As You Read. Week 11. Tabernacle.

As you read this week’s Living in The Story scriptures, watch how several important stories and themes intertwine with one other.

  • See the people of Israel filled with passion to give extravagantly to create the Tabernacle, a holy place for God’s Glory to “dwell.”
  • See the passion of the God who had created them, called them, rescued them and brought them on eagles’ wings to God’s own self.
  • See Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration filled with passion for the vision of glory he was allowed to witness.
  • See also the passion of the Christ, who – when he left this glorious mountaintop experience – walked resolutely toward the paradoxical glory of the Cross.

As you read Exodus 35-40, relax and enjoy the story – the way it is told and the pictures it creates in your imagination. Don’t over analyze; let the beauty and generosity wash over you.

Continue reading “As You Read. Week 11. Tabernacle.”

When Hearts are Stirred

Years ago, we took our children to Washington D.C. for a Spring Break trip and while we were there we visited the National Cathedral. It’s beautiful. High vaulted ceilings. Intricate stained glass in large lovely windows. Even the smallest detail seemed carefully planned and wrought for grandeur.

Now you have to understand – the church buildings of our experience up to then did not have towering arches and stained glass artwork. The church we were familiar with built simple buildings; functional and utilitarian. When I was growing up, we didn’t even call the sanctuary a sanctuary; for us it was an “auditorium.”

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As we walked through the National Cathedral, our fourth grader stared with wide-eyed wonder. “Why did they make it so big and fancy?” she wondered.  Her question took me aback for a moment; I wasn’t sure how to answer since the extravagance of the architecture was new and different for me as well. But then I had an insight: an important insight for my journey into a bigger world of faith.

I answered: “Because they believe God is worth it. They want to build something very beautiful and majestic and large because God is beautiful and majestic and huge.

And because God deserves the very best we can give.”

“Hmmmm….” she pondered. “I think I agree.”

Psalm Surely something similar was going on when Israel built the Tabernacle. This story in the final chapters of Exodus describes the people paying attention to every detail; crafting beauty with every turn of their lathe and twist of their spindle. This traveling sanctuary was completely utilitarian, but everything was built with such care and passion and attention to beauty that it must have been breath taking.

The Tabernacle sounds extravagant to me.

The word “extravagant” has taken a bad rap, I think. But the way I use it here describes an understandable outpouring of passionate generosity.

I’ve been wondering about passion this week. Where does it come from? How does that happen? Like the mystery of springtime, what is it that stirs a soul and quickens life?

And what happens to cause a lack of passion?

A wise mentor once taught me that the opposite of love is not hate; the opposite of love is apathy. When we don’t care, when our hearts cannot be moved, when we are content to sit in our small complacency – this is dangerous; this is insidious.

Apathy is sin.

“The self curved in on itself” so that the heart begins to lose its ability to expand and be moved with compassion for the other. The Self begins to lose its ability to open itself up to God.

But this Tabernacle story is a good example of hearts wide open with extravagant generosity. For all the stories we hear about Israel whining and complaining and resisting, here is one lovely story about when they got something really, really right.

I’ve been thinking about passion this week and I’ve pondered what God’s people of old might teach us modern folks about the extravagance of generosity.

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The story tells us that God raised up leaders and gifted them with creativity and competence. “They had been given skill by the Lord,” the text says. They were called by God and by Moses to motivate and demonstrate excellence.

These inspired, visionary leaders led with passion. 

Another thing this story tells us is that the entire community created a culture of generosity.

There are plenty of stories that describe the complaining of the Israelites as if it were some sort of epidemic. Someone starts criticizing and then before you know it, everyone around her is infected. Pretty soon the whole community is grumbling about one thing and then another. It’s as if the ethos of an entire community becomes a culture of complaint.

But in this story, the culture the Israelites created was for gratitude and goodness and generosity. The hearts of some were stirred, then pretty soon, there was an epidemic that infected the entire community with joy and generosity; they were fevered with enthusiasm.

I like the way Exodus describes all the different skills and offerings and gifts.

Planning and organizing, carving and weaving, working with metal, wood, fabric and precious gems: everyone had something to do; everyone had something to give.

The people understood that each one of them had something significant to offer and they believed that what they were doing together was important.

It was important; this work they did together as a people really mattered. Working together on this hugely important Tabernacle project helped form them as a people and defined who they were and whose they were. In the building of the Tabernacle, they came to understand themselves as a people who worshiped this God who had called them into being and called them into relationship.

The naming of relationship is the cornerstone for the entire Law. Remember the very first words of the Ten Commandments remind: “I AM the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery….” (Exodus 20:2).

And so here, in this story, the people’s hearts were stirred because of this key relationship. They were moved and motivated by their gratitude to the living Lord. Their actions were a response to the self-giving God who had rescued them from Egypt.

Do you remember when you were madly in love? Can you recall when you wanted to give, give, give to your beloved and how that giving gave you such joy? Remember how your extravagance simply reminded you how precious this relationship is; how giving only made you wish you could give more?

When we are truly in love, our hearts are stirred.

I’ve been thinking about passion this week and I wonder: how do we lose it?

How is it that our love can become so conservative, so careful, so cool? How does that insidious apathy creep in so that the culture of an entire relationship becomes small minded and hardhearted?

If you’ve been reading through Matthew this week, you’ve recognized the abundant extravagance of Jesus.

When Jesus reinterpreted the Law, he called for an extravagant generosity, grace and welcome among brothers and sisters, for the stranger among us, and even for our enemy. When Jesus described the kingdom of heaven, he used extravagant images of God’s grace breaking into the world and permeating everything like yeast in dough. When Jesus went about healing, he created an extravagant outpouring of God’s wholeness and shalom within lives that were broken and fragmented.

There is no hint of apathy in Matthew’s Jesus. His heart was stirred to extravagant generosity.

Even in the wonderful little story of the Transfiguration in chapter 17,  there is a vision of extravagant glory that tore open the mundane settledness of the disciples’ world and poured into their lives as they stared with wide eyed wonder. And did you hear Peter’s response? Surely this was an extravagant response: building three tabernacles – not just one!

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But the voice is clear: THIS is the Son, the Beloved. Listen to him! This is the One who has been sent to show us how beautiful and majestic and large and extravagant is God’s love for us.

And this is the One who continues to show us God’s glory.

And so now the Transfigured Christ is ever seeking to transfigure us; the Spirit of the Risen Christ is still working to transform us “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

When hearts are stirred and transformed into the image of this Christ, then extravagant self-giving becomes the mark and the sign; the culture and the calling of the people of Christ.

Living in The Story readings for Week 11

Exodus 35-40

Psalm 27

Psalm 84

Matthew 14-20

2 Corinthians 1-5

Psalm 106

Praise the Lord!

O give thanks to the Lord, for the Lord is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever…

Happy are those who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times.

  • Praise the LORD!
  • Praise Yahweh!
  • Hallelu – YAH!

See how all our praise, worship and thanksgiving is grounded in the name, in the being, in the character of God.

God’s steadfast love endures forever. You probably recognize this recurring theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. This statement of faith is a far cry from some of our modern misunderstandings. Have you ever heard someone say: “The God of the Old Testament is about Law and judgment but the God of the New Testament is about Grace and forgiveness.”

The ancient people of God would have puzzled over such a caricature of Yahweh.

The formulaic poetry of God as Creator and Liberator has always observed the “steadfast love of the Lord to the thousandth generation…” (In other words: forever.) This ancient biblical understanding has also always recognized God’s justice: “punishing iniquity to the third and fourth generation…”

Law and Grace, Judgment and Forgiveness. These have always been two sides of a coin.

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As You Read Week 10 Covenant

As you read this week, remember earlier covenants we have seen throughout our Genesis readings.

  • First the Noahic covenant after the great flood; a covenant with all Creation and the sign of the covenant was a rainbow.
  • Then the Abrahamic covenant; a covenant with one man and his descendants and the sign of that covenant was circumcision.
  • Now in the Exodus readings, we experience the Mosaic covenant, the covenant with the people of Israel; the sign of this covenant is Sabbath.

The purpose of all these God initiated relationships is to reveal the Divine to the human: “so that you may know…”

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Covenant

The Ten Commandments that are part of the story of The Exodus are the cornerstone of the ancient Law. The first four commandments spell out the human responsibility in our relationship with the God who has created and called us. The last six commandments spell out our human responsibility to one another.

It’s sometimes helpful for me to think of the ancient Law of Israel as training wheels that – over the centuries – helped mature the people of God and bring them into a larger, deeper relationship with the Creator of love who yearns for the love of all creation. The rules and regulations, the do’s and don’ts of the Law were set in place to help form Israel into the people God had created and called them to be.

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The goal of law is not to hold us back or to keep us as small-minded rule followers. Rather the purpose of law is to lead us forward into maturity and freedom.

But the Law is not the Covenant. There is an important difference in the way the Bible talks about the Law and how it describes the Covenant. There is a crucial difference in meaning and function.

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Psalm 91

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
    who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress;
    my God, in whom I trust.

Psalm 91 seems to be a companion to Psalm 90.

In both, the Almighty/the Most High/the LORD is refuge/fortress/shelter/dwelling place/home.

In both psalms, this Almighty/Most High/LORD is MY God. This is personal.

While Psalm 90 comes to this conclusion after some bold challenges demanding that God keep faith as promised, Psalm 91 begins with unquestioning trust in God’s unfailing faithfulness.

I have struggled with the bold confidence of this song and I’m not the only one. Some people have misread it so completely that they consider this psalm as a kind of magic assurance that they will be protected from any sort of harm.

A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you…

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As You Read. Week 9. The Law.

As you read this week, look for a variety of understandings about what the Law is and how it properly functions in the life of the community.

Don’t be afraid to question.

Was the Law literally issued from the mouth of the Lord from a mountaintop or is this metaphorical, powerful story telling?

Continue reading “As You Read. Week 9. The Law.”

The Law of the Lord

Some years ago, a young man came to my pastor’s office looking for a new church. We talked for a while and I learned the story of his struggle with alcohol addiction. He was already active in an AA group but he believed a church community might also help turn his life around. I called the pastor at a nearby community church to find out more about their recovery program and it sounded like a good fit for this man who was living life on survival mode. We stayed in touch for several months; I often wonder how he is doing now.

Sometimes some people need rules, structure, clear definitions. This makes sense to us when we are raising our children; independence and healthy self-sufficiency can only come through a process of growing through stages and practicing living within some kind of protective environment. This makes sense to us when we remember our own journey toward maturity.

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Matthew’s Jesus

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Matthew probably wrote his gospel around the year 90. That’s about sixty years after Jesus; sixty years from the time of the life of Jesus to the time of Matthew’s telling of the story. Have you ever thought about what happened during those six decades that may have shaped Matthew’s version of the gospel?

None of us knows for sure, of course, but scholars do a good job of uncovering clues and offering helpful theories about how the writings of Scripture were composed and edited and placed together to form the Christian Canon. Here are some very broad brushstrokes:

  • Jesus walked and talked and lived and died as a Jew in Palestine around the year 30, and even while he was alive, stories about him began to circulate. After his death, Jesus’ people were passionate to continue to tell the stories and share their faith that Jesus was, in fact, the one whom God had sent: the Messiah, the Christ. Some of these faithful Jews told stories of his teachings, some told about his miracles; some people repeated his parables and some made sure the story of his martyrdom was well known near and far.
  • It was around the year 35, that Saul the Pharisee (while persecuting these Jesus people) was encountered by the Risen Christ on a road to Damascus. Then Saul-turned-Paul began a significant and far-flung mission to non-Jews, the “Gentiles.” Paul traveled extensively and wrote letters that reflected the understanding of the meaning of the Christ event from his Pauline perspective.
  • Around the year 70, Mark wrote the first gospel. Mark may well have created this genre, this type of writing that communicated the good news about the Christ in a manner very different from the isolated stories of the oral tradition and the letters from the Pauline tradition. Mark gathered together many of the various stories of miracles, parables and teachings and wove them into a chronological narrative.
  • Also around the year 70, the Jewish people in Palestine were embroiled in a war with Rome. The land was devastated and Jerusalem was leveled. This is when the great Temple was destroyed and still has not been rebuilt to this day. Because of the destruction of the Temple, Judaism was in turmoil. The Temple sect (the Sadducees, previous movers and shakers of Israel) lost power and the Pharisees stepped into the leadership void. Jews who did not believe Jesus was the promised Messiah were increasingly in tension with their fellow Jews who did accept Jesus as the Christ. In some cases, Jewish Christians were ousted from their synagogues and the bitterness grew.
  • Around the year 90, Matthew took Mark’s gospel with its basic outline and chronology and added other Jesus stories from the various oral traditions. There is a birth narrative and a Sermon on the Mount, for example (both rendered quite differently between Matthew and Luke, by the way). Probably Matthew and his community came from Antioch in Syria far to the north of Jerusalem. Probably Matthew and his tradition were closely aligned with Peter and possibly at odds with the tradition advocated by Paul. It’s likely that Matthew and his community continued many Jewish practices as they accepted Jesus as their promised Messiah.

An account of the genealogy of Jesus, the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham…

Matthew 1:1

Thus Matthew begins his story. From the opening words, Matthew places Jesus squarely in the middle of his Jewish tradition. Jesus is Messiah, Christ, the One Anointed by God to speak and act definitively in God’s name. He is son of David, the great king. He is son of Abraham, the father of all nations. From the opening to the close of Matthew’s story, Jesus is the faithful Jew living totally in God’s will.

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Besides placing Jesus within the tradition of Abraham and David, Matthew also fixes Jesus firmly in the line of Moses. Throughout Matthew’s gospel, there are numerous comparisons between Moses, the Law Giver, and Jesus, the one who fulfills, completes, affirms and accomplishes the Law. (Some of those associations are discussed in another Living in The Story blog: The Law of the Lord.) Just as there are five books in the Pentateuch (the Books of Moses) so there are five major discourses of Jesus in Matthew. Just as Moses experienced significant events on mountaintops, so Jesus is pictured on the mountain of the great sermon, on the mountain of transfiguration and on the mountain of his farewell in the final verses of Matthew’s story. The coupling of Jesus and Moses gives a telling insight about Matthew’s Christology, his understanding of the Christ.

Besides seeing Jesus as the one who fulfills the Law, Matthew also sees Jesus’ whole life as fulfilling the whole of Scripture. Some 61 times in 28 chapters, Matthew quotes the Hebrew Scriptures directly. Numerous other times, he paraphrases and alludes to sayings and images that come from the Old Testament: 294 allusions, more than ten in each chapter. Since Matthew is steeped in his tradition of Judaism, as he reflects on the life of Jesus and the meaning of the Christ event in light of the ancient Scriptures, he cannot help but see connections. This is the framework within which Matthew tells The Story.

And it is a story beautifully told. The fact that this gospel is placed first within the Canon of the New Testament says something about the way it was honored by the early Christian community. The Gospel according to Matthew bridges the gap between the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures. Matthew introduces Jesus as the one who continues the tradition of Abraham, Moses and David while at the same time transforming the tradition, opening it up to non-Jews. Now the call for Abraham’s descendants to become a “blessing for the nations” has become – in Jesus Christ – a reality.

Besides being our most “Jewish” gospel, Matthew also is the most “churchly” gospel. Mark and Luke and John say nothing about the ekklesia, the called-out community that came to be known as “church” but Matthew uses the word twice. Of course all the gospel writers are telling the story to their various congregations from within their various traditions, but it’s interesting to see the way Matthew places the later reality of his church community within the story of Jesus a generation earlier.

That’s a good reminder that all of the gospels are written with a kind of dual vision: both the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus can be recognized in the telling of these stories. The Jesus of the gospels is always both the 30 A.D. Jesus and the Crucified and Resurrected Christ.

It’s also a good reminder that none of these gospels was written to offer objective history. Matthew (and the other writings of the Bible) are confessions of faith, written by believers for believers. Instead of objective history, think of them as theological history or historical theology. In this way of understanding canonical sacred storytelling (whether some of these events happened in time and space or not), the stories still speak deep and profound truth. The stories tell us something immensely true about the God made known in Jesus the Christ and something very true about ourselves.

Matthew ends his story on a mountain with the resurrected Jesus giving final instructions to his disciples:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

  • The Jesus who fulfilled the Law is now the final authority in heaven and earth.
  • The Jesus who emerged from a particular people and a specific tradition is now the Christ for all the nations.
  • The Jesus who died is now with us always – to the end of the world.
  • And for Matthew, the Spirit of the Risen Christ continues to speak within and to the church.

My thanks to my teacher and friend, Dr. M. Eugene Boring. His commentary on Matthew in The New Interpreters’ Bible (volume 8) has been very helpful. (Abingdon Press, 1995).

Psalm 90

The Fourth Book of the Psalms begins with Psalm 90 – a Prayer of Moses, the man of God.

Moses is not the author of the psalm. Moses is the context of the psalm.

From the very beginning of the prayer, we think of Moses’ encounter with The Bush that Burned but was not Consumed; of his encounter on the mountain top with the God of Fire and Cloud.

This psalm taps into the eternity of the Divine One: the One who exists outside of time. The Lord/Sovereign/King/Creator who spoke the cosmos into existence:

Before the mountains were brought forth or ever you had formed the earth and the world …

from everlasting to everlasting you are God ….

for a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past …

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