Welcome to our Sunday Worship Service for February 28, 2021. We will be continuing on in the new Lenten worship series entitled, Purple Theory. Today we will be discovering the importance of reading Scripture as a daily practice, which makes us healthier through connecting us and drawing us closer to God. Let us not forget about the power of the Bible!
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In this brand new video series, Pastor Todd of First United Methodist Church of Newton, NJ brings passionate awareness and helpful tips on various transformational Christian practices and theology. Each episode will inspire and motivate spiritual growth through time-tested practices and and wisdom.
This week’s episode invites you to RECLAIM the Bible as a means of grace for us in our daily lives. In this episode, Pastor Todd will discuss how to know which translation to pick, how to read the Bible and why it is important to make reading Scripture a part of our daily routine.
ALSO IN SCRIPTURE “‘But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,’ says the LORD. ‘I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.’” (Jeremiah 31:33, NLT)
When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.
Part 169: Nathanael. Nathanael is a bit of a mystery. He is only ever mentioned of in the Gospel of John and is found nowhere in Mark, Matthew, or Luke. Yet, Nathanael, in John’s Gospel, is mentioned as one of the earlier of the twelve to be counted among Jesus’ disciples. There is a tradition of thought that may link Nathanael with one the twelve who is mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels but is nowhere to be found in the Gospel of John.
Nathanael is a Hebrew name that means, “God has given.” We are told in the narrative that, following by being called by Jesus, Philip ran to find Nathanael and told him all about the Messiah whom he had met and was not following. We are never told Nathanael’s relationship with Philip, they clearly know each other and are friends.
“Philip went to look for Nathanael and told him, “We have found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.” To us this sounds exciting, right? Philip had just come face-to-face with Jesus, so how could he be less than enamored? He had just witnessed the presence of God incarnate and had been called as a disciple by him? How could anyone NOT find this exciting? Well, in truth, those types of questions only come in hindsight. Nathanael was less than impressed, and made that known to Philip,
“Nazareth!” exclaimed Nathanael. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathanael’s was not rejoicing at Philip’s news; rather, he was skeptical of Jesus’ being the Messiah. How could the Messiah, the one who is supposedly going to kick the Romans out and reestablish Israel to her rightful place as a sovereign kingdom under God, ever come from a dinky little village such as Nazareth?
That village “boasted” of maybe 150 residents and was a pocket for those who were discontent with the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Besides, according to the Scriptures, the Messiah would come from David’s hometown, Bethlehem. Never, in all of the Torah, the Psalms, the Wisdom texts, or the prophets, is Nazareth even hinted at.
“Come and see for yourself,” Philip replied.” (John 1:45-46, NLT) Skeptical as he might be, Nathanael takes Philip on his offer to come and meet Jesus. It is then where his eyes and heart are opened to see Jesus as the Messiah. Why? Because Jesus spoke to him in a way that revealed Nathanael’s heart’s desire: to follow God faithfully. When Jesus saw him, he said, “‘Now here is a genuine son of Israel—a man of complete integrity.’
“‘How do you know about me?’ Nathanael asked. Jesus replied, ‘I could see you under the fig tree before Philip found you.’” (John 1:47-48, NLT) There are differing interpretations of what Jesus meant when he said “I could see you under the fig tree”; however, the one thing that is for certain is that Jesus true identity was revealed to Nathanael in that moment. As such he responded, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God—the King of Israel!” (John 1:49, NLT)
Like Nathanael, we too can be skeptical of the things claimed about Jesus. Were they just first century fairytales? Did Jesus really do the things he was claimed to have done? Does the Christian witness really have any sway in today’s time? What allowed Nathanael to see Jesus as the Messiah, was his deep desire to know God and to know God’s word. Some have even suggested that the reference to the fig tree was an allusion to Nathanael’s deep devotion to the Torah, God’s Law.
Perhaps that is an in for us too. Not the attempting to live up to the letter of the Law, but to begin to discern who God is through a faithful studying of God’s word. It is that word that will, in the end, lead us to the Word mad flesh…to Jesus Christ. If we make that a part of our daily discipline, we will find that indeed we do know the teacher, the Son of God, the King of Israel. Challenge yourself the discipline of studying the Bible.
THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Relationships must be a two-way street. If you put nothing into discovering and relating to others, you will get nothing out of it. The same is true in our relationship with God.
Lord, draw me close to you and teach me who you are so that I may know, follow, and have a relationship with you. Amen.
ALSO IN SCRIPTURE “When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these.” (Galatians 5:19-21a NLT)
When Jesus commissioned his disciples to build his “church”, he knew that there were going to be bumps along the way. He knew that divisiveness, bitterness, jealousy, infighting, politics and other things would creep into it. How did he know that? Because those things affected his disciples while he was he was with them. If that was a reality with him there, it would surely be a reality when he was no longer there to guide them. The truth is that humans so easily lose sight of their calling, as well as to whom they owe their allegiance. We get so caught up in our own self-interests that we end up serving ourselves as Lord as opposed to Christ…but we do so in the guise of serving Christ. Hence Pope Francis I’s next Ailment of the Church.
Ailment of the Church #8: Suffering from ‘Existential Schizophrenia’. When we lose sight of who we serve and the calling that has been placed upon us, we fall into what the Pope is calling ‘Existential Schizophrenia’. That’s a fancy way of saying that we end up hypocritically living double lives. On the one end, we claim to be Christians and we claim to be serving Christ; on the other end, we have lost our way and have stopped actually serving Christ. For a Christian, this is an existential crisis.
One of my favorite modern-day theologians and philosophers is Søren Kierkegaard. In his “Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the ‘Philosophical Fragments'”, Kierkegaard (writing pseudonymous as Johannes Climacus) tells a story of a pastor who preaches that one ought “not to depend on the world, and not upon men, and not upon yourself, but only and alone upon God; for a human being can of [him/herself] do nothing.” He then goes on to say that a spy was at the service, heard the sermon and wanted to see if people understood the message. When asked, everyone stated what a powerful and true message was preached on that Sunday; however, each person then contradicted their supposed understanding of the sermon by stating that they were responsible for doing this or that. Even the pastor, when the spy complimented him on his sermon, stated how hard he had worked on it. The spy was perplexed because he discovered that no one truly believed what they were claiming.
Of course, Kierkegaard (of which I captured the essence of his parable…not necessarily the exact parable itself) is using humor to make a broader point. Many Christians claim one thing, but live out something completely different. What’s more, they do so in ways that are far more egregious than a contradiction in belief. For instance, Christians claim to believe that we are all apart of the body of Christ, that we are all equally important in carrying out Christ’s mission in the world, but then they bicker, fight and cut each other down in order to climb the proverbial ladder up the ranks.
This kind of behavior, this kind of existential schizophrenia, is damning for the church and it’s mission to spread the love of God in the world. If we cannot get our own act together, how can we ever expect people to see Christ’s message as Good News? We need to remember who we follow. We, as the church, need to remember Jesus’ prayer for his disciples prior to his arrest. We need to put our self-interests aside and make God’s hope, healing and wholeness our interest. Remember that when you bear a name, you represent that name. If you are bearing the name of Christ (e.g. CHRISTian), then you are representing Christ. Let’s represent Christ faithfully by living and serving AS Christ called us to.
THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“I invite everyone to choose forgiveness rather than division, teamwork over personal ambition.” – Jean-Francois Cope
Lord, help me to rise above the existential crisis of the church and into the glory of your hope, healing and wholeness. Amen.
ALSO IN SCRIPTURE “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.” (Mat 1:17)
Do you know Ruth? Some people might be saying, “sure, I know a ‘Ruth’ or two.” So, I will ask this question again, do you you know Ruth? I am not referring to someone you might know with the name “Ruth” who may or may not be among your family, friends, and/or neighbors; however, I am referring to the Biblical character of Ruth, who happens to have her own book in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, out of all of the books that bear a person’s name throughout all of the Bible, Ruth is just one of two books bearing the name of a woman. What’s more, Ruth wasn’t even a Hebrew by birth; rather, she was a Moabite. In fact, the author of Ruth reminds us that she is a Moabite seven times, and that she was from the land of Moab (in other words, she’s a Moabite) four times; that’s a total of eleven times within four short chapters, which is the length of this small, yet important, book.
Now let me ask, how many of you know Moabite when you see one? The fact is that Moab was a kingdom that existed in what is now modern-day Jordan. The Moabites worshiped the god Chemosh and would, as was customary for the time and geographical location, often offer human sacrifices to their god. This kingdom also found itself at odds with the Kingdom of Israel, which eventually split into the kingdoms of Israel (in the North) and Judah (in the South) following the reign of Solomon. To make matters worse, in the eyes of the Israelites, Solomon had built a temple to Chemosh to help promote trade between the two kingdoms. That may have been a wise political move, but it did not sit well with the devout followers of Yahweh, the God of the Israelites.
So, Ruth was from a Kingdom that the Israelites detested; yet, there we see her not only prominently displayed in Hebrew religious literature, but also prominently revered in Hebrew history. As it turns out, this Moabite woman named Ruth ended up marrying a Hebrew man named Boaz (read the book of Ruth for the full story) and bearing him a son named Obed. From there we find out that Obed was the father of Jesse who, in turn, was the father of David. Yes, as in King David…arguably the greatest King that Israel ever had. What an odd, odd story. What kind of people attest to their King being born of a woman who was not even one of their own? And don’t forget the ancient Mosaic law that forbid the Israelites from marrying outside of the Hebrew gene pool for fear that the they would forget their covenantal relationship with God (Deuteronomy 7:2-4). Yet, here is Ruth, a convert to Judaism from Moab (the enemy of Israel), shown to be the mother of Israel’s greatest King…and the ancestor of, if we believe the Gospel recording of lineage, Jesus of Nazareth.
The power of this story is that it reminds us that GOD does not choose sides, or favor one people over the other. It does not matter who we are, what religion we do or don’t claim to follow, or anything else we humans choose to be divided over, God is the LORD of us all. And God will choose ANYONE who is open to the call to LOVE GOD with all of our being and to LOVE OUR NEIGHBOR as ourselves.
That is what the LORD requires of all creation…LOVE. Ruth was filled with LOVE. She LOVED GOD, she LOVED HER NEIGHBORS, she even LOVED HER ENEMIES, and God blessed her for it. And, as with all people who have been truly blessed, Ruth BECAME A BLESSING to and entire kingdom of people, and went on to be a BLESSING to many throughout the whole world through the followers of her descendant, Jesus of Nazareth. I pray that you, too, will open yourself up to GOD, who is the ULTIMATE REALITY, just as this remarkable Ruth did so many years ago!
THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.” – Ruth (Ruth 1:16-17)
LORD, build up in me the faith of Ruth that I may boldly go where you lead me and boldly love everyone, no matter how different they are from me. Amen.
ALSO IN SCRIPTURE “This is the Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1)
“Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed that I lie on. Four corners to my bed, four angels round my head; one to watch and one to pray, and two to bear my soul away.” There is nothing quite like children’s nursery rhymes, is there? Especially religious ones that point to a God that all little children had better fear. I grew up reciting this rhyme as young boy, subconsciously digesting it’s grim and rather creepy message. This rhyme basically says that you had better be in line with the four Gospels if you would like God’s protection when you sleep, and it doesn’t hesitate to remind you that you could die in your sleep. So if you would like angels to guard you and/or carry your soul to heaven, you had better be blessed by the Gospels. That’s rather funny being that the word gospel literally means “good news” and is the “good news” of Jesus Christ, not Matthew, Mark, Luke or John.
It is amazing to me that so many people claim to be Christian in this country and, yet, few people are literate to what the Gospels actually say. We recite quaint little rhymes, we remember the Sunday School stories taught to us at young ages, and we even watch movies that are, when you think of it, only loosely based on the Gospels; however, most people do not pick up the Gospels and read them for themselves. And, when people do pick up the Gospels and read it, they read it as if they are a cohesive, singular story that were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who were sitting side by side and consulting with each other on what they remember the Lord saying and doing. Here’s an example. Tell yourself what you know about Jesus’ birth. You will probably think of Mary and Joseph journeying to Bethlehem, being forced to sleep in a manger because there was no room at the inn, and being visited by 3 wise men who brought gifts, as well as by shepherds who got a full choral performance by the Vienna Boys’ Choir of angels.
Yet, I bet you didn’t realize that Mary and Joseph only get put in a manger in Luke, not Matthew. And the Wise Men are only mentioned in Matthew and not in Luke, not to mention the author of Matthew (we don’t actually know his real name, as he never actually gave it) never numbered the wise men to three. What’s more the shepherds only show up in Luke and not in Matthew. Let me also point this out, the birth narrative is ONLY found in Matthew and Luke. It is absent in Mark and John. Is your head spinning yet? What do we make of this? Should we question the accuracy of the Gospels?
The answer, in short, is absolutely not! If the authors were looking to write a 21st century, scientific, history textbook, then we should definitely question their accuracy; however, that is not what they were writing. They were writing a Gospel which combines loosely recorded historical figures and events that are combined with narratives woven around what were the known sayings, teachings and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth, who they witnessed and experienced as the Christ. To simplify this a bit, what the authors were writing was a THEOLOGY on WHO JESUS IS and WHY THAT IS GOOD NEWS. That is what these authors were concerned with, reporting the GOOD NEWS of JESUS CHRIST to their communities.
My challenge to you is for you to read the Gospels. Read them in the order they were written Mark (ca. 68-70 CE), Matthew (ca. 80-90 CE), Luke (ca. 80-90 CE), and John (ca. 90-100 CE). Read them separately, taking each one on its own terms. Get a feel for what truths each author would like to convey to you about Jesus, the Christ, the son of God. Let them inform you, rather than you trying to inform them, and be amazed at the dynamic, living, and powerful Christ that will meet you in the process. There are no books in the world more influential that the Gospels and there is a reason for that. Read them as they are and be transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ.
THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“While facts are beholden to truth, truth is not beholden to fact.” – Rev. Todd R. Lattig
Lord, speak the truth of your good news to my heart so that I may see you as you wish to be revealed to me, through the faithful witness of others as well as through my own experience. Amen.
ALSO IN SCRIPTURE “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” (Psalm 119:105)
I have written a bit about the importance of developing spiritual discipline in our lives as a people of faith. A great spiritual practice to get into is to read the Bible. Today many people take the Bible granted as something that’s there if they need it, but not to be bothered with otherwise. But that is a luxury only this modern Western world really affords. For many, throughout history, the Bible was something that the common person was not permitted read and, even if they were, they weren’t literate enough to read the Bible anyway. Many people gave up their lives to ensure that EVERYONE could read the Bible for themselves, and many have given their lives, and still are, to ensure that people have equal opportunity in education.
But history aside, many people in today’s age do not read the Bible and, for those that do, many do not even know where to begin. Should they start in Genesis and read through Revelation? Should they just randomly open up the Bible and read the first thing they come to? What should they read first and in what order should they read the Bible? The truth is that there is no right or wrong way to read the Bible. It is not a book that is compiled in the order that the books were written and the books don’t always follow chronological order in terms of connecting stories from previous books with the stories they are telling. Thus reading the Bible from front to back is not the only way to read the Bible and, in fact, it probably isn’t even the best way to read it.
What complicates things even more is that the Bible was not written in a vacuum; rather, it was written in a specific time, place and context. Thus, reading the Bible goes beyond just reading the words, but digging deep into the historical, socio-economic, and political contexts of the times the texts were written. It is also important to note that the Bible was not written by just one person, but that the Bible is actually a collection of books written by different people, and those books often have many more than just one author. In other words, behind a lot of the books in the Bible are narratives, histories, poems, songs, wisdom teachings, prophetic writings, and theologies written by many different people pulling from different sources that span over the course of thousands of years.
This is not to scare you off from reading the Bible, but is an invitation to more than JUST reading the Bible. It is an opportunity to do some time travel, to take a journey back into worlds and worldviews that are foreign to us. The Bible is actually a world full of adventure awaiting for you to unlock and unleash its mysteries. If you can take off your twenty-first century glasses off and put yourself, to the best of your abilities, the shoes of the people writing the texts, you will be awakened to a whole new world (thank you Aladdin) of opportunity when it comes to understanding who God was to the ancients. Once you have that understanding, you can then pull that understanding into our own time and context and make it real for us today. Of course, not every word or edict will be applicable to your life, but the basic spirit behind ever word in the Bible will come to life in you, and you will be writing your own chapter (figuratively speaking) by living your faith out today.
So, read the Bible! You’ll be amazed at how alive the texts become when you begin to engage them from all angles. There’s a reason why the Bible has been referred to as THE LIVING WORD…because it is rich with context and deep in meaning. It points to a people who are foreign to us and yet similar to us at the same time. It points to us, and it calls us to live a life devoted to our timeless God who created us all, ancient or not. Read the Bible, you won’t regret it. If you are looking for a place to start, try the Gospels. They will be the topic of the next devotion.
THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“The book to read is not the one which thinks for you, but the one which makes you think. No book in the world equals the Bible for that.” – Harper Lee
“Lord, spark in me a desire to engage the Bible with humility and in a way that not only gives me understanding of your people in the past, but also transforms who I am in the present. Amen.
ALSO IN SCRIPTURE “Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” (Psalms 119:18)
What if I were to tell you that the Bible says that “there is no God”? What if I were to tell you that the Bible comes to the conclusion that “everything, including life, is meaningless, like chasing the wind”? What if I were to tell you that the Bible says that God wants people to endure slavery because God put the slave masters in authority over them? Or that God punishes generations of family members for the sins of their ancestors. Or that women are inferior to men and should be silent in churches as they are not fit to teach? Or that the Bible says that women are saved through childbearing?
On the one hand, the Bible does say such things. The words “there is no God” can be found in Psalm 14:1; the words “everything is meaningless” can be found in Ecclesiastes 1:2 and elsewhere in Ecclesiastes; God wishing people to remain slaves can be found in Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22, Titus 2:9-10, and 1 Peter 2:18. That God punishes the descendants of sinful ancestors is found in Numbers 14:18, among other places. That women are inferior to men, are to be silent in churches, are not fit to teach and are saved through child-bearing can be found in 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
On the other hand, each one of these verses has something in common tying them together. That common thread is that they’ve all been taken out of context, perhaps in different ways, but they are definitely all out of context. In Psalm 14:1, the Psalmist is ACTUALLY saying that “the fool says in his or her heart that ‘there is no God.'” The words “there is no God was taken textually out of context. Ecclesiastes 1:2 is the opening to a philosophical treatise on how life, and all of its trappings, leads to emptiness and that, at the end of the day, people need to “fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13). While Ephesians and Colossians do state that slaves are to obey their masters, the historical context of this passage shows us a Christian community that is reacting to accusations that Christians are inciting slaves to riot against their masters (which was one of many accusations that Romans were levying against Christians of the time period). That doesn’t justify the passage, but helps us understand it so that we don’t fall into the same trap.
It was a common tone in the ancient world that if you make God angry, God will punish you. Some of these texts were written in times of tribulation, such as the Babylonian Exile where people were wondering why they had been exiled to begin with. What had they done to deserve such an awful fate…or what had their parents or their parents’ parents done? This understanding is less “God’s word” as much as it is people grappling with their circumstances, though there certainly are many unintended and far reaching consequences to sin. And the bit on women is also a reaction to the fact that women, up until that point, had played prominent roles in the church (e.g., Romans 16:1-4, 7) and the Romans were levying that against Christians as yet another example of how Christians were vile and against Roman order. Again, this historical context (plus Paul’s commendation of women leaders) helps us to discern and affirm that indeed God DOES call women into ministry and leadership, and that they are saved equally and in the same manner that all of human beings are: through faith (Romans 3:19-25; Galatians 3:28).
This is not an exhaustive discussion of those particular topics, but hopefully makes the point that CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING. The Bible is THE MOST IMPORTANT, and INSPIRED, source of our faith; however, it can be made to say anything when the context (textual, socio-economic, and/or historical) is missing. Don’t just read your Bible, but study it. Get into a good Bible Study that dives deep into the texts and gives you a good foundation not only on what the Bible says (keep in mind that we are not reading it in its original languages), but the context behind what it says. Buy books that delve into the Bible and provide the context behind it. Today’s challenge is for you to begin to not only read the Bible, but to build up a solid means of understanding it so that you can relevantly apply it to your life in a way that is true to the Spirit of the Word.
THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Context is worth 80 IQ points.” – Alan Kay
Lord, guide me in my studying of Scripture so that I may grow, not just in knowledge but also in understanding. Amen.