Men of Israel (Acts 3)

In Wednesday Bible study we are going to be starting the Book of Acts.  I’ve been calling the study Necessary Stories since we started.  Most of what we studied has been the narrative drive of the Old Testament.  We looked at 47 stories in the Old Testament.  We have just completed an extended reading of the Gospel of Matthew with some peeks at the other gospels.  The book of Acts is something of the end of that narrative. And Peter’s preaching in this week’s first reading (Acts 3:11-21) captures why.

The story is one of Peter and John going to the Temple to pray. You might remember the old VBS song standard – Peter and John went to pray, they met a lame man on the way…silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee, in the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk!  And that episode, as such healings so often worked for Jesus, gathered a crowd to which then Jesus and now Peter would preach. The miracle was never about the miracle itself.  The miracles were always about the one they pointed towards and His testimony.  And the testimony of Peter is pure law and gospel.  And it remains the proclamation of the church to this day.

Who is he preaching to?  “Men of Israel. (Acts 3:12).”  It is interesting that Peter explicitly calls out the men here, but he does.   And what does he fault those men of Israel with? Their lack of spiritual discernment.   “Why do you marvel at [the lame man walking]?” You have all seen exactly this for three years.  We are no different than you.  It is not our power or piety that does this. It is the God you know.  “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God of our Fathers.”  And maybe this is why he addresses the men alone.  The women of Jerusalem wept along the path of the cross. They anointed him before.  Unlike Adam and Eve where Eve did not discern the snakes plot.  It was the men who did not discern that the God of their Fathers was at work in Jesus in their midst.

And because of their poor discernment, what did they do?  “You delivered him over and denied him in the presence of Pilate (Acts 3:13)” when even that gentile had decided to let him go.  You asked for a murderer instead of the “Holy and Righteous One.” Because you did not discern the time of your visitation, “you killed the Author of Life (Acts 3:14).”

“God raised HIM from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”

That proclamation is the two edged sword, the law and the gospel together. Because it forces a decision. Do you believe the testimony?  And that is ultimately what the narrative of the church is about to this day.  The church testifies to the resurrection.  “by faith in His name, he made this man strong (Acts 3:16).”  By faith in his name are all men made strong and able to stand.  “Repent, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out (Acts 3:19).”

That proclamation of Peter has two specific parts to those men of Israel.  “You acted in ignorance, as did your rulers, but God foretold [all of this] (Acts 3:17-18).” Part of the repentance, part of being able to stand, is to come out of your ignorance. God has given you everything necessary right there in his word, “everything to make you wise unto salvation (2 Timothy 3:15-17).”  We can’t trust our own discernment which would ask for a murderer over the Author of Life. But we can be made wise by the Word of God. We’ve been given glasses to correct our poor eyesight.

The second part of that proclamation is the one thing that has not yet happened.  “That he may send the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all things. (Acts 3:21).” Today, Jesus is not raised to condemn you.  Today is not the day of vengeance or judgement.  Today is the day of grace. Today is the day we can correct our errors and believe. But the day is coming.  The day for which we have been warned by those same prophets.  The day when this narrative we live reaches its end.  The day when a new narrative starts and all things are restored.

Shakespeare’s plays had 5 acts. All the high drama took place in Acts 3 and 4.  But the effects of those acts took time to ripple out.  There was always an Act 5.  The Book of Acts is the start of Act 5.  We are all in act 5.  As the cosmic divine drama of passion and resurrection reaches to all eternity – Today, we are witnesses. Today is the day of grace when we are made to stand. Tomorrow is a new play.

Changes in Thinking.

An inside joke in the Brown house is going “Spatula City, Spatula City (fade out)…” anytime someone asks for the spatula.  If you know, you might already be chuckling, if not, I’ll ruin the joke by explaining it. It’s a line from the 1989 Weird Al movie UHF. And even the name of the movie has to be explained these days.  As I sit watching TV alone most nights, everyone else in their own private sphere doing their own thing, I remember what 1989 (my Junior year) was like. We did not have cable.  That meant that we got 4 channels on VHF (low numbers on the “top dial” – 2, 5, 8, and 13 for us representing CBS/NBC/ABC/PBS). You also occasionally, if the weather and the antenna were just right, got a couple on the UHF (high numbers on the “bottom dial”.) We got WGN on 53 on a repeater out of Chicago and something like 26 which was pure Weird Al UHF local. Full of game shows like “Wheel of Fish” sponsored by the local fish market and recasts of the area High School Football games captured by one stationary camera at the top of bleachers. And that might be what people agreed to watch at 9PM because you had to negotiate, unless Dad just said “I’m watching 8.” It’s a lost world that was occasionally very funny.  Something Weird Al captured perfectly and lovingly.  And it is completely lost on my kids although not the wife.

Sharing that memory is part narcissism, but not completely. In those days the topics of general discussion were set by that limited number of outlets along with the big city daily newspapers. There might be highbrow, midbrow and lowbrow takes, but the subject was the same. Whatever was on the front page of the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the LA Times would be the day’s subjects.  Time Magazine (or Newsweek or US News) would come along end of the week with the solid midbrow summary. And then there were fortnightly and monthly magazines that would do the highbrow thinking.  The idea that today you could get everyone in the country talking about the same thing is a dream.  Even the Superbowl only gets about 1/3rd of TVs, something that a normal episode of MASH used to pull. Today, everything is narrow cast. Just by the outlet you know who people are trying to talk to.

Which is why a couple of things have caught my eye recently.  Stories in places that would signal a change in thinking. The recent regrets of one of the “Four Horsemen” of the New Atheist apocalypse, Richard Dawkins, kicked it off. He proclaimed himself a Cultural Christian. Looking at the direction of the civilization that is downstream of him, he somewhat realized himself in the cartoon posted nearby.  But it was an article in The Atlantic that nailed it.  The Atlantic is something aimed at aspiring-highbrow-money-to-spend-in-the-know-want-to-be-with-it people. And for The Atlantic to publish “The True Cost of the Churchgoing Bust” thinking must be changing. And some of that re-thinking is grounded in the reality that those who seem to be managing their way around a cell phone virtual world best, are those who have deep attachments to things like ritual, like liturgy and the Lord’s Supper. Things that make meaning in a world bereft of it.  That give solidity. That touch the real.  Having The Atlantic audience open to such thoughts is something new.

And that kicked off several chats of the form “How much do I have to believe to be a part of your church?”

And that answer comes in layers.  The doors are always open.  Always have been.  Anyone can attend a worship service.  Most things that take place in the church are open to participation. A specific question I got was “I maybe believe in God 30%, but I don’t believe in a divine Jesus.  Would I be welcome.”   My answer was “Yes.  Most of us don’t have Road to Damascus conversions.  But if you hear the Word of God consistently, are baptized, one of these days you’ll find yourself saying the 2nd article of the creed – because that is what churches do – and actually believing it.”  The word of God does not return empty, but accomplishes its purpose (Isaiah 55:11). My answer also included the question, “are your doubts private, or would you intend to demand the pulpit to spread them?” As I explained, private doubts are things people of faith wrestle with all the time.  Although as one matures in faith the wrestling is less about the creedal basics and more about the often unfathomable will of God. But public confrontation would require protection of the flock.  The church contains a multitude of sinners, but it proclaims one message. Jesus Christ is LORD and savior of sinners.

My answer also included the distinction between membership and participation. Membership ultimately includes the willingness to stand up and publicly confess what the church does. Does that mean the end of all doubts.  No. What it does mean is the good faith to struggle and maybe to occasionally accept that 2000 – 4000 years of people interacting with this revealed God know more than one 21st century man.   Finding yourself in that third square of the comic is often the start of repentance.  And Repentance is always the first step of faith.

Love & Money

In Wednesday morning Bible Study this week we studied Matthew 19 which I like to call the love and money chapter. Jesus’ teaching on both motives for murder compressed into one chapter.  Even Jesus on these topics gives a little wiggle room saying things like “not everyone can receive this saying” and “let the one who is able to receive this receive it” and “with God all things are possible.” Jesus doesn’t lie.  He is asked legal questions.  “Is it lawful to divorce?” and “What good works must I do?”  And He does give the legal answers. It is just that these legal answers are typically beyond us.  The law is good and wise, and our lives would be better if we followed them. But as Jesus says to one of the questions “because of the hardness of your hearts…”.  The ultimate answer is not to be found in the law.  The ultimate answer is sandwiched in the middle of those two great motives.  The Kingdom belongs to the little children.  Which is not so much a literal statement as a picture written on the heart. The Kingdom belongs to those humble enough to accept the touch of Jesus.  We break the world.  We find ourselves in the ditch.  And we need the touch of God to save us and give us hope.

To me that is the law and gospel of love and money.  But thinking about it further there is something more that needs to be said in our day.  Author Tom Holland, an excellent popular historian of the ancient world, wrote a book recently called Dominion.  And his thesis of this book is true, but dramatically unpopular in academic haunts. He captured it perfectly in the subtitle: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. The Historian of the ancient would, against what he wanted to believe as he was enamored with glory that was Rome and the grandeur that was Greece, detailed how a crucified Jew in a backwater of the empire changed the entire world. And because of that change, even today the world is much more “Christian” than we might think. Let me explain.

In the ancient world, you got what you deserved. If you were crucified you were obviously guilty. The idea that an innocent man could be on the tree was just not possible.  But that thinking is really derived from a deeper pagan idea. Fortune, the Gods, had their favorites. And those the gods favored were rewarded with money, power, fame, glory.  And the reward of the gods was righteousness. The acts of the powerful, because they were powerful, were righteous and ordained by God. The desires of money were always just. If you had enough money to bribe enough people that wasn’t corruption.  That was simply the outworking of the right.  For Jesus to say, “Only with difficulty will a rich person enter the Kingdom of heaven.  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle” was earth changing even to his Jewish disciples.  When the gospel says “when they heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying ‘who then can be saved?’” It is because this is a direct refutation of everything they thought about God.  Even the Jews.  Yes, the prophets warned about taking care of the widowed and the fatherless, but even that could find gentile parallels in Stoic thought about fortune.  The wheel turns.  If you are generous when you are up, karma will help you when you are down.  God still rewarded the righteous with power, money, fame, glory.

Our civilization, apparently at the end of this Dominion, is at an interesting point. It is still “Christian” is the sense that we know the innocent can suffer and that we think it is incumbent on a just society to rectify. It is still “Christian” to the extent that it doesn’t equate power with righteousness.  But to the extent that it has rejected both the gospel – let’s put it here as the meek shall inherit the earth – and the law – that the 10 commandments represent how we should live, how long does that Dominion’s conclusions which were built on the proclamation of the law and gospel hold? We already see the secular replacements (“human rights”, “rule of law”, “philanthropy”) breaking and the demands of power and money returning stronger. How long until those demands are again simply asserted at the righteous judgements of god? There are already such assertions in the cults of many current figures in the papers everyday.

If we will not hear the law.  I’m not saying live it perfectly, but merely hear it. Neither do we get the world it orders. That harsher pagan false law returns. And we should not be as surprised as the disciples this time. We know the difference the gospel made. When presented with the King like on Palm Sunday, if we ultimately reject his rule, we should not be surprised when other lords return.

AI Musings and Silent Oracles

I apologize upfront, I’m not even attempting to bring any wisdom this week.  But the Large Language Models (LLMs/ChatGPT) and the machine learning (ML/the robots) have been on my mind.  The next generation of these things is apparently around the corner and each generation gets better.  And with each generation that gets better, anxiety and fear can also rise.  I expect any day the “Butlerian Jihad” (Dune fans will know) will emerge.  We have two paths of thought by our Sci-Fi imagineers on this.  One is the Terminator and the other is C3PO.   The new technology is always Frankenstein, here to kill us or make us obsolete.  The opposite picture – usually pushed by the Dr. Frankensteins – is that the new technology is a harmless loveable nothing who is only here to make our lives better. Eventually we come to some type of synthesis. We recognize that the monster is not really a monster.  That yes, the new technology has some good uses.  But, that we remain the real monsters, and if there is some way to abuse the new technology, we will find it.  

But if I was musing that “this time is different” it would go something like this.  For most of history, especially Christian history, our anthropology – what we think about ourselves – has had a three-fold division: mind, body and soul.  The seat of the mind in is the head.  The seat of the body is the gut.  And the seat of the soul in the heart. The mind thinks, the body feels, the soul wills. Plato would picture this as a chariot – the technology of the day.  The mind and the body are the horses and the spirit is the charioteer.  Within Christian thought we say that “we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16).”  The Holy Spirit or the renewed sprit dwells within us (Psalm 51). And we await the renewed body, the resurrection body.  Until the resurrection we dwell in this tent which also contains sin.  The Christian struggle is that the renewed mind and spirit struggle against that flesh. Both from fear of death (Hebrew 2:15) and from carnal desire.  

Technology as we are thinking here really has its beginning with Descartes. When he said “I think, therefore I am” he reduced that Spirit to the mind.  Philosophers have been arguing the mind-body problem ever since. But the practical effect is that Western man pursuing the head alone developed great mastery over the material. This was the movie Oppenheimer’s theme. Should we have made the atomic bomb?  The fact that the mind said it was possible made it necessary to bring it into reality.  That was the smile on Oppy’s face seeing the explosion. He had made it, extending the realm of the mind over the material. He never really submitted the question to the will, the Spirit – Is this a good thing?  The AI we see being developed is almost the perfect reduction of this Western man.  It is all mind.  It has no spirit, neither does it have any permanent flesh.  

My guess is that we will find that our spirit and flesh will provide plenty for our new technology tools. If we find Terminators, it is because we have willed Terminators. But we will also have plenty of Star Wars droids.  Plenty of personality, much smarter than we are in some ways, but really extension of our own will.  If I give voice to the fear, it is that something else provides the spirit to the AI mind.  “And [the 2nd beast] was allowed to give breath to the image of the [first] beast, so that the image of the beast might even speak and might cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be slain. (Revelation 13:15).”  Toward the end of the apostolic era Plutarch – a Roman historian – pens a letter on the strange “Obsolescence of the Oracles”.  The Oracles fell silent one by one.  They no longer spoke.  Now of course Paul would say that they were all demons. And Christ has bound the strong man (Mark 3:27).  But that picture of the beasts imagines a time when the oracles are no longer silent.  Do we have a very different oracle coming into the world slouching toward Bethlehem as the poet wrote?  Time to put such visions away. Lord have mercy. Amen. 

Seraphic Vipers

The Old Testament Reading this week is one of those too strange not to be true stories.  Israel is wandering in the desert and it is probably quite late in their 40 years of wandering.  The high priest Aaron has died, although exactly when it is in that time frame isn’t possible to pin down. But not much has changed.  They are impatient.  They speak against God and Moses.  They make comparisons to how good it was in Egypt. They want food and water while despising the manna and quail. (Numbers 21:4-5).  It’s a replay of the greatest hits. Nothing has changed. Sinful human nature remains a constant.  40 years in the wilderness has taught them nothing.

The LORD’s response this time is not the slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love character.  Neither does he give Moses a chance to negotiate.  The LORD sends fiery serpents among the people. That descriptor itself is interesting. The word translated as fiery is simply Seraphim, as in the Cherubim and Seraphim.  The LORD sent seraphic vipers. The leap to fiery is that the Seraphim are those angels closest to God.  They are the ones who take burning coals to Isaiah (Isaiah 6:6).  The serpents bite, so maybe the fiery is meant to capture the sting of the bite.  But, it is still evocative.  When we are grumpy and giving in to anger and complaining to God, how easy are our tongues and actions given over to Screwtape and his sort – Seraphic Vipers. Even if they aren’t demons, it’s evocative.  And maybe a reminder of the world we live in – visible and invisible.

And when we are suffering the slings and arrows of fortune or Wormtongue what is our prayer?  Take it away.  “We have sinned, we have spoken against the LORD and against you.  Pray to the LORD, that he take the serpents from us. (Numbers 21:7).”  Put us back on the top of the wheel of fortune. Remove the thorn in my flesh. Make things perfect again. Restore it like it was.  Yes, we will admit our sin.  We might even mean it.  But what we desperately want is the peace we forfeited.

And God’s answer to their prayers is instructive.  Does he take the serpents away?  No. He instructs Moses to make an image of one of them, put it on a pole, and tell everyone bitten to look at the image. “When he sees it, he shall live. (Numbers 21:8).”  Israel is not restored, but enabled to live in the midst of the Seraphic Vipers. Another reason I’m not so confident of just calling them snakes.  Because they never come up again in the story, but they are not driven away either.  They just go to the background.  While the pole with their image is in the foreground.

What did they see when they saw it?  What do we see when we look at the cross? That man hangs there because of what we did. We put Jesus there. Risking a step out, it is the holy God that causes our pain.  Yes, we deserve it, but it is still suffering.  And when he came to us, we preferred to kill him.  “Here is the heir, let us kill him (Matthew 21:38)”  But when we look at the cross, if we see it rightly, we also live. God suffered with us.  He was raised up that we might see him rightly.  This one is not the Seraphic Vipers that divide us, but the innocent Son of God who loves us. Who loves us that even when we are living our greatest hits, died for us.  The sign lifted up for all the world to see.  Towering o’er the wrecks of time.  No, we are not delivered from the Seraphic Vipers.  But we can see them rightly in the light of the cross; see them rightly, and live.  

Quiet and Peaceable Life

We received in our mailboxes this week our mail-in primary ballot. That is still a bit strange.  In NY voting by mail was not really a thing.  Everyone trudged to the polls on a Tuesday if they wanted to vote.  But that brought to mind one of the petitions that is consistently in the Prayers of the Church.  The picture above is the generic form from the Bidding Prayer. The Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2 bids us to pray for a variety of people.  That is the scriptural format of the bidding prayer or the prayers of the church.  And one of his bids is “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way (1 Tim. 2:2).” In our Sunday morning prayers this generic form takes on different specific forms at different times. There are many parts of that generic prayer that can get emphasized.  But there is a specific path of meditation I want to follow here.

The prayer is for a quiet and peaceable life.  Such a life depends upon those in authority. We might ask why that is.  Why doesn’t God just do it?  The primary answer in all things in the temporal kingdom is that God works through means. He has revealed his law.  And he has ordained those whose job it is to carry it out. As the prayer above puts it, “You have ordained for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do well all the powers that exist.”  The first use of the law, the civil use or the curb, is to punish evildoers and to praise the good (Romans 13:3-4). The establishment of good order is so that we are able to live quiet and peaceable lives. And our consistent prayer is that this would be granted to us.

But there are times it is not granted.  The worst of those times are when “I will make boys their princes, and infants shall rule over them. (Isaiah 3:4).” The longer passage – Isa 3:1-4 (5-8 ff) – is worth pondering.  How is this done?  The LORD takes away the support and supply of the following in order: mighty man and soldier, judge and prophet, diviner and elder, captain of 50 and man of rank, skillful magician and expert in charms.  That list I believe has an intentional order.

The mighty man and soldier are those who can both establish and keep order. They have both natural ability and official office. The judge and the prophet are those who can keep order already established and who can point in the way to keep it.  They also have a learned ability and an office. The next step down is the diviner and elder.  These are those with natural ability, but no office.  They are the judge and prophet in the wild. Following those are their opposites, those who have an office, but probably lack ability – the captain of 50  and man of rank.  In our world they have the credentials, but lack true aptitude. And last on the list are the Wizards of Oz.  Those who can fake it for a while.  They have neither office nor aptitude, but by some dark art can keep the machine working for a bit.  Or at least give the appearance of order.

How do you get Children?  The supply and support for these are removed. What does it mean to be ruled by children? It means those who lack the ability to create and maintain order. They praise the evildoer and punish the one who does good. They refuse to maintain proper curbs.  They tear down fences without wisdom as to why they were there. They point people away from God and toward themselves.

The prayer is that “those who make, administer and judge our laws, bear it according to the Word.”  That the curbs are put up in proper places.  That within them we might lead quiet and peaceable lives in godliness and honesty. God ultimately controls the supply, but we are the support. When you get that ballot I hope these are thoughts and prayers before checking your support.

Fathers, Sons, Reconciliation and Peace

There are so few stories of universal resonance.  I’ll save my “what’s in a name” Romeo and Juliet soliloquy for bible study.  Our Old Testament reading this week (Genesis 17:1-17,15-16) backs up last week’s Sacrifice of Isaac which we looked at in detail in Bible Study.  God changes the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah.  The meaning of the new names makes all the stranger the request of the sacrifice.  When I say universal resonance I’m not downgrading any of our personal experiences. Those are all very meaningful to us, but most of us don’t live universal lives.

Shakespeare runs through my mind all the time because he had an uncanny gift for tapping into the emotion of those universal stories.  Romeo and Juliet is of course about that impossibly deep teenage swooning, but also about terrible adult reactions. The vampire nostalgia of those like the nurse and the friar living off the emotion and enabling it, but also the hardened hearts of the family heads who demand the undemandable. Telling teens to choose more carefully, by last name, who they love.  Rewatching HBO’s Rome, dodging the no longer softcore porn involved, for a story about Fathers and Sons, I was amazed at how much they missed it all.  The real story wouldn’t have needed the porn to keep attention. Billy Shakes captures it all in “Et Tu, Brute?” Julius Caesar had a bunch of “sons”. His miliary son, Mark Antony.  His foreign son by Cleopatra, Caesarion. His adopted relative Roman son, Octavian nee Augustus. But it was the illegitimate son, Brutus, from his real love, Servillia, who had been sacrificed to his ambition. “You also Son want me dead?” And all of those “sons” would tear the Republic apart after fighting for what the Father could never give them.  It’s a reminder of how blessed Americans are to have a world unique man, George Washington, as the Father of our country.

But of all of those universal lives and their stories, even George Washington’s, there is nothing quite like Jesus Christ.  “For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6).”  It is the story of a Father and a Son.  But not one of a Father who only gave love through usefulness, which is not love at all. It is also the story of an impossibly deep love.   “God showed his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8).”  It is ultimately the story that contains all of them. As Pilate would say, “Behold, The Man (John 19:5).” Here is the true man.  Not the man gone wrong like Adam and all us sons of Adam and daughters of Eve.  But the true man who has come into the world to redeem the world.  Who has reconciled us to Our Father by his blood.  Who willingly put down his life out of love for the Father and His creation.  We are included in that story as the recipients of such a love.

Which is the only explanation for why Paul can make such an audacious boast, “we rejoice in our sufferings (Romans 5:3).”  Absolute foolishness, even to stoics.  The stoic might endure, but they do not rejoice. We rejoice in our sufferings because they are an inclusion in the story.  They are as Paul would say elsewhere a fulling up of the afflictions of Christ (1 Colossians 1:24).  But the afflictions are not the thing itself.  The sufferings produce endurance.  But unlike the stoics, endurance is not the point.  Endurance produces character.  But unlike the virtue ethicists of every age, even character is not the point.  Character produces hope.   Hope that does not put us to shame.  Hope that we are included in this greatest story ever told.  Hope that the love of God has been poured into our hearts.  Hope that all sad stories have once more verse. That we are reconciled to God and have peace.


But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. – James 1:14-15

Also they teach that since the fall of Adam all men begotten in the natural way are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with concupiscence; and that this disease, or vice of origin, is truly sin, even now condemning and bringing eternal death upon those not born again through Baptism and the Holy Ghost. – Augsburg Confession 2

Most of Christianity up until the 20th century has a focus on sin as a personal thing.  The biggest change in vocabulary which picked up velocity in the late 20th century was the movement of sin away from the individual heart and toward systemic things. The Augsburg Confession article 2 uses a big but useful word – concupiscence – which is the tendency to sin.  This is what James is talking about when he says each person is tempted by his own desire. Sin lives in our members (Romans 7:5, 23).  They are constantly proposing things for us to think and then do.  And the Reformers considered this concupiscence itself to be sin. We are bound to sin.  It is the intervention of God through Baptism and the Holy Ghost that can free us or give us some control over that desire.  For the first time we can mortify it (Romans 8:13, Colossians 3:5). 

Contrary to that individual story of sin, the modern story tells us something much different. I think the modern story tells us that we ourselves are neutral, maybe even good.  It is evil systems that ensnare us.  Sin is not the result of us giving in to our own desires but participating in evil structures.  It is not that the bible denies such systemic evil.  It would call that the devil and the world, the powers and principalities of this dark realm (Ephesians 6:12). The big difference being that Christ is victorious over the powers and on the last day will condemn them to the pit.  Until that day, we walk in danger all the way.  We might be complicit with these powers, but they are not responsible for our sin. If you took natural us and placed us in the New Jerusalem with perfect systems, we would still desire to sin. Adam and Eve did, and they were not fallen.  They just had the potential to fall.  Our natural selves are bound.  And ultimately, when we have learned to remain steadfast under trial, those systemic structures would fall themselves.  When Satan and the World can no longer sway me, their structures blow away and are nothing.

I rehearse that for this reason.  If our sins are due to what is outside of us, the problem abides with God who placed us in bad places.  Yet James is explicit that “God tempts no one.” God desires to lead in green pastures and still waters. It is we who desire to push and shove the other sheep and make the green grass a mud hole. And God never changes in this desire. “Every good and perfect gift comes from above. (James 1:17).” And the real problem of a lifetime of sin is that we become defined by our pet sins. We are our sins. So when Christ offers his salvation, which is the exchange of our sin for his righteousness, it can literally feel like we are giving up ourselves. Lewis’ The Great Divorce is magical at this depiction.  The various souls on vacation from hell are all bound in some way to a representation of their sin.  And almost all of them refuse to give them up.  Their sin is ultimately too precious to themselves. And Pharaoh hardened his heart.

The one who will receive the crown of life recognizes that the concupiscence might be from within me, but it is not me.  Not in the good way God desired to make us.  And we must hand it over to Christ at the foot of the cross. My sin is no longer mine, but it is held for all of us by the crucified, where all sin dies.  That work of handing over what feels like our very life is the daily gritty struggle of faith.

Epiphany to Lent; Head to Heart

The season of Epiphany, of which today is the final Sunday, takes you on a journey from the Magi at the cradle to the top of mountain shimmering in light.  It is supposed to be a season of growing understanding and awareness.  Or from the divine perspective a season of greater and greater self-revelation. What was first revealed through nature, a star rising in the east, and then by messengers, the angels, and then prophets like Simeon and Anna and The Baptist, and then by the Son in private like at Cana, is at last revealed in public.  Jesus performs the works of the messiah, proclaiming the Kingdom in every town healing their sick and casting out demons.  What was whispered, and dreamed about, and promised, is now proclaimed, and in the flesh, and fulfilled.  And we have seen it.

I don’t exactly know why, but I’ve been in a stewing mood recently.  And I wish I was talking about it being cooler and looking forward to a nice beef broth. No, just lots of things worming around. Things you know about.  Things you can see coming around the corner.  Things you can’t do anything about but walk through them. We always walk through the valley of the shadow.  Something that is tough to remember in the Valley of the Sun.  As I said to my mother before moving here, “how could anyone remain down for long living in this” while sitting poolside soaking in the strong rays. Maybe the Lenten journey will bring some insights that Epiphany doesn’t.  You can know something in your head, but while in the head it remains something of a theory.  Ideas and thoughts are a bit like ghosts in that way.  They only have as much reality as you let them.  It takes something like a Lent to move head knowledge into flesh knowledge.

Our Epistle lesson for today (2 Corinthians 3:12-4:6) feels a little like Paul stewing on some things.  Things he has stewed on before (Romans 9).  His fellow Jews have not heard him.  Paul has seen the glory, that dazzling light on the Damascus road.  He knows. It is interesting to me that the Lord when telling Ananias to receive Paul also tells him, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name (Acts 9:16).” Paul has seen the vision, and knows in the head, but he’s got a long lent in front of him. And we might say that this Lent is the recitation of the sufferings that Paul gives elsewhere. “Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (2 Cor. 11:25-27).”  But none of that is what Paul stews over.  It’s the veil that is over the heart of his people.  And the one thing that can remove that veil, the thing Paul knows, is the one thing they won’t accept – Christ.

Our Epistle lesson cuts off before what is to me the greatest statement of a post Lenten faith in the bible, a faith that has moved from the head to the heart.  “We hold this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” Paul is always throwing himself at that wall hoping “for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh (Romans 9:3).” A head only knowledge might trick us into believing that almost anything is within our power.  That we can remold this clay as easily as we refashion ideas. That we can make our ghosts real. But it is the mature faith that will still do all those acts – that will walk through the valley, but understands that they are not testimonies to our strength. That we cannot remold the clay.  That we ourselves are but weak vessels.  But in our weakness, the light might shine. “Let the light shine out of darkness (2 Corinthians 4:6).”  It is on the far side of the stewing, after the valley, that we know the glory.


So I hear the Superbowl is next week. It is also becoming inescapable that the line on the game is Chiefs +2 (spread) or +110 (moneyline). And if you don’t know what those mean, you can probably disregard the rest of this.  Because I want to talk about gambling.

Old school Baptists would rail against drink, dancing and gambling. Old school Lutherans would make fun of this because none of those things are directly forbidden in the bible. “Those Baptists, getting all legalistic again.”  Of course that stale argument was missing the ministerial context.  Why were the Baptist’s railing against these things?  Usually because their congregations were having families and lives torn up by people abusing them.  Why were the Lutherans so nonchalant about these things? These were not the preferred abuses of the Northern European immigrants who made up Lutheran congregations of the time.

But you might be shocked at what I wrote that gambling is not directly forbidden in the bible.  Go ahead, take a minute and look up gambling or betting in your bible index. Look up wager for good measure.  You won’t find the first two.  The single mention of wager is the same incident recorded in two places (2 Kings 18:23, Isaiah 36:8) of an Assyrian ambassador making fun of the Judean king. “C’mon, bet me” as a taunt. The bible does not directly forbid gambling. That doesn’t mean the bible has nothing to say about it.

It is useful first turning the law.  Why might one be betting?  The lottery probably offers the simple reason, I’d like to be rich, really really rich. Why is that? Because at a base level I am coveting my neighbor’s business (9th commandment) or just his stuff (10th commandment).  And why does it cross from a wholesome desire into coveting?  Why is gambling particularly troublesome here?  Because I don’t want to work for them.  I want to get rich quick at the expense of my neighbor.  So the first question about any betting might be, am I doing this because I am coveting a life that is not my own?  The paradox here might be that the lottery is more harmful in this than putting $20 on the Chiefs (because let’s be honest, you get Mahomes and points, c’mon?) A $20 on the Chiefs is not changing your life.  The reason you buy a lottery ticket is that is most definitely will change it, overnight.

What else might the bible have to say about gambling?  It is inarguable that gambling is something that people can get hooked on. There is the simple adrenaline rush of luck. There is the desire to feel like you are part of “the smart money.” It can come with bragging rights. And maybe you are able to manage those things, but maybe your brother can’t. Last week’s lesson on the weaker brother (1 Corinthians 8) might be meaningful. Do you want to be the one who introduces destruction to your brother without even thinking?  Yes, you have the right to place a bet, but is it loving in your context?

The last consideration I’d like to mention here is that somehow our governments have become partners in the rapid proliferation of gambling. What started out long ago as state lotteries partly to provide legal outlet to run numbers racket mobsters out of business, has turned into the regulation and promotion of online casinos that are never more than a click away on your phones. The purpose of the government is to provide order and promote the public good (Romans 13). Today, I’d argue that gambling has become the stupid tax.  The number of people who slot machine away Social Security checks, or who are encouraged by the state toward greed and destitution is disturbing.

The one biblical mention that gets close is “cast or casting lots”.  The Apostle’s themselves cast lots to fill the place of Judas.  Aaron is commanded to cast lots over two goats on the day of Atonement. In each case the casting of lots is a seeking after the will of God.  The other example comes from the foot of the cross.  The soldiers, oblivious to the man dying for their sins, cast lots for his clothes.  Most other uses fall in this second category.  Like Job chastising his friends that they would “cast lots over the fatherless and bargain over your friend (Job 6:27).”  Or the LORD lamenting people standing aloof while enemies “cast lots over my people. (Joel 3:3, Obadiah 1:11)”  Is the gambling, which necessarily ties us into the vanity of this world, making us blind to the things of God? 

So, sure, place $20 on the Chiefs this weekend. Or on the 49ers if for some reason you want to bet against Mahomes. It isn’t forbidden.  Neither is the NCAA tourney pool or any of the other minor pastimes.  But, also stop to ask, am I missing something other than the over/under.