Monday, October 7, 2013

Discovering Hidden Things: Reading the Apocrypha

I finished the Old Testament several months ago, and now, after a break from Reading God's Story, it's time to dive back in. But instead of moving on to the New Testament, I'll be reading the Apocrypha first, and my friend Cait will be reading along too. I hope Cait will do a couple of guest posts along the way! Neither of us have ever read the Apocrypha in full, so we are looking forward to better understanding its content and its place in the canon (the list of biblical books considered fully authoritative and inspired by God).

Soon enough we'll dive into the stories found in these books, but hang in there while I explain some technical things about the Apocrypha. The word "apocrypha" comes from the same word in Greek, which means "hidden things." The Apocryphal books aren't considered part of the true canon of the Bible by (most) Protestants, but they are included in some editions of the Bible (our NRSV has a translation of the Apocrypha). The Catholic church has, I believe, always included the apocryphal texts listed below in their Bible, and they refer to them not as apocryphal but as "deuterocanonical," which means "second book." Which second book? Well, we have copies of the Old Testament texts both in Hebrew (their original language) and later copies of those books in the Greek language (the Greek texts of the Hebrew Bible are called the Septuagint). The Hebrew texts were translated into Greek in the 2nd-3rd centuries BC, because at that time many people spoke Greek and not a lot of people knew Hebrew anymore. The books that most Protestants consider the Apocrypha (listed below) only appear in the Greek versions of the Old Testament, not in the Hebrew versions; because they only appear in the "second version" of the Old Testament, they're called deuterocanonical. Perhaps more than you wanted to know!

The Apocrypha consists of the following writings:
  • Tobit
  • Judith
  • Esther
  • Wisdom of Solomon
  • Ecclesiasticus
  • Baruch
  • Epistle of Jeremiah
  • Prayer of Azariah
  • Susanna
  • Bel and the Dragon
  • 1 and 2 Maccabees
  • 1 and 2 Esdras
  • Prayer of Manasseh

There are other lists of texts that are sometimes called apocryphal like The Gospel of Thomas. Those writings are associated with the Bible in their subject matter, or they're supposedly written by a bibical character, but they've never been included in any list of what's considered canonical. A better term for most of them would be pseudepigrapha (which means written under a false name). In our reading of the Apocrypha, we'll be sticking to the first kind of text, the list of books above.

If you'd like to read along with us, but you don't have an edition of the Bible that includes the Apocrypha, you can find the entire text of those books here. You can also try reading it in the NRSV here on Oremus Bible, but they can only put 120 verses on a webpage at time due to copyright, so it's a little tricky to navigate.

As I read, I'm looking for answers to the following questions:
  • What themes from canonical Scripture do I see pop up in the apocrypha?
  • What value do these texts have for us as Christians, even though it's not canonical?
  • What should we make of an apocryphal text when it comes up in our lectionary (the reading schedule we use in the Episcopal Church)? Should we listen to it in a different way than we do to a canonical text?
  • How does reading the Apocrypha help us appreciate what it means to read canonical Scripture, the books that are fully considered the Bible?
We'll start at the very beginning - this week's reading is the book of Tobit! Stay tuned.
Rembrandt's painting of Tobit with his wife Anna

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Meaning of Jeremiah 29:11

I have been plugging right along through the Old Testament. I've enjoyed the way that Reading God's Story organizes the prophets, interspersing them between the sections of the historical books written about their day. It has helped me to get a better sense of which prophet prophesied when and where, to which kingdom and during which king's reign. For instance, the writings of Jonah, Amos, and Hosea followed 2 Kings 14-15, which describe the reigns of Amaziah-Ahaz in Judah and Jehoash-Pekah in Israel, the period of time when these three prophets were active. I printed out this timeline of the kings and prophets of Israel and Judah and kept it beside me as I read. It was enormously helpful.

I am now reading Jeremiah, known as the weeping prophet. And today my reading reminded me of why it's important to read the Old Testament in a lectio continua style - to read continuously across a book. I arrived at a verse that is much quoted - 29:11. In fact, if you type "Jeremiah" into Google, "Jeremiah 29 11" comes up as the second option. If you polled most Christians about Jeremiah, it would certainly be the most popular verse in the book, and for many Christians, the only verse they are familiar with from Jeremiah.

"'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'"

(I quote it here in the NIV since that's probably the best known version of this verse.)

This verse is often quoted as "God's promise to me, myself and I " - God has plans for me, good plans that will lead me into my future. Now, I like that idea as much as the next person, and I believe that it is still a description of God's intentions for us today.* However, having just read this verse in the context of the historical books and all the accounts of the prophets, having read Jeremiah's dire warnings of destruction and his unheeded calls for a last-minute repentance, and having seen the people of Israel come to such a terrible end, the wrenching sorrow of their unfaithfulness to God, their awful uprooting from the land they loved, and their being cast away to an unknown and pagan land... this verse means more. It means more than "God loves me and wants me to be happy." The astounding, mind-boggling, staggering message of these words is that the end of the world has not come for Israel. God is extending an olive branch to them. God is reaffirming his commitment to his covenant with Israel, even when they have turned their backs on him so thoroughly that judgment finally came upon them in all its fury and fire. God tells them here that they have a future, at the very moment when they surely believed any hopeful future had been snuffed out. This is a word to a prodigal son. It is a word of grace. Anyone who says the Old Testament is just a message of doom and gloom, of law and judgment, has not read it.

Turning a verse like this into a bumper sticker saps it of its force. It removes the devastation and suffering and hopelessness behind this verse and sanitizes it into just another saccharine saying. If you want to know its meaning, you must know the story out of which it arises. And that is how I feel about the Old Testament too - if you want to know what Jesus means, you have to know the story out of which he arises. And that will be the subject of an upcoming guest post on a friend's blog! Once I get it written and posted, I'll post a link to it.

the weeping prophet

*though what qualifies as "prosperity" might be vastly different from what we might expect based on the American dream or whatever it is that we think we need these days in order to be happy. I am reading a biography of missionary Amy Carmichael right now, and the shape of her life was very good according to God's plans for her, yet most of us would shrink away from the very high challenge that she believed was part and parcel of following Jesus.

Monday, February 25, 2013

To Whose Voice Will I Listen During Lent?

Sermon for First Sunday in Lent, Year C
February 17th, 2013
St. George’s Episcopal Church, Nashville, TN

Today we enter Lent, the most solemn and penitential season of the church. Lent first developed within the early church as a time of intense preparation for the celebration of the resurrection at Easter. The church sought to imitate Christ in his 40 days in the wilderness, by focusing on “dying to self” through self-examination and penitential acts, as preparation to then enter the “promised land” of new life into which Jesus ushers them through his resurrection, which is celebrated at the end of those 40 days with Easter. This focus on sin and dying to self, while intended to help us find greater freedom and joy in Christ, often seems to take on a spirit of gloominess and guilt.

The Reverend Jay Sidebotham, rector of Church of the Holy Spirit in Lake Forest, Illinois and popular church cartoonist, captures this common sentiment about Lent when he considers how the greeting card industry might go about creating a new line of greeting cards for the season of Lent. He offers a few suggestions of what such cards might say to get you into the spirit of the season: “Vino, sugar, coffee cup, now’s the time to give it up!” or “Think Lent is a downer? It’s really an acronym: Let’s End Negative Thinking!” or “If you think your life’s a bust, just remember you are dust.” The man on the cover of the third card looks gloomily up at the smudge of ashes on his forehead and says, “Thanks a lot.” Father Jay admits at the top of this cartoon that perhaps the time for this idea has not yet come. But Lent can come across as a dreary time of remembering just how bad we are to the point of wallowing in it. As we stand here, perched on the edge of this season, it is a good time to ask, What is Lent about? If it’s not supposed to simply be a long drag through the mud or a slog through the catalog of our sins, how does this season edify?

To begin answering those questions, we look at Jesus in our gospel reading for today, out in a desolate wilderness. Just prior to this, Jesus has gone out to John at the River Jordan and been baptized by him; and when he came up from the water, there was the voice from heaven saying about him, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Before launching into his full-blown ministry, Jesus retreats into the wilderness for a time of fasting, of prayer. He is alone, hungry, and thirsty. On top of all of that discomfort, he is being bothered by the devil, who sees this as the perfect time to test Jesus and throw him off track. Satan crafts three temptations that, if successful, would radically distort Jesus’ focus from his Father’s mission to his own worldly gain. Satan encourages Jesus to give into his desire for physical satisfaction, for world domination, and to attract attention and adoration from people. Satan never offers anything for free; however; each temptation comes at a cost. Like a good salesman, Satan doesn’t dwell on the price, but the trade-off is that Jesus must forfeit his trust in and his allegiance to his Father in heaven. At the root, each of these temptations seeks to undermine Jesus’ relationship with his Father. Out there in the wilderness, when times are tough, when all his external sources of comfort are gone, when the glorious pronouncement that he is God’s beloved son might be fading in his ears, Jesus must decide whose voice to listen to and believe, the voice of Satan, or the voice of his Father that he heard at the Jordan River.

It is clear from his responses to Satan that Jesus chooses to listen to the voice of his Father, for he responds each time with the words of Scripture: “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”; “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only;” “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” We see Jesus has received and accepted the affirmation of his Father, “This is my Son, my Beloved.” His sonship is so central to his sense of self that he is able to withstand the temptations of the Devil. He trusts that as God’s beloved Son, his Father will provide him with the food, the strength, and the protection that he needs, without resorting to the lures of the devil.

I suspect that the gloominess that can prevail during Lent is a symptom of forgetting the voice of God and letting that other voice speak into our hearts. When we are in the wilderness, we too, like Jesus, must decide which of those two voices we will believe. We might expect the voice of God and the voice of Satan to sound starkly different. But Satan is a sneaky little devil, who has figured out that twisting the truth just so is a pathetically easy way to confuse us and get us off track. Satan has a favorite tactic that pairs very nicely with temptation – the tactic of accusation, seeking to undermine our sense of identity and security in the Father’s love. Satan has found that temptation works best when he precedes it with a round of accusations, knowing that when we feel hopeless or useless, we are more likely to succumb to a temptation that seems to temporarily relieve the burden of our sin. If we are feeling insecure about ourselves, we are more likely to reach for food, or power, or fame in order to feel better about ourselves, to shore up our crumbling sense of identity and self-worth. Those accusations might sound like this: “You’re such a sinner that God couldn’t love you. There’s no hope for you. If people knew everything about you, they’d abandon you. You’ll never change.” People of God, when we feel crushed by guilt and believe that there is no recourse for our sin, that is not the voice of God. That is the voice of the accuser, who comes to kill and steal and destroy. He accuses us, trying to push us deeper into the slough of despondency and despair, where we believe that we are beyond the reach of God’s grace. He has figured out that if he can’t tempt us with visions of world domination or mass approval, he can lure us into one of the most subtle forms of idolatry, the idolatry of focusing obsessively on our sin, which leads us away from God’s mercy and reaps only despair.

We must never confuse that voice for the voice of God, or for the message of the gospel. In the midst of self-examination and repentance, we are called to remember the voice of our Father throughout Lent, which echoes what he said about Jesus – “You are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” God’s voice tells us that we are his children, rooted in the Father’s love.

This does not mean that God brushes off our sin or ignores it. The conviction of God is like a sword that cuts cleanly between the truth and the lies and obfuscation of sin; it speaks a truth that we cannot escape. The key is that the conviction of the Holy Spirit is always swiftly followed by a word of grace. It never leaves us hopeless. That is why the liturgy gives us the comfortable words immediately after the confession and absolution – to make sure that our recognition of our sin is always paired with the word of grace and hope. Immediately after we confess, we hear the voice of God in Christ say, “For I so loved the world that I sent my only Son... Come unto me, and I will give you rest and relief from your burdens.”

One of the most famous conversion stories is that of John Newton, who was a slave trader in the 18th century and wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace.” I was interested to learn that Newton was not a completely godless person his whole life until his conversion; rather, in his childhood and young adulthood, he tried many times to reform himself and be a better person, but those efforts were always short-lived, and eventually he gave himself over to the sin with which he had struggled. Many years later, he was a captain of a ship that transported slaves across the Atlantic. One night his long struggle with sin and righteousness came to a breaking point when a great storm on the sea threatened to capsize his boat. He tried everything he could to save the ship, but knowing that they might not survive, he said to one of his shipmates, "If this will not work, the Lord have mercy upon us!" His own words caught him by surprise, and he thought to himself, "’Mercy! What mercy can there be for me?’ This was the first desire I had breathed for mercy for many years!"

After a few hours, the water had left the hold of the boat, and Newton realized that they might not sink after all and saw God at work in their rescue. He said, "I thought I saw the hand of God displayed in our favor. I began to pray. I could not utter the prayer of faith. I could not draw near to a reconciled God and call him Father. My prayer for mercy was like the cry of the ravens, which yet the Lord does not disdain to hear. In the gospel I saw at least a chance of hope, but on every other side I was surrounded with black, unfathomable despair." At that moment when Newton realized the depths of his sin and his distance from God, he could have succumbed to the voice of the accuser – surely God couldn’t love me, I’m too far gone down this road – the response from God was not deeper guilt but a sign of hope and of forgiveness to which he clung with all his heart. As he describes that event’s significance later, he says, “On that day the Lord came from on high and delivered me out of deep waters."

In life we also enter deep waters and wildernesses of our own; times when we are dogged by voices of accusation and of temptation. When our sin feels like a heavy burden, may we not forget to look up and see grace hanging on the cross for us in the person of Christ. In the presence of Christ, we have the strength to look our own sin squarely in the face and repent, knowing that no matter how bad it gets or how far we fall, no matter how loving and holy and good we become; regardless of the spiritual heights or depths we attain in life, our salvation has never rested on our being good enough, not even for a nanosecond. Jesus has gone before us, and though he was tempted in every way as we are, he did not sin but instead won for us the victory. He stood in for us at every turn and remained faithful to his Father, not simply for himself, but so that we might become righteous through him.

Friends, as we enter this Lent, I invite you to see it as a mirror before which we stand, entering into a time of self-examination guided by the light of the Holy Spirit; but may we never forget that the mirror has these words written across it, “Beloved child of God, bought with the blood of Christ.”

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

"He has spoken through the prophets"

Finishing up the first half of the Bible was a little depressing. 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles turns into a long litany of one king after another in Israel and in Judah; a few of them follow God's ways, but most of them don't. It is hard to keep them straight too, since many of them have very similar names (Jehoram, Jehu, Jehoahaz, Joash, Jeroboam, another Jeroboam, Amaziah, Azariah (also referred to as Uzziah)... I have found it very helpful to print out a timeline chart of the kings to use when the going gets tough. I have printed out this one; I believe the chart itself comes from a published study Bible, but I'm not sure which one.

This chart is especially helpful because it also lists the prophets alongside the kings, so you can see when they were prophesying. At the end of week 26, we begin reading the prophets. I have avoided looking ahead to see how George Guthrie has organized the Bible so that I will be surprised along the way, but it looks like the rest of the content of Kings/Chronicles will be set besides the prophets who were prophesying at the time. We have read about many prophets up until this point - Elijah, Elisha, etc - but now we move to those that have entire books named after them, starting with Jonah and then moving on to the prophet Amos. Traditionally, the prophets are divided into two categories - the major prophets (long prophetic books) and the minor prophets (shorter books). So far we have read two of the minor prophets first - Jonah and Amos - because chronologically they prophesied first of the 17 prophets who have a book with their name. 2 down, 15 to go!

Abraham Heschel's book The Prophets serves as a wonderful companion to reading the prophetic books. Heschel was a 20th century Jewish theologian who wrote beautifully about the prophetic role - what the prophet is doing and why he says what he says and speaks in the way that he speaks. Heschel begins the introduction in this way: "This book is about some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived: the men whose inspiration brought the Bible into being - the men whose image is our refuge in distress, and whose voice and vision sustain our faith." It's a wonderful book with rich descriptions of the prophets, whose behavior and visions can seem strange to us. They may seem no less strange to you after reading Heschel, but he sheds light on the prophetic calling, and I can't help but use the word "beautiful" again to describe his manner of writing. I'm looking forward to rereading the other 15 prophets and being reminded of their intense message of God's love and of God's disappointment over his people's rejection of him.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

beginning again with Kings & Chronicles

It is December 11th, and I'm at the end of week 24 in Reading God's Story, which means that I've read just about half of the Bible this year, rather than the whole thing. I've toyed with the idea of starting over in January back in Genesis since I didn't meet my goal in 2012, but I think that is just perfectionism talking! I've decided instead to read through the end of week 26 by the end of December, which is exactly half way through Reading God's Story - since there are 52 weeks total. Then I'll begin with week 27 on Tuesday, January 1st.

Right now I'm reading about the break-up of the kingdom of Israel after the reign of Solomon, which is great timing, because that is also what we are studying in our middle school Sunday School classes at St. George's. (We are using a great curriculum this year called The Story.) This is a stretch in Kings and Chronicles where there are very few stories that most people would be familiar with, perhaps with the exception of the prophet Elijah. In preparing for Sunday School last week, I realized that if someone had asked me to tell them this part of the story from memory, I would have had lots of gaps and errors! I have been pondering why we don't tell the stories from this part of the Bible as much as others. I wonder if it's because they are fairly grim; reading litanies of one bad king after another isn't much fun.

I decided to do a little research and see how often these stories turn up in the Revised Common Lectionary - the three year reading schedule we use in our services in the Episcopal Church. A quick look at the Reverse Lectionary, which lists all the RCL readings in biblical order, shows that we never read Chronicles during our Sunday services. Not once. We read a fair bit from 1 Kings but only passages about either Solomon or Elijah. We read from 2 Kings 5 times, but only 3 passages (we read a couple of them twice). The first is Elijah being taken up and Elisha receiving his mantle, the second is Elisha's miracle of feeding 100 men with 20 loaves of bread (sadly skipping over Elisha's encounter with the Shunammite widow and the raising of her son in chapter 4), and the third is the cleansing of Naaman. The rest of 2 Kings goes untold. The story of the dividing of the kingdom into two, the fall of Israel, and the fall of Jerusalem is not included. We do have a few readings from Lamentations, which references the fall of Jerusalem, but the narrative from the historical books is omitted.

The good news is that the lectionary is not the be all and end all. Contrary to the mindset in much of the Episcopal ethos, we can pick up a Bible on our own and read these books for ourselves! The Reformation has indeed occurred, thanks be to God :) However, I suspect the omission of these stories from the lectionary reflects a belief that these stories aren't as significant or palatable or easily understood as other stories in the Bible. That's too bad, because I would love to give a sermon on the fall of Jerusalem or on King Josiah. I am looking forward to rediscovering the stories of Kings and Chronicles over the next few weeks.

If you've fallen behind this year, perhaps you'll consider joining me halfway through and starting up on January 1st!

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Redemption Stories

Sarah Puryear
St. George’s Episcopal Church, Nashville, Tennessee
December 2nd, 2012
Advent I, Year C

This December, I’m really excited to see the movie version of the musical Les Miserables. Victor Hugo, who wrote the story of Les Miserables, captures the power and beauty of redemption better than perhaps any other story outside of the Bible. Jean Valjean was caught stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children and was sent to work on a prison gang for nineteen long years. At last he is released on parole; he is bitter at the way he has been treated but hopeful that freedom will grant him a new chance at life. Yet he finds himself the object of others’ scorn and distrust when he tries to find honest work. The only kindness he finds comes from a bishop who welcomes him into his home and gives him food and a warm place to stay. When the bishop goes to sleep, though, Valjean steals the bishop’s silverware and flees the house, intending to sell the silver to make some money. But his plans go awry when the police catch him and drag him back to the bishop’s house to verify his crime. Whereas the “justice system” condemned him harshly and unfairly for stealing out of desperation and hunger, this bishop has every right to condemn him for stealing his valuables. If he owed nineteen years for a loaf of bread, his sentence for stealing silver would surely equal the rest of his life on earth. And yet when the police show up with Valjean on his doorstep, the bishop replies, “I gave that silver to him as a gift. But why did you leave the best behind? You forgot to take the candlesticks that I gave you as well.” And the bishop hands Valjean his silver candlesticks as the police look on confused and deflated. Valjean is stunned, unable to make sense of this twist of fate. The bishop says to him,

“Remember this my brother, see in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver to become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs, by the passion and the blood
God has raised you out of darkness, I have bought your soul for God”

That last line has always struck me as a strong and sobering thing to say to someone else; if someone told me that they had bought my soul for God, I’m not sure whether I would feel relief or fear. That line frames what the bishop has done for Valjean as an act of redemption. To redeem is to buy someone back out of captivity, usually by paying a ransom, and set them free.  The bishop bought Valjean back out of a life of bitterness and theft and gave him over to God. This act of love breaks through the hard shell that prison formed around Valjean’s heart, and he begins to see the possibility of a new way of life. Instead of going back to crime, he turns his life around and becomes a respected man in the community, and throughout the rest of his life he “pays forward” his own redemption by extending mercy and love to others – to a little girl caught in slavery, to a group of idealistic revolutionaries, and even to his most hardened enemy.
Today in our Old Testament story we hear another story of redemption, this one through the prophet Jeremiah. Of all the Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah had one of the toughest assignments. By his time, the land of Israel had been divided into two kingdoms, north and south. Jeremiah lived in the southern kingdom called Judah, which included the city of Jerusalem. The people in the south had already watched in horror as the Assyrians swooped in and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. In Jeremiah’s time, his people found themselves attacked by the Babylonian troops and feared that the same fate would befall them – destruction, devastation, and deportment to a foreign land.
Jeremiah gave the prophecy that we heard today at the time when the city Jerusalem was surrounded and besieged by the Babylonian troops. The people were on the edge of the worst imaginable thing happening - they faced the prospect of being handed over to their enemies, abandoned by their God for their disobedience, and forever wiped off the face of the earth. Jeremiah himself was in an even tougher spot personally. The king had imprisoned Jeremiah in the courtyard of the palace guard because his message was a distinctly unpleasant one. Jeremiah had warned that Jerusalem would indeed fall to Babylon, and its people would be taken away into exile because of their unfaithfulness to God. The king wanted Jeremiah to give fake messages of hope, which Jeremiah wasn’t willing to do.
While Jeremiah wasn’t one to sugarcoat the devastating message God gave him, his message didn’t end there. Jeremiah wasn’t just a doomsday prophet. He also gave the people the following message from God: “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” Jeremiah sounds a note of hope amidst the threat of great darkness, telling the people that despite what was going on around them, and what they were about to endure, God has neither forgotten nor retracted his promises in the face of the people’s unfaithfulness to him. He will honor his promise to David, which was that his descendants would sit on the throne of Israel, and that his house would never come to an end. He will redeem his people; God will buy back his people who are in captivity and give them a Messiah who will rule over them justly in their own land.
Advent is a time for remembering redemption stories like these because, as Jesus says to his disciples in our gospel reading for today, that “our redemption is drawing near.” We anticipate the birth of the Messiah, that moment when God fulfills the promise he gave to Jeremiah, when he sends that Son of David to rule faithfully and justly over his people. And in that anticipation our Old Testament readings are often prophecies during times of darkness, of need, of estrangement that laid bare the people’s need for God… that sparked a deep longing for their Messiah... that caused them to yearn for the time of their redemption to draw near. Facing our great need for God helps us to prepare and rejoice more fully when Christ does appear. It magnifies for us what God has done for us in Christ; it helps to enter more fully into the celebration that Christ our peace is finally here.
During this Advent season, I encourage you to ask yourself, what in my life lays bare my need for God this Advent season? What sparks for me a longing for Christ’s presence? Where do I need a fresh infusion of hope? It doesn’t have to be something as serious as facing life in prison or exile in a foreign land; it is simply any part of you that yearns to leave behind captivity to any other god or power besides the true God, whether the captivity of a broken relationship, of anxiety, of depression, of a addiction, of an eating disorder, of long-held grief or anger or unforgiveness or any other besetting sin – and find freedom.
Connecting with these places where we need redemption can be very scary. We may prefer to pretend that we have it under control, that it’s really not so bad, that we can handle this burden for another month or another year or another Christmas season. But at some point we do reach the end of our rope just like Valjean, just like the people of Israel. And when we do, no matter where our need for redemption lies, God says to us, “I want to start a work of redemption in your life. I want to bring beautiful things out of your brokenness and set you on a new path. I want to remind you when Christmas comes of the hope you have in Christ, hope for mercy and forgiveness and a new life.”
During this Advent season, may God begin or continue a redemption story in your own life. And may we hear God speaking this promise to us, also from the book of Jeremiah: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness. I will build you up again and you will be rebuilt. Again you will take up your tambourines and go out to dance with the joyful.”

Friday, September 7, 2012

books of wisdom

I am reading Proverbs at the moment in Reading God's Story. Proverbs is wisdom literature, full of advice about how to live wisely. I've been struck by all the verses about the power of our words:

"Life and death are in the power of the tongue,
and those who love it will eat its fruit."
- Proverbs 18:21

I'm struck by it in part because we are reading the book of James over the next several weeks at church right now. James is said to be the wisdom literature of the New Testament. I think James sums up the message of wisdom literature best when he says:

"Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom." - James 3:13

He too emphasizes the power of our words:
"The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell." - James 3:6

It is interesting to read James alongside the Proverbs and see how their view on the wise life correspond to each other. At the same time, James has a new angle on wisdom due to the teachings of Jesus, which he incorporates those into his writing as well:

"Let your yes be yes and your no be no."
"Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?"
"Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says."

Today I'm thinking about the power of my words, which I can use to either bless or curse. James says that we are to use them to bless, using a wisdom that comes down from heaven to us from God, just as every good gift comes from him:

"But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving,considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere." - James 3:17