Archive for February, 2015

2015 Lent 10

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2015 by timtrue


Deuteronomy 11:18-28

Memory fascinates me.

Take the Homeric epics, for instance.  The Iliad and Odyssey were passed down for generations, sung by bards, before Homer put them in writing.  I wonder, how much did the stories actually change over, say, two or three generations?

They might not have changed much.  Poetry is like that, especially when sung.  (I still remember many lyrics word for word from my adolescent days when I start to sing the song whence they come: “There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold. . . .”)

On the other hand, they might have changed much.  We don’t know.

Fast forward a few millennia to the Brothers Grimm and Perrault.  Both these people decided to pen common tales that passed from mother to child in their respective regions, the Brothers Grimm in Germany and Perrault in France.  Here we find stories we all know, like “Little Red Riding Hood”; and some stories we might not know.  The penners share many stories in common, written within only a few years of each other.  But the tales often differ significantly.  If I remember correctly, little Red comes to a happy ending in one version but a tragic ending in another.

So, while Homer might have written down a story very similar to one sung a century before, we see evidence of European folktales changing over time.  The European ones were written in prose, though, not poetry.

This poses some interesting questions for the Bible.

With respect to the Gospels, four different and sometimes differing accounts of Jesus’ life, we must seriously consider how much the stories about Jesus evolved between his life, which ended near the year 30, and the writing of the Gospels starting some forty years later.

Forty years!  That’s a while, for sure.  My own family stories around the Christmas dinner table have certainly evolved over forty years.  My brothers and I seem to disagree about childhood details, for one thing; and we emphasize different themes in our respective tellings.

My family’s stories, like the Brothers Grimm’s and Perrault’s, are told in prose.  Comparing poetry and prose, then, it seems the latter is the more difficult to memorize.

Which again we should consider in the differences in narrative between Mark and Matthew, for example.

Still, the prose stories from one generation to another do not change drastically.  A recognizable Red shows up in both Perrault and the Brothers Grimm.  Jesus teaches similar lessons, tells the same parables, and performs recognizable miracles in all four Gospels.  My brothers and I can agree on most of the larger details.

So, how?  How do we memorize a story in prose well enough to pass it down from one generation to the next so that by the time it reaches the great-grandkids it is still a reasonably accurate family truth?

Or, if Moses didn’t in fact write Deuteronomy–as I am persuaded–how would a writer (or writers) some generations later remember his lengthy sermon?

Music provides a great suggestion.

Are you familiar with sonata-allegro form?  Just as we are taught to write essays so that they have form (introduction, body, conclusion), composers are taught musical forms of composition.  Sonata-allegro form begins with the exposition, where the major musical theme is presented; then moves to the development, where the theme is sort of mixed up, toyed with, and otherwise developed; and concludes with the recapitulation, where the theme is brought back in all its original splendor and reaffirmed.  The recapitulation says to the listener, “Yes, we’ve come home and we’re here to stay.”  Then the movement ends and is usually followed by a second and third musical form–second and third movements.  Or at least it was classically.

But the point I’m making here is that such form makes memorization of long passages of music–whole movements, whole symphonies, of music–possible.  I know from personal experience.  Just like the words from the Led Zeppelin song I mentioned above, I can still sit down at the piano today and rattle off (or mostly rattle off) the first movement of Beethoven’s so-called “Moonlight” sonata note-perfect from memory, a movement written in sonata-allegro form; a piece that I memorized in the fourth grade.

Form aids memorization.

Okay then.  Here’s the connection to today’s passage.  Today we find Moses reaching the end of his sermon’s first movement.  It’s his recapitulation.

He’s returned to the theme exposed in chapter 6: tell it to your children.  But instead of developing this theme by heading off into new keys, inverting it, or whatever else–which he already did, by the way, in chapters 7-10–now he says, “We’re home.  Tell your children about all this; and make sure to mention both sides of the coin.  Obedience to God’s word means blessing; disobedience, turning to other gods, is a curse.  You decide.”

If nothing else, then, such form makes Deuteronomy a beautiful work of literature.  But, as for me, I’m willing to go a step farther and believe that Moses actually said these things at a place and time in history, or something very much like these things–whether or not Moses actually penned Deuteronomy.

Wrestling and arguing notwithstanding, I’ve got to take Moses’ words seriously.

2015 Lent 9

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , on February 27, 2015 by timtrue

Deuteronomy 10:12-22

Nevertheless, I press on.

I may not be an Old Testament scholar.  I dabble in the Old Testament–this Lent, for example.  But I’m not a scholar.

Given the choice between studying Greek (the language of much of the New Testament) and Hebrew, it’s a no-brainer: Greek every time.

And given the choice between Greek and Latin, incidentally, it’s Latin.  But Greek is also something I make time for.

Not Hebrew though.  I feel too removed.  Unlike Greek and Latin, Hebrew seems too far out on the fringes to be worth my while.  There’s only so much time in the day, after all; and I’ve got a wife and kids; and a dog; and I want to keep up with my music and motorcycle habits.  Etc.

That said, the book of Deuteronomy is mostly a long sermon.  That’s where we find ourselves today: in the middle of a sermon, Moses’ farewell address to the people he has led, the people he’s loved and hated, for the past forty years.  Surely I can learn something from this!

So I press on with my scheme to offer a devotional commentary on the Old Testament passages from the daily office lectionary in the 1979 BCP during Lent this year.

And today makes this struggle worth it!  For today, in the middle of Moses’ farewell address, we find this theological gem:

“for your own well-being.”

Moses has been incessantly hammering his message into the hearts and minds of the people Israel.  “Hear, O Israel,” he begins, back in chapter 6, “the LORD your God is one.”  And he exhorts the people to teach their children when they rise up and sit down and all that.  Before long, however, he turns negative.  Remember all those times you disobeyed, he admonishes.  Practically ad infinitum!  Until the hearers (and the readers today!) have had enough already.  Okay, Moses, you’ve proved your point.  Stop being so critical already!

Then, suddenly, abruptly, ah, this gem!  Like a cloud lifting after a thunderous storm–even if only for a brief moment–Moses gives a refreshing, glorious reason for all his haranguing rationale.  It’s for your own good.

Following God has a purpose.  Good should result at the societal level; and good should result at the individual level.  In terms of the New Testament, we are being increasingly transformed from our fallen image of Adam into the perfect image of Christ.

Thanks for the reminder, Moses.

So I continue my study of the Old Testament.  And, while I hope never to preach like Moses, with an excessive focus on the negative, I never want to forget that my end as a preacher and as a follower of Christ is to equip my hearers to grow in their faith, to become more like Christ’s perfect image, into which we’re supposed to be being transformed, individually and societally.

2015 Lent 8

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2015 by timtrue


Deuteronomy 9:23–10:5

I struggle with a certain tension regarding the Old Testament.

A lot of it is difficult to understand, so I hold it at arm’s length.  When given the options to preach on passages from the Old Testament, a New Testament epistle, and a Gospel–as I am most Sundays–I’ll more often than not preach on the Gospel, with the epistle coming in second.  The Old Testament passage mostly gets pushed aside, relegated to a casual allusion or two on a good Sunday.

But at the same time the Old Testament holds a certain fascination for me.  There’s something really holy-feeling about the ancientness of these texts, a connection to a world far removed from the world I know today, far removed even from the Greco-Roman world, from Hellenism, upon which so much of our world today is founded.  Here is a window into things beyond and above me, a world something like Hogwarts, that I can enjoy only from afar, as an observer: if I try to delve too deeply, to go beyond the casual observer’s place, I play with fire (like a burning bush?).

Dungeons and Dragons held a similar fascination for me as a youth.  So did Alice Cooper.

And so here I am this Lent, trying to add intelligent devotional commentary to the Old Testament but feeling a bit in over my head.  Is it time to start flailing my arms in an effort to get the lifeguard’s attention?  Or is the current still manageable?

I look at today’s passage and I see Moses calling out the rebellion of the Israelites.  God was angry at them for their rebellion, Moses says.  But just a few statements later Moses acknowledges his own rebellion, when he smashed the very tablets of God, the very Ten Commandments, in a fit of a loss of temper.  (And I think, I’m sure glad my dad wasn’t like Moses!)  So is it true that God was angry with the Israelites?  Or, maybe, as discussed yesterday, is it more that Moses was angry and projected this emotion on God?

Then I remember that there is a millennia-long tradition that throws around questions like this.  It’s called Midrash.  An image of how it looks today appears at the beginning of this post.

In the middle of the image (which is simply a page from the Talmud) is a passage from the Torah, what Christians call the Old Testament scriptures.  The words written around the holy writ, in the margins, are essentially commentary.  But this is not the same type of commentary we moderns typically think of when we hear the word.  Rather, this is commentary from Rabbi after Rabbi, commentary upon commentary, stretching back in some instances for more than a thousand years.

In some sense it’s like an extended family argument–or debate if you prefer.  And always it sheds important if not authoritative light on how to interpret the Old Testament, which (if you’re like me) is both held at arm’s length and fascinating.

But–confession here–I’ve never actually sat down and given any Midrash a serious reading.  So, with my blog this Lent, you might feel (and I like to think) that I am approaching the Old Testament with fresh eyes.  But I cannot help but feel like I did when I “discovered” the Pythagorean Comma when I was a younger man.  I’d come to it on my own, yes, in some sense; but (as I’ve since realized) musicians have been discussing this mathematical-musical phenomenon at least back to the Renaissance (14th century), probably a lot earlier.

To change the metaphor then, am I just reinventing the wheel?

2015 Lent 7

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2015 by timtrue


Deuteronomy 9:13-21

The LORD was so angry with Israel, Moses says, that he wanted to destroy them all.  And Aaron, Moses’ very brother, was most culpable!  But Moses interceded–more like argued, actually, according to this and parallel passages in Exodus–and God relented.

This episode reminds me of the story of Jonah from Ash Wednesday’s reading, when God relented from his anger against the nation Nineveh.  God relented; and Jonah was angry.

Can God change his mind?

It’s like when a kid once asked me at summer camp, “Can God make a rock so big he can’t lift it?”

Without going into a scientific explanation about gravity and planets and suns and stars and black holes and where gravity is and is not effective and etc., I cut to the chase and said, “Do you want to know if there’s anything God can’t do?”

“Uh,”, he said, “yeah, I guess so.”

So I pointed him to a Bible verse that says God can’t lie, which seemed to satisfy.

But that’s kind of like this question: can God change his mind?

I like to think so.  I like to think that God is subject to emotion too, like me.  For that makes God more like me, not so infinite, not so omniscient, maybe even a little irrational at times.  I can understand God better that way.

Like the Greeks and Romans!  Their gods are very human, right?  What beginner in Greek mythology hasn’t heard about one of Zeus’ escapades, whether overcome by a fit of anger or of lust?

So, is God up in a heavenly board room pacing undecidedly back and forth, wringing his hands in indecision, fretting over the best plan of action in order to keep the universe’s harmony humming?

Er, um, maybe God can’t actually change his mind.

But that would mean God isn’t so much like me, that God is perhaps infinite and unknowable; and that we are thus left to our own finite capabilities in order to explain God–finite verbal capabilities like the use of metaphor to communicate truth.

We call God Father, but God is not a father in any earthly, physical, material sense.  We call God King, but the best we can explain is that God is like a king, albeit better than any king we could ever imagine.  These are metaphors we employ in attempts to understand God better.

So, maybe, is it that God doesn’t change; that God is actually immutable, as classic and Reformed theology teaches; that only our perspectives of God change?

Maybe God always was loving towards Israel, only Moses didn’t see it at first.  Maybe God was always loving to those foreigners, those Ninevites, only Jonah didn’t want to believe it.  Maybe it was Moses and Jonah who were mad enough to destroy something, not God.

And maybe that’s the lens through which we should read these passages.

2015 Lent 6

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , on February 24, 2015 by timtrue


Deuteronomy 9:4-12

Today we are confronted with another passage to which a skeptic might respond, “Aha!  You see there?  This shows God as a harsh taskmaster.”

Indeed, Moses tells the people of Israel that God will dispossess the inhabitants of the promised land so that the Israelites will inherit it, as God promised to their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  This sounds pretty harsh for those inhabitants.

And, indeed, Moses then tells Israel that it is not out of any merit on Israel’s part, no righteousness or uprightness of heart or anything else they have done (or not done).  For you, O Israel, were wicked, he says.  Remember?

Remember how you “provoked the LORD to wrath” in the wilderness, how you made an image when I was up on the mountain fasting and praying for forty days and nights like a good Lenten man of God should, and how God was so angry with you that “he was ready to destroy you?”  Remember that?

This sounds pretty harsh too.

And that’s where we leave off today’s reading.

And so the skeptic says, “Aha!

“And yet I thought Jesus was supposed to be all about love.  I thought he even told a parable about three stewards who were given lots of money and told to go make more.  But one of these guys buried the money in the ground because he thought his master was harsh.  And in the end it was the guy who viewed his master as harsh who was in the wrong.  So I thought we’re not supposed to view God as harsh.  But how can you see God as anything but harsh?”

Well, Jesus is all about love.

And Jesus did tell this parable.

And, yes, we shouldn’t view God as harsh.

But there’s also a bigger picture to keep in mind here.

Moses may have been struggling with some emotion as he spoke to the Israelites.  He was human, after all; and subject to occasional fits of temper.  (Recall the Egyptian he murdered; the suggested thumping at the watering hole where he met his wife; and striking the rock with his staff–to name but a few sample temper tantrums.)

And we might want to make some allowance for redaction.  (Admittedly, the doctrine of scriptural infallibility runs into a certain stickiness here; cf. “2015 Lent 3.”)

But beyond all these criticisms, isn’t the main message here that God cares for God’s people?

There’s a certain comfort in identifying myself as a Christian, one of God’s own.  Anything and everything I have has come to me by God’s good hand.  There’s nothing I have that has come about by my own goodness, righteousness, uprightness, talent, skill, good looks, whatever–without God’s hand involved every step of the way.  To flip this idea around, all the enjoyments, loving relationships, and, yes, even my material possessions–all the blessings I know and experience each day–come from God.

That’s the real message here.  And that paints God as anything but a harsh taskmaster!

But I’m sure Moses had a few hard edges.

2015 Lent 5

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2015 by timtrue


Deuteronomy 8

Probably all of us are familiar with this saying: “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”  I often misquote this to my son: “Boys shall not live by peanut butter sandwiches alone . . .”; so he’s familiar with it, even at six years old.  But that’s beside the point.  Rather, this saying appears in today’s reading; and the context places a different spin on it than perhaps you’d expect.

The passage begins by calling on the Israelites to remember the past forty years, during which they wandered through the wilderness, an arid waste with poisonous snakes and scorpions.  I cannot help but picture the Arizona desert here: saguaro cacti and oppressive heat, rattlesnakes and sand dunes.  The only way they lasted, Moses reminds them all, was by the mouth of the Lord.  Their God, the same God who spoke all creation into existence, also gave word and they were delivered from slavery in Egypt.  God gave word and their sandals didn’t wear out in the wilderness; nor did their clothes need patching–for forty years!  God gave word and manna fell from heaven.

Then Moses reminds that they shall not live by bread alone (which fell from heaven by God’s word), but by every word from God’s mouth.

Well, okay, that seems pretty obvious after what the Israelites have just come through.

But then Moses goes on, pointing to a time when it will not seem so obvious.

Some day, Moses predicts, you will come into your own.  You will build houses, plant fields, grow flocks, and come into a time of gold and silver, of wealth, of prosperity.  And when you do, you will be tempted to say something like, “Look at all this prosperity I have made for myself.  I worked hard for many years.  I planned, scrimped, saved, and I’ve earned it.  Now I can retire with plenty.  Ahhhhhh.”  Don’t forget God’s word then, Moses reminds.

Sort of puts a new spin on our material world today, doesn’t it?  Who isn’t tempted to think that what I have I’ve earned by my own hard work, diligence, and discipline, dangit!

We say people cannot live by bread alone, and so we conclude we also need meat and vegetables.  Or maybe we take the Atkins Diet route and throw out bread altogether.

But this saying runs so much deeper.

It’s not about the material world at all, or at least not much.  The only reason we know any goodness at all–whether that goodness looks like prosperity or something else, like a family that loves each other–is because of the word of God, who is sovereign and governs all things.

Not a bad reminder from Moses this morning, eh?

2015 Lent 4

Posted in Lent 2015 with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 21, 2015 by timtrue


Deuteronomy 7:17-26

In the news these days is a seeming recent rise in anti-Semitism in Europe (and elsewhere).  Jews are mugged on the streets of Paris.  Daring journalists don yarmulkes and record for posterity the subtle and not-so-subtle hostilities directed at them.  Benjamin Netanyahu beseeches his forlorn people to return to the promised land.  Jewish people continue to live in quiet fear today–as they have for many centuries.  How sad!

Where do these hostilities come from?  Why has history been so cruel to this people?

One possible answer is that the haters are arrogant.  From today’s passage, God’s chosen people are told not to fear, that God is protecting them, and that God will wipe out the hostile enemies that surround them on all sides, little by little.  Maybe the haters have come to know this message to the Jews and, as if to disprove it, to demonstrate that this message is in fact wrong, they oppress the Jews.  Maybe.

Or maybe it’s envy. They ask, How come the Jews get to be God’s people and we don’t?  Maybe.

Still, whether arrogance, envy, or some other vice, such prejudice cannot ever be justified.

“But what if they excluded me first?” a hater asks.  “I’m just doing to them what they’ve done to me first.  An eye for an eye, as the Jews themselves have said!”

Really?  That’s your rationale for gross bigotry?

Even if this were the case, that the Jews somehow hurt you first and now it’s payback time–which I don’t believe–such is not the message of Jesus (who was a Jew, let us not forget!).  He commands us to love God, to love our neighbors, and even to love our enemies.

His is a message of tolerance.  And true tolerance must make room even for the intolerant person.

But that is the way God, the God of the Jews, works.  God is so tolerant that he makes room for the intolerant.  God makes room for you.  God makes room for me.  And thus we have no reason to fear.

No fear, for God is love.  This is the message to the Jews of old.  And this is the message for us today.