Well, last week the blog was just not happening. I had a sick child and other things to focus on, so I will try to provide some reflections and thoughts this week, maybe I might even shoot for three posts just to make-up some work. Oh…and how about them Eagles! Congrats to all the well-tested and long awaiting Eagles’s fans. Enjoy this one! (I hope Philly is still there…awaiting reports…)
In view of my sermon topic this Sunday, we looked at Romans 4 for those not present at GracePointe church this past Sunday, this passage in Hebrews 2 speaks to the same notions that Romans 3:21-31 and Romans 4 address. First, Jesus Christ is the solution to the sin problem that has enslaved humanity from the earliest time. Second, Jesus’ death is a special fulfillment of the biblical story and releases humanity from that curse of sin. Third, In the Hebrews passage there is great care in selecting the language to point us to the human-ness shared by Jesus; He was one of us, able to accomplish the victory over death by the power of God and providing hope that we too might “run the race with perseverance” and “gain the prize.”
Here is Hebrews 2 (NLT) for you consideration and reflection today:
14 Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. 15 Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.
16 We also know that the Son did not come to help angels; he came to help the descendants of Abraham. 17 Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. 18 Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.
I think about what it means to be a “descendent of Abraham” and how we read the story of the Old Testament as our story as New Testament Christians. As I have said before, the death of Jesus is hard to make sense of unless it is placed in the context of God’s covenant relationship with Israel and their constant struggle of being an “unholy people in relationship with a holy God.”
The main points of this reflection from Hebrews 2 are (1) that Jesus Christ served as the “propitiation” for our sins, that is that he stood in the place of humanity’s sin and took the punishment upon himself. Jesus is our stand-in, our sacrificial lamb…behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world. Through Christ we are free from the exploitation of sin…but not the struggle, testing, and temptation of a world still waiting for the victory of God to come in full. Which then points us to verse 18, in which we (2) realize that Jesus Christ is not simply the Lamb that takes away sin, but the one who sympathizes and relates to the human struggle. In so doing, Jesus can help us in our times of struggle and testing. He says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.” The Hebrews writer encourages us to enter that rest of Jesus Christ…to pursue it in the daily grind. Today, may we choose to enter the rest of Jesus, who paid our sin-debt and provides help to the weary. Amen.
So, when you tell folks that you're going to write about the subject of circumcision, you get some interesting comments. Some asked me to just cut to the chase about it. Another person suggested the title, “A snippet on circumcision.” While the jokes and suggestions just kept going, and while we tend to circumvent the topic of circumcision at every turn…even I would rather write about it than stand before a congregation and talk about it; but as we tend to downplay it, Paul seems to react to a group of Jewish people who are thinking it is of utmost importance. It seems weird to admit this, but the very practice of circumcision itself was a major issue in the growing and expanding church, and for the churches in Rome, Galatia, and Corinth among others…the distinction of circumcision had to be understood in a different way and eventually overcome if we could talk about unity among Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.
Just so we are on the same page. One of the distinctions that separated Greco-Roman “Gentile” men and Jewish men was that as a cultural/religious tradition, Jewish men were circumcised and Greco-Roman men were not circumcised. For the Jews, this was part of the covenant with Abraham where God chose them to be His special people. If we go back to Genesis 17, we read this:
9 Then God said to Abraham, “Your responsibility is to obey the terms of the covenant. You and all your descendants have this continual responsibility. 10 This is the covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Each male among you must be circumcised. 11 You must cut off the flesh of your foreskin as a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 From generation to generation, every male child must be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. This applies not only to members of your family but also to the servants born in your household and the foreign-born servants whom you have purchased. 13 All must be circumcised. Your bodies will bear the mark of my everlasting covenant. 14 Any male who fails to be circumcised will be cut off from the covenant family for breaking the covenant.”
Therefore, generation after generation practiced this, including Jesus as a Jewish boy; we read about his circumcision in Luke 2:21. Circumcision was the sign of the special relationship the Jewish people had with Yahweh God, and to not by circumcised was to be outside of the covenant…enter the Gentiles…who are obviously outside the covenant because they do not practice the sign of circumcision.
So, Paul’s explanation to the church at Rome has to have something to do with the fact that Gentiles are a part of the church, which is now God’s new chosen people through Jesus Christ; but how can they be included when they don’t practice the sign of the covenant? Secondly, perhaps God works in some sort of tier system where Jewish men who are circumcised are more important (1st class citizens) than the Gentile men who are not circumcised (2nd class citizens) although all are welcomed into the church. As Paul might respond, “By No Means!”
So, Paul addresses those who take pride in the practice of circumcision. In Romans 2 he asserts that the practice of circumcision along with the Jewish law has become a hazard for them and obstacles to faith (…and I should let you know that we are going to stay in the letter to Rome although Paul discusses this elsewhere in the New Testament).
25 The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. 26 And if the Gentiles obey God’s law, won’t God declare them to be his own people? 27 In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it.
28 For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. 29 No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.
I think the above statement really points out the problem happening in the hearts of some of the Jews who thought they were special due to their law and practices. Paul says that what makes a person a “true Jew” is a heart that is right with God. That does not happen through keeping the law. That also does not happen in the practice of circumcision. That happens by believing in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and living by faith (Romans 3:21-31).
Paul continues to talk about circumcision in Romans 4 as he addresses why the Jews must be made righteous through Christ by faith just like the Gentiles; moreover, Paul also addresses how the “uncircumcised” can have the same hope in God, same relationship, and same salvation as the “special nation.” Here are Paul’s words:
9 Now, is this blessing only for the Jews, or is it also for uncircumcised Gentiles? Well, we have been saying that Abraham was counted as righteous by God because of his faith. 10 But how did this happen? Was he counted as righteous only after he was circumcised, or was it before he was circumcised? Clearly, God accepted Abraham before he was circumcised!
11 Circumcision was a sign that Abraham already had faith and that God had already accepted him and declared him to be righteous—even before he was circumcised. So Abraham is the spiritual father of those who have faith but have not been circumcised. They are counted as righteous because of their faith. 12 And Abraham is also the spiritual father of those who have been circumcised, but only if they have the same kind of faith Abraham had before he was circumcised.
Now, here Paul does something that would make some Jewish people cringe…Abraham is the father of the uncircumcised? HOW? WHAT? This is a shocking statement, but one that is founded on the notion of FAITH in God and not on the dividing practice of circumcision. We know that when God changed Abraham’s name to “father of many nations,” God had in mind that Abraham wouldn’t be just the father of Israel…but of all people who have FAITH like he did. And that is the notion Paul is bringing forth in the passage above.
In conclusion, circumcision was a practice that divided people…Jew vs Gentile…and gave some the prideful stance that they were more connected, more special than others because of, if we are honest, a decision made for them at the time of birth to remove a flap of skin. This silly idea became a badge of honor for some Jewish groups and led to the inferiority of other nations. Circumcision was never a matter of faith, and that is where Paul found a problem with the attitudes the practice created. Salvation is by FAITH in Christ Jesus, and all people are welcomed to believe. I wonder what it is we put so much pride in…that has nothing to do with faith…everything to do with tradition…and divides us from other peoples? I even wonder why it is that Christians still circumcise little boys given what the New Testament says about it…but these are all just things for us to think about as we try to live by FAITH in Jesus Christ…the universal solution for our universal sin problem!
There has been a lot written about Paul’s words to the church in Rome as he summarizes the history of the human race. While some thinkers see this scripture as pertaining solely to Gentile culture, others see it more broadly as the way all cultures have failed to recognize God, the creator of the world and the judge of all unrighteousness, and that is the position I find myself prone to take. The reason for a more broad approach is because I think a reader of the Old Testament can easily see that idolatry and dehumanization was just as prevalent in Israel as it was in the surrounding “pagan” kingdoms. In fact, Old Testament scholars point out that at any given time in the history of Israel, monotheistic loyalty to Yahweh was never fully established, and the chasing after other gods was a reality present throughout the history of the wilderness wanderings, the time of the Judges, and the monarchy…not to mention a cited reason for the fall of Israel and then Judah, Northern and Southern kingdoms, once divided.
So, Paul addresses the scene that has played out amongst all nations; and particularly, the downward spiral from the intended and godly purpose of humanity to what we have made of ourselves. Of particular interest to us today is the notion of natural and unnatural relationships cited in this text which leads us to a discussion of human sexuality, sexual freedom, and homosexuality. Here is the text of Romans from the NLT:
Romans 1:24 So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. 25 They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. 26 That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. 27 And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.
28 Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. 29 Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. 30 They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. 31 They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. 32 They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.
Needless to say, this text is extremely controversial and has been used to condemn homosexuals, to contrast the type of homosexuality practiced today from ancient practices, and to particularly condemn those who switch back and forth from heterosexual practices to homosexual practices. Yet, what we need to do when studying a text like this is to remember that Paul was addressing the particular situation in Rome, and after extracting the principles and lessons that he wanted to communicate there, we can properly move from the ancient world into ours in an effort to understand what this text means in our contemporary world.
An aspect of this text I want to point out is that Paul is not speaking of individual choices nor individual behaviors nor individual morality. Paul is speaking about a culture of idolatry in humanity at large. This is to say that Paul is not interested in case study or a small scale sample, he has seized on the human condition of worshipping the wrong things and being deceived to think that that worship of lesser beings would bring about the same ends as the worship of God.
For Paul, this worship of lesser things has resulted in a damaged relationship to God, each other, and the creation as a whole. Particularly, Paul cites the sexual practices that were currently happening in Roman pagan culture as a direct result of inaccurate worship. Humanity has “traded the truth of God for a lie” and in so doing they have treated each other’s bodies as objects to be explored and exploited. This argument is “that the existence of homosexual practice in a culture is a sign that that culture as a whole has been worshipping idols and that its God-given male-and-female order is being fractured as a result.” (NT Wright, Romans, New Interpreter’s Bible, p.435)
While it is evident that Paul regards homosexual practice as a dangerous distortion of God’s intentions for sex and sexuality, and while we might agree or disagree with Paul given what we have studied about human sexuality and psychology; what we cannot do is simply sidestep this passage when it comes to Christian ethics and what it says about culture and accepted practices of sexuality, both heterosexual and homosexual to be inclusive, in any given culture. However, if we are going to take the citation of homosexuality seriously in the passage above, then we must also head the warning against innate moral superiority that is coming in the next section of scripture starting in Romans 2. That is to say, while some participate in dehumanizing behaviors through “shameful desires of the heart,” others stand aloof to these practices as if they are outside the widespread problem of sin…as if only “those” people sin and “we” do not. Paul finds this to be complete nonsense and a type of unrighteousness that is just as damaging to the human condition. (So, Paul would categorize any attempt to condemn and hurt a homosexual for being such alongside the very practice of homosexuality—“falling short of God’s glory”)
A phrase that gets special attention is at the end of verse 27, “They suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.” While some commentators will point to modern sexually transmitted diseases or even make mention of AIDS in this context, I don’t think Paul had any specific disease in mind. Paul is making reference to the fact that the end of sin is DEATH. I think that becomes clear in the following paragraph and even later in Romans where Paul would assert that sin pays you in death…(“the wages of sin is death” - Romans 6:23). I think it is also telling that Paul, along with other Jewish thinkers would see DEATH as a separation and isolation from God, from each other, and from creation (or the natural world) and less of an event at the end of a life. So, in the second paragraph of our text above, we see God hand them over yet again, showing a growing separation between God and humanity. We see examples of relationships being torn apart in the actions associated with… sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip…and even the “disobeying of parents.” Again, we see this as a result of idolatry, moving to dehumanizing behaviors that then play out in our relationships… As it pertains to the natural world and creation, Paul would argue that men were made to naturally fit with women and that women were designed by God to naturally fit with men. And therefore, what we have is, “DEATH” and the process of dying that started when humanity decided to not worship God or even give him thanks, and they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused…
I want to end with some questions for us to ponder:
I start this new year with a recognition of all those who have read this blog, seen the errors in grammar and spelling and kept reading anyway. Those who have received some sort of blessing and/or challenge from its reflections are both friends and those I have never met. Looking back over the last two years, I have shared over 140 pages of thoughts, quotations, devotions, and most importantly Scripture with you. This year will be no different, and I will try to commit myself to two posts a week; the first will be on Tuesday or Wednesday and the second will be on Thursday or Friday. This provides me with structure and discipline, but there will be times that once a week will probably be more doable! (Just FYI)
So, to start the year I want to sing a praise to God and join in all of creation (and outer space because I have been watching the Star Wars movies with my kids) in honor and glory to God. There are some days I need to read about and think about a God who is close to me and knows my needs. A God who sits in my mess and guides me through my daily walk is intimate and understanding. There are other days, like today, where a passage reminding me that God is above and beyond me, my situation, and the stuff in our lives is exactly what I need. A God who doesn't get bogged down in our thoughts and in our actions, but one who rises above to continue His purposes is strong and determined. Because God reigns and is far above the messes that we humans make is why we can honor, glorify, and worship this God. It is what gives God holiness and makes him “other.” And so we join with Psalm 29, a song of David, in praise to the God who deserves honor, speaks in the thunder but rises above the storm, and the one we worship in the “splendor of his holiness”
1 Honor the Lord, you heavenly beings;
honor the Lord for his glory and strength.
2 Honor the Lord for the glory of his name.
Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness.
3 The voice of the Lord echoes above the sea.
The God of glory thunders.
The Lord thunders over the mighty sea.
4 The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is majestic.
5 The voice of the Lord splits the mighty cedars;
the Lord shatters the cedars of Lebanon.
6 He makes Lebanon’s mountains skip like a calf;
he makes Mount Hermon leap like a young wild ox.
7 The voice of the Lord strikes
with bolts of lightning.
8 The voice of the Lord makes the barren wilderness quake;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
9 The voice of the Lord twists mighty oaks
and strips the forests bare.
In his Temple everyone shouts, “Glory!”
10 The Lord rules over the floodwaters.
The Lord reigns as king forever.
11 The Lord gives his people strength.
The Lord blesses them with peace.
As we start 2018, with whatever it has already handed you, I think the last two verses will carry us and encourage us.
The Lord rules
The Lord reigns
The Lord gives his people
The Lord blesses them
Be still…settle the soul and quiet the mind…hear the worship of creation and live in the assurance of God’s position beyond our struggles and above our flaws! That is why God deserves our worship, and it is why we can come to him with our needs.
40:1 “Comfort, comfort my people,”
says your God.
2 “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.
Tell her that her sad days are gone
and her sins are pardoned.
Yes, the Lord has punished her twice over
for all her sins.”
3 Listen! It’s the voice of someone shouting,
“Clear the way through the wilderness
for the Lord!
Make a straight highway through the wasteland
for our God!
4 Fill in the valleys,
and level the mountains and hills.
Straighten the curves,
and smooth out the rough places.
5 Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
The Lord has spoken!”
6 A voice said, “Shout!”
I asked, “What should I shout?”
“Shout that people are like the grass.
Their beauty fades as quickly
as the flowers in a field.
7 The grass withers and the flowers fade
beneath the breath of the Lord.
And so it is with people.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fade,
but the word of our God stands forever.”
9 O Zion, messenger of good news,
shout from the mountaintops!
Shout it louder, O Jerusalem.
Shout, and do not be afraid.
Tell the towns of Judah,
“Your God is coming!”
10 Yes, the Sovereign Lord is coming in power.
He will rule with a powerful arm.
See, he brings his reward with him as he comes.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd.
He will carry the lambs in his arms,
holding them close to his heart.
He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young.
Hear the 3 cries of the prophet in this verse today:
First, there is the cry to prepare the way for the Lord (1-4). Are you tired? Why? What are the main stressors? Has life been hard? Hasn’t gone the way you wanted? Are you hurting? Another year has come and gone, yet the same old routines and “stuff” are dominating your life? The Lord speaks COMFORT upon us. Not instead of our hurt and anxiety, but in the midst of it. Over and above all the noise and shouting, violence and oppression is someone with the boldness to tell us the truth…the Lord is coming! Not from a throne or your favorite city, not on the clouds or up from the ground…but out of the wilderness. Why? You see, our Lord knows what it means to be tired, hurt, and in pain. Often, from a theological lens that place in which we sometimes find ourselves is known as “wilderness.” Yet, the Lord has survived it and overcame it. Therefore, the prophet speaks hope that since we have a Lord who has overcome, so too can we. When I hear the distant cry of “Prepare the way of the Lord,” I am reminded that God is on the way!
Second, there is the cry that we are here only a little while but the Word of God remains forever (5-8). It might seem strange that after a comforting message of hope to the people, the prophet seemingly pulls the rug out from beneath us. We are like grass…we fade…shout it with me now! It seems…depressing. However, we are summoned by the prophet to build upon the hope we have that the Lord has not abandoned us and that we have beheld His glory. I think we all need a good reminder that the hope of the Lord is not rooted in me or you, but in the WORD that spans the ages and provides life, instruction, and promise to each generation. I remember Christmas mornings when the whole morning revolved around my sister and me. Now Christmas mornings truly revolve around my kids. I look forward to the day when, Lord willing, Christmas morning will center on my grandkids. Why? Because I am fading and my purpose is to pass on the spirit of Christmas and gift giving to my kids and then to their kids and so forth. Moving from the realm of Christmas to the realm of faith, we are fading and the church’s main work to preserve and pass on the WORD so that the glory of God can be revealed to the next generation…until “forever” in this passage is but a memory.
Last, there is the cry to proclaim the Lord’s victory in the midst of a reality of ruins and pains (9-11). Again, it seems strange that while the city lies in a heap of destruction that the order would come to proclaim victory. This passage puts the notions of victory and good news in the context of a people forgotten and oppressed. To whom is the victory given? To whom is the good news proclaimed? I think it is fair to argue that the people receiving the message of victory and good news are those who are outcasts in the world’s system of domination and violence. Listen again to the end of the passage… He will feed, He will carry the lambs—holding them close to his heart, He will gently lead. Hmm…seems oddly otherworldly to me.
Isaiah points us to the coming of the Lord in which we both experience and anticipate, knowing that the victory is secured and coming in full; so we wait for it while we live and rest in it when we die in assurance that the Word of the Lord guides this world out of the chaos of sin and death, and into the Kingdom of God.
I want to share thoughts, insights, and scriptures that lead us in the direction of Christ.