I don’t know what came over me

Have you ever caught yourself saying something you didn’t plan to say? Sometimes we have “foot-in-mouth-disease” and say something embarrassing.  And sometimes we might actually say something wise, profound or truthful that we didn’t know we had in us. Either way, we might wonder what came over us.

The reading from the book of Numbers 24:1-14 is a portion of a much longer episode about the prophet Balaam, whom king Balak summoned to curse the Israelites as they passed through his kingdom. It’s worth reading in its entirety, if for nothing else than Balaam’s talking donkey.

This passage seems terribly out of context, and completely unrelated to the one from Luke 1, which is the announcement of Jesus’ birth by the angel Gabriel. But the key word this week after Pentecost is Spirit, and that word occurs in both lessons. Balaam is overcome by the Spirit of the LORD and he utters a blessing instead of a curse. And the angel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, which will result in the birth of the Son of God.

So what do these passages teach us about the Spirit of God? The Spirit makes things happen counter to expectation, counter to human plans, counter even to biology. If the Spirit of God is in fact God himself, as the doctrine of the Trinity says, then, I suppose, the unplanned, unmediated, and supernatural things we sometimes encounter should not make us doubt our senses. What do you think?

Have you received a surprise blessing today? Have you found yourself to be a blessing to someone? Have you done something today where you were surprised at your own courage? Do you think this was the work of the Holy Spirit?

 

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Tips for reading the Bible

Including some from a book called “51% Christian”, by Mark Stenberg:

  1. Don’t read the Bible alone. Sign up for a smart, critical-thinking Bible study at your local church. At Glory we have one on Sunday morning at 9:30 am. At least I like to think it’s smart. Talk to others who are reading the same passages. Post a question or comment on this blog.
  2. Get a good commentary. A good study Bible will also do the job. The Oxford Annotated Study Bible or the Harper Collins Study Bible are both excellent. They contain some of the best that modern scholarship can offer in the form of introductions to each of the books of the Bible, numerous foot-notes and cross references, maps, and more.
  3. Read the Bible backwards. Reading backwards is like looking at the picture of the jigsaw puzzle you’re trying to assemble. For example when reading the gospels, start with the crucified and risen Jesus. The gospels were written as a result of this event. When reading the Old Testament start with the prophets who announced God’s original will of liberating people from slavery. Read the Bible backwards by keeping in your mind the picture of ultimate peace and justice, life, beauty and healing for the world described in the book of Revelation, chapter 21-22. It’s the goal of history and a key to understanding what came before in the Bible.
  4. Remember that the living word is not a book, or letters on a page. The Bible, though called the Word of God, is witness to the living word which is Jesus Christ. We know his love through the Holy Spirit, based on the witness of Scripture.
  5. Celebrate the passages or verses that speak to you, or that you find particularly meaningful. Try to memorize them. Try to think of related passages and look them up.
  6. Stick to one translation. The NRSV is probably the best from a scholarly linguistic standp0int. The NIV uses some non-inclusive language, but is otherwise okay. The Good News Bible is not always accurate, but very readable. Comparing translations can be helpful when dealing with a difficult passage. But continuity in style is better for retaining the content.
  7. Use your imagination.
  8. Note what you are feeling as you read. Confusion, doubt, uncertainty, anger – these feelings can be just as important as serenity, faith, assurance, and peace. Explore what in the text gives you these feelings.
  9. Turn what you are feeling into prayer.
  10. When confused, don’t give up reading, but read more. Read longer passages in context.

What is God?

Revelation 22:6-9

You must not do that! the angel said to John, who was lying at the feet of the one who had showed and told him “what must soon take place” (v.6).

“Worship God!” That seems so obvious, but it is anything but.

In his explanation to the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me”, Luther says “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.”

What am I afraid of? Whom do I fear? How often in a day am I motivated by anxiety? Moses had reason to be anxious as he led the people into a promised future that seemed anything but secure. In Exodus 33:12-17, he argues with the LORD, “show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight…. If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here…”

“What is it to have a god? What is God?”, Luther asked in the Large Catechism explanation of the first commandment. Answer: “A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God…. Many a person thinks he has God and everything he needs when he has money and property… It is the most common idol on earth. He who has money and property feels secure, happy, fearless, as if he were sitting in the midst of paradise…So too, if anyone boasts of great learning, wisdom, power, prestige, family, and honor, and trusts in them, he also has a god, but not the one, true God…Therefore, I repeat, to have a God properly means to have something in which the heart trusts completely.” (The Book of Concord, Fortress Press 1959, 365-366)

St. John could have felt proud of his visions of Jesus, and of the heavenly Jerusalem. Or else he could have dispaired and fallen into a state of panic at the sight of hell-fire and destruction. As it is, he falls at the feet of the messenger and is told “Worship God!”. God is on the throne. Not just any god, but the one who is identified with the Lamb who was slain, Jesus who conquered death by his cross and resurrection.

In light of what is going on in Ft. McMurray this week: What gives us confidence, happiness, security? In light of the challenges, small and great, of going forward this day, what gives me strength?

Moses was told, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest… I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
O God of earth and sky, water and fire,
Have mercy on us.
God of cross and altar, Jesus our refuge and strength,
Have mercy on us.
God, the Holy Spirit, our comforter and counselor,
Have mercy on us.

Have mercy on the people fleeing for their lives.
Send gentle and abundant rain upon the dry forests,
and protect those whose job it is to protect.
Comfort those who have lost home, possessions, pets, community,  and documents.
Steady the hearts of children shaken with fright,
Lift the hearts of adults weighed down with worry.
Give protection and compassion to those who serve in disaster relief.
Grant wisdom and foresight to all civic leaders.
Give rest and peace to all creation.

Amen

“Women Leaders”

It sounds really strange to say “women leaders”, which is why I put the phrase in quotations. We don’t say “men leaders”, unless perhaps they happen to be leading a group of men. But I have often heard leaders classified as women leaders in the church. The culture has moved on to be much more inclusive, but in the church there is still an undercurrent of male dominance. “It’s in the Bible.” Not. Sometimes we have to take exception to the text of the Bible for the sake of the gospel. The culture in which the Bible was written was patriarchal. Women had a status similar to children in ancient times. They were often married off (for a price) before they reached puberty. Their purpose was to have children and wait on the man.

This attitude is reflected in many parts of the Bible. But there are some notable exception. These exceptions may confirm the rule of cultural bias. But they also show what God’s intentions have been from the beginning: Male and Female God created them (Genesis 1).

A case in point are the readings for Wednesday this week: 2 Chronicles 34:20-33; Luke 2:25-38. Two prophets who happen to be female. One is called Huldah, who lived at the time of king Josiah of Judah. Her message to the king led to the renewal of the covenant between God and the people. Unlike with many of the other prophets, Huldah was actually listened to! The other is called Anna, a prophet who lived in the Jerusalem temple and praised God for the child Jesus and spoke to people about God’s redemption. Many more examples exist. The first witness of the resurrection was Mary Magdalene, there were apostles like Junia, evangelists like Priscilla, and authors, like that of the letter to the Hebrews, who was likely a woman.

Praise God for the women who praise God by being leaders in church and society. In Christ, who was a man born of a woman, there is neither male nor female. Alleluia.

 

Human Dung?

There are those who like to take the Bible too literally. Especially when it comes to prophecies in the Old Testament, like the book of Ezekiel. I’ve never seen “Ezekiel Bread” in a store, but it looks like a real product. And yes, God said to include wheat, barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt. (Ez. 4:9). But he said it to Ezekiel, not us.

Ezekiel is one of the wild ones in the Bible. “A trippy book” one commentator called it. It starts with visions of four strange “living creatures” on wheels full of eyes, carrying a crystal dome. On the dome is a throne and on the throne “something that seemed like a human form.” The prophet recognizes it as the “glory of the LORD”. That’s in chapter one.

In chapter 4 he was told to burn human dung. Seriously! God tells the prophet to lie on his side for over a year and eat bread baked with human dung! (Ez. 4:12) I suppose when you can’t get up to go, burning it is a good alternative. But Ezekiel is appalled. “I have never defiled myself”, he says. So God allows him to use cow-dung instead. Phew!

In chapter 37 the prophet sees a field strewn with human bones. God tells him to speak to the bones. The bones begin to rattle and assemble into skeletons and get covered in flesh and skin, and eventually come alive. I’m reminded of Zombie movies… So how do you make sense of any of this?

The prophet Ezekiel was a priest. He had grown up in and worked in the Jerusalem temple. Then the Babylonians had laid siege to the city. They eventually destroyed it, including the temple. Ezekiel had been taken prisoner to Babylon with many other leading figures. In Babylon he had his visions. Visions of what was going on back home; visions of the city getting destroyed, of God’s house being wrecked and desecrated, visions of the glory of God leaving the temple, visions of people dying from war and famine. And as he writes it all down, and as he enacts it symbolically, a new vision begins to emerge: a new temple, a new holy city, a new holy land. That’s in chapter 45.

I don’t profess to understand all the numbers, the dimensions of the temple and holy district. But I get that it is well ordered. Everything is in its proper place. God is central. Worship is a full-time occupation. Priests and Levites have work to do (chapter 44). King and princes have their assigned district and apportioned land. All the other members of God’s people have their portion in the land. Nobody gets disadvantaged, nobody has to starve, or cook with human dung, everyone is whole and holy.

The princes of Israel get told: “Put away your violence and oppression, and do what is just and right. Cease your evictions of my people, says the Lord GOD.”

The prophets of Israel critiqued power in the name of the God who is self-giving love. People with power evicting those without power is a gross violation of justice. It stinks like dung. Love, justice, and peace on the other hand give off a pleasant smell like that of incense.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The blessing of greasy hair.

Psalm 133 The Blessedness of Unity

A Song of Ascents.
1 How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
life for evermore.

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! Psalm 133 That’s a very good and pleasant thought. I understand it. It sounds like something from a Hallmark card or a Norman Rockwell picture.

But then it says it is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard of Aaron, the priest brother of Moses. Oil was and is a precious commodity (the current price of crude notwithstanding). In the ancient middle East, scented olive oil was used as perfume, as a cosmetic, and as way of honoring people of importance. Kings and priests were annointed with oil. In Egypt the aristocracy wore cones of solid oil straped on their heads that melted in the heat and flowed down their hair unto their clothes. How does this process of oil running down Aaron’s beard and robe illustrate unity?

Unity is like “the dew of Hermon” which falls on the mountains of Zion. Mount Hermon is an almost 3000 meter mountain cluster on the borders between Syria, Lebanon and Israel, snow covered most of the year. Because of its height it gets a lot of precipitation in comparison to the arid surroundings. Hermon was an important site of non-Israelite worship in ancient times. Zion is one of several hills, on which Jerusalem is built. The name is often used for the whole city, including the temple mount where the Israelites worshiped. But how can dew from Mt Hermon fall on Jerusalem, since they are hundreds of kilometers apart?

Hermon

 

Zion

This psalm is called “a song of ascents”, one of fifteen in the Bible which were sung or chanted as pilgrims ascended the temple mount to worship. It was part of a liturgy, a service of worship. And obviously it is poetry, using words and images creatively. But what is the theme here? Unity? Aaron? Worship? Blessing? All of them together? Oil and dew go together, because both were extremely precious. Hermon and Zion go together, because both were high places of worship. Aaron and blessing go together because God had commanded Aaron to bless the Israelites (Numbers 6:22-27): “The Lord bless you and keep you…” But the blessing does not originate from Hermon. Only from Zion. “For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.”

 Maybe we have to imagine pilgrims from the northern part of Israel, who lived within sight of mighty Mt. Hermon, the site of pagan fertility cults, as they came to the comparatively puny hills of Jerusalem. They knew about the sanctuaries on Mt. Hermon. But they did not go there, because God had chosen a small hill, not a great mountain. How does this relate to unity? Unity means equality, everyone matters, nobody sticks out in importance. Everybody is honored, everyone equally blessed. It is the opposite of self important individualism. Unity seems a very unspectacular thing, like the hills of Jerusalem. Maybe Mount Hermon stands for individualism, and Mt. Zion for community?

 How does the desire to “stick out” hinder unity in our families, in the church, in the wider community? How does unity look, feel, or smell? What would be a poetic image we could use to describe unity? What is more pleasing to us: being above or being one with others?