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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Interpreting God's Word - from F. Watson 'Text and Truth'

            “Interpretation occurs in the expectation that, at certain points, one will be able to say what has not yet been said.”[i]  New Testament scholar Francis Watson writes this sentence in his 1997 monograph Text and Truth.  He’s specifically thinking of the interpretation of scripture, but what he says could apply to how commentators interpret events, scholars interpret history, or how scientists interpret history.  I am interested in his statement because my church is dealing with an issue of the interpretation of scripture and of sexual and institutional ethics right now.  Implied in Watson’s statement is the idea that the interpreter adds something to the meaning of a written word or account of an event.  The interpreter might even create meaning as much as the original author did.
            I pastor a small Baptist Church (125-150 people) in the United States.  One of the major issues everyone living in America in the first quarter of the 21st century is dealing with is same sex marriage and other LGBTQ-related questions.  Should churches and pastors preside over same-sex weddings?  Can a church have an openly, actively gay person serve as an ordained deacon or pastor and remain faithful to the teachings of the Bible?
            Baptists typically answer such questions by asking a very specific question: what does the Bible say?  However, Watson’s thought suggests we don’t just react to the Bible, but to interpretations of it.  The generative nature of interpretation is particularly interesting in light of theological controversy as it relates to church practice.  This is true no matter what the actual issue is.  It could be homosexuality or violence or race relations or worship style.  American church members have sparred with one another over all these issues and many more.  Whatever the controversy of the day is, it is faced with the same query.  What does the Bible say?  And, whose interpretation holds sway in the church?
            Interestingly, again regardless of the specific issue, both sides (and it always cast as binary, even when more than two perspectives are present) firmly believe that what they read in scripture affirms the position they already hold.  If their position is a radical departure from the church’s traditional stance, then Watson’s assertion rings true.  The Bible interpreter clarifies, adds meaning, or changes meaning; the interpreter says what has not yet been said. 
            My intention here is not to add comments to the ongoing conversations on homosexuality currently being held in churches across America, or to cast new light in the ongoing conversation in my own church.  Rather, I want to simply ask, can we trust ourselves when we read the Bible?  Can we trust our pastors when they read the Bible?  Can we trust our favorite authors when we read what they write about the Bible?  Should someone say things about the Bible “that have not yet been said?”  Is it legitimate to read and interpret in such a way that new revelations come from a 2000-year-old text?
            To develop his own exploration of the practice and effect of the interpretation of texts, Watson considers Frank Kermode’s 1975 book The Classic.  Kermode’s idea is that there is a “radical indeterminacy within the text,” so that a “text in which one voice seems to speak is in fact inhabited by many voices.”[ii]  Finding the meaning, or even the primary meaning in a text, say the Gospel of Mark, is impossible in this radical indeterminacy approach.  Watson goes on to say, “from the standpoint of Christian faith and theology, it is clear that such a reading of mark is untenable.”[iii]
            I agree.  I don’t have the answer for how to reach “the right” interpretation or how to discern whether someone has reached it.  I have real trouble trusting Bible readers who overconfidently insist that their interpretation is the interpretation.  What I propose is grace and humility before the text.
            As an example, take the issue of predetermination verses open theism (free will).[iv]   I am reasonably confident when I reject John Calvin’s notion of predeterminism[v] in soteriology (theology of salvation).  I don’t believe anyone’s eternal destiny is determined so that they have no opportunity to respond to God’s gracious offer of salvation.  I don’t know what God knows about the future or how the future, something that hasn’t happened yet, can be known.  However, I trust the Bible’s consistent presentation of God’s merciful love. So I trust that people can meet God the Holy Spirit, receive grace, repent, and be saved.  No one’s story is written before it is written.  I am confident of this.
            However, I know that I have come to this conclusion by way of God’s grace.  I know that my own theology is imperfect, hole-filled on my best days, and those days don’t come around often enough.  So, when I debate a committed Calvinist, the “debate” is light-hearted discussion, judgment-free, and carried out in love.  At least that’s how I hope those conversations go.  That’s my intent.  I have received such grace and friendship from many a Calvinist who ardently disagreed with me.  And in the end, I don’t know I am right.  I think I am, but I don’t know.
            I believe that humble interpretation creates space for the Holy Spirit to lead the reader/preacher to the true meaning of God’s word.  The Bible becomes word of God when it is preached, read, and lived.  I have heard people say that a creative interpreter can make a passage “say anything.”  As Watson said in critique of Kermode, I respond “such a statement is untenable.”  No, the Bible cannot and does not mean anything we want it to mean or make it mean.  The Holy Spirit speaking through the words of scripture is the source of meaning, not the creative interpreter. 
            The story in the Bible expresses a single, true message, not an indefinable, variegated ideological patchwork.  Sin, self-absorption, and short-sightedness make it impossible for any reader to claim knowledge of the single, true message of scripture.  However, standing in grace, reading in grace, and approaching the text humbly, all the while seeking the Spirit’s guidance opens the way for the reader to draw neat the true message.  When the reader is before the Word in grace and humility, God speaks and is heard.  More important than saying what have never been said, that reader may hear from God what he has never before heard.

[i] Francis Watson (1997), Text and Truth: Redefining Biblical Theology, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids), p. 71.
[ii] Watson, p.71. 
[iii] Watson, p.72
[iv] I am intentionally using an issue other than the homosexuality issue for my example because that issue is wrought with emotional toxicity for the American church in general and my own church in particular.  It is a toxicity the church can handle, but only carefully. 
[v] Most Calvinists used the term ‘predestination’ incorrectly; they say ‘predestination,’ but they mean ‘predetermined.’

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

3rd Sunday of Lent - Psalm 19

3rd Sunday of Lent, March 4, 2018

            Last year, right around this time, the greatest of UNC basketball luminaries was asked what was the ceiling for the 2017 North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball team?  How far could that team go?  He excited and confused the Dean Dome crowd by proclaiming, “The ceiling is the roof!”
            Horizons; when I think of horizon, I think how high I can go and how far I can see.  What is the horizon in your life, the limit?  Think in terms of relationship, purpose, accomplishment. In the Bible, Psalms 1, 19, and 119 are referred to as “great Psalms of Torah,” and these Psalms show the people of God to be a people whose “horizon is defined by Torah.”[i]
            I’d bet my pinky finger you’ve never said, “My horizon is defined by Torah.”
            Torah is law, but in the Bible, Jewish people mean more that the simple definition of law we use – it is the law that you drive 25 miles per hour in a residential zone and if you go faster, thus breaking the law, then you could get a ticket and a fine.  Torah is far more elegant than something as mundane as that. 
            Torah is the text of the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  It is the story of God’s creation of all that is; it is the story of God’s selection of one man, Abraham, and his descendants, to be his chosen people; and, it is the story of God’s self-revelation as he rescues Abraham’s descendants from slavery in Egypt and then, through the mediator, the prototype-prophet Moses, gives the law.  The law shows Abraham’s descendants how to live as God’s chosen people.  “I, the Lord your God am holy.  You shall be holy as I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). 
            Per Michael Jordan, the Tar Heels’ basketball ceiling is the roof.  Per the Bible, the ceiling, the roof, and the sky beyond it all fall under God.  We know God first and foremost in our encounter with God in Torah.  The God we meet in Torah determines how far we go, who we become in life. 
            Of course all that I have said is a great offense, a true insult, precisely because it is me saying it.  As a Gentile, I am not of the chosen people.  I have no rightful claim to Torah, other than to come to it as a stranger and alien.  This is true of you too, if you are also a Gentile, and most who hear or read this are.  However, when the God of creation came to the creation as a human man, Jesus of Nazareth, God in the flesh, something changed. 
            Paul describes this change in Romans 11.  He calls Gentile Jesus-followers “wild olive shoots” who were grafted into the tree (v.17).  In other words, in Jesus, we Gentiles are brought into the Chosen People.  Jesus does not replace Torah.  Jesus embodies Torah.  Torah is not rendered obsolete because of Jesus.  Because of Jesus Torah reaches fullness.  Torah is fulfilled in Him.  And all who come to faith in Him, even non-Jews, are adopted as daughters and sons of God. 
            So, God, including the word of God, is our horizon.  This is our destiny, our goal, and our limit.  Sometimes, God as our limit does mean, we don’t go there.  We don’t do that.  Sometimes the limitations set by God do in fact restrict us.  But the point is our lives are richer and happier by staying within the boundaries God sets.
Other times, the limits set by God mean we can go father and do more than it seems might be humanly possible.  David defeats Goliath.  Esther saves her people from extinction.  Joseph and pregnant Mary survive the arduous journey and make it to Bethlehem.   
            Both in restraint and in exceeding all possibility, we are bound by the relationship we have with God.  Either way, we are slaves to God whom we know by Jesus Christ.  Furthermore, enslaved to God, we know we are absolutely free. 
            The symphony of praise in the first six verses of Psalm 19 launches an all-out assault upon the cathedral of scientific naturalism.  Evolutionary science sees no purpose in nature other than survival.  Natural phenomena do not praise God or tell God’s story, says the scientist.  Natural phenomena exists without planning and without goals.  We look to sky and see a dazzling diamond display of stars that the astronomer will tell us are all, like our sun, giant burning orbs.  “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.” 
No.  There is no wonder.  The astronomer knows what it is: a flaming gas ball.
No.  Psalm 19 defiantly rejects this soulless explanation.  “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (v.1).  For millennia, obeying the instruction of Jesus, we have loved God with “all our mind” (Luke 10:27-28), and gathered learning upon learning.  We who worship also appreciate the achievements made by men and women of science.  We know the astronomer is right.  The beautiful night time lights are flaming gas balls.  But before we learned that, we knew God and we still know God.  So the Psalmist is also right.  The heavens do indeed tell his glory.
Yes, singer of the Psalm, God does set a tent for the sun, and when that sun comes out, it does come out like a bridegroom emerging from the wedding canopy (v.5).  Yes, the sun runs its course in joy.  Along with our knowledge of astronomy, we know God.  Because Jesus came, lived a life in which he teaches us how to love, died for us, and rose from the grave, we have relationship with God.  When we gave our hearts to Him, we were all made a part of God’s people.  Torah, perfected in Christ, has become our horizon.  Our life is directed by God.  We are headed toward God.
            One of the most important results of living God-directed lives is our sense that God is present, is able to hold our lives, and wants to be involved, to be in relationship with us.  Last week, the central point was that belief = faith.  That’s not all faith is, but it is at the very least that. We when we live in faith, we fully believe that God is present and thus our lives are lived fully submitted to God as our Lord.  God as we know God in Jesus is master of our lives. 
            Therefore, we expect God to act in our lives.  We absolutely believe that God will step into the flow of history and to alter that flow by changing the course of events for the better.  More individualistically, we expect God to, out of his love for us, act in tangible ways in our lives.  One author refers to this as living life with the full expectation of “Abiding Astonishment.”[ii]  We believe God will do the miraculous.  But what happens when God doesn’t?  What do we do when we expect abiding astonishment and come away unimpressed?  How do we handle it when we believe we will get abiding astonishment, and instead we get disappointment?
·         The cancer is ends not in a healing, but in a funeral. 
·         “Til death do us part” is shattered as he finds a younger woman more attractive and leaves behind the wife of his youth and the kids they had together. 
·         We send our kids off to school in the morning with a full lunch box and a heartfelt prayer for their safety and their learning, and then we lose our voices in paralyzing terror when we hear that the shooting happened in our town this time; in the school where our kids go. 
·         Holocaust in Germany; atomic bomb in Japan; killing fields in Cambodia; genocide in Rwanda; endless civil war in Syria.

            God was supposed to act.  But God didn’t.  Then what?  What happened to all that sanctimonious sentiment about horizons and Torah, that flowery grandiosity about the heavens telling of God’s glory?  Where is God’s glory now?
            The answer depends upon what we believe.  If you started out not truly believing in God or God’s involvement in life, then pain will bring your unbelief to the surface.  Many unbelievers spend their lives in church.  They recite the Lord’s Prayer. They sing the doxology and the praise songs and the hymns.  They take communion.  However, when deep pain and crushing disappointment come, suddenly, they no longer think much about God.  The loss of faith is loss of something that wasn’t quite real in the first place.
            However, if you start out with a deep faith and abiding trust in God, and then disappointment comes where you expected astonishment, your response to pain will not be the abandonment of faith.  When life hurts, you might angrily ask, “Where is God?”  But if you are a believer, you won’t ask, “Is there a God?”  That’s not something you’d consider. 
            Psalm 88 is the plaintive song of one who feels isolated, crushed by God.  Ecclesiastes paints a bleak, fatalistic picture of a world God has left to run its course.  Job rages the tortured cry of pain as he thrusts blame for all his woes in God’s lap.  Jesus, quoting the Psalms, cries out, “My God, My God, why have your forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46).  In the tradition of these Biblical witnesses, when life gets hard for us, if we truly believe in a real God, an active and present God, then we raise our voice to that God. 
We need to be reminded of this because life gets tough.  From the depths of pain, we desperately need to cast our eyes upon the horizon, upon the God who saves.  What do we see when we do?  The sun, the sky, the stars, raise God’s praise in the first six verses of Psalm 19. 
But then it takes a turn in verse 7.  It initially seems to be a very dull, dry turn.  From “the sun coming like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,” we get “law, decrees, precepts, commandments, ordinances.”  Yawn.  How do these arid concepts offer comfort or hope or some light to us when we are beleaguered by burdens, beaten down by pain and loss?  How do decrees or commandments rescue us from our disappointments and help us once again fix our eyes on God, our horizon?
The singer of the Psalm puts verbs with the nouns.  “The law of the Lord … [revives] the soul,” when the soul needs reviving.  The decrees give wisdom.  The precepts bring rejoicing to our hearts.  The commandment enlightens our eyes.  The ordinances of God surpass gold in value.  The singer of the Psalm ponders the law of God and finds life in it.  Because we come to Torah by way of Jesus, we know what kind of life Torah gives.  “I have come that you might have life and have it in abundance” (John 10:10).  These verbs amplify Torah appropriately.  Life is full when life is the life of God.  That full life is our horizon. 
The final verse of Psalm 19 is one many preachers pray right before they preach.  “Let the words of my mouth and the mediation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (v.14).
If I want the words I have spoken this morning to be acceptable to God, those words have to help you see God even when you find yourself in difficult circumstances.  Even when we suffer, we need to look to the horizon and see God and see a way to hope.  Thus, I reiterate what was said last week and what was said on the very first Sunday of Lent.  God is present.  Jesus left the disciples with these word when he ascended at the end of the Gospel of Matthew.  “Remember I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (28:20b).
God is with us.  When we inhabit His law as we understand it through the life and teaching of Jesus; when we feel him fill us as we gather here, in the community of our brothers and sisters in the church family; and when we sense his Holy Spirit, present wherever we go.  The wonder of God, the abiding astonishment, is that God is the horizon, that distant point to which we are headed.  God is also at home deep in our hearts.  And God is all around us.  Each statement is true. 
In our good times, we sing the song of Psalm 19, “The heavens tell of the glory of God.”  In our down times, we move to the second stanza, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.”  And, where we spend most of our lives, in between the mountain top of exultant joy, and the lowest valleys of gray despair, in our unremarkable times; God is there too.  “The commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes” (19:8b).
Fight with God or praise God, or silence your mind and listen to God.  But always, always, stay attuned.  We keep our eyes on God, our Lord, our rock and our redeemer.  In Lent, the season of turning away from sin and turning away from temptation and distraction, we also turn to something.  We turn to the horizon, our God.  We turn to him and walk in faith.

[i] Brueggemann, W. (1997).  Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy.  Fortress Press (Minneapolis), p.445.
[ii] Brueggemann, W. (1991).  Abiding Astonishment: Psalms, Modernity, and the Making of History. John Knox Press (Louisville), p.52.

Monday, March 5, 2018


“When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous’” (Genesis 17:1-2). 

“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).

“As they were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11 They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:9b-11).

Abraham’s wife Sarah was over 90.  They had waited their entire lives for a child.  Now God promised one, and they had to wait some more.

In Luke’s Gospel, we know that after Jesus arrives in Jerusalem come the horrors of the cross.  Luke tells us he’s headed there in chapter 9, but then we have to go through 12 more chapters before he finally arrives.

The scene in Acts is the Ascension.  The white-robed angels promise Jesus will return in the same way he was taken up.  That was 33AD.  It is now 2018AD.


As I write this, I am waiting for Easter.  Preachers always endure a thematic adjustment from February to early April.  Preaching during Lent is unlike preaching at any other time.

As I write this on a Monday, I am waiting for Saturday.  I am scheduled to fly to Ethiopia for a week with some wonderful children.  I will spend this week waiting for Saturday to arrive.

As I wait, I am waiting for a package in the mail that will have my passport in it.  As a part of our trip prep, we had to submit our passports to the embassy.  I can’t get on the plane without it.  Now I am waiting for it to return.  This may be the most nervous of all the waiting.  It is certainly the most immediate.

For what are you waiting?  While waiting, how will you sit in the time?  We Americans “pass the time.”  Or, being the consumers that we are, we “spend the time.”  I don’t think God wants that for me or for anyone.

Read Luke chapter 10-21.  There is a lot that happens in that stretch from knowing the cross is coming to it actually arriving.  Jesus tells the most re-told of all his parables, the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), in those intervening chapters.  Much of what we think about in the Gospel falls in Luke 10-21.  We may be going along waiting, but in that waiting space, God is working.  Read the Abraham narratives in Genesis 12-22.  A lot happens between God’s initial promise and the arrival of Isaac.

I am tempted to think, well, this mission trip is some big thing.  And it is indeed some big thing.  However, God might also have some things to do before the mission trip. 

Easter, now that’s important preaching.  Sure.  But God isn’t waiting for Easter to speak into my life and possibly through me into someone else’s life. 

What in your life has you waiting?  Waiting isn’t easy.  It can be excruciating.  But it can also be a space in life for God to work.  Don’t “pass” the time.  Don’t “spend” the time.  Sit in the time.  Sit and listen.  When we do that, we hear what God is trying to tell us.