Monthly Archives: March 2016

How to lead a small group Bible study

You have been asked to lead a small group Bible study. You got your Bible open to the passage for study. What next?

Indeed, one must have a teachable heart and openness to God’s work through the Scripture. But there are also some practical steps one can take to examining the Bible.

In this video, Dr. Yen gives an overview of how to go about studying the Scriptures.

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Easter Sunday

Luke 24:1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words,and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

He is risen!

He is risen indeed!

Holy Week Reflections – Holy Saturday and Liminal Space

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Psalm 31:1-4

In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.
You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.

In the churches I have been a part of, the emphasis has been on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. A few churches I’ve been a part of have included Maundy Thursday services.

But what about Holy Saturday, what shall we make of that practice?

Maybe we in less liturgical churches could gain something from our more liturgical fellow Jesus followers?

At this point, would like to toss out another SAT word – liminal. Excerpt from the URL:

What happens if you lose what appears to be your “everything” and you do not know what to do next? If you feel that you are anxiously floating in the in between perhaps you are in The Liminal Space.
[…….]”It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run … anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.” 
- Richard Rohr

After Jesus died on the Cross, the followers of Jesus were in that Liminal Space. Their “everything” was gone and even if they remembered those words about resurrection they didn’t know if it would happen. And so they waited …

Peter replaying in his mind his three denials.
John watching Jesus die and receiving instructions from him to care for mother Mary wondering what was next for the whole group.
Thomas questioning himself about what he had said.
Simon of Cyrene wondering how he found himself helping carry Jesus’ cross – did he know who Jesus was? Was he already a follower?
The feelings of guilt and shame the 12 felt having fled Jesus at his arrest.
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus perhaps in muted conversation about the shocking events.
And let’s not forget the women who were there and what they were thinking and feeling.

All of these people were in liminal space, “anxiously floating in the in between.” And as good Jewish people, they may have turned to the Psalms for comfort, for a way to put into words their feelings, for some way to shake replying in their minds the grisly events that had unfolded, for turning their souls toward God. Specifically, they would turn to Psalms of Lament.

How about us?

Though we know the story (Resurrection) after the story (Cross), we in a sense live in Holy Saturday not just today but every day. We know the story (the Incarnation Jesus and the Outpouring of the Spirit) but we await the story (Jesus return). We live in the already-but-not-yet.

And so, we too turn to the Psalms of Lament like Psalm 31:1-4 on Holy Saturday and on many other days …..

In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me. Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me. You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.

Holy Week Reflections – Good Friday

Good Friday as remembered in John 19:16-30

Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.'” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” And that is what the soldiers did. Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Good Friday as remembered in the hymn “And can it be that I should gain” by Charles Wesley

And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain?
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me?

Refrain:
Amazing love! how can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!

‘Tis mystery all! Th’Immortal dies!
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine!
‘Tis mercy all! let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more. [Refrain]

He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race;
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free;
For, O my God, it found out me. [Refrain]

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth and followed Thee. [Refrain]

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him is mine!
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own. [Refrain]

Good Friday remembered in a painting by El Greco “Jesus Carrying the Cross”

Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Friday

We remember.

Holy Week Reflections – the Lord’s Supper

image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Supper_(Leonardo_da_Vinci)

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Each church practices their Lord’s Supper remembrance a little differently. Some use regular bread while others use unleavened bread. Some use grape juice while others use wine. Some churches conduct it weekly and others monthly. The Lord’s Supper can also be called Communion and others call it the Eucharist. In some churches, only the pastor or priest can handle and serve the elements while in others it is passed from participant to participant.

Regardless of all the variations on how the ritual is performed, the core of its meaning is remembering what our Lord Jesus has done for us. Think about how many facets of the Christian story is embodied in this practice?

We see the humanity of Jesus. He dwelt among us. He ate food. For the disciples and various followers who knew Jesus, he was as real as real can be. They heard the sound of his voice, they could see his facial expressions, they could feel his hands when he touched them to bless them or heal them. They could taste the water that he had turned into wine, they could enjoy the five loaves and two fish he multiplied. The aroma of the ointment used to anoint his feet would float through the room. He was as real as real can be.

And he died. That is ultimate expression of the human condition. He was as real as real can be.

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes…

Let’s lean into this. In this statement is bundled a whole lot. A whole slew of “theological” SAT words can be used to unpack this simple phrase:
Christology – the humanity of Jesus in the incarnation, the divinity of Jesus in his title as Lord
soteriology – salvation is the mission of Jesus of which death, resurrection, and return is included
ecclesiology – the story of the church that is to remember Jesus and to proclaim Jesus to the world
eschatology – future things as Jesus is coming back

All of this meaning built around the simple act of taking some bread and some wine. Getting down into the very basics, we eat food and drink fluids to survive. But the Lord Supper points to life abundant and not mere survival. And so Jesus has invested into this simple ceremony a way for us to remember the reality that eternal living – a relationship with God – is possible because of the free, complete, and costly work of Jesus.

We remember.

Holy Week Reflections – Suffering and Vindication

image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaiah

Isaiah 50:4-9a,

The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

Over the years, have not read too much of the OT prophets. One of the things I have found challenging at times is knowing when is God speaking and when is the prophet speaking? In this passage, since God is referred to in the third person, I figure Isaiah is speaking.

Isaiah declares that he has tried his very best to do what God wants. We know from Isaiah 6 that he knows he is a flawed man but he one who has experienced God’s forgiveness. He enters God service and suffers for his obedience. But through it, he remains confident in God for his vindication.

I was recently reading Job and I found his situation to be similar. He was recognized as a righteous man by God in Job 1. Yet he suffered. And his friends in the various speeches in Job think he has secretly sinned leading to his suffering. Job’s story is a window into the struggles of a faithful man trying to make sense of his situation. He puts into words what many have felt and do feel looking at the world where injustice appears to have the upper hand. Yet, amidst all this, Job is still wrestling with God. He won’t stop talking to him and about him. He is honestly pouring out his heart in sorrow, anger, and confusion. Underlying it all, he was seeking vindication that comes from God.

In Holy Week, Jesus was headed toward the culmination of his vocation. He is a righteous man who has suffered. One can imagine the circumstances of his birth resulted in behind the back whispering. Perhaps, some of the commentary was not so behind the back! In his ministry of teaching and healing, he runs into opposition. Some even say his good deeds are done with the power of Satan! Things come to the collision course in Jerusalem. He is betrayed by one of the disciples. His closest followers abandon him at his arrest. He is headed toward the cross.

Jesus all his life opened his ear to the Father and was not rebellious but fully obedient and dependent on the Father. He was insulted and struck down by those who call for his crucifixion and those who conduct the crucifixion. In the eyes of the world he was disgraced and put to shame with a death on a cross, the punishment for criminals. But on Easter Sunday, he was VINDICATED by RESURRECTION and the Father has exalted him!

As one who is trying to live for God, I’m wrestling each day to put off my old self and put on the new self. I cannot claim the fidelity to God like Isaiah and Job. But I can receive the work of Christ on my behalf. I can yield to the work of the Spirit to empower and guide my life. In addition to my internal struggles, there is the external world with its difficulties and its opposition that I live in. Christ’s Easter Sunday and vindication has happened. It is applied to us and to me by grace through faith. Our life experience is still on this side of our ultimate vindication. But that vindication is sure and it impacts life now and it was made possible by the free, complete, and costly work of Jesus that we remember this Holy Week.

May we have the same kind of trust and confidence as Isaiah to be able to say:

The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens – wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord GOD has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?

 

Sabbath for the 21st Century?

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Image source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/df/Shabbat_Candles.jpg

The Jewish Sabbath Drama

“Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to light the lights of Sabbath. ”

Around the world, through the generations, going back many centuries, with these words, the woman of a Jewish household would light two candles and mark the beginning of Sabbath just before sundown on Friday.

After this prayer, family and friends would walk to synagogue for an evening service or host one at home. This would be followed by dinner. To start the dinner, the man of the house would pick up the Sabbath wine glass and recite the Kiddush that gives the reasons for Sabbath:

It was evening and it was morning, the sixth day. So the heavens and the earth were finished, with all their complement. On the seventh day, God had completed His work, which He had undertaken, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work, which He had been doing. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it He ceased from all His creative work, which God had brought into being to fulfill its purpose. Blessed are You God, King of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine. Blessed are You God, King of the Universe, who made us holy with Your commandments and favored us, and gave us Your holy Sabbath, in love and favor, to be our heritage, as a reminder of the Creation. It is the foremost day of the holy festivals marking the Exodus from Egypt. For out of all the nations You chose us and made us holy, and You gave us Your holy Sabbath, in love and favor, as our heritage. Blessed are you God, Who sanctifies Sabbath.

A leisurely dinner would then be enjoyed and Sabbath observance would continue until Saturday sundown with other prayers and rituals. And, of course, there is a list of 39 types of actions to be avoided during Sabbath.

As followers of Jesus, we do not keep the Sabbath in this way today.

The Sabbath in the Early Church

The early church wrestled with how much “Jewishness” to keep as the message of Jesus began to draw in many non-Jews. Jews had a strong sense of identity that set them apart from all the peoples around them. They held tightly to their distinctives such as the Torah and the Temple and their practices of kosher, circumcision and Sabbath keeping. Because of the completed and sufficient work of Christ, keeping the rituals is not required.

However, might there be some value behind the ritual?

Sabbath simply means to cease, to stop and to rest. In Biblical times, the Jewish Sabbath of taking a total break from work one day a week was strange to the dominant culture. Some Roman and Greek writers of that era saw this practice as evidence of the laziness of the Jewish people. Thus, it was possible that Gentile Christians in the employ of non-believing Gentiles would have had to work seven days a week making a Jewish style Sabbath observance impossible.

But the teachings of Jesus on this matter gave them and us freedom in how to observe Sabbath. The Gospels recount Jesus clashing with the religious leaders of the day over the Sabbath.

Mark 2:23-28 was emblematic:

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grain fields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

The religious leaders of the day foisted on the people a very legalistic practice of Sabbath. Jesus countered with common sense. In this case, he reminds them that David and his friends were hungry so they were fed. In another incident (Matthew 12:9-14), Jesus told them, you would rescue a sheep that falls in a pit on the Sabbath so I will heal on the Sabbath because a human life is worth so much more.

But Jesus did more than just appeal to common sense, he cited his authority: “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” This claim of Messianic authority would not have been lost on the religious leaders of the day. And so he exercised his authority to restore the proper interpretation of the Sabbath: “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”

Sabbath in Twenty-First Century

Should we keep Sabbath? And if so, how do we make it holy?

Lauren Winner, who converted from Judaism to Christianity, wrote a book with the title, Mudhouse Sabbath, where she shared how her Jewish roots influence some of the practices in her Christian life. The first chapter of her book was about Sabbath and she describe how she missed, “A true cessation from the rhythms of work and world, a time wholly set apart, and perhaps above all, a sense that the point of Sabbath, the orientation of Sabbath, is toward God.”

Getting us refocused on God is good for us and Sabbath can help. Making it a priority to regularly cease, stop and rest can help us in our life with God.

One of the things God wanted the Jews to remember on Sabbath was that they were delivered from slavery from Egypt and thus a free people.

How important might Sabbath be today?

  • How do we cope with the temptation of being workaholics?
  • What do we do about 24/7 news on cable TV?
  • How eager are we to go to shopping malls that are open every day of the week?
  • Would we even consider temporarily disconnecting from instant access to work, information, communication, and entertainment that is available with a mouse click or a cell phone?
  • Can we actually ever cease, stop, and rest, willingly?

If we can’t cease, stop, and rest from these things, are we in a sense, slaves to these things?

But rest isn’t just for rest sake so we will be more productive the other days of the week. That may be a benefit of Sabbath rest but that isn’t its purpose. Sabbath is an opportunity to cease our regular activities with the purpose of remembering who God is and to relish the relationship we have with God.

We are free in Christ! Just as God delivered the Israelites from Egypt, Jesus has freed us for the many things that can and do hold us captive. Most importantly, we are forgiven and freed from our sin and alienation from God. Jesus has done the work and he has set us free and we can rest in our belonging to Him! Let us take time to cease, stop and rest so we can cherish this wonderful reality that we are free in Christ.

God wanted the Jews to observe Sabbath also to remember that He is the Creator.

With the recent Academy Awards ceremony, Hollywood takes pride in being the entertainment capital of the world. In California, Apple and other technological companies design and make all sorts of remarkable and wonderful devices. In America where pulling one’s self up by the bootstraps is an iconic image. Good does come out of these things. But does pride sneak into our hearts too?

Sabbath could be a powerful antidote to this. Quoting Lauren Winner again, “I think when we cease creating or interfering with creation for just one day a week, we are reminded powerfully that we are creatures, we are not the Creator.”

Maybe the “old” idea of Sabbath still has something valuable for us in the 21st Century. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” Let us use Sabbath – the intentional decision to cease, to stop and to rest – to help us reflect and remember that God is God and we are not.

May Sabbath not be mere ritual for us, just a day off, but may it be life giving and God honoring. Let us seek the wisdom of God and encourage each other to find practical ways to set aside time to differentiate Sabbath from the rest of the week and make it sweet and beautiful. Each of us has different life situations, so our Sabbaths won’t look alike, but each of us has a need to carve out time to cease, to stop and to rest so we can remember. Whatever it looks like for you, find the answer to this question: how shall we organize our time to serve the cause of remembering?

Consider this beautiful word picture offered by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who said, “Sabbath is a cathedral in time.”

Let’s build those cathedrals in time to meet with our good and gracious God.