Thursday, March 13, 2008

Hardness of Heart and Mind


Exodus 7:25-8:19
Previously in Exodus 4:21 we were told that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not respond to Moses. Here in 8:15, though, we read that “…when Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his (own) heart….” And later in 8:19 we are told that, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened…” reminding us, I think, that Pharaoh had previously made a decision to disregard God’s work and God’s word. So while God certainly has the power to hardened hearts and to guide human affairs, sinfulness is such that we are also quite capable of hardening our own hearts and turning our backs against God’s will. The ambivalence concerning who hardened Pharaoh’s heart is a good reminder of the importance of remaining alert to God’s word in our own lives. Comedian Flip Wilson used to play a character named Geraldine who’s catch phrase was “the devil made me do it!” But while God can effect the human will, to blame the devil for our own misdeeds is to ignore our own fault in the matter. However we look at it, Pharaoh was most guilty in his actions because he was acting out of a desire to control events which placed him in opposition to God’s will.

2 Corinthians 3:7-18
There is an interesting connection to the Exodus passage in 2 Corinthians. “But their minds were hardened,” writes Paul in verse 14. I take this to mean that the people themselves had hardened their minds, had decided to ignore God’s activity, the new thing God was doing in Jesus Christ. For Paul growth in the faith can only come when the veil, the stubbornness, the obstinacy is removed as it is in Jesus Christ. This may be one effort to explain why some people express faith in God though Jesus while other people, given the same information and the same opportunity, choose not to express that faith.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Firstborns and the Role of the Mind in Faith


Exodus 4:10-31
I don’t think I had ever really noticed the fact that God had determined to kill Pharaoh’s firstborn son even before Moses left for Egypt. But there it is in verses 22-23, “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord: Israel is my firstborn son. I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.’” This certainly puts the killing of the firstborns into a context by tying it to Israel whom God claims as a firstborn. But Israel (Jacob) wasn’t the firstborn of his generation. Esau was the firstborn and Jacob, the supplanter, was born second. Jacob only becomes the firstborn in a manner of speaking by way of the birthright he finagled from his brother and the blessing he duped Isaac into to giving him. Later of course he wrestled with God by the ford of the Jabbok and gained a blessing and a new name (and a limp). So Israel (and specifically the descendants of Israel now living in Egypt) is the firstborn of God only in a figurative sense, the way the nation of Israel will later be referred to a the bride of God, or perhaps by way of the covenant to which Jacob has become a party. But either way, because of this relationship between God and the people of Israel, one that is as dear to God as that between a parent and a firstborn child, God will kill the firstborn of Pharaoh. And Moses knows this before he even leaves Midian.

1 Corinthians 14:1-19
Those of us who are Presbyterian and who put great stock in an intellectual approach to the faith should take interest in Paul’s words in verse 15. “What should I do then? I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also; I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.” There are a number of ways to apply this verse, but today I’m led to consider it a call to worship God with all of who I am. It’s not enough to go through the motions, to participate in worship physically while my mind is on something else. I need to give everything I am to God, body and mind, and use everything that God gives me to the glory of God, day in and day out. As the ad campaign for the United Negro College Fund says, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” We “waste” the intellect that God has given us when we try to separate it from our lives of discipleship, whether in worship or wherever we happen to be.

Mark 9:30-41
Interestingly, no mention is made by Mark as to whether the child that Jesus places in the midst of the disciples was the firstborn of his or her family (verses 36-37). And yet this unnamed child served as an example of discipleship anyway, just the way that Jacob (Israel) served as God’s firstborn in the Exodus passage.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Leaving a Mark


Exodus 2:23-3:15
Yesterday we learned something about the name Moses. Today we learn something about God’s identity. The Hebrew word that God uses as a name can be translated a number of ways: I Am Who I Am, I Am What I AM, I Will Be What I Will Be; perhaps more literally He Causes To Be. According to the Oxford Annotated Study Bible this name has less to with God’s eternal being as the fact that God is present in historic affairs. In other words, God is. And in this divine being God takes certain actions and facilitates certain events. Another way of thinking about this might be to say that God leaves a mark, a sign of presence in the world. The bush through which God spoke did not burn, but lives are changed whenever God appears, and those lives become a sign of God’s presence and effort. As we see further on in Exodus, Moses has a number of objections to accepting the task to which God calls him, but a real, present God over comes them all, and eventually Moses will return to Egypt to lead the people to the promised land.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13
These are perhaps Paul’s most familiar words. Verses 4-7 sum things up nicely: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious of boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” In other words, love also “leaves a mark”, a sign of its presence in changed lives and opened hearts. Like God, love is visible in certain actions and in the facilitation of certain events. This may be why Paul considers love to be the greatest of the gifts.

Mark 9:14-29
My heart has always gone out to the father in this story, especially when he says, “I believe; help my unbelief” (verse 24)! But it was not until I had children that I really understood the depth of these words. Because of his love for his child this father is willing to face his own lack of faith, his own doubts and fears, and to ask in effect, that Jesus heal him as well as his son. So here we see an even where God and love both “leave a mark” in very real terms. God’s healing power (and love) in Jesus and the love of the father for the son.

Friday, March 7, 2008

At the Intersection With God


Exodus 2:1-22
Verse 10 says, “When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, ‘because,’ she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’” The name Moses seems to be an interesting combination of Egyptian and Hebrew words. According to the Oxford Annotated Study Bible, “Moses” actually comes from an Egyptian word meaning “to beget a child.” It also may be connected to the name of an Egyptian deity named Thut-mose. But Moses is also very close to the Hebrew very meaning to draw out, close enough that it becomes a pun of sorts. All of this is significant because, like his name, Moses himself stands at an important intersection between Egyptian and Hebrew cultures, similar to the role that Joseph was called on to play, and just as much a sign of God’s providential care for the children of Israel. Moses, then like Joseph, presents a sort of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis triad through which God brings about a new understanding of who God is and what God expects of us. Ultimately, of course, the most important intersection through which God acts is the one where the Word of God becomes incarnate and enters the world.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Unity Among God's People


Exodus 1:6-22
Reading the account contained in Exodus one understands why minority groups and marginalized people have found comfort in what it says. Verse 12 reads, “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.” All of us would like to see ourselves in the role of the children of Israel in this passage, but what oppresses most of us is our own sinfulness, our own poor choices. We fit well into our culture and move easily within our society. On the other hand, who are the ones who suffer neglect in our own communities? Who are the lonely and hungry? Who are the outcasts. It is impossible for most of us to read the Exodus account as oppressed people in those terms. But there are those for whom this account provides hope and it is they whom we should seek to help and to support, lest we become more like the Egyptians.

1 Corinthians 12:12-26
Paul’s words to the church in Corinth appeal for unity among all God’s people. In verse 13 we find, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Clearly, if all of us were to live as common members of the body of Christ the risk of oppression and marginalization would be significantly reduced. Unfortunately we are all too quick to find ways to divide and separate ourselves one from another. Paul reminds us that though we are different in some ways, we share a common purpose according to the will of God, and that common purpose should be more than enough to bind us together in harmony and love.

Mark 8:27-9:1
8:35 offers one of those paradoxes for which the Christian faith is well known. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” If we live for today, if we strive for what we can accumulate for ourselves in worldly goods, then we’ve missed the point. Comfort in this life is not a priority for the gospel. In fact, if we must choose between comfort now and the hope and expectation of the coming kingdom, Jesus strongly urges us to choose the kingdom. This is a unifying element to the faith as well. If we allow our distinctions to divide us in this life we are choosing the present as our focus. But if we seek unity and a common bond, then we are setting our coarse for the coming kingdom and the will of God.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Random Thoughts


Genesis 50:15-26
Verse 20 sums up the entire Joseph story. He tells his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…” Joseph’s brothers were intent on ridding themselves of a nuisance, but through their actions God worked to preserve them. When they sold Joseph into slavery they were actually securing their own future. We can not really know what God is up to at any given time, but we can trust that God is working out the divine purpose, through our actions—and often despite them. Our challenge is to discover God’s will for our lives and to seek to serve God instead of working against God. This takes prayer and an openness to what God may be saying to us.

1 Corinthians 12:1-11
In verses 4-6 Paul uses a Trinitarian formula to describe the unity found in the diversity of the church. “Now there are varieties of gifts,” he writes, “but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” Even if we do not serve God in the same way that someone else does we are still united with that person in the fact that it is God who has given us each our gift for service. Just as God is united––three in one––so are we, our various skills, talents, and insights given to us as a means of supporting the church and each other.

Mark 8:11-26
The story in verses 22-26 is fascinating in that it shows Jesus “fine tuning” a healing, laying his hands on a blind man a second time to give the man his sight.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

We Belong to God


Genesis 49:29-50:14
49:31 is a part of Jacob’s instructions to his sons to bury him in Canaan in a particular field. “There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried, and there I buried Leah…” In death as in life Jacob understands himself to be a part of the tradition, a part of the family of God’s people. To be buried among them accentuates that sense of belonging. In life and death we, too, belong to God, belong to the family of faith, the tradition that has gone before and which continues on.

1 Corinthians 11:2-34
It’s a minor point in this passage, but when Paul wants to end his discussion about veils and hair he says, “we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God” (verse 16b). In other words Paul is appealing to practice and custom within the other congregations and thereby reminding the Corinthians that they are part of a larger whole. There is an accountability among all the churches, one to another, and there is a shared responsibility, too. Paul was active in collecting money among the Gentile Christian communities to help support the church in Jerusalem, an act that recognizes the connection that exists within the church universal. Just as death does not separate us from God or the family of God, neither does geography or location.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Unity and Healing


1 Corinthians 10:14-11:1
10:24 is a consistent theme for Paul as it was for Jesus: “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.” When we concentrate on serving one another and not on seeing to ourselves the entire community it built up. When we see only to our own needs the entire community is pulled apart. At the battle of Culloden the English soldiers were instructed not to defend themselves directly, but to defend the ones standing next to them. This was the only way to counteract the ferocious assault of the Scottish Highlanders who had learned to push aside a bayonet with their small shields before dispensing with the soldier. When the English troops began to defend one another this attack was offset and the English won the battle. Paul is encouraging his readers to put others first so that the community of faith may flourish and God’s name be glorified.

Mark 7:24-37
What always strikes me about readings such as this one is the fact that Jesus has no set way of healing in the gospels. In the case of the deaf and mute man Jesus touches him and even spits on his tongue. But in the case of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, Jesus does not even see the girl but heals her from a distance. There are other methods related throughout the gospels by which Jesus brings health and wholeness to individuals. He sometimes uses mud as a salve. On other occasions simply touching the hem of his robe brings healing. Jesus’ ability to heal is not found in the method of the healing. This is not some sort of parlor trick he has developed, nor does he dispense herbs. Jesus’ power is an authentic expression of God’s love for people. Jesus has the ability to heal because God has given Jesus the authority to heal however that healing takes place.