strengthened the weak hands. 4 Your words have supported those who were stumbling, and you have made firm the feeble knees. 5 But now it has come to you, and you are impatient; it touches you, and you are dismayed. 6 Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope? 7 “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? 8 As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.

In chapter 3 Job cursed the day he was born, talking to the day as if it were a person to blame for his misfortune. One expects he is cursing the day of his birth to avoid cursing God directly. There are also three friends of his who show up to support him and sit with him in his time of need. Having sat with Job in silence for seven days Eliphaz is compelled to speak.

In our passage Eliphaz is saying out loud what the others are thinking – Job must have screwed up somehow and is getting what he deserves as punishment from the Lord:

7 “Think now, who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off? 8 As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.

“C’mon Job, you must have done something – and an awful something at that!.” But the truth is Job remains blameless. Yet he suffers. There are times when things just don’t make sense. With God. With life. With those who love us.

The tragic figure of Job…

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Job 2:1 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

In chapter one of the book of Job the accuser “Satan” inflicts great loss on Job as a test of his faithfulness to God. All ten of Job’s children and all of his livestock are killed in quick succession, yet Job doesn’t curse God as a result. Here in chapter two the attack is on Job himself. Despite the awful suffering he must have endured with painful sores from head to toe he does not curse God. What caught my attention this morning is v.9:

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.”

Job is a difficult character for me to relate to at this point because of his incredible piety and self-control in a time of devastating loss. But the wife’s response I understand. As hard as it was for Job to endure this hardship he didn’t endure it alone. His wife lost all her children along with Job. Then having to watch her husband suffer with sores was more than she could take. Seeing her husband die would have been easier than seeing him continue to suffer. I’m guessing she would soon die along with him and they would all be put out of their misery.

This is a difficult book all the way around because God allows this attack on Job and his family. For what? To make a point with Satan? To win $20 on a bet? The issues that will emerge in this book are profound, but the premise is troubling. It just doesn’t square with my notions of the character of God revealed in other parts of scripture.

A woman saves her people…

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Esther 10:1 King Ahasuerus laid tribute on the land and on the islands of the sea. 2 All the acts of his power and might, and the full account of the high honor of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the annals of the kings of Media and Persia? 3  For Mordecai the Jew was next in rank to King Ahasuerus, and he was powerful among the Jews and popular with his many kindred, for he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his descendants.

This is the final chapter of the book of Esther and what an amazing reversal has taken place. At the beginning of our story Haman was in power and attempted to use that power for evil against Mordecai and the rest of the Jewish people who refused to bow down to him. By the end Haman and his descendants are dead with Mordecai assuming the role of second-in-command to the king. The young woman Esther started as a young virgin girl who became a powerful queen. Finally we’re told that Mordecai and King Ahasuerus used their power for the good of all the people, Jewish and otherwise.

Interestingly, though the book is named for Esther – and rightly so, she is not mentioned in this concluding paragraph. Why not name the book “Mordecai” then? I think we’re seeing the evidence of paternalistic thinking as it relates to leadership in the ancient Near East. Frankly there is still a good bit of this way of thinking today. Woman can have many roles in society as a whole, including the church, but are not often included on the list of the highest ranking leaders.

This is one reason I’m glad to be part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Don’t get me wrong. There are a whole host of issues with which I disagree with the ELCA, but women in leadership isn’t one of them. In fact, our most senior bishop is Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton.

Lord thank you for the way you care for your people. And thank you for the many wonderfully gifted women who are born to lead. Give us grace to embrace them fully into every aspect of life, for we are all poorer for it when we fail to do so. We pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Being “enlightened” in Christ

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Romans 10: 1 Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for (the Jews observing the law of Moses) is that they may be saved. 2 I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they have not submitted to God’s righteousness. 4 For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. 

This passage is messing with me this morning. And when I say it’s “messing” with me I mean it’s making me think. If you’ve been following along in Romans you know that Paul has been giving instruction to Christians in Rome who are enduring great hardship and opposition. Part of that opposition comes from Jews who contest the teaching that salvation comes through faith in Christ alone and not through observing the rules and regulations of God (the law).

Remember that before Paul was a Christian apostle he was a Pharisee of the Jews named Saul, a teacher of the law and persecutor of Christians. As such he has a heart for fellow Jews who are not yet Christians – even some are being a bit of a pain at the moment.

2 I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened.

Paul notes their hearts are in the right place but they aren’t aware of/informed of the new covenant of faith made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus. They keep trying to achieve righteousness by obeying the law, which history has shown does not work. Our human sin continually gets in the way. \

Particularly in this season of Lent I’m asking the Lord to reveal the places where I’m doing my own thing rather than embracing the law of grace. How am I living as one who is not “enlightened”? What should I do about it?

The pain of discipline…

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Psalm 39: 7 “And now, O Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in you. 8 Deliver me from all my transgressions. Do not make me the scorn of the fool. 9 I am silent; I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it. 10 Remove your stroke from me; I am worn down by the blows of your hand. 11 “You chastise mortals in punishment for sin, consuming like a moth what is dear to them; surely everyone is a mere breath.”

Here is a psalm of lament. The writer acknowledges his sins and transgressions before the Lord asking for forgiveness and mercy. Because at the time he was suffering from “blows of (God’s) hand” (v.10). I can imagine a divine hand metaphorically administering corporal punishment on the backside of the psalmist. Something about that gets my attention.

There is something very intimate, very personal, very painful about spanking with the hand. The sting of impact is shared by both administer and recipient. I’d like to think it gives God no pleasure to bring discipline like this, but discipline is part of the job of a father. And so God does his job.

Heavenly Father, you don’t shrink from your responsibility when it’s hard and/or painful. This morning I pray to you as the psalmist. My hope is in you. Deliver me from all my transgressions – of which there are many. Amen.