Sunday, September 25, 2016

This week's lesson (September 24-30): The End

This quarter's lessons on Job begins at the end of the book.

Which is not a bad place to start.

As the quarterly notes, the ending of Job is incomplete; it's solution to the problem of suffering is only partial. While the Book of Job is important, in other words, more is needed.

Which is true of more than just the Book of Job.

No book of the Bible says everything that needs to be said, after all -- and while some may be more relevant than others at any given time, they all have something to say.

That's why we need more than just the Book of Job to learn about suffering.

That's why we need more than just the Book of Romans to learn about salvation.

Yes, that's why we need to study the whole Bible, and not just a "mini-canon" we've compiled from a few, favorite verses.

And that's why we should always remember that our understanding of the Bible is still tentative and incomplete.

In short, our questions don't end when we study the Bible.

In fact, they're just beginning.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

This week's lesson (September 17-23): how shall we wait?

And I saw a great crowd whom no one could number, stretched out before the throne of God. And books were opened. And judgment was set.

And verily, a remnant did push their way to the front. And they did complain with great complaints, saying unto Him that sat upon the throne, “Lord, thou didst not conform unto the predictions we had made, and thou didst not arrive according to the schedules we had set. And behold, thou hast made us look like fools!”

And the Lord said, “Say what?”

And they did open their books, and they did unroll their charts, and they did set up their PowerPoint presentations . . . and they did demonstrate what manner of coming the Lord should have done.

“For there should have been a Great Time of Trouble Such as Never Was Since the World Began,” they did say, being very careful to capitalize properly. “And only after that should the end have come. But lo, the 
Great Time of Trouble Such as Never Was Since the World Began did not arrive as we had predicted – and that is why we were sore amazed at your return.”

And the Lord did scratch His head and say, “So what do you call the Twentieth Century?”

And they did reply and say, “What?”

“The Twentieth Century – you remember it, I’m sure. More people died of war, famine, and disease in that century than any other. In fact, more died of these things during that century than just about all the rest of history put together. And if that doesn’t count as a Great Et cetera, then I don’t know what does.”

And at that, the remnant did look somewhat relieved (though a little embarrassed); and its members did say, “We hope that thou dost not hold it against us, that we did not realize this was going on . . . for we did live in the United States, and we did miss out on most of the suffering during that time. In short, it would seem that this particular prophecy did not apply to us.”

“I guess not,” said the Lord. “But there is another one that does: ‘For I was hungry . . .’”

This post first appeared in 2005.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

This week's lesson (September 10-16): urban ministry in the end time

Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you. -- James 5:1-6, NIV
Read these verses in James, and Ellen White's counsels on agriculture begin to make sense.

She lived through one of the greatest demographic transitions in history, after all -- a time when farmers dropped from 70% of the American workforce to 27%. Yes, millions and millions of people moved to the cities . . . 

And all because life in a slum -- as hellish as it was -- was still better than life back home on a farm.

When Ellen White urged our schools to teach agriculture, in other words, she was not indulging some utopian fantasy of "back to the land"; neither was she simply urging that education be practical.

Instead, she was asking the church to make life better for poor farmers where they lived -- and if we did so, then maybe they wouldn't need to look for a better life in the tenements of New York and Chicago . . .

Or the shantytowns and favelas of Mumbai, Lagos, and Sao Paulo.

In short, Ellen White wanted to do more than just help the poor.

She wanted our church to address the structures that cause poverty -- the structures that allow the few to live "in luxury and self-indulgence," while the many suffer want.

In her day, that meant agriculture.

What would it mean in our own?

This first appeared on November  30, 2014.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

This week's lesson (September 3-9): Jesus bade them, "Follow me."

Brothers, I could not address you ask spiritual but as worldly -- mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. . . . For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not mere men? 
What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe -- as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who makes things grow. -- I Corinthians 3:1-7, NIV
Invite people to follow Jesus?

You're just asking for trouble.

Invite people to follow Jesus, after all, and they're likely to do just that -- to follow him, and not us.

Think what happened on Pentecost, for instance -- no sooner do the those Palestinian followers of Jesus reach out to Greek-speaking Jews, then the trouble begins.
  • Trouble over money.
  • Trouble over leadership.
  • And all kinds of trouble when those Greek-speaking Jews reach out to Greek-speaking Gentiles (cf. Acts 11:19ff).
Invite people to follow Jesus, in other words, and they'll change all kinds of things. Yes, they'll challenge the status quo. Insist on new methods. Reach out to all kinds of people we've never reached before.
And if they do that, then what will become of us?
No, much better to teach them that we follow Jesus.
And if they want to follow Jesus?
Then they need to follow us.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

This week's lesson (August 27 - September 2): Jesus won their confidence

Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. "Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened." But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. -- I Peter 3:13-16, NIV (emphasis supplied)
Nobody likes a know-it-all.

Even if you do know-it-all.

I mean, you may have done all the things we've talked about in this quarter's lessons: yes, you've mingled with your neighbors, listened to them, met their needs, won their trust . . .

And I know it's exciting when they finally begin to show an interest in spiritual things -- when they finally ask you that first, tentative question about your beliefs . . . 

But that doesn't mean they want to be treated like an idiot.

No, you may disagree with their beliefs -- but you still need to respect them.

You may be appalled by their ignorance -- but you still need to listen.

You may be eager to tell them everything you know about everything they need to know -- but this needs to be a conversation between friends.

Not a lecture by The World's Smartest Human.

The same kindness and humility that inspired their questions, in other words, must be shown when we answer their questions.

In short, our goal is to show them Christ -- to show Christ in what we say and how we say it.

Even if they don't know anything else.

Monday, August 22, 2016

This week's lesson (August 20-26): Jesus ministered to their needs

Look! Up in the sky!

It's a bird!

It's a plane!

No, it's the subject of this week's Sabbath School lesson!

To be sure, δικαιοσύνης ("righteousness") does not sound like the kind of word that belongs in a comic book. No, it's a "church" kind of word -- a word that summons images of people whose shirts are white, whose shoes are polished, and whose meals consist of tofu and tapwater.

Reason enough that Batman and Superman were never joined by "Righteousnessman."

But as the NIV Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words points out:
All the words in this group derive from dikê (justice, punishment). Dikê was the daughter of Zeus, who shared in his government of the world. . . . in order to make human life possible, he gave dikê, justice, whose implacable enemy is bia, violence.
The Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology adds that:
[Dikê] was the enemy of all falsehood, and the protectress of a wise administration of justice. . . . [She] appears as a divinity who severely punishes all wrong, watches over the maintenance of justice, and pierces the hearts of the unjust with the sword made for her by Aesa.
Kind of like Wonder Woman, only without the Lasso of Truth.

Now obviously, the concept of  δικαιοσύνης is going to develop and change before it finds a home in our Bible -- but even there, it is more active, more public, and much more concerned with the state of our society than we usually give it credit for.

In short, the superheroes' "Justice League" was a league of δικαιοσύνης.

And this week's lesson tells us δικαιοσύνης is also something that God's people should encourage.

Even if we don't wear a cape.

This is a repeat of the lesson for March 10, 2010.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

This week's lesson (August 13-19): Jesus showed sympathy

Over the years, few things have tried the patience of the saints more than the patience of God.

Don't believe me?

Think of Revelation 6:9f.
When [Jesus] opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?"
Or Psalm 74:10f.
How long will the enemy mock you, O God?
       Will the foe revile your name forever?
Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand?
       Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!
Then there's the complaint of Habakkuk 1:2-4.
How long, O LORD, must I call for help,
       but you do not listen?
       Or cry out to you, "Violence!"
       but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
       Why do you tolerate wrong?
       Destruction and violence are before me;
       there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
       and justice never prevails.
       The wicked hem in the righteous,
       so that justice is perverted.
And who can forget that final fit of pique in Jonah 3:10-4:3?
When God saw what [the people of Ninevah] did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.

But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the LORD, "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live." 
No, if we were running things, then judgment would be swift, sure, and automatic . . .

For other people.

Instead, we see God treating their sins with the same forbearance and compassion that He treats our own.

Needless to say, this really annoys us -- yet as we're reminded in II Peter 3:9 --
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 
In short, God is patient with us.

That's why we need to be patient with God.

This first appeared on January 28, 2010.