An invitation and faulty memory

John 6:24-35

This text begins the great slide from the pinnacle of Jesus’ popularity to the pits, from the acclamation of the crowds who were fed (6:24) and wanted to make him king (6:14) to the disciples who refused to be fed with true bread (6:66). A little bread filled their stomachs, but the true bread from heaven was not welcomed.

Like the Israelites of old (Exodus 16), they couldn’t see what God was doing in their midst. Those Israelites complained for centuries about the oppression in Egypt, yet wanted to go back there as soon as they had to depend on God for food. While they complained against Moses and Aaron, their real complaint was against God.

So, in John 6, the people idolized Moses but only in their patch work memory. Had they lived during Moses’ time, they would have joined the complainers. Instead, now with Jesus they wanted someone like Moses to appear who could give them bread once again, just like the good old days. God would once again succumb to their demands, or so they thought.

In the process these followers in John 6 could not accept the gift (“the Son of Man will give to you”) of food, but were piqued in their interest in “working the works of God.” Now that was something they could handle. “Just tell us how to work the works of God, Jesus!” So Jesus said: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Notice how that invitation is ignored. Instead, they demand (another!) sign from Jesus, different than the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-13).

How often have we followed that path? Jesus invites us to believe him, yet we want something more, more for us to do, and more for Jesus to prove that he is worth it. Am I more willing to live in light of the past, and rest on my laurels as a Christian? Or is God speaking through his word today, to me? Is he inviting me once again “to labor for the food that endures to eternal life” (6:27)?

When Jesus responds to the demands for a sign, like the sign of bread in the wilderness, he opens for them the understanding that it wasn’t Moses, but God who provided. And if they open their eyes now, it is Jesus himself who is the true bread who gives of himself so that they might have eternal life. It seems they get the invitation, for in 6:34 they respond: “Lord, give us this bread always.” But as noted in 6:36, they do not believe in Jesus, therefore they cannot have the gift of eternal life. But Jesus continues to extend the invitation, “will you also go away (or will you believe in me)” 6:67.

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Stripping away the non-essential

This past week in ministry has demonstrated how fragile life can be. A good friend faces monumental changes in ministry due to physical problems. The physical devastation is matched by the hidden, yet just as serious emotional and mental struggles. Platitudes fail to provide an adequate response for us as Christians. At times like this, we are drawn back to the Scriptures, not with the latest technique or fad informing our search, but a broken body, a broken heart, a broken spirit. We have questions that we may not think appropriate to even raise… no, not the usual “why?” but “God, where are you??!!!” and stronger ones.

Last Sunday’s OT reading was Lamentations 3:22-33. How much more fitting can this be?! In the midst of Jeremiah’s lament, he comes to the center of the chapter and the book with some great words:

3:20 Surely my soul remembers

And is bowed down within me.

3:21 This I recall to my mind,

Therefore I have hope.

3:22 The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,

For His compassions never fail.

3:23 They are new every morning;

Great is Your faithfulness. (NAS95)

To grasp how much this represents a statement of faith, we have to go to the beginning of the chapter and realize that Jeremiah’s ultimate “enemy” is God himself!

3:2 He has driven me and made me walk

In darkness and not in light.

3:3 Surely against me He has turned His hand

Repeatedly all the day.

3:8 Even when I cry out and call for help,

He shuts out my prayer.

Thus, Jeremiah’s struggles with the king, the false prophets, the soldiers who were ordered to imprison him several times, pale in comparison to his struggle with God. Even his prayers seem blocked from God (3:8). No wonder his soul is bowed down within him (3:20)!

God hears Jeremiah’s pleas. His Son, Jesus who faced this same experience. He is abandoned by his friends, ridiculed and beaten by his enemies, and hung on a cross. There he cries out: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” In that very act, God is not far away At all. When this truly righteous person is abandoned, there God is solving the dilemma of all people who feel abandoned.

Sometimes our enemies might be people, other times ourselves, and sometimes the effects of sin in this world in the form of diseases. When we experience such, we are not into comparing with others. We cringe when someone states, “At least it isn’t _____.” (fill in the blank as you see fit). At this point the one enduring the anguish does not care. He or she needs to know that God cares, even if for a time it seems that God is silent, hidden, and that he has forgotten the person.

My next posts will be reviews of two books dealing with this very topic, one from a pastoral perspective and one from a person who suffered personally. Two years ago I wrote a book review of Pastoral Care under the Cross: God in the Midst of Suffering by Pastor Richard C. Eyer. This past Friday I received a book from Tyndale for reviewing, Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow by Nancy Guthrie.

When we strip away the non-essential, we gain a perspective about God, about life, about ourselves that doesn’t match the world, but begins to move us closer to God’s  perspective. It is not an easy journey, it is filled with pitfalls, and it will leave us struggling with failure, sadness, anger. But Jesus knows exactly that path and he walked it for us and now with us.

Woe is me! … Send me!

Isaiah 6:1-8. Have you noticed the dramatic turn-around in this call of Isaiah? It is also a dramatic call for us.

We are surrounded by “reality TV,” which looks nothing like real life. News and entertainment often are indistinguishable. We have a “god” of our own imagination. Isaiah’s words slap us in the face, waking us up from our own created world, to the real world. The real world is filled with sin and its effects. But Isaiah opens our eyes to the real God too. We may reduce God to our buddy, who is confusing at times, even a laptop god who acts as a comfort blanket. Or we push him away then wonder why he is indifferent to us. So, our ultimate question is: “Who is this God?”

God appears in his holiness (majesty). The angels sing the refrain of praise, far beyond anything we can imagine. Isaiah is being called by this holy God to speak to an unholy people. Isaiah’s reaction (like the people in Exodus 19) is to take stock of the people (sinful) and himself (sinful). “Woe is me!” strips away any pretense that Isaiah is “better” than his hearers. Before this holy God, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

God obviously was aware of Isaiah’s sinful state, but God also knows that the solution rests with him (God) not with any human effort. God approaches Isaiah through the angel who touches Isaiah’s lips with the burning coal and then proclaims: “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.” As a cleansed person, now Isaiah is transformed from the woe-filled sinner to the forgiven sinner, a prophet ready for God’s work. Only that will sustain him as he faces a nation of people who refuse to listen to him.

How critical it is for us to be reminded of this truth about the forgiving God who restores the sinner! Each Sunday in worship as we confess our sins, we join Isaiah saying “Woe is me!” But even better, God’s words come to us “I forgive you your sins for the sake of Jesus Christ. Those life-giving words bring us back from the sinful reality of this world to the restored reality of life with God. So simple, so profound! Send me, Lord!

A misplaced referent with a conceptual signified

I preached an installation service last Sunday; the text was 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. Everything went well, but there was my blooper of a reference. I had noted that one small town (quite few miles away from where the service was taking place) in this state was well known outside the state because of its frequent occurrence at Call Day at Seminary.

Without thinking about the circumstances, I made the transition to my text by saying, “But the call to the worst church would have to be the one to Corinth.” As soon as I made the comment I noticed most of the people snickering. I thought, “Why would they consider that funny?” Of course, my use of Corinth (conceptual signified) was to the referent in first century Greece, yeah that Corinth. But there is a very small town (now almost non-existent) ~30 miles north of the city where I was preaching — yep, you guessed it, the name of Corinth, the referent which meant something to most in the service that day! Afterward, at least eight people came up to me and commented (with huge smiles), “You were almost half way through the sermon before I figured you meant the other Corinth.”

Overall, it was great day, and we all enjoyed the referent problem.

How do I teach Bible study?

I have found that many who think they know a lot about the Bible really do not know how to study it; they know “catechism” answers or Sunday School answers: “I don’t know but the answer must be Jesus, grace, or heaven” – but they don’t know how to wrestle with the text. They want someone to give them the answer.

To move people beyond that shallow approach I use a method similar to what my NT Professor, Robert Hoerber, used in his classes at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He took us through the Biblical material using leading questions to get us into the text itself. Such Bible study encourages regular use of the Bible, rather than relying on a study book. I have outlined an initial Bible study curriculum for a congregation that builds on that approach.

I start with a “Basics of the Christian Faith” class following the outline of Luther’s Catechism; this Bible study usually takes 20-26 weeks depending on class discussion – and I allow any question. The handouts list only Bible verses, so that we are forced to look up the Biblical text, which we then discuss. That process does two things: 1) it gets them familiar with the Bible and 2) it gives them confidence in finding passages. Many of the people who have gone through this course have no Christian background and do not even know why there are large numbers (chapters) and the raised numbers (verses) in the text.

Then, as a follow-on to the Basics class, I developed a 12 week course, “How to Study and Understand the Bible”. The basic idea is to cover proper principles of interpretation. An excellent additional resource is the book by David Kuske (see Resources at the end). Again, my study primarily uses an outline form with Biblical references only. I introduce the students to aids to Bible study, such as concordances, atlases, word studies, etc.

These two courses are followed by two Bible studies I wrote (back in 1991 based on LifeLight model) that complement one another and build upon the knowledge of the previous two: “Old Testament Survey” (covering ~60% of the Old Testament) and “New Testament Survey” (covering most of the New Testament). Each Bible study is a 12 week course, ~40 pages in length. The study pages have Bible references for daily readings and questions related to those texts – nothing else. Prior to the class meeting each participant reads the assigned Biblical texts and answers three pages of questions for the week. They have to read the text in order to answer the questions; there are no short cuts. This type of Bible study is very intense because there are Biblical readings/questions everyday. These two survey classes give them the sense of the themes, unity, theology, and direction of God’s revelation (and both are very Christo-centric studies!). Added benefits are that they develop confidence in their own ability to participate fully in Bible study, and that they develop a regular Bible study time in their daily lives.

These four courses form the foundation for more detailed Bible study, specifically concentrating on individual books of the Bible.

When we study the actual books of the Bible, I seldom use a handout, unless there is a specific need (for instance, a table form that the people fill out for the churches in Revelation 2-3 or the plagues in Exodus 6-10). That is, we use the text and work through it. My own study notes range anywhere from 75 pages single spaced for a smaller book like Ephesians to 100-200 pages for Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Matthew, John, Romans, Revelation…

Again, I allow any kind of question, if it’s related to the text in some way, which causes the people to think through the text and its meaning, and ultimately its application. If they don’t ask questions, I do! But I don’t always answer right away. I will typically respond with “How would we go about finding the answer?” – not referring to the location in the Bible, but the method of study (cross-references, concordance, dictionary, atlas, etc.). Then we work through it. Such Bible study encourages personal study and growth.

So my goal for Bible study is two-fold: 1) force everyone into the text itself, and 2) question them, so that they begin to use the tools, or point to the tools that will aid them in understanding the text.

Additional Resources:

Reading the New Testament for Understanding, Robert Hoerber (CPH)
Biblical Interpretation: The Only Right Way by David Kuske (NPH)
LifeLight Series (CPH)
Teaching Bible Classes: A Top Priority by Eldor Haake
Reading the Bible with Understanding by Lane Burgland (CPH)

“All people” in Joel 2:28

Interesting discussion in Bible class this morning about the end times (more specifically, “in the last days”). I directed the class to Acts 2:16ff for the New Testament perspective on that phrase, relating to Joel’s prophecy.

But I went back this afternoon and was studying the Joel passage checking to see how the NET translated the passage. What struck me was the translation of 2:28 “After all of this
I will pour out my Spirit on all kinds of people” rather than the more traditional “on all people”. The footnote reflects a Calvinist thought, so now I am looking at other translations to see how they handle it.

The “Day” and time

How easily time slips by! In the two months since my last post time and energy demands have increased greatly. There seems to be a break in the demands, so I hope to get back to the series on technical terms in original language texts and correspondingly in translations. However, given the time demands, I may shorten the studies considerably.

I remember as a young child that a day was a long time, and a year? That was beyond imagination for how long that was. Now, a day disappears before I can turn around, or so it seems. In reality, as a six year old, a year was 1/6 of my life. But now, a year is… well, about 1/60 of my life.

In light of the eschatological focus of the “Day of the Lord” (previous post) I have begun to observe the truth of how “soon” Jesus’ return will be. This has personal application as well. According to the Psalmist our time on earth is “fleeting”. Thus, I come face-to-face with my legacy as a person of God. How will I spend my “time”? Will it be meeting deadlines that others impose? Will it be ordered by my God? Will I have time to do all I want… or better, need to do?

So, I am taking time to sort out time and my use of, or waste, of time. Sometimes it isn’t pretty, but that shouldn’t be surprising since I am still a sinner. At the same time, I am beginning to see God’s use of my time, and what happens when I dedicate my time, all of my time, to him. It is okay to say “no” to demands on my time, if the time really belongs to the Lord.

So, I am having the “time of my life”, as I wait for the “day of my life” in Jesus.