Sunday, December 25, 2016

This week's lesson (December 24-30): some lessons from Job

What can we learn from the Book of Job? Three suggestions:

1.  We don't know everything.
Job never did figure out the cause of his suffering; neither did any of his friends. That alone should be enough to inspire humility.

2. The things we know don't always help.
Job's friends picked up the idea that sin causes suffering -- something that is true enough . . . then reversed it, turned this reversal into a Universal Principal, and used it to "prove" the only possible cause of Job's suffering must be the fact he had sinned. They took the little bit of truth they had, in other words, and made it speak to a situation it was never meant to address.

3. But the things we don't know shouldn't make us forget the things we do.
Job's friends didn't know why Job suffered -- but they did know how to treat people who suffer. But as Job continually complained, they ignored the second in order to focus on the first . . . and in doing so, they earned Job's anger, God's condemnation, and our contempt.

A suggestion: the next time we gather to decide A Great Issue of the Day -- the age of the earth, single-sex marriage, the propriety of applause in church . . . it might be useful if we began the meeting with the lessons of Job:
  • We don't know everything.
  • The things we know don't always help.
  • But the things we know shouldn't make us forget the things we do -- things such as Christ's command that we love each other.

Friday, December 23, 2016

This week's lesson (December 17-23): the character of Job

Who would do better in your church?

Job?

Or his friends?
  • Job is angry at God -- the same God his friends are eager to defend.
  • Job asks uncomfortable questions -- and what's more he keeps asking them. His friends, on the other hand, are happy with the answers they have.
  • Job takes a "bottom-to-top" approach; if the facts on the ground disagree with theological truth, then the theological truth is wrong. His friends, however, put their "truth" first -- even if it disagrees with facts on the ground.
And yes, I know we all want a church where we can be Job -- where we can be honest, where we can be open, where we can ask all the nasty questions we want . . . 
But what about the other Jobs out there?
Would they be safe in your church?
Or is it a place where only Job's friends could feel at home?

Monday, December 12, 2016

This week's lesson (December 10-16): Job's Redeemer

If all you have is a hammer . . . 
Then when do you stop treating all of your problems like nails?
Consider the three friends of Job -- three friends who have one (and only one) explanation for Job's suffering: he must have done something to deserve it.
Now you know that's not true; that's because you've read the first two chapters of this book. 
But Job's friend's never do learn the truth. 
No, they just keeping banging away with the only answer they have: "It's karma," they keep telling Job. "It must be karma. I mean, what other explanation do we have?"
Dumb, right?
That's why I'm beginning to believe the Book of Job is not about The Problem of Evil; instead, it's a book about The Limits of Wisdom . . . 
Or rather, what happens when you reach the limits of your wisdom.
If all you have is a hammer, after all, then do you make the same mistake as Job's friends, i.e. do you insist that all problems must be nails?
Or do you pause -- like Job?
Reflect -- like Job?
And start looking for something better?

Friday, December 09, 2016

This week's lesson (December 3-9): Out of the Whirlwind

One thing is clear about God's speech in Job 38-41:

Nobody expected it.

Job and his friends spend 30-some chapters discussing The Problem of Evil, remember -- and then God breaks in with what?

With a quick tour of His creation -- with a quick tour of All Things Bright and Beautiful (as well as Some Things Dark and Scary).

And yes, there are all kinds of ways we try to make sense of God's speech:
  • Maybe He's trying to overawe Job with His power.
  • Maybe He's pointing out that people are just a very small part of a very big universe.
  • And maybe God decides the one thing Job really needs right now is a trip to the zoo.
Maybe.
Dunno.
But it's worth remembering that God doesn't always answer our questions.
In fact, He doesn't always ask the same questions we do.
In short, we may come to God with our questions, our concerns, our requests . . . 
And God may answer them.
Or God may change the subject.
And if God changes the subject?
Then maybe we shouldn't be surprised.

Friday, December 02, 2016

This week's lesson (November 26 - December 2): the Wrath of Elihu

There's always an Elihu.

He shows up at the end of a long conversation -- a long conversation that's gone nowhere . . .

But he shows up full of certainty, full of answers, full of belief that it's time for a New Generation to Set Their Elders Straight.

And with that, he says . . .

Nothing.

Nothing that hasn't already been said, at any rate.

To be sure, the experts aren't sure what to make of Elihu:
  • Is he a gloss by a later writer, eager to give his opinion?
  • Is he a symbol of Impetuous Youth (and the way they keep repeating the mistakes of earlier generations)?
  • Or is he a convenient way to recap what's already been said - and to point out that nothing more remains to be said, that further argument is useless?
Don't know.
And I doubt if I'll find out anytime soon.
But I've noticed that people like him show up anytime there's a problem - yes, they show up late, make a long speech, and don't add anything new to the conversation.
Yes, there's always an Elihu.
But it doesn't need to be me.
Or you.

Friday, November 25, 2016

This week's lesson (November 19-25): intimations of hope

Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him. - Job 13:15, KJV 
See, he will kill me; I have no hope; but I will defend my ways to his face. - Job 13:15, NRSV
Obviously, there's some controversy about the best way to translate Job 13:15 -- a controversy that goes all the way back to the early medieval scribes known as the Masoretes.
  • If you follow the Masoretic Text (as does the King James Version), then the text says that it doesn't matter what happens; Job will continue to trust God.
  • But if you follow the Septuagint (as does the New Revised Standard Version), then the text says that it doesn't matter what happens; Job will continue to argue his innocence.
  • And yes, plenty of texts tell us to trust God regardless of circumstances . . . but judging by the earliest manuscripts (and the over-all tenor of Job's argument), this doesn't seem to be one of them.
We know about the bet between God and Satan, after all - but Job doesn't.

We know how this bet turns out - but Job doesn't.

What's more, we know this book has a happy ending - that God shows up, vindicates Job, and restores his good fortune - yes, we know this.

But Job does not.

And that makes Job's words all the more remarkable. 
  • He doesn't trust God to solve His problems; if anything, he thinks God is the source of his problems.
  • He doesn't hope God will "work all things for good"; no, he expects God to kill him.
  • In short, he doesn't expect this story to have a happy ending - but in spite of that, he doesn't give up; no, he continues to argue his case.
All of which bring us back to the question of Job's faith -- the question that lies behind the various translations of this text.
Is it a faith that trusts God for the answers?
Or is it a faith that trusts God with the questions?

Friday, November 18, 2016

This week's lesson (November 12-18): innocent blood

Job says he's innocent -- that he's done nothing to deserve all the bad things happening to him.

And maybe that's true.

Maybe it's not.

But at least he's not making it easy.

He could have "dumbed down" righteousness, after all -- made it something so easy that anyone can do. "I am a good man," he might have said . . .
  • "Because I do not own a TV."
  • "Because I do not eat cheese."
  • "And because I always study my Sabbath School lesson."
Job doesn't do that.

Instead, he talks about the way he's treated other people -- especially those less powerful than himself. "I am a righteous man," he says in the 31st chapter of this book.
  • "I have not denied justice to my servants."
  • "I have not used my influence in court against the poor."
  • "But I have shared my food with the poor, and comforted both orphans and widows."
When Job claims to be righteous, in other words, he means that he's been good to those in need.
And maybe that's true.
Maybe it's not.
But if it's not, then at least he failed at something important.
And that's better than succeeding at something trivial.

Friday, November 11, 2016

This week's lesson (November 5-11): retributive punishment

PRELIMINARY REPORTS
OF THE DEVELOPMENT TEAM
FOR THE KARMATRON:
FIELD TRIALS
VERSION 1.0
Karmatron performed as designed, administering near-instaneous negative rewards to subjects for any  infraction of Primary Directives. Fear of punishment, however, quickly induced a state of withdrawal-type behavior resembling catatonia; simply put, subjects wouldn't do anything for fear of doing it wrong. Perhaps a time delay?

VERSION 1.1
Time delay proved ineffective -- short delays between negative behavior and negative rewards results in withdrawal-type behavior; long delays negate link between negative behaviors and negative rewards. Will try random delays.

VERSION 1.2
Random delays implemented; result is that some subjects escape negative rewards entirely, while other receive negative rewards even after they have moved on to positive behavior.  Interesting. What happens when we add positive rewards?

VERSION 2.0
Immediate postive rewards for positive behavior result in obsessional repetition of that behavior, with no interest in doing anything else. Will add random delays -- perhaps intermittent rewards? (Perhaps even the occasional negative reward for positive behavior?) More study needed.

. . . 

VERSION 37,817.6927
"Does Job fear God for nothing?" Satan replied. "Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face."

Thursday, November 03, 2016

This week's lesson (October 29 - November 4): the Curse Causeless?

Job suffers.

Eliphaz tries to make sense of Job's suffering.

Job says he's done nothing to deserve this.

Eliphaz insists that nothing happens without a cause.

Job says God has abandoned him.

Eliphaz says God speaks to him.

Job is angry with God.

Eliphaz counsels prayer, patience, and repentance.

In short, Eliphaz offers good, religious answers to Job . . .

Yet the Bible says Job is righteous, while Eliphaz is wrong.

So . . . which would you rather be?

Job?

Or Eliphaz?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

This week's lesson (October 22-28): Curse the Day

It's easy enough to say, "for better or worse."

But when it comes to living those words?

"Better" is definitely better.

And that's just as true when you're following God as it is when you're married.

Yes, when the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and there's a chocolate cake just waiting for you on your kitchen counter, then it's easy to believe you made the right decision when you chose to:

A) Follow God.

B) Get married.

C) All of the above.

But when it's been raining all week . . .

And the kids are down with the flu . . .

And the only thing on your kitchen counter is that stack of bills you've been avoiding . . .

Then it's easy to say, "I don't want this. I don't deserve this. And I don't need to stick around for this."

Or as Job's wife says, "Curse God, and die."

To be sure, I understand why she says this.

What's more, I know how difficult it is to argue against this -- if you're not getting anything from a relationship, after all, then why stick around?

No, all I can say is that we all understand why we might feel this way about someone else . . .

But we all hope there's somebody else who would never feel that way about us -- someone who loves us, even in the bad times.

And if that's something we all want . . .

Then why shouldn't God want the same?

Yes, why can't God hope we'll say, "For better or or worse."

Even when it's worse?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

This week's lesson (October 15-21): God and Human Suffering

Why doesn't God do something about human suffering?

Perhaps the best answer comes from Christ's parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ 
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 
 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
If you're wondering why God doesn't do something about human suffering, in other words . . . 

The truth is, He's asking the same question about us.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

This week's lesson (October 8-14): does Job fear God for naught?

"How can you tell if someone is good?"

"Why . . . if they do good things, of course!"

"But maybe they're not good -- maybe they're just afraid to be bad. If you do bad things, after all, then you are punished."

"Certainly."

"And if you do good things, then you are rewarded."

"Also true."

"That means some people do good things, not because they're good, but only because it pays them to be good."

"True again."

"But you it paid them to be bad, then they'd do bad things."

"Just because you do good things, in other words, doesn't necessarily mean you're a good person."

"No, you may just be sneaky!"

"So how can you tell is someone is truly good?"

"Well, if a bad person is good only when it pays to be good . . ."

"Then a good person would be good, even if it didn't pay off."

"How could you make sure of this?"

"Obvious: see to it they're punished for being good! Yes, let them be accused, tried, beaten, and killed through no fault of their own."

"And if they continue to be good, even then?"

"Then we'll know they are good all the time -- and not just when it's convenient."

Adapted from the dialogue 
between Glaucon and Socrates in Plato's Republic.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

This week's lesson (October 1-7): the Great Controversy

Think of him as a bureaucrat -- a fussy little bureaucrat in a cheap suit with scuffed shoes and a bad haircut who shuffles into your office, opens his battered briefcase, and starts asking for your receipts.


That's the literal meaning of "satan," after all; it means "auditor" -- and throughout Scripture, the Auditor continually tries to poke holes in anything good that comes along.
  • Take Eve, for instance -- as far as the Auditor's concerned, she's good only because she doesn't know what she's missing. 
  • As for Job, the Auditor's sure that he's good only because he's been bribed to follow God.
  • And with the Auditor's help, Jesus will realize there's an easier way to get what He wants than to follow God --right? 
Well, no -- though not for lack of trying.
But as Kierkegaard and C. S. Lewis have both pointed out, the Devil may be a lion in his effects -- but in his tactics, he's more of a weasel. 
Yes, he slinks, he skulks, he insinuates . . . 
He whines, he nags, he prevaricates . . . 
He points out the lemon in the lemonade, the cloud behind the silver-lining, and the bug that's floating in your half-full glass . . . 
But despite his worst efforts, it turns out that he's no match for God.
If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.
Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.
And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39, NIV).
This post first appeared on December 15, 2013

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.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

This week's lesson (August 6-12): Jesus desired their good

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. -- I Corinthians 13:12f, NIV
Some people just don't get it.

Take George Washington -- an admirable man in many ways. Brave. Loyal. Generous.

But when it came to African-Americans, he had a horrible blind-spot.

No, when he looked at African-Americans, all he saw were slaves.

Likewise, Mark 8:22-38 tells the story of two men who don't get it:
  • The first is a blind man at Bethsaida; the second is Peter.
  • The first is healed physically, while Peter is healed spiritually.
  • But the first sees men "as trees walking," while Peter "sees" that Jesus is the Christ . . . but has no idea what that means.
In short, they both "saw."
But neither understood what was right there in front of their eyes . . . 
Kind of like George Washington.
But in Washington's case, understanding came when he saw African-American troops from Rhode Island -- African-American troops who taught him to see them as men.
Likewise, Jesus kept working with the blind man of Bethsaida.
Jesus kept working with Peter.
And when I get discouraged by how slow my church is to "see" things that are perfectly obvious to me . . . 
Or when I get discouraged by how long it took me to "see" things that are perfectly obvious to those around me . . . 
Then I remember that Jesus keeps working with us.
Even when we don't get it.


Saturday, July 30, 2016

This week's lesson (July 30 - August 5): Jesus mingled with people

Let us now praise Nominal Adventists.

You know who I mean.
  • They're the ones whom the Nominating Committee asked to be deacons "so that maybe they'll start showing up in church more often."
  • They're the ones who drop-off their kids at Sabbath School -- then head over to Starbucks for coffee and a donut.
  • Yes, they're the ones whose ties to your church are tenuous, sporadic, and superficial -- the same people we often write-off as "Laodecian."
But myself, I thank God for those Laodecian Adventists; they're the sign of a healthy church.

Show me a church with nothing but True Believers, after all, and I'll show you a church that nobody else wants to attend.
  • Not the people who drop by to see friends.
  • Not the people who hope it might do their children some good.
  • Not the people whose ties to the church may be tenuous, sporadic, and superficial . . . but whose ties still remain.
No, all these people have been weeded out. Cut off. Sent on their way with nobody left behind -- nobody but a few saints with nowhere else to go.

That's why healthy churches have fuzzy boundaries between Those Who Are Definitely Inside and Those Who Are Definitely Outside -- a sort of "grey area" made up of people who are "just looking," people who are "still not sure," and people who are "ready to buy . . . but not sure they can afford it."
  • You can call them "window shoppers."
  • You can call them "Transitional Christians."
  • You can call them "Nominal Adventists," or even "Laodecian."
But when they disappear, it's a sure sign that your church is dying -- that nobody else has even the slightest reason to attend.
In this week's Sabbath School lesson, after all, we're told the Church must mingle with the World. And that's good advice, but it works both ways.
You see, there's only one way to know your church is mingling with the world.
That's when you see the world mingling with your church.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

This week's lesson (July 23-29): Jesus on community outreach

[Jesus] called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. . . . "Do not take any gold or silver or copper in your belts," [he told them]; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep." -- Matthew 10:1, 9f (NIV).
So how much do you need for the trip?

Once upon a time, I would have said, "everything" -- and I would have packed accordingly.

Two or three suitcases.

A couple of duffle bags.

A box of emergency supplies.

And all this, just for a weekend with friends!

Likewise, any call to follow Jesus can lead believers to "load up" with all the things we think we need
in order to do so.

Like seminars -- gotta grab some training seminars.

And study committees -- can't have too many study committees.

Now add the books, the manuals, the DVDs, and all the other impedimenta that just might come in handy someday, and . . .

Well, it's a wonder that anything ever gets done!

Perhaps that's why Jesus sends out his disciples the way he does -- in fact, it reminds me of the time I spent a week in New Zealand with nothing more than the clothes on my back and the contents of a very small gym-bag.

For just like me, those disciples discover something: they discover they don't need as much as they think they do.

Yes, they already have everything they need to follow Jesus.

The same as you.
 


Sunday, July 17, 2016

This week's lesson (July 16-22): Justice and Mercy in the Old Testament (part two)

He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? -- Micah 6:8, KJV
I love this verse -- just so long as I remember the "and."
Justice without mercy is nothing more than vengeance, after all -- and if we all got what we deserved, then who of us would escape.
But mercy without justice? I've been in classrooms where that happened -- classrooms where any and all behavior was excused . . . and I've no desire to repeat the experience.
Take away the "walk with God," on the other hand, and both justice and mercy become legalism . . . while a "walk with God" that lacks justice and mercy becomes a study in irrelevance.
No, I need all three: justice AND mercy AND a humble walk with God.
But to practice all three, I need the "and."

Sunday, July 10, 2016

This week's lesson (July 9-15): Justice and Mercy in the Old Testament (part 1)

Read much of Ellen White, and one thing becomes clear: she was really bugged by the middle-class.

Take her advice on jewelry, for instance. Or music. Or even bicycles.

In each case, her chief concern was the effect of new-found wealth on the mission of our church.

And yes, this was a problem. (Still is!) Join the church, after all, and you stop drinking (which makes you a better employee). You start paying tithe (which forces you to keep track of your money). And you send your kids to an Adventist school (which almost guarantees that they’ll have a better job than you do).

As a result, the church becomes an economic escalator – one that picks up farmers and mechanics, gives them kids who are pastors and teachers, and eventually produces grand-kids who are doctors and lawyers.

So what happens when a “church of the poor” becomes a “church of the middle-class”?

Well . . . for one thing, the poor stop coming to church. They stop coming, because it’s no longer “their” kind of place!

That’s one reason Ellen White wrote against jewelry; she didn’t want the poor to feel out of place in our churches. That’s why she wrote against classical music; she wanted a church where anyone could feel at home. That’s why she wrote against bicycles; at the time, they were an outrageous example of conspicuous consumption (kind of like Hummers today).


In short, Ellen White was smart enough to know that money talks . . . and sometimes, what it really tells people is, “Go away!”

So how do we avoid that? 

And what do we do when the "economic escalator" has done its work, and we've become solid members of the middle-class?

That's what this week's lesson is all about.


This first appeared on August 18, 2005


Sunday, July 03, 2016

This week's lesson (July 2-8): restoring dominion

God always keeps His promises.

Even when we make it tough for Him to do so.

In the first chapter of Genesis, for instance, God promised that:

  • we'd have dominion over the earth, 
  • lots of food,
  • and lots of children.
Now in chapter two, God shows how He plans to deliver on those promises.
  • God plants a garden, then gives us the job of tending and guarding it -- and yes, the phrase here is the same phrase you'd use to describe the duties of a priest in a temple. What's more, we're giving "naming rights" to the animals, i.e. we're allowed to determine the role they'll play in God's world.
  • God fills the garden with every kind of tree that looks good and tastes good; this was one place, in other words, where food literally grew on trees.
  • Finally, God creates sex. (And yes, I know that sounds a little blunt, but how else can you describe the creation of the first man and the first woman?)
In chapter three, of course, our first parents will make it terribly difficult for God to keep these promises -- so difficult, we might have thought it far easier for God to forget them entirely.

But skip ahead to Revelation 20-22, and you'll find that every single one of God's promises will be fulfilled in the end.
  • We shall rule as priests and kings.
  • We shall eat from the tree of life, "and the leaves of the trees [shall be] for the healing of the nations."
  • And "a great crowd beyond number" will praise God as its saviour and king.
In short, God's plans for His people have not changed -- and God's promises to His people will all be kept . . .

Yes, God always keeps His promises.

No matter what it costs.



This is adapted from my commentary on the Sabbath School lesson 
for October 19, 2006.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

This week's lesson (June 25 - July 1): The Restoration of All Things

For God so loved the world . . .

That he created a paradise -- a walled garden which He named "Delight" (for that is what Eden means).

And in that paradise, He placed everything that could bring joy to humanity: animals and plants, gold and jewels, meaningful work and a Companion to share it all.

And it was good.

But it was not enough.

For as anyone who has ever seen The Truman Show could tell you, a paradise with no way out is nothing more than a prison. A very nice prison, to be sure, but nothing more.

So God placed in that garden an escape-hatch. An emergency exit. An abort switch in the form of a tree -- the Tree of Know-It-All. And God said, "that tree is your ticket out; you can leave any time you are tired of being loved."

And God waited to see what humanity would do.

For God so loved the world, that He gave us a chance to love Him in return.

Or not.

It's our choice.

That's how much He loved us.

This first appeared on April 2, 2009.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

This week's lesson (June 18-24): Crucified and Risen

Redemption

Related Poem Content Details

Having been tenant long to a rich lord, 
    Not thriving, I resolvèd to be bold, 
    And make a suit unto him, to afford 
A new small-rented lease, and cancel th’ old. 

In heaven at his manor I him sought; 
    They told me there that he was lately gone 
    About some land, which he had dearly bought 
Long since on earth, to take possessiòn. 

I straight returned, and knowing his great birth, 
    Sought him accordingly in great resorts; 
    In cities, theaters, gardens, parks, and courts; 
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth 
          
    Of thieves and murderers; there I him espied, 
    Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

This week's lesson (June 11-17): Jesus' Last Days

"It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. . . . Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." -- Acts 4:10-12, NIV.
If Jesus could have avoided the crucifixion, then he would have done so.
  • Yes, if "the blood of bulls and goats" could take away sins, then there'd be no need for the cross.
  • If virtuous pagans could be saved "by living up to the light they have" (as if anyone ever does this), then there'd be no need for Christ's death.
  • And if God says to the last generation of humanity that "everyone else was saved by grace -- but you must achieve perfection," then you have to wonder why He doesn't just require this of everyone and be done with it.
No, somehow God's love for all humanity is enabled, revealed, and mediated through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
To be sure, we don't know exactly how God saves us -- and the fact that two theories of the atonement have existed side-by-side for the past thousand years suggests we're not likely to figure out the answer anytime soon.
Then too, we don't know exactly who God has saved; as Augustine of Hippo points out, "we don't know how grace has been offered to someone else; we don't know how graced has been received by someone else -- and that is why we dare not judge anyone else this side of Heaven."
But if you want to know what salvation means, then look at the cross.
If you want to know what salvation costs, then look at the cross.
And if you want to know how salvation is possible, then you can speculate, contemplate, meditate, cogitate, and even celebrate . . . 
But one way or another, you'll always end up at the cross.
- This first appeared  on December 20, 2014

Sunday, June 05, 2016

This week's lesson (June 4-10): Last Day Events

Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your nick, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man.            -- Proverbs 3:3f, NIV.
"You must also be ready," said Jesus, "because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

"Yes, you are like the children whose parents gave them the job of mowing the lawn and weeding the yard and feeding the dog while the parents did go into town for a day of shopping -- and it will be good for those children if their parents find them doing all these things when those parents return.

"But suppose those children say to themselves, 'Our parents delay their coming; indeed, they shall not be home again before it is night'  -- and straightaway they do text all their friends, and all those friends come over to the house, and they all do eat and drink and get drunk and frighten the dog mightily, and great is the noise thereof.

"I tell you the truth," said Jesus, "the parents of those children shall come home at a time when they are not expected, at an hour when it is most inconvenient, and there shall be weeping and wailing and a great gnashing of teeth.

"For you have been trusted much," said Jesus. "That is why much is now expected of you.

This is adapted from the post for May 31, 2015

Sunday, May 29, 2016

This week's lesson (May 28-June 3): Jesus in Jerusalem

To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: "We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not mourn."

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, "He has a demon." The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, "Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners." But wisdom is proved right by her actions (Matthew 11:16-19, NIV).
This week gives you the chance to talk about some of the times when Jesus wasn't very nice.
As you study these incidents, you'll might want to ask yourself two questions:
  • Why did Jesus behave the way he did?
  • Should we do the same?
In dealing with the first question, you'll find it helpful to study the background of each text -- and to help you do this, I've linked each text to the relevant section of the InterVarsity Press New Testament Commentary .

As you study, you'll notice how Jesus was absolutely intolerant of anything that got between people and God . . . and this will lead you to the question of why we so often tolerate these things -- especially when other people are inconvenienced, and not ourselves.

When Jesus cleared the Temple, for instance, he did this so that Gentiles would have a place to worship -- one of the first examples, I suppose, of a "seeker-sensitive service." Likewise, he ate with tax collectors and "sinners," even at the risk of his own reputation -- a standing rebuke to churches that would rather look good than do good.

In short, Jesus was loving. Jesus was kind. Jesus gave his life for us.

But Jesus was not always "nice."

Why not?

And what should you do about it?

-This is adapted from a post that appeared on May  9, 2008