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Wrestling with heaven and hell (last weekend’s #sermon #podcast)

I keep on getting busy and forgetting to post my sermon podcasts. Last weekend, for our Wrestling sermon series, we wrestled with heaven and hell. To provide a different framework than the usual one in which the question is concerned, I looked at two passages from Isaiah. Isaiah 2 starts off by talking about God’s vision for a beautiful peaceful world (vv. 1-4) and then talks about the entrenched idolatry and injustice that will need to be destroyed for God’s peace to be established (vv. 5-19). This was actually the topic of one of my first major blog posts if you’d rather read than listen. The second passage I looked at was Isaiah 6 which captures what it’s like for a human to stand in the overwhelming presence of God. I have a typed manuscript of a sermon on this that I preached in the Dominican Republic two years ago. These two components, God’s promise of a peaceful kingdom and the ability to face God with integrity, are the foundation for how I understand what heaven and hell are. Here is the audio. Sign up for the podcast if you’d like to auto-download it into your phone.

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What makes God mad? My hard heart.

This weekend, I had the perfect setup for a stereotypical social justice Christian sermon. I was preaching on wrestling with God’s anger. My primary text was Mark 3:1-6 where Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the sabbath. Verse 5 says, “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at the hardness of their hearts.” The lectionary Old Testament passage was Isaiah 58, in which God berates Israel for trying to win his favor by fasting when their lives are unjust. So I was all ready to talk about those religious elitists with hard hearts whom I’ve always heroically stood up against. But then God confronted me with something. It turns out that I’ve got a hard heart too. My audio is here with some additional commentary below. If you want to auto-download these sermons to your phone, sign up for my podcast.

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Did we crucify Jesus or did God? (Using @ScotMcKnight to bludgeon bad atonement theory)

Scot McKnight had a very interesting post last week concerning a recently popular“scapegoat” atonement theory about Jesus’ cross based on the cultural theory of French philosopher Rene Girard. The scapegoat theory’s basic idea is that God the Father doesn’t demand Jesus’ blood as the price for humanity’s sin, but that we humans needed Jesus to be our scapegoat so that we could be liberated from our sin. McKnight contends that the Girardian view doesn’t count as an atonement theory because in his interpretation of the scapegoat theory, “we side with Christ and God and not those who put him to death.” McKnight says that for an interpretation of the cross to be atonement as such, it must implicate us in the death of Jesus, “the cross [must be] in some way against us.” Interestingly, McKnight’s terms for a valid atonement theory don’t delegitimize Girard’s scapegoat theory nearly as much as they invalidate the default evangelical understanding of the cross as the satisfaction of God’s wrath. I heartily agree with McKnight’s understanding. Humanity crucified Jesus, not God; it is our needs which the cross satisfies, not God’s. Continue Reading

Isaiah 7 & 53: should prophecies be prooftexts?

weigleMy great-grandfather Luther Weigle [pictured here] was the dean of Yale Divinity School and chair of the translation committee for the original RSV Bible. He incurred the fury of the fundamentalists when he chose to translate the Hebrew word almah in Isaiah 7:14 as “young woman” instead of “virgin.” They actually burned RSV Bibles and sent the ashes to him in the mail. The reason? Isaiah 7:14 is referenced by Matthew’s gospel as an explanation for Jesus’ virgin birth. But Isaiah 7:14 also refers to the “young woman” who was Isaiah’s prophetess wife and definitely not a virgin. In Isaiah 7 and 8, she bore Isaiah two children with prophetic names related to their immediate historical context. Does the doctrine of Christ’s virgin birth depend on translating almah as “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14? Only if Isaiah 7:14 is expected to function as a prooftext for that doctrine, which raises a larger question: to what degree should Old Testament prophecy be used as prooftexts? And if Isaiah 7 is allowed to have less than a perfectly mapped correspondence to the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, then can we apply the same hermeneutical boundaries to the relationship between Isaiah 53 and the circumstances of Jesus’ death on the cross? Continue Reading

The God of no compromise and the government shutdown

vader cross ver 2For many of us who grew up evangelical, the word “compromise” has always been a bad word. It means to allow non-Christian values and influences to corrupt your devotion to Biblical truth. Frank Schaeffer, the son of the evangelical leader who started the modern Religious Right, claims that our government shutdown and its Tea Party architects cannot be understood apart from this fundamental characteristic of the evangelical ethos. Insofar as the Tea Party is an evangelical phenomenon, I think he may be right. Evangelicals are raised to be a people of no compromise. And it all starts with an understanding of Jesus’ cross that makes God into Darth Vader and turns us into cookie-cutter stormtroopers devoted to His imperial cause. Continue Reading

An email to Al Mohler regarding penal substitution

Al Mohler recently put up a post on penal substitution in response to the PCUSA brouhaha over the hymn “In Christ Alone,” which they withheld from their hymnal because of the line “The wrath of God was satisfied.” In the past you may recall, I shared a study on here of all the ways in which Christ’s blood is described in the New Testament, finding only one possible, tenuous reference to the satisfaction of God’s wrath. In any case, Mohler doesn’t allow comments on his blog so I sent him an email. Since he probably won’t respond, I decided to post it. Keep in mind that I’m deliberately framing how I speak in a way that might be persuasive to an arch-fundamentalist Southern Baptist. Continue Reading

Is Guantanamo Bay as far as the east is from the west?

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Do you think these human beings matter to God? They certainly don’t matter much to us. About a hundred prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are now engaged in a hunger strike. But don’t worry; the prison guards won’t let them die. They force-feed them through tubes in their noses. Apparently one detainee has been force-fed daily since 2005. Continue Reading

Defining sin for adolescents

I’m on our church’s confirmation retreat. For the last three years, we’ve framed our retreat around a discussion of the three questions you get asked when you join the United Methodist Church in tandem with three verses Ephesians 4:14-16. The first question asks us whether we “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sins,” while Ephesians 4:14 in the NIV talks about humanity being “like infants tossed back and forth between the waves.” So I’ve gone with the metaphor of sin as a “sea of wrath.” This year, a kid was asking but what about sins that the Bible doesn’t talk about, how do we tell what they are? We had just read Galatians 5:19-21 about the works of the flesh. So I said sin is doing things that create “drama” in the negative teenage sense of the word, because I think that’s a much better way of understanding it than “not following the rules.”

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Fleeing the wrath to come vs. hearing the voice of love

A few months ago, a friend wrote a blog asking whether the teachings of Henri Nouwen are “incompatible” with Methodist theology. The way that Nouwen presents the gospel is to say that it’s about hearing God’s voice of love, learning to love ourselves, and leaving behind the sins that are ultimately an expression of self-hatred. When I encountered this teaching in the first Methodist church I went to, it was so refreshingly different from the ruthless perfectionist I thought God was that I became a Methodist. I’ve found that all the Methodist churches I’ve encountered share this Nouwenian ethos. But this seems different than the 18th century Methodism in which the requirement for admission to a Methodist society was “an earnest desire to flee the wrath to come.” So what happened? Have we gone astray? Is Nouwen a false prophet? Continue Reading

Who is Romans 9:22-23 talking about? (A response to Greg Boyd)

I’m one of the “pod-rishioners” of the popular Michigan pastor Greg Boyd. One thing I love about Greg is his earnestness in wrestling with aspects of the way the gospel has been framed that bother him. He’s very open about the fact that it’s often inconclusive wrestling. A lot of times I agree with him on the problem he’s identified but differ on the solution. One such occasion was several weeks ago in his sermon “Does God play favorites?” Greg confronted the infamous favorite verse of Calvinist double-predestinarians, Romans 9:22, where Paul talks about people who are God’s “objects of wrath created for destruction.” I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the way that Greg dismantled this verse, because its context points to a much better answer than just saying “This seems out of character with Jesus’ nature” or making a comparison with Jeremiah’s potter house prophecy in Jeremiah 18, which were Greg’s two approaches. Continue Reading