Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Good News of God’s Favor - Lectionary Reflection for Advent 3B (Isaiah 61).

61 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

8 For I the Lord love justice,
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

                We have arrived at the Third Sunday of Advent. This brief and often neglected season has reached its midpoint. Soon, we will gather to celebrate the birth of the one Christians call the Christ, the one who incarnates God to the world. The reading from Isaiah 61 will likely resonate with followers of Jesus, who hear in it Jesus’ own sense of calling. It was early in his ministry, after baptism and temptation, that Jesus returned home to Nazareth and took an opportunity to preach in the synagogue. Having read this very passage, Jesus applied it to himself. Although the hometown folks did not respond well to his proclamation of himself as fulfillment of the word of Isaiah, we who are Christians have looked to it to understand Jesus’ own sense of call (Luke 4:16-30).

Monday, December 11, 2017

Awaiting the King (James K. A. Smith) -- A Review

AWAITING THE KING: Reforming Public Theology. (Cultural Liturgies, Volume 3). By James K. A. Smith.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017. Xvii + 233 pages.

                Preachers are cautioned to steer clear of politics. Not only is there the issue of tax exempt status, but going political can cause dissension in the congregation. Stick to religion and stay out of politics. The only problem with this advice is that the biblical story is very political. Jesus himself was executed as political figure. The Romans didn't care about the intricacies of Jewish theology, but they did pay attention to talk about alternative kingdoms and kings not on their payroll. So, Pilate had Jesus executed. Then there are the prophets of Israel, who often stepped on the toes of the political establishment. Politics and religion have long been connected for as long as there has been human history, even if the relationship is often tenuous. This leads us to the book under review, James K. A. Smith’s Awaiting the King, the third volume of his Cultural Liturgies project. It is, as the subtitle claims, an attempt to reform public theology (by public he means more than simply the state, though he does include the state within those parameters).

I approached this book with a degree of eagerness. For one thing, I am very interested in public theology (having written a book titled Faith in the Public Square and having been actively engaged in public life as a pastor). Although I hadn't read the first two volumes in this series, I did read his book You Are What You Love, which is a more popular version of the earlier volumes. The point of that book, which I read and enjoyed, was this—we are what we worship. That is, liturgies help form us, whether they're Christian or secular (thus the liturgies of the mall or sports have an important formational effect on us.) Now that I’ve finished reading Awaiting the King, I’m ambivalent about its message. This may have to do with differing spiritual/theological inclinations on my part. I'm not evangelical in the current sense of the word, nor am I Reformed in the way that Smith is? In other words, I lean more toward Reinhold Niebuhr than to Abraham Kuyper. And for those who do not know James K. A. Smith, he is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, holding the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, and a confessed admirer of the Dutch politician/theology Abraham Kuyper. He is also a fellow of Cardus, a Canadian Christian think tank apparently interested in changing Canada’s “social architecture.”

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Divine Patience - A Sermon for Advent 2B

2 Peter 3:8-15

If you’ve been out Christmas shopping, you may have found yourself standing in long lines. The same might be true at the Post Office. When it comes to calling customer service or tech support, time may slow down to a crawl. The occasional reminder that a representative will answer as soon as possible doesn’t make the wait any easier. So, what should you do while you wait? How do you keep yourself occupied, when half an hour seems like a day? Having a smart phone may prove helpful, at least while waiting in a line at the store or the post office. At least I can check Facebook and Twitter, and if the line is too long, I can open a book on my Kindle app.  But, what if you’re waiting for God to act?  

This season of Advent is by definition a season of waiting. We pray “O come, o come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.” Each year we sing these words of expectation, while waiting for Emmanuel to be fully revealed to us, not as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, but as the returning king. We sing: “Desire of nations bind all peoples in one heart and mind” and “bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease.” Today, on Peace Sunday, we offer this prayer, longing for the time when the world will be filled with “heaven’s peace.”

Saturday, December 09, 2017

What is "Essential Kenosis"?

How should we understand how God interacts with creation? Is God all powerful, and therefore able to do anything God desires? Are there limitations, even if self-generated limitations? In other words, does Gods' character define how God engages creation? In the view of Thomas Jay Oord, any conversation about the actions of God must be understood in the context of God's "uncontrolling love." Tom explores this concept in his book The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (IVP Academic, 2015). He then invited a number of people including scholars and pastors and lay persons to respond. Those responses appear in the book Uncontrolling Love: Essays Exploring the Love of God with Introductions by Thomas Jay Oord, (SacraSage Press, 2017). [Note: the cost of the paperback has been lowered from 24.95 to 11:95 on Amazon until Christmas Eve]. I contributed one of the essays to that book.  Now, as part of an effort to broaden the conversation about the "uncontrolling love of God," Tom, who is a theologian teaching at Northwest Nazarene University, has produced a brief video describing what he calls "essential kenosis." I'd like to invite you to view it, reflect on it, and hopefully respond here with your thoughts. Is this an understanding of God's nature and God's relationship to creation that makes sense? How does this understanding of God who is love invite us to participate in the work of God and empower us for that work? 

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Disciples Ecclesiology -- Part Two: Marks of the Church

            The New Testament uses several images to describe the church. One of the most compelling is Paul’s description of the church as the “body of Christ.” Other important descriptors include vine and branches, bride, and family. Regarding the body of Christ, Paul reminds us that there is but one body, with many members, each with its own purpose/gift (1 Cor. 12). As Alexander Campbell, remarked in the Millennial Harbinger, “all Christian communities to stand to each other as individual members in the human body stand to each other in giving or receiving pleasure or pain, . . . honor or dishonor” [Royal Humbert, Compend of Alexander Campbell’s Theology, (Bethany Press, 1961), p. 160].

While biblical images have important power in illuminating our understanding of the church, historically the church/churches have affirmed four marks of a true church. Four markers that are named in the historic creeds that one should look for in determining whether a church stands in line with the historic traditions. While the Disciples are historically a non-creedal tradition, it is worth spending some time considering these four marks, which according to the Nicene Creed, perhaps the most authoritative of the historic ecumenical creeds, affirm the existence of “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Exploring each of these statements in brief can help us consider who we are as church.