Bible Questions: A Short List

Sunday I began the sermon from John 19 and the trials of Jesus with an idea that some of the juiciest places in the Bible are the questions. These lines that end in those crooked little scribbles called question marks are the places we can often fold ourselves into the easiest, with almost instant and always profound application. Here is a list of some of the highlights. I count them down from ten to one, but really, no order is necessary and there are far more than are included here.

10. Who has bewitched you, O foolish Galatians? (Galatians 3:1) Paul’s questioning of the Christians in the region of Galatia regarding false teaching. It is still a legit question for a religiously confused age.

9. What is man (human beings), that you are mindful of him (them)? (Psalm 8:1) A great existential question that leads to a doctrine of humanity, plus the Messianic implications of the New Testament usage.

8. Who touched me? (Luke 8:45) Jesus asked the question he already knew the answer to.

7. Shall I crucify your king? (John 19:15) Nothing makes me come face to face with my own sin like this question. Pilate thinks he is being clever. He is not. He is being theological.

6. Who do you say that I am? (Matthew 16:15) It is the question we all, I think, must answer.

5. Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:29) The answer is a story, and the story’s point is that anyone who needs our help is our neighbor. ANYONE.

4. How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? (Hebrews 2:3) The rhetorical question centers the book of Hebrews. The writer’s obvious point: there is no escape.

3. Where are you? (Genesis 3:9) To loosely quote Michael Stipe of R.E.M., that’s me in the corner, hiding from God behind the fig trees.

2. What should we do? (Acts 2:37) The essential question from Acts. The answer: repent!

1. Have you considered my servant, Job? (Job 1:8) The question we never want asked about us in the heavenly ream.

The more I think about this list, I ponder this would be a great sermon series. The series title could be something like, “The Question!” or maybe “Query” or perhaps I’ll just use a giant question mark–maybe in parenthesis (?) or perhaps in backslashes in a cool hip and with it way– // ? //  or maybe like this // ? \\ or perhaps \\ ? //

Yeah, except bigger and with color.

I’ll have to remember to preach this in 2020 or 2021 because this year is already full.

In Which I Argue With A Book

Argue is the right word. I argued with this book–or, to be more specific, the author of this book.

The author in question is Yuval Noah Harari and the book is 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. I picked it up at a bookstore during Christmastime. It is one of those books I buy from time to time to keep my wits sharp. I knew the worldview would be different from mine, and that is what I was looking for. The book has 323 pages of actual text, plus a large appendix of notes and an index. Although the material is weighty, it is an easy read written in a dialogue style. He has previously written two other bestsellers titled Sapiens and Homo Deus which I have not read. Unknown

At times it was enjoyable, funny, profound. At other times it was infuriating, depressing, and nonsensical.

What I Really Liked

There are two things I really liked about the book. The first is the opening 150 pages. If I narrowed it down even further, it would be the first 84 pages in which the author analyzes the technological challenges the future holds for human beings. I found this section riveting and spellbinding. Harari opened up ideas and thoughts, particularly about the role of AI in the human experience, I had never previously pondered, and for this I am thankful. In my opinion, the entire book is worth the buy and the read for just this part of the book.

The second thing I really liked about this book is that he devoted an entire chapter to science fiction. That’s right, Harari believes science fiction has a vital role to play in understanding and appropriating our human future. As an author who has a science fiction book he wants to release (Deep Cove Anthology) later this year and whose current WIP is a science fiction novel, this is good news. Now, I do think the author puts too much pressure on science fiction to perform a social good. Literature can only go so far, man. He does have a very interesting take on the movie Inside Out that any Pixar fan should take a look at.

What I Liked

I liked the way this book evoked in me a desire to think and argue with the author. I read it with a pencil nearby, and constantly wrote on the pages. Sometimes I agreed and wrote that, other times I wrote impromptu refutations. I must have sharpened my pencil twenty times. This is why I bought the book, but it far exceeded my expectations. Harari is an intellectual provocateur who takes things to an extreme situation in order to force us to ponder the logics of it. For people like me, this is fun.

What I Didn’t Like

I didn’t like being called a fool. In several places in the book the author portrays anyone who believes in God–whether it is the God of the Bible, Allah, or Thor–as a fool. Harari portrays himself as a strict realist who only looks at the facts, but he deludes himself by shuffling the deck of facts in favor of himself and his worldview. This did not become fully apparent until the last chapter of the book, and it was then that I realized what as going on.

What Surprised Me

There were two surprises. One, Harari holds an odd position in that he is what I would call an Atheist Calvinist. He absolutely does not believe in free-will or choices. For him, everything is determined. His is not just biological determinism that tell us genes determine heart disease and lifespan. It goes much further. He perceives all our choices are made for us by culture, biases, religion, politics, and advertising. You didn’t have a taco for lunch today because you wanted it and you chose to. You and the taco for lunch today because your brain is preconditioned by pressures and stimuli you can’t possibly act against, so therefore, it was predetermined you would eat the taco.

The second surprise was the ending, and I have already alluded to it. Throughout the whole book Harari trashes any kind of spirituality or religious experiences, then in one of the boldest bait and switch moments he finishes by trying to convince the humble reader the key to it all is meditation and getting into contact with your mind as opposed to your brain.

I was very disappointed, and suddenly his anti-God stance made more sense. He is an evangelist for a new kind of faith–a faith not in God, not in self, and not in humanity. Harari peddles a faith in awareness and experience. This is why many of his thoughts are fatalistic.

Final Evaluation

Read this book if you want to be challenged, argue with the author, and think about things from a different perspective. Do not read this book if you are easily offended by other worldviews.

Advent 3, Year C–Zephaniah 3:14-20

There is no hope in the book of Zephaniah until the backend. Well, perhaps I should temper my sentence down a bit, as hope is sometimes a subjective thing. It would be more accurate to say there is only judgment in Zephaniah until the last section that begins in 3:9. From there it is all hope all the way to the end. Verses 9-13 are prophecies which speak to the future conversion of other peoples besides the Hebrews.

Our Old Testament reading for the third Sunday of Advent doesn’t begin until verse 14, though. We have to be careful to always take note of the historical situation, because that matters too, but in the themes of Advent we should read these words primarily as prophetic oracles about the Lord Jesus.

Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you; he has cleared away your enemies. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil.

Zephaniah 3:15-15

Remember, Zephaniah has been pronouncing judgment–powerful condemnation–and he started with Judah (1:4). But now something has changed. The Lord takes it away. The reader is designed to come to the conclusion this is so because the Lord himself is in our midst, and his presence vanquishes evil.

The Lord doesn’t promise he will remove evil, he just promises that the people will no longer fear it, because the enemies have been cleared away. As a follower of the Lord Jesus, we see “Immanuel” in these lines–God with us who vanquishes the enemy, the only true enemy which is death. Jesus is with us, therefore we have no fear of death. Those dots are not hard to connect.

Let me push farther. It might be a reach. I understand that, so no scolding or judgment. The phrase “Daughter of Zion” is found throughout the Hebrew Bible and is usually understood to mean the Hebrews. What if, though, through the lens of prophecy, we could see the offspring, the daughter of Zion as the bride of Christ. The child of Israel might therefore be the church. The daughter of Zion.

Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.

Zephaniah  3:16B-17

The idea of the Lord quieting us with love is evocative of maternal action. The baby is afraid, so the mother comes into the room and is with the frightened infant. She holds the baby as she laughs and says, “There there, all is well” holding the baby near her chest and the pumping, beating heart. The baby is still jittery, so to nestle her back to sleep she begins to sing a lullaby.

Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.

Zephaniah 3:20

I am smitten by these words.

  • Save the lame–Jesus heals those who cannot walk.
  • Gather the outcast–Jesus makes a people from those who were not a people.
  • Change their shame into praise–the forgiveness of sins leads into the doxology of worship.

At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together, for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes . . .

Zephaniah 3:20

Pentecost, the great ingathering day of the harvest festival, when the Holy Spirit brought the nations into one speech (Zephaniah 3:9).

 

 

 

Advent 2, Year C–Luke 3:1-6

For use in my own preaching, I moved this Advent reading to week 3 (December 16) as the sermon text. The reason? I started working on Luke 3:1-6 for week two, but it blew up to about four thousand words (which is about one thousand too many) so I cut it in half, changed the form on the first part, and made it two different sermons. The point of my little opening aside here? These lines here at the beginning of Luke 3 can take you to many different places, and most of them are good.

The historian inside Luke screams out as he gives us a backdrop of the time period we are in and the location where things are happening.

. . . the reign of Tiberius, Pontius Pilate . . . Herod . . . Philip tetrarch of the region . . . Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene . . . priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas . . . in the wilderness .. the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance fo the forgiveness of sins.

Luke 3:1-2

We know when we are, which is important because Chapter 2 ended with the boy Jesus in the temple. Luke is reminding us we’ve shifted to the future when Jesus is no longer a child, and the powers in this world are political and religious. In contrast to these powers, John The Baptist is preaching something difference. He is preaching forgiveness and repentance. So Luke, the ever careful writer gives us who, what, when, and where.

The part of this text which most people will focus on, and rightly so, is the quotation from Isaiah’s vision of the future. This is the why.

As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Luke 3:4-6

I’m preaching this passage in ten days, so I will not show all my cards. Let me just point out three things about this amazing text.

  1. Luke doesn’t say John is saying this. In our imagination we often put these words in The Baptist’s mouth. That is a mistake. This is Luke’s interpretation of who John is and what prophetic function he fulfills. It is often other people, and later generations, who are benefited and understand our work the most.
  2. It is hard to know what is meant in the opening of the prophesy. A clear reading is nearly impossible, and in every language it seems to be muddled. I have never been fully satisfied. It could be, “The voice of one crying, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord” as if a person is crying out that the highway should be built in the wilderness. Or, is it “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord” where the wilderness is more about where the person is shouting and not necessarily where the road is to be built. Either way, though, the Lord is coming and you better be ready.
  3. Luke, and the other gospel writers as well, see this passage then as a connected to the message of repentance and forgiveness, and continues, in the rest of Luke 3, to wed these ideas with ethical behavior, fairness, and integrity. It is about this time we should remind ourselves this was a huge part of the prophetic message in the Old Testament, including Isaiah. Belief and faith are important, but if they are disconnected from ethical behaviors all that remains is superstition.