JSB #3 “And then…”

(Reflections on Genesis 1-3 and “The Terrible Lie” in the Jesus Storybook Bible)

It all started so well.  God spoke and separated light from darkness, skies from seas and water from land.  He continued to fill the sky with heavenly bodies, the skies and seas with birds and fish, and the land with all sorts of creeping, crawling and walking animals.  Then from the dust of the earth he made the one who would bear his image, human beings.  In male and female forms he created them dependent upon one another to continue God’s creative process through sexual reproduction, thus modeling the relational interdependence of the Trinity.

Human beings were commanded to multiply and fill the earth, and they were charged to be God’s ambassadors from the very beginning as God granted them dominion in his stead over the animals of the skies, seas and land.  Each day during the creative process God looked at what he had done and declared, “It is good.”  And on the last day of His labors, having created and vested His own image-bearing icon, God looked it over and said, “It is very good.”

As we discussed this in our Sunday School class last week I raised this question.  “If the Bible stopped right there, what would your response be?”  Quickly, the reply came (paraphrasing here), “Then what happened, cause it ain’t so good at my house sometimes.”

Obviously, the pristine picture painted in the first two chapters of Genesis does not match up with what we know as “reality” today.  But, it should still speak to us in meaningful ways.  These chapters reveal something of the heart of God, his careful, purposeful and creative efforts applied to making this world and us to be his representatives in it.  God made it good and made us to experience good.  The author of Genesis wanted us to know this.

Yet, our experience is not exactly Edenesque.  To be honest it can be a bit hellish at times.  I’ve had hard times, you’ve had hard times, and that is no surprise to God.  Genesis 3 was written to explain why our experience of life on this planet is best described as fallen, or broken.  It sounds a bit trite to say it this way, but essentially God speaks through the Genesis author to say, “I made a beautiful garden for you to live in, and I showed you the path to live in harmony with me, but you chose your own way which has horrible consequences.  You brought this pain and agony upon yourselves, upon each other and, yes, upon me.”

There were two significant trees named in the garden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  It was the second tree that the serpent directed Eve towards.  His smooth tongue weaved a web of half truths aimed at the greatest temptation allowed by freewill…independence.  “If you…you will be like God!”  No one in our culture wants to be told what to do.  Apparently our culture is quite similar to ancient ones in this regard.  The desire to control one’s own destiny, to choose one’s own path, to make one’s own decisions has been a powerful one, and a damning one since the beginning.

According to the Jesus Storybook Bible, in any other story this would have been the end.  But in the book that God writes this is just the set up for what we know as the gospel.  God knows man’s heart.  God knows man’s sin.  Yet, God still loves humans and from the last verses of Genesis 3 through the end of Revelation we see that love worked out in the most amazing ways.  It only took three chapters to communicate in the text our need for God.  The remainder of the Bible, and yes the remainder of our lives are dedicated to convincing our hearts of this truth.

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 14:12)  This truth was revealed first in the garden in the shade of the Tree of Knowledge, but perhaps as you read this you can feel the juice dripping from your chin as you have made some choice recently to trust your knowledge and experience over and above God’s outlined path.  The journey back to Eden begins, and continues, with each decision to follow God rather than to proclaim your independence from him.  Which will you and I choose today, to walk humbly with God or to walk boldly as a god?  The choice belongs to you and me,… but the world belongs to our Father.

What is this book about?

The Jesus Storybook Bible is the only children’s book I know of that starts by addressing this question, “What is the Bible?”  This is such an important question that we often take for granted.  How we approach the Bible has a profound impact on what we receive from the Bible.  There is much to consider related to this that is beyond the scope of this blog, but I do want to discuss a few significant big picture ideas related to the issue.

First, the focus in lesson one of the Jesus Storybook Bible is who the Bible is about.  Sometimes we get caught up on the human characters involved in the story as we try to relate to them.  Yes, we all have our favorite characters in scripture to whom we relate.  Often it’s the ones who struggle with the same vices or the one who did overcome the obstacle we are trying to overcome.  We can learn a great deal from these characters, but it is important to realize that the Bible is not about Noah, Abraham or Joseph.  The Bible is about God.  It is His story.  He is THE HERO.  

When I started my studies at Lipscomb University, I realized how deficient I was on this front.  I really had not thought much about God.  The take-homes from all the sermons and Bible classes I had participated in were focused on me, not him.  My religion was more a set of morals than a relationship with the living God.  I found it difficult to say anything “theological”, that is, to say something about God.  One of my professors Phillip Camp made a comment related to the scriptures that I will never forget and I try to reflect in my teaching and preaching.  “Some scriptures inspire us to go and do, but many others call us to come and see.”  Because in my fellowship we tend to focus on the former.  It has become a personal mission of mine to bring attention to the latter.

Another important matter to deal with as we discuss how to approach scripture is the variety of genres found in the Bible.  All scripture is equally inspired, but because different genres are written to express ideas through different means we must approach each text “on its own terms.”  If you would like to research this more for yourself, I would highly recommend How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordan Fee and Douglas Stewart.  They explore each genre in detail.  This is a very valuable study that is worthy of your time if you want to become a more proficient student of the Bible.

The last thought I would like to share with regard to our approach to the Bible is our own personal lens.  We would all like to believe that we come to the scriptures from an objective perspective.  I am part of a fellowship that once (and in some cases still does) believed that if we all approached the scriptures honestly we would come to the same conclusions.  Then after about a generation this movement split because honest people understood the scriptures differently.

We all approach the Bible with a personal bias.  We also approach scripture with societal biases of our nation, socio-economic status, and denominational/congregational upbringing.  Moreover, we must recognize that though the Bible is timeless, it was written from within a context different than our own.  (Actually, multiple contexts when you consider that it was written over a period of more than a millennia.)  I found Scott McKnight’s book The Blue Parakeet very insightful on this front.

Also, it is worth noting that a major shift in “how people think” is happening in the world today.  Sociologists refer to this as the transition from “modern” to “post-modern”.  The modern way of thinking is about 500 years old and is giving way in our generation to  the quite un-creatively named “post-modern.”  This is a whole other matter that needs to be explored, but is beyond our scope.  I will just say this, due to the environment in which your child is growing up, he or she will have post-modern thought patterns.  This is not something to be feared, but embraced.  I believe post-moderns will actually identify more with the pre-modern context in which the Bible was written.  As one born in the 1970’s  I realize that my way of thinking is a blend.  However, my brother born in the late 1980’s is almost entirely a post-modern thinker.  These truths speak to the lens with which we approach scripture, but as a minister I know it must inform the way I teach younger generations.  More on that another day.

Just remember, the Bible is first and foremost about God.  I look forward to learning more about the Divine One as we read together in the weeks ahead.

Welcome to Jesus’ Story

It is so exciting to watch young children celebrate milestones.  The children pictured here are starting Kindergarten,  and we celebrated that with our church family a couple of weeks ago.  It is a new stage in their academic life, but we emphasized that it is also a transition in their spiritual life.

They are starting a journey that will help them develop their own faith.  As they learn to read, they will be able to approach God through his word on their own.  To encourage this spiritual development we gifted our Kindergartners with a copy of the Jesus Storybook Bible.  Our Kindergarten through 2nd Grade students will study through the stories in this book during this school year.

All of that is well and good, but one thing I know is that the greatest impact on the faith development of these children will be seeing their parents grow in their relationship with God.  I personally have two little boys who will be studying through these scriptures this school year, so I want to participate with them in this study.  And I am inviting you to follow along as well.  I will be sharing my thoughts on these Bible stories through this blog, and for those of you who are part of my local church, I am starting a Sunday School class this Sunday just for you.

It is my prayer that we (me, you and our children) will gain a richer understanding of God’s story and knowledge of who God during this school year.  Let’s journey together…In Him, Wes

Journey #3: Gentile Pentecost

This meditation is broken into three sections.  The first section was read as we sat at the opening of the labyrinth and prepared for our journey.  This portion provides a theological and Biblical (Old Testament) foundation upon which the New Testament text builds.  In the center we recount the story from Acts, understanding the passage in its context and applying it to ours.  Then a word of blessing was spoken over each child as he or she left the center and walked out of the labyrinth individually.

Entry (Backdrop):

This week we’ve learned about the tower of Babel and the time when God confused the languages and dispersed the nations.  But on Pentecost, God entered into history and enabled his people to communicate the message of Jesus into many languages at once as the church, God’s movement to reunite the nations, was born.  We’ve also learned about the origins of the Samaritans, the half Jew,half pagan race that developed in the land during the time of exile.  Again, God’s movement tore down the walls of hostility and brought people together.

Exodus 19:5-6 “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

God’s purpose and plan for Israel is sometimes misunderstood.  It is true that Israel was set apart for God’s purposes.  God commanded them to keep themselves separate from other nations for the sake of purity.  But God did this for a purpose.  Israel was to be a kingdom of priests.  A priest is a mediator, a go between.  Israel was called by God to be a bridge between God and the other nations in the world.  This was a tough job for Israel and today it is a tough job for the church.  But it is our calling.

We are called to be set apart from the world for the sake of the world.  God tried to protect Israel from the worship of false gods and other sinful practices that consumed their neighbors.  Yet, at the same time Israel had this priestly mission, they were to be calling the nations to come and worship the One, True God.  Israel (like us) often failed in one of two ways.  The first problem comes from being too much like the world.  Many times Israel fell into the sinful practices of their neighbors.  The second problem comes when those who are set apart fail to love the people they are called to reach.

This second problem is the one we are dealing with today.  Israel’s leaders had to work hard to keep the people away from the sinful practices of their neighbors.  Also, from the time of the Exile forward Israel was never free, there was always a foreign oppressor, a Gentile government ruling over them.  These two factors created a certain hatred for the Gentiles, anyone who was not a Jew.  God’s people lost sight of the goal to draw the world to God and developed an us versus them mentality. Us vs. them is a common mindset in our world today, but it is not the mindset we are called to as followers of Jesus.  The goal of the church is to draw human beings into one united “we”.  Who do you struggle to accept?  Where would you be willing to go?  What are you willing to risk to bring others into the Church of Jesus?

 

Center:

Our story takes place in two cities today.  It begins in Caesarea, a town built to house Roman soldiers as they patrolled the far reaches of the Empire.  In Caesarea, we find a God-fearing Gentile who both loved God and others, even though he was not a Jew.  Here in Caesarea, our story begins as an angel appears to this man Cornelius, a centurion, an officer in the Roman Army.  The angel tells him to send for Simon Peter.

This takes us to our second city, Joppa, where Simon Peter, the apostle who had spent three years at Jesus side and then become one of the primary leaders of the young church in Jerusalem, was staying with a leather worker named Simon “the Tanner”.  Around noon the next day Peter is on the roof of the house praying, and he too had a vision.  The vision ended with a message from God, “Peter do not call anything unclean that I have made clean.”

Peter was confused by this vision and sat on the roof struggling to figure out how to apply this message.  As he sat and wondered a knock came at the door…it was the messengers sent by Cornelius.  They exchanged stories about their visions and Peter.  Then Peter left Joppa and went with them back to Caesarea to meet Cornelius.

When Peter and Cornelius met they shared the stories of their visions with each other.  This was a challenging time for Peter.  He told Cornelius, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him.  But God has shown me that I should not call any man unclean.”  Peter went on to say, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.

 Then Peter shared the gospel message with Cornelius and his friends.  As Peter was speaking something amazing happened.  The Holy Spirit was poured out on Cornelius and his friends.  God acted in this moment to clearly show Peter what he should do.  God accepted these Gentiles, so Peter knew he should, too.

Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?  They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”

 It is difficult for us to realize just how big these events were.  Peter took many great risks through this story.  It took faith to even go to the house of Cornelius.  He was brave to share the story of Jesus with a Gentile audience.  And it took great boldness to accept these Gentile believers and baptize many of them.  Peter knew there would be other Jews who did not approve of his decision to welcome Gentiles into the church, but he knew God had called him to do so in this moment.  Peter finally understood that God accepts men form every nation who fear him and do what is right.

What are you willing to do to extend the boundaries of the gospel?  Where are you willing to go?  Who are you willing to talk to and share your life with?  Most importantly, are you willing to ask God, “Where do you want me to go?  What do you want me to do?”

 

Prayer of a Growing Kindgom

You came to this earth, your love to show.

You planted a seed, your kingdom to grow.

For a new beginning, your Spirit you gave.

A sinful and broken, lost world to save.

Thank you for your grace that welcomed us in.

Now give us the boldness to bring you to our friends. 

 

Exit:

“The Lord bless you and keep you. 

The Lord make his face to shine upon you.

The Lord be gracious to you

And give you peace.”

Journey #2: The Samaritan Pentecost

This meditation is broken into three sections.  The first section was read as we sat at the opening of the labyrinth and prepared for our journey.  This portion provides a theological and Biblical (Old Testament) foundation upon which the New Testament text builds.  In the center we recount the story from Acts, understanding the passage in its context and applying it to ours.  Then a word of blessing was spoken over each child as he or she left the center and walked out of the labyrinth individually.

Entry (Backdrop):

Yesterday, we studied the Day of Pentecost, the birth of the church.  We saw how, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jews from many different regions of the Roman Empire were able to hear the gospel message in their own language.  This Divine moment represents to us a reversal of the babbling that took place at the Tower of Babel.

Today, we explore another story that reverses history.  In Jesus’ time a deep hatred existed between the people of God, known as the Jews, and a group known as the Samaritans.  The Samaritan people came into existence after the Northern Tribes of Israel were taken into captivity.  The Israelites who remained in the land intermarried with pagans and this new race developed.  They continued to worship like the Jews in many ways, but only followed the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.  Though they shared much common ground with the mainline Jews, their differences were not acceptable.  The Jews and Samaritans did not like each other.

Jesus shocked the Samaritan woman at the well when he spoke to her kindly.  Also, he shocked the crowds when he told the parable of the man who was beaten and left for dead on the side of the road, only to be helped by a Samaritan, of all people.  The idea of a Samaritan being “good” was nearly unbelievable to Jesus’ audience.

The Samaritans lived near the Jews.  They shared a common history and heritage with the Jews, but they were slightly different in their appearance and their religious practices.  As we take our journey into the labyrinth today, I want you to consider people who are in your life, but are different from you in some way.  Maybe they look different, speak different or have different customs than you do.  As we move toward the center of the Labyrinth, consider these people in your life, and think about the things you have in common with them.

 Center:

People are not easily pushed out of their comfort zones, but God is often willing to do the pushing.  As we follow the story of the early church in Acts we see some unfortunate events lead to the spreading of the Gospel.  In Acts 6 & 7, we read about a man named Stephen who was chosen with six others to help serve the church in Jerusalem.  Stephen was full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and he performed many miracles and he was doing some important preaching.

Some of the Jews who had not followed Jesus did not like Stephen and began to tell lies about him.  Despite Stephen’s innocence of wrongdoing, and his wonderful preaching, the non-believing Jewish mob lead by Saul of Tarsus stoned him to death.  After the stoning of Stephen, a great persecution arose in Jerusalem against the followers of Jesus.  To escape persecution many believers left the city and were scattered to the areas of Judea and even Samaria, the home of the despised Samaritans we spoke about earlier.

Wherever Jesus’ followers moved, they continued to teach their families and their new neighbors about Jesus the Messiah.  One of the leaders of the early church was a man named Philip who had also been set apart with Stephen for a special ministry in Jerusalem.  After moving to Samaria, he continued in his faith.  Philip healed people who were paralyzed and crippled.  He cast out demons, and he preached the good news about Jesus.  Many Samaritans believed in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, and they were baptized.

News of the Samaritans following Jesus got back to Jerusalem, and the church there sent Peter and John up to Samaria.  It is hard to know exactly what Peter and John had on their mind.  Were they reluctant to accept the Samaritans?  It is hard to say.  But the fact that they welcomed them into the church is very important.  For more than 700 years the Jews and Samaritans had hated one another.  They were fierce rivals with different ideas about how to properly worship God.  But the message of Jesus tore down the walls of division and brought these two groups together.

“Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.”  The physical touch of Peter and John communicated that the Samaritan followers of Jesus were welcomed into the family of Jewish Jesus followers.  They were welcomed not as Samaritans, but as brothers in Christ.  The Holy Spirit revealed God’s heart on the matter.  “Samaritans welcomed!”  All are welcomed to full citizenship in the church, regardless of their former way of life.

When you think of people who are different than you, who do you think of?  Are you ready to tell those people about Jesus?  Is there anyone you know through your school, or sports, or scouts, or neighborhood, that you would have a hard time accepting as family?  If so, ask God to grow your heart so you can make room for them.  In our moment of silent prayer, ask yourself “Who are my Samaritans?”  Then ask God to make room in your heart for “those people”. 

 

Exit:

“The Lord bless you and keep you. 

The Lord make his face to shine upon you.

The Lord be gracious to you

And give you peace.”

Journey #1: Pentecost

This meditation is broken into three sections.  The first section was read as we sat at the opening of the labyrinth and prepared for our journey.  This portion provides a theological and Biblical (Old Testament) foundation upon which the New Testament text builds.  In the center we recount the story from Acts, understanding the passage in its context and applying it to ours.  Then a word of blessing was spoken over each child as he or she left the center and walked out of the labyrinth individually.

Entry (Backdrop):

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), but maybe you’ve never really thought about why the story is still told by the church.  The story of Babel is a sad story, yet it is a story that is told and retold.  Why?  Today I retell it to help us understand the greatest problem human beings face, and thankfully today to share with you God’s victory over this problem.

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, God and human beings were close.  God walked in the Garden of Eden alongside Adam and Eve.  Then sin entered the Garden, Adam and Eve were kicked out of it, and as we read in the next chapters of Genesis the distance between God and people began to grow.  Brother murdered brother, evil grew and wickedness reigned.  God washed the world clean with a great flood, but sin kept coming back.

In Genesis 11, we see the picture of men uniting, standing in opposition to God’s command to multiply and fill the earth.   Rather, they committed themselves to stay together in one place.  Worse than that, they plotted to build a tower, a tall tower in a great city.  The purpose of the tower was to bring glory to themselves, which means, of course, that they were stealing glory from God.  God was not pleased.  To stop human beings from plotting this and other great evils, he confused their languages preventing them from being able to work together and forcing them to move apart and fill the earth.

In our world today, languages are still confused.  People still struggle to work together.  We fail to cooperate with one another.  But, God has begun to fix this problem and reunite human beings.  This movement of God began many years ago, and you are a part of it.  We will learn more about this movement of God today and over the next couple of days.  But as we take our slow, silent walk to the center of the labyrinth I want you to consider what happened at this place called Babel.  And we will contemplate our own place in the story of Babel. On the journey in we must deal with these questions: Am I seeking to glorify God or myself?  How am I adding bricks to the Tower?

Now we enter the labyrinth.  As we enter remember we are on a sacred journey.  We will be silent.  We will walk slowly, purposefully, thinking about each step, considering each breath.  We will be mindful of our sacred journey as we deal with this difficult & painful question: How am I adding bricks to the Tower?

 

Center:

Languages confused, people divided, groups scattered and under separate leadership.  All these differences inspiring rivalries, this has been the state of humanity since the Fall, the flood and the tower.  But something happened many years ago that changed the course of history and eternity.  God came to earth and lived among us as a man named Jesus.  He lived and taught, died and was buried, rose and appeared.  Then fifty days after his crucifixion, He sent

Jesus died and rose around the Jewish holiday of Passover.    Passover celebrated being set free from Egypt. Through Jesus’ sacrifice at the time of Passover, Christians are set free from sin and death.

The next holiday for the Jews was the day of Pentecost.  Pentecost was a harvest festival celebrating the first fruits of the barley harvest.  Likewise, the Pentecost of Acts 2 brought the first fruits of God’s new movement.  It is a movement back toward God’s original intentions.  And the first fruits call to mind the Tower where languages were first confused, because on this day in our history the division in our world that is related to different languages was overcome in a miraculous moment.

On this day when Jesus’ followers were gathered wondering what to do next, God showed them the way.  Jesus had appeared to his remaining 11 Apostles along with other disciples over a period of 40 days before ascending into heaven.  In His last appearance recorded in Acts 1 Jesus had instructed them, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.  For John baptized with water but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit…You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, an in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

So Jesus was taken up into the clouds, and two “men” dressed in white stood beside him and announced that he would one day return just as he had left.  We still long for that day when Jesus will return and all his desires will reach their fulfillment, but in the meantime we have begun to participate in that fulfillment as we follow in the footsteps of those first fruits that were harvested at Pentecost.

On the day of Pentecost, Jesus sent.  Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, He poured it out, and something miraculous happened.  Jesus’ followers spoke, and the Jews heard.  Jews from different countries all over the Roman Empire heard.  They heard in their own languages.  On that Day, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the consequence of the Tower was reversed temporarily, giving us hope that a movement was afoot that would bring about its permanent reversal .

At Pentecost, the Kingdom of God came in contact with the people of earth.  At Pentecost the Kingdom of Heaven created a point of contact in human history.  That contact point is known as the church.  On Pentecost, the consequence of the tower was temporarily revoked to start a movement in which the people of God would cooperate not for their own glory, but for the glory of God.  The mission of the church is not to bring glory to people through the building of towers, but to move people back toward union with God through learning how to live in union with each other.

The result of Pentecost was this (Acts 2:44) “All the believers were together and had everything in common.”  Personal glory was replaced by a family fellowship.   Here in the middle, we reflect on God’s love for us as we remember the sacrifice of Jesus and the miracle of Pentecost.  Reflect on this: “How am I building unity with my friends who love Jesus?  How can I better share my life with my church as I participate in God’s new movement?”

 Exit:

“The Lord bless you and keep you. 

The Lord make his face to shine upon you.

The Lord be gracious to you

And give you peace.”

Journeys to the Heart of God

When you think of VBS the picture above is probably not an image that pops into your head, but I would like to share with you how this scene fit into our’s this year.  As you know, there are many different ways that children (and adults) connect with God.  Exuberant worship is one way that children typically enjoy, and our VBS day started with that.  Serving others gives children purpose and builds their self-worth.  Did that.  Meaning filled games. Check.  Hands on crafts that actually connect.  Got it.  Silence, reflection and meditation [No, I am not kidding!]  That is the part represented by this picture.

Take one large adult classroom with no exterior windows, subtract chairs, add rope lights and voila, you have a labyrinth!  Our labyrinth experience was a guided one.  Traditionally, labyrinths are sites for individual journeys.  The path can be a simple spiral as was ours, or a more intricate pattern.  The general movement of a labyrinth is that your journey takes you away from the world (typical retreat mindset) as you walk toward the center of the circle and the heart of God.  While in the center, centered on the self-God relationship, one seeks direction, refreshment and renewal, that is then carried back out of the circle for re-entry into the world as one prepared to face anew the challenges and opportunities of life.

The framework of our labyrinth journeys was provided by each day’s Bible story. Each year we focus on one act of “His-Story” and this year our focus was the Church.  The stories included Pentecost (Acts 2), the first Samaritan converts (Acts 8) and Cornelius the first Gentile convert (Acts 10).  [Scholar F.F. Bruce refers to these as the Jewish, Samaritan and Gentile Pentecosts respectively.]

Over the next few days I will share with you our three labyrinth meditations.  It is my prayer that each of these meditations will draw you to the heart of God and into the center of His story thus giving you a sense of your place in His kingdom and your purpose in his mission.