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Here’s this weekend’s sermon on Job. Two notes so this makes sense. I’ve always thought the beautiful poetry of the Book of Job hides the scandal of Job’s emotions and masks the piety of his friends. For that reason, in this sermon, I rewrote the friends’ dialogue to make it sound more contemporary. Additionally, I asked two actors to reenact the dialogues during the course of the sermon. Thanks to Bailey and Elliott!


Many months ago, around supper time, I was in the Emergency Room, standing behind the paper curtain, holding a mother, who wasn’t much older than me, as she held her dead little boy, who wasn’t much older than my boys.

She wasn’t crying so much as gasping like you do when you’ve sunk all the way to the bottom of the deep end and have just come up for air.

She was smoothing her boy’s cow lick with her hand.

Every so often she would shush him, as though if she could just calm him down she might convince him to come back.

It was Opening Day. That afternoon my boys and I had gone to see the Nats lose to the Braves.

I still had my hat on and popcorn crumbs in my sweater and mustard stains on my pants. I didn’t look like pastor or a priest.

So when the mother got up and went into the hallway to try and get a hold of her husband and left me with her boy and when the chaplain stepped in to the room and saw the hat on my head and the mustard stains on my clothes and the tears in my eyes, she didn’t think I was a pastor or a priest.

She just thought I was part of the boy’s family.

She put her hand on my shoulder and, after a few moments, she said to me: ‘It’s going to be alright.’

‘What?’ I said, stunned.

I’ve been a pastor for 11 years.

And in that time I can’t tell you how many ER’s and funeral homes I’ve been in, how many hospital bedsides and gravesides I’ve stood at and heard well-meaning Christians say things they thought were comforting but were actually the opposite.

Even destructive.

I know people in this congregation who’ve been told- by other people in this congregation- that God must’ve given them cancer as punishment or to bring them closer to God.

I know people here who’ve been told by well-intentioned Christians that their spouse’s or their child’s death must be part of God’s plan.

I know people who’ve written God off entirely because some Christian tried to console them with talk of ‘God’s will.’

Most of us- we don’t know what to say when there’s nothing to say.

Job loses every one of his children. He loses his health, his last dime and maybe even his marriage.

For days Job is mute with disbelief.

But when Job finally does speak, his friends aren’t ready for the pain he voices. They can’t go there.




“God, I wish to Hell I’d never been born! My life would’ve been better if I’d died in my mother’s womb. Why did God give knees for me to rest on or a mother to nurse me if God was just going to do this to me now?”


Anger is almost always what follows grief’s numbed silence.

Yet, ironically, anger is probably the most taboo emotion among Christians.

Because anger doesn’t just claim that this situation is painful, anger claims that this situation isn’t right– that what has happened should not have happened.

That kind of anger can be frightening because it calls our assumptions about God into question.

So when we’re confronted by that kind of raw, righteous anger very often our reflex is to make it stop. To silence it.

That’s how Eliphaz reacts to Job.


I’ve been praying for what to say to you, and the Lord finally put the right words on my heart.

Have you forgotten everything you used to tell others?

You were the one to encourage people in grief. You’re the one who talked about comfort and hope. But now it’s your turn, now you’re the victim, and…what?

That’s not you. Where’s your faith?

I know you think you’re a good person and you don’t deserve what’s happened to you, but remember what scripture says: ‘we’re all sinners and fall short of the glory of God.’

I understand how you feel, but this isn’t like you: to be angry at God. Have you listened in on God’s calls and come away with his plans? What do you know that we don’t?

You know what scripture says: “God’s ways are not our ways.”

God works in mysterious ways. We can’t understand why God took them from you; we can only take comfort in knowing your kids are with him right now in heaven.

Remember what Jesus says: ‘I go to prepare a place for you in my Father’s house.’ Maybe…maybe it was just their time to go home to HIM.

Don’t throw away your faith now when it could really help you.

If I were you- I’d put that anger into prayer instead. Throw yourself at God’s mercy. Look to him for help and he’ll answer all your prayers. I know it.“

Job:  “If my sorrow were put on a scale, it would outweigh the sands of the ocean. And now you have turned against me too.

My anguish frightens you. But show me how my feelings, MY feelings, can be wrong? Can’t I tell right from wrong? If I’d sinned, if I’d done something to deserve this, wouldn’t I know it?

God has broken my heart and now I can’t even speak honestly with my friend.

You’d rather argue away my despair. I’ve heard enough of your ‘consolations.’


Eliphaz is genuinely concerned for Job, but at the heart of what he says is fear. He’s afraid not just of what’s happened to Job; he’s afraid of Job.

Part of what’s troubling about Eliphaz is how it’s not clear at all who he’s trying to comfort: Job or himself.

Anyone who’s been with someone whose grief is raw and immediate, whose despair seems to open onto an abyss, anyone who’s been in that situation, knows the temptation to put a lid on it.

Because Eliphaz is so uncomfortable with what Job says, he presumes to speak for Job. He puts words in Job’s mouth and tells himself he’s just helping Job find his true voice.

Eliphaz reminds Job of who Job used to be, the beliefs Job used to have, so that Eliphaz doesn’t have to deal with who Job is right now.

The words he puts in Job’s mouth are cliches. Platitudes.

Whatever your intentions, when you speak in one-size-fits-all platitudes, when you say:

God has a plan.

God’s ways are not our ways.

God never gives us more than we can handle.

With God all things are possible.

God must’ve needed him or her in heaven.

It’s going to be alright.

When you speak like that to someone who’s suffering, what you’re really doing is signaling to them what’s out of bounds:

what they can say and what they cannot say

what feelings they can express and what they absolutely must not express.

You censor their grief, and you make it worse.

And so when there’s nothing else to say, do not resort to one-size-fits-all platitudes. Because just like one-size-fits-all clothes, they never fit.

Bildad, Job’s second friend, is less concerned about finding words that fit Job’s situation and more concerned with fitting Job into his belief system.



“God, I wish to Hell I’d never been born!


“Be sensible. Stop. Stop ranting and stop filling our ears with this nonsense.

Should the laws of creation- the laws of God– all be changed for your sake?

God protects the righteous and punishes the wicked. The bible said it; I believe it, and that’s that. Maybe you are innocent. Maybe you don’t deserve the pain you’re in, but can you really be sure that your kids didn’t do anything to deserve what they got?

Look, I know it’s terrible now. But if you just give it over to the Lord, commit yourself to HIM, you will get over this. God never gives us more than we can handle.

In fact, you should use this as an opportunity for the Lord to teach you something. It’s like the bible says: ‘we should rejoice in our sufferings, because suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.’

See this as a chance to grow closer to God. That’s what will get you through this- not shaking your fist at the sky.”


How kind you are to me! How considerate of my pain! What would I do without a friend like you? And the good advice you’ve given me?

Who made you so tactful? And inspired you with such compassionate words?

I know: God’s workings are mysterious. But don’t make my suffering worse with your beliefs.

Tell me, who’s done this to me if not God? Why do you have to hurt me now too with your answers?

You honestly think I’ll get over this? I’ll get past this?

You want to know what really makes me shudder? That you don’t understand me at all and aren’t willing to try.

You can say whatever you want to excuse God, but I will never agree with you.


It’s easy to write Bildad off as insensitive.

But we’re kidding ourselves if we think Bildad is the only person to believe that there’s a reason behind our suffering.

We’re kidding ourselves if we think Bildad’s the only person to assume that God causes our suffering to teach us a lesson or to punish us.

And Bildad is hardly the only person who would back that up with scripture, chapter and verse.

But hear me: to think God causes suffering to punish you for your sin does in a very profound way nullify the cross.

Because in Jesus Christ we see that the way God punishes sin is to suffer it in our place.

It’s true that you can learn and grow from suffering but that is not the same thing as saying God makes you suffer to teach you a lesson.

When St Paul writes that “suffering produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope” that’s Paul reflecting on his own experience.

That’s different than taking Paul’s words and imposing them on someone else’s experience.

For Bildad there’s a disconnect between what he thinks he knows about God and how Job describes his experience.

So Bildad feels the need to correct Job’s experience, to explain and give answers for it.

But if love, as Jesus says, is laying down your life for another, then that also means love is a willingness to lay down your assumptions for a friend- to care more about them than your understanding of how God or the world works.

What do you say when there’s nothing to say?

Instead of saying ‘God must be teaching you a lesson’ how about saying ‘You have something to teach me. Tell me what you’re going through. I want to learn what you’re feeling. There’s nothing you could say that will frighten or offend me.’

Zophar, Job’s final friend, has a certainty that masks a possibility too frightening to consider.



“God, I wish to Hell I’d never been born!


“I’ve heard enough.

How can you be so blind? You say you’re innocent. You don’t deserve this, but how can you understand God or fathom HIS wisdom?

We’re finite and HE’s infinite. We can’t see things the way God can see them.

I know how you feel now. But you’ve got to believe God has a plan, a plan for every one of us.

I know it can be hard to see now, but everything happens for a reason. God’s behind everything. Nothing’s accidental. Nothing’s random.

If I were you, I’d open my heart to God and trust that one day you’ll understand why God’s done this.”


“It seems you know everything. It must make you feel better for there to be an answer for everything.

But I’m not an idiot. Who doesn’t know such things?

Even a child knows that the whole world is in God’s hands.

But your comfort is hollow. Would you say anything to get God off the hook? Is your piety more important than your friend?

Don’t think God won’t judge you for your empty lies.

If God has a reason for what’s happened to me then I deserve to know it. God may kill me for my words but at least I’m speaking the truth.”


I’d bet 3/4 of you at some time or another have said something like: ‘God has a plan for____________.’

And even if you’re never uttered that at the wrong time, you believe it. You think it’s true- that God has a plan for each of us.

Notice, both Job and Zophar think its true.

Both of them believe Job’s suffering is a part of God’s larger plan. Zophar just assumes that means Job deserves what’s happened to him and Job knows that he doesn’t.

But both of them assume a world of tight causality, a world without randomness, a world where everything is the outworking of God’s will.

And maybe Job and Zophar (and you and me)- maybe we assume that because the opposite is too frightening.

Maybe it’s frightening to think that our lives are every bit as vulnerable and fragile as they can sometimes feel.

Maybe it’s too frightening to think that the question ‘Why?’ has no answer.

Maybe it’s too scary to admit that things can happen to us with out warning, for no reason and from which no good will ever come.

It’s understandable that we’d want there to be a plan for each of us, (as though we were characters on Lost) but the logical outcome to that way of thinking makes God a monster.

Pay attention. Write this down.

God doesn’t have a plan for your life.

You’re not just an actor in a life that’s already been scripted.

God does not will suffering in your life because it fits into his cosmic blueprints for you.


Because God’s Plan, what God Wills, is for you in freedom to choose to love God and with your life give him glory- which you could never do if every moment of your life was predetermined and micromanaged.

What do you say when there’s nothing to say?

For God’s sake, don’t say God has a plan.

Try saying ‘there’s no way God wants this for you any more than I do.’

The chaplain in the ER lifted her hand from my shoulder when I glared at her and said: ‘What?’

She blushed and apologized. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to say’ she said.

But I wasn’t in the mood for sorry. I wiped my eyes and said: ‘When his mother comes back in here, don’t. say. anything.’

At first Job’s friends do the exact right thing. They just sit in silence with their friend and grieve with him. The trouble starts when they open their mouths.

And the scary thing for us?

What’s scary is that at the end of the Book of Job, 38 chapters later, after Job has cursed the day he was born, cursed God, questioned God’s justice, complained about God’s absence, accused God of abuse, and indicted God for being no better than a criminal on trial- at the end of the book, when God finally shows up and speaks, Job isn’t the one God condemns.

It’s Job’s well-meaning, religious friends.

I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that in our attempts to comfort and answer and explain sometimes we push people away from God.

And I’ve stood at enough gravesides and bedsides to know: that the only thing worse than suffering with no reason, no explanation, is suffering without God.

And for that reason, here’s my last piece of advice: when there’s nothing to say, say nothing.





Are Atheists Blind?

Jason Micheli —  October 3, 2012 — 1 Comment

Even after I became a Christian, I found the traditional, philosophical arguments for God’s existence to be dry and unconvincing: ‘God is that which no greater can be thought; God is the first cause of all that is.’

To my mind, there could never be satisfactory ‘proof’ for a God as paradoxical as the one we find in Jesus Christ. Still, if I were to attempt an apologia for God I would point not to the human genome or the Big Bang but to Beauty.

That we’re all imbued with an aesthetic, with an appreciation, love for and visceral need to create beauty- even as we define it in a diversity of ways that is itself a kind of beauty- has always seemed, to me at least, the best argument that there is a God from whom we owe our existence.

I understand the purely ‘natural’ explanation behind the blue glow that shimmers over mountaintops, yet there is no ‘natural’ explanation for why I would find such an occurrence radiantly beautiful. In other words, there’s a sense in which its grammatically incorrect for Christians to use the word nature. It’s created, all of it, and as created it’s all gift that should evoke gratitude and enjoyment.

As a former atheist and recovering cynic, I think I’m correct in saying that atheism’s biggest drawback is how boring it is. In trying to prove what isn’t, atheism too often misses out on what IS in all its splendor.

This weekend we continue our fall sermon series, ‘Seven Truths that Changed the Word: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas,’ with the theme of creation as a signpost to the Almighty.

As the Psalmist puts it, this week we’re exploring how the ‘heavens declare the glory of God.’ This is same principle is what theologians and ethicists refer to under the category ‘natural law,’ the idea that creation itself bears the fingerprints of the Creator and from those marks we can deduce certain beliefs.

Here’s a beautiful essay by David Bentley Hart on leaving the mountain that towered above his home:

For two years, we have lived in a forest on the convergent lower slopes of two mountain ranges, and above a shallow wooded ravine that descends to a narrow streambed on our side and rises up on the opposite side towards the high ridge that looms above our treetops to the west. During our time here, that mountain has been a commanding and magnificent presence for us, seeming at times almost impossibly near at hand, at other times forbiddingly remote, but always silently, sublimely watchful.

Nearly every morning, no matter the season, it is mantled in clouds, sometimes so heavily that it disappears altogether behind opaque walls of pearl-gray mist.

And nearly every evening, as the sun descends below its ridgeline, the whole mountain is briefly crowned in purple and pale gold, and the southwest horizon, where the ridge descends, is transformed into a gulf of amethyst, rose, and orange.

When the darkness falls, moreover, there is none of the dull rufous pall that the glare of city lights casts up to hide the stars in heavily populated areas.

On clear nights, the sky becomes a deep crystal blue for perhaps half an hour—and then the sky becomes an ocean of stars.

Here in our shady submontane seclusion, cool breezes constantly blow down from the peaks above, and through the southern pass, even during the hottest months of summer. The soughing of the trees rises and falls as the gusts strengthen or weaken, but never wholly abates, and the sunlight—reaching us through the filtering leaves—incessantly flickers and undulates around our house. The birds are so numerous and various that their songs blend inextricably together, and only occasionally can one momentarily recognize a particular phrase—a goldfinch, say, or a cardinal—before it merges back into the larger polyphony. Then only the short, sharp staccato of the woodpeckers is immediately recognizable.

Just now, however, the more dominant music here is the oddly sweet mixed chorus of the woodland frogs, especially at night, but throughout the day as well. The rain this spring, here as in much of the country, has been heavy and regular, and so the ditches are full to overflowing, and gleam like silver when viewed at an oblique slant. The smaller depressions at their edges, also full of water, catch the reflections of overhanging leaves, and the green mingles with the gray of their silt in such a way that they often look like pools of jade. When one comes nearer, however, all the standing water is quite clear and filled with small black tadpoles. Next year’s frog choruses will be louder.

Life abounds under the brow of the mountain. All the woodland creatures one would expect, great and small, are here—deer and black bears, glistening black snakes and tawny foxes, Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds and owls and Blue-Tailed Skinks, and so on. The butterflies at the moment are becoming quite plentiful; there are Black Swallowtails, Zebra Swallowtails, Tiger Swallowtails, but also Red Admirals, and Painted Ladies, and a host of others. And azure and emerald and opalescent beetles and flies are now appearing as well.

The mountain ridge can be reached by foot, if one is willing to make the effort. The best passage to the top lies northwest of our house, and one must follow it first down into the ravine, into its green depths, through the shadows of its deciduous trees and immense Loblolly Pines, over carpets of moss and ferns and creeping juniper, and across the narrow stream that just now is coursing quite vigorously. The best path—not the easiest, but the most idyllic—lies across a small waterfall created by a thick tangle of oak and Asian Tulip roots over a minor subsidence in the soil. Mountain laurel is extremely plentiful in the ravine, and at present is in full blossom. Bronze and golden box turtles lurk in the shade and by the water.

The ascending slope from there is quite gentle at first, and only becomes an arduous climb at a few places. In all, it takes only about two hours to reach the ridge if one keeps moving. If one sets out well before dawn, and arrives at the top in time to see the sunrise, one will find oneself walking as much in the clouds as through the trees, and there is a brief period (twenty minutes or so) when the sunlight first reaches the ridge, at a sharply lateral angle, and one is all at once passing through shifting veils of translucent gold. Unfortunately, it is an effect that no photograph can capture: invariably, it is not only the rich aurous lambency of the scene that is lost, but the impression of depths within depths, layer upon layer.

In any event, I can do none of this any justice. To describe the place with anything like the detail or lyricism it merits would be a long, and perhaps interminable, task. I have relied on pictures simply because I do not quite have the words right now. In a week, we will be gone. Family responsibilities necessitate our moving to a larger house—one very pleasantly set in a grove of tall tress, but not watched over by our mountain. I simply feel as if it has been a rare privilege to live here for the time we have had, and that I ought to pay some tribute to the place before leaving, out of some sense of honor or natural piety.

So one last photograph. I actually took it soon after our arrival here, as my son (age ten at the time) was watching the sunset for the first time from our porch, over the small open glade to our southwest. But at the moment it seems to capture something for me, a mood at once of delighted wonder and deep sadness. It comes as close as I can at present to expressing the farewell that I want to wish this house and that mountain. It is a melancholy with which I suspect we are all familiar at some level, as individuals and as a race, something that haunts us and of which my sadness is only a fragmentary reminder—the feeling of having lost paradise.

You can find the article here.

For our sermon series, this weekend I’ve been thinking about Justification by Faith Alone (vs Works). There’s no way to talk about Justification without talking about Martin Luther, the catalyst of the Reformation.

Luther carried this understanding of justification one step further.

Because the Gospel is God’s declaration to us and because this is a grace that is totally outside of us to which we can only respond with trust, there is no discernible interior change in us.

God looks on us with favor. God declares the Gospel to us: ‘For the sake of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.’ And the only response possible to such a promise is trust.

What Luther understands happens in justification then is that God chooses to see Jesus when he regards us. And God always does choose to see Jesus when he looks upon us. For Luther, even after we’ve responded in trust (even after we’ve had faith for a lifetime) we never cease essentially to be sinners. The new life faith makes possible always remains, in Luther’s view, nascent. Fundamentally, sin remains our determinative attribute even after justification.

This is Luther’s doctrine ‘Simul iustus et peccator.’ It translates to ‘at once justified and a sinner.’ Properly understood (and logically) Luther does not have a doctrine of sanctification, whereby God’s grace works within us to grow us in holiness. Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian in the Reformed tradition, emphasized this point by using the term ‘vocation’ rather than ‘sanctification.’ Christians have a calling in the world even though living out that calling does not effectively change or heal our sin nature.

Thomas Aquinas (and John Wesley after him) would argue this point. While admitting our sanctification can never be complete this side of heaven and so we retain a proclivity to sin, they would argue that once we respond to God in faith we truly do begin to heal. Wesley would even make the plain point that Jesus’ teachings seem superfluous if our nature never heals sufficiently that we can live out those teachings. Jesus’ teachings, for Wesley, were attainable expectations for Christians, but for Luther-convinced of our permanent sin nature- saw such an expectation as a depressing command (‘Law’ in Luther’s terminology as opposed to ‘Gospel’) we can never meet.

To be fair to Luther, his doctrine of ‘simul iustus et peccator’ wasn’t intended to recommend Christian passivity in the face of sin. We shouldn’t just resign ourselves to our sin nature; however, many of those who followed after Luther argued precisely this perspective.


By Grace Alone?

Jason Micheli —  September 29, 2012 — Leave a comment

For our sermon series on ‘The Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas’ we’re talking about Justification by Faith (vs. Works).

In Thomas Aquinas’ three-fold understanding of grace, grace begins with God. On that starting point there’s no difference between the Catholic perspective and what Luther fleshes out in his re-formation.

The second procession of grace, sanctifying grace, is grace that is in us. But how do you know if you have sanctifying grace? That question starts to get at Luther’s criticism.

The third procession of grace, according to Thomas, is our response of faith, hope and love that sanctifying grace makes possible. Again, if you don’t really have sanctifying grace- if perhaps you’ve deceived yourself and only thought you did- then necessarily you can’t possess genuine faith, hope and love.

Thomas’ formulation of grace, though it boasted a pedigree that went all the way back to the church fathers and though there appears to have been no other reformation era critics of it, in Luther’s mind placed for too much on us.

Whereas Thomas believed sanctifying grace is bestowed upon us in baptism and through the sacraments, Luther re-conceives grace’s movement.

Grace, first of all, names God’s favor, loving inclination, towards us. This is where Luther and Thomas agree. Second, grace is a Word addressed to me, a declaration. For Luther this declaration is the Gospel. Rather than a gift God implants within us, this Word God declares to us is the gift. Third, this word-gift is what enables me to respond in faith.

Part of the difficulty in the reformation debates is the confusion of terms. Thomas and Catholic theology in general use the term ‘justification’ to name the entire process of God’s favor towards us, God’s sanctifying grace and our response. Luther and the reformers after him instead use ‘justification’ to refer exclusively to God’s inclination and declaration to us. Our healing and response tend to get treated separately as ‘sanctification’ or ‘vocation’ or, in Wesley, ‘perfection.’ So, often, when Protestants accused of Catholics of ‘works righteousness’ it’s because Protestants thought Catholics were speaking of justification when, really, Catholics were talking about sanctification. And when Catholics thought Protestants were eliminating any role for works of faith and making faith totally passive it’s because Catholics thought Protestants were speaking of sanctification when, really, Protestants were speaking specifically about justification. That both sides tended to be led by stubborn, recalcitrant men didn’t ameliorate the confusion.

What’s essential in the divergence of views is how, for Luther, there’s nothing inside me that is different or changed. There’s nothing inside me that empowers me to respond to God with faith, hope and love. Luther did believe that eventually our trust in God would create a new life but that new life would never be the basis of our justification. It would never be why we’re pleasing to God.

Again, this gets back to Luther’s spiritual crisis. For Luther, what’s important is that we don’t look within ourselves to determine if we’re saved.

For Luther, looking within is the problem because, basically, inside we’re messed up. Within us, no matter how much we trust God, is a whole stew of conflicting motives. Obviously this is an incredibly autobiographical insight on Luther’s part. According to Luther if we want to know how we stand before God we look, not within, at the promise of God.

Justification, then, in this classical Protestant formulation is objective (in that it depends not on our apprehension of it) and it is passive (in that it God’s act outside of us).


A Sermon on Genesis 1

     June 9, 1993:

The first date. My first date with the new girl on the swim team, who would eventually become my wife.

6/9/93: The opening date of Steven Spielberg’s first Jurassic Park film.

The first movie in which Ali and I held hands.

At the point in the movie when the guy who played Newman on Seinfeld gets his face eaten by a whatever-raptor- at that point in the movie on June 9, 1993 I leaned over and whispered into Ali’s ear: ‘Of course, it’s all a hoax. Dinosaurs never actually existed.’

Of course, Ali had only just met me. She didn’t know I was being sarcastic, and I could tell by the look in her eyes that what I’d just said might disqualify me as a future boyfriend.

When it comes to the Book of Genesis, when it comes to creation, it seems like dates are always at the heart of the matter.

Dates like November 24, 1859:

The date Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species and threw the bible-believing world for a Copernican loop.

Dates like July 21, 1925:

The date a jury in Dayton, Tennessee found high school teacher, John Scopes, guilty of violating the Butler Act, the state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools.

When it comes to how and when it all began and how that beginning squares with the beginning of scripture, it seems like the debate’s always about dates.

     Dates like 4.5 Billion:

The number of years ago, according to scientific consensus, the earth was born with a bang.

     Dates like 2.5 Billion:

The best scientific guesstimate for when life first opened its eyes in the primordial ooze.

It’s always about dates.

Dates like 6,000:

The date that creationists say God first flicked on the lights and started it all according to the step-by-step sequence in scripture.

Dates like May 28, 2007:

The date that the $27 million Creation Museum opened in Petersburg, Kentucky, a museum where visitors can find a life-sized T-Rex, who apparently forgot he was a carnivore, cavorting in the Garden with Adam and Eve.

It’s all about dates.

Dates like September 24, 2012:

As in, tomorrow. The date I’ll likely get a handful of emails angry at me for lacing my comments about that museum with sarcasm.

Dates are everything.

Dates like April 1992:

The date I portrayed William Jennings Bryan in the Governor’s School production of Inherit the Wind, the stage version of the Scopes Monkey Trial.

April 1992– that was almost exactly 3 years before I became a Christian. Playing William Jennings Bryan, the famed biblical literalist, I had to learn to say:

Yes, I believed Joshua literally commanded the sun to stop.

Yes, I believed there literally was morning and evening before God created the sun on the 4th Day,

Yes, I believed the Earth was literally only thousands of years old not millions or billions.

April 1992, 3 years before I became a Christian, that was the date I became convinced that in order to invite Jesus into your heart you literally had to check your brain at the door.

That believing in God required you also to believe that centuries of science were all a deliberate hoax.

Or, worse, God deliberately deceives us.

And in April 1992 I decided that such a God literally wouldn’t be worth believing in.

When it comes to the Book of Genesis, when it comes to how and when it all began and who or what was behind it, it seems like dates are always at the heart of the matter.

Which is funny.

Because there’s one date that seldom gets mentioned: 1849– 10 years before Charles Darwin spoiled everyone’s fun.


That’s the date Austen Henry Layard excavated the ruined Library of Ashurbanipal in Mosul, Iraq. In the ruins of that library, Austen Henry Layard discovered the original creation story.

Maybe you know it.

It goes like this:

In the beginning, when the earth was without form and chaos and dark waters covered the face of the deep, god brought forth life.

On the first day, there was light. Light that emanated from god and god separated the light from the darkness.

On the second day, god created the firmament; god created a dome to push back the waters and god called it sky.

On the third day, god gathered the waters in one place so that dry land could appear.

On the fourth day, god created the sun and the moon and the stars in the sky and named them.

And day six god created humankind to do god’s work and on day seven god rested and exalted in celebration for what he done.

Sound familiar?

And this work of creation- it all begins, when Marduk, a young warrior god, slays his mother, Tiamat, the goddess of chaos, with weapons of wind, lightening and thunder.

And with one half of Tiamat’s carcass, Marduk creates land. With the other half of her body, Marduk fashions the heavens.

And then Marduk declares:

“Blood I will mass and cause bones to be.”

And then from the blood of a slain god, Markduk creates man and woman.

To be his slaves.

As he reigns in Babylon.

When it comes to how and when it all began, it’s all about dates.

Dates like 2,000 BC:

The date this creation story, this Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish, was first written down, and probably it was spoken long before that.

2,000 BC: which is, roughly, 1500 years before our creation story in Genesis.

Take a guess where we got our story.

When it comes to the Book of Genesis it’s all about dates.

Dates are everything. But can be easy to forget.

So pay attention, here’s another date for you: 587 BC.

587 BC:

The date that’s the 9/11 of the Bible.

587 BC:

That’s the year Babylon invaded Israel, destroyed the Temple, and left the Promised Land in smoldering ruins and carried God’s People back to Babylon in chains.

     587 BC:

The first year of the Babylonian Captivity. The first year Babylon tried to do what any captors do to their captives:

Convince them that there’s no plan or purpose or point to life.

And thus there’s no hope for yours.

Convince them that this world is a dark, violent, eye-for-a-tooth place.

And thus it’s naive to expect anything but suffering to come your way.

Convince them that its written into the fabric of creation:

That we’re made from the blood of victims.

Thus, don’t be surprised if someone makes you their victim.

The world is the way it is because the gods are who they are.

It’s all about dates.

Dates like 586 BC and 585 BC and 584 BC and every year for the next 50 years.

Those are all the years of their captivity that Israel didn’t give up faith.

Those are the dates that Israel, despite their suffering, refused to worship Babylon’s gods.

Because Israel already knew who God was: the one, true God.

That God had heard their cries when they were slaves in Egypt.

Israel already knew the capital G God.

And so in 586 and 585 and 584 and for years after that, they didn’t bow down to Babylon’s story.

They co-opted it.

They took it and they changed it.

To stick it in the eye of their captors.

Because they knew:

There’s only one God.

There was nothing before creation but God.

God created from nothing.

And because God created out of nothing, this world: it’s gift.

You and I: gift.

Everything around us, every living thing, your neighbor, even your enemy.

Gift. All of it. It’s all good.

It’s all given just so God can share his life with us.

Israel Babylon’s story and made it their own.

Because they already knew:

You and I- we’re not made from the blood of victims.

We’re not made to fight and struggle with each other.

We’re made to reflect this God. We’re made in God’s image.

We’re made to give and to love and to listen and to forgive.

And to share our life with God.

And if we’re made to share God’s life

Then you can’t say life is pointless.

Because it couldn’t have a bigger POINT.

God’s people took Babylon’s story and they made it their own.

Genesis 1-

It’s not an explanation of how it all began.

It’s good news to captives.

It’s not a step-by-step description of how it all happened.

It’s a prophetic profession of faith. It’s a slave song.

It’s a defiant declaration that no matter how things seem now our God is good and what he’s made is very good. So don’t give up hope that one day soon he will reconcile whatever is broken in this world.

Dates are always key.

Dates like September 2003.

That’s the date of the first local clergy meeting I ever attended.

There’s lot things seminary doesn’t teach you. ‘Don’t ever go to local clergy meetings’ tops that list. At this meeting, it was all middle-aged fundamentalists and me.

We met for lunch at a BBQ joint. At the beginning of the meeting, the chair, a Brethren pastor ironically named Christian, passed around a petition to the local school board to teach creation science (whatever that is) in the schools.

It wasn’t even a matter of discussion. Christian just assumed we’d all sign it.

And all of them did.

When the petition got to me, I said: ‘Uh…yeah, I’m not signing that.’

‘Why not?’ Christian asked.

‘Because it’s…umm…stupid.’ I said.

‘You don’t believe in evolution do you?’ he asked.

And I replied, in love: ‘Well, I used to believe in evolution but you seem to have successfully remained in the stone age so who knows.’

He frowned and told me I’d never make it in ministry by being sarcastic.

‘We’ll see about that’ I said.

I handed Christian the petition, sans my John Hancock.

And he said: ‘You know, Jason, if a literal reading of Genesis falls away so does the entire faith.’

And the thing is- I knew he was wrong.

And I could prove it because I knew the date.

I love dates. I’ve always been good with dates.

So I gave him the date: 1313 BC, maybe the most important date.

1,313 BC (approximately):

That’s the date of the Exodus. The date God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. The date Israel started reciting their Credo: ‘The Lord heard our voice and brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm…’ 


That’s the date, about 700 years before Israel found themselves slaves in Babylon co-opting a creation story.

1313 vs. 587:

In other words, Israel’s faith in God the Deliverer preceded their faith in God the Creator.

Just because it’s first in your bibles doesn’t mean it was first in Israel’s life with God.

Their Exodus experience is older than the Genesis story.

Their exodus was their genesis.

You can’t say a literal reading of Genesis 1 is necessary for faith because the Jews believed in and had a relationship with and worshipped this God before they ever had this story.

Israel didn’t need a literal creation story to prove that God existed. How silly is that?

They already knew God existed.

Because they knew God.

Because God had delivered them.

Here’s one last date: September 6, 2012.

A couple Thursdays ago. That’s the date I sat in my office and spoke to a woman here in the congregation. A woman who could barely get the words out.

A woman who described her life as pointless, trapped.

A woman who told me she couldn’t swallow that God loved her because she couldn’t like herself.

Here’s the dirty little secret every pastor knows: she’s not alone.

I can name more people like her than not like her.

So hear the good news:

It’s not about dates, not at all. It’s about deliverance.

So if you think your life has no purpose

If you think you have no value

If you feel trapped in a relationship that will never change

If you’re convinced you’re a captive to your past

If you don’t like the person that stares back at you in the mirror

If you’ve had your hopes exiled and are on the downward side of happiness

If you get out of bed every day thinking today won’t be as good as yesterday

And tomorrow will be worse

I want you to know:

No matter how things seem.

Our God is good and what he’s made, everything, is gift.

And that means you’re given to this world as a gift too.

And that means:

The way things are isn’t the way things have to be.

Isn’t the way things always will be.

Because from the very genesis of our faith-

Our God is in the habit of rescuing our present

And redeeming our past

And delivering us into a new future.

Because our God is good

And he won’t rest until things are ‘very good’ again.

Ex Nihilo

Jason Micheli —  September 22, 2012 — Leave a comment

As we’ve explored a bit already, Christians and Jews read the Genesis story and see in it a God who creates out of nothing. This impacts both how we understand creation and ourselves as creatures and how we understand God.


That God creates from nothing points to the giftedness of creation. Whether God created literally according to lyrical layout of Genesis 1 or whether God created through something like the Big Bang doesn’t really change the substance of what Christians confess in the Creed. Everything is a gift. Everything depends on the graciousness of God.


That God creates from nothing also points to the radical, absolute Otherness, Transcendence and Lordship of God. The Genesis story, and the Abrahamic faiths that grew from it, see an ontological difference between Creator and creation. Ontological is an impressive theological term meaning ‘being.’


Simply (re)stated, though God creates God is not a part of the world nor is the world a part of God. Because God creates from nothing, God is radically other than creation. This distinguishes Christianity from a number Ancient Near Eastern, Eastern and New Age religions that either understand the created world as something co-inhering in the divine life or simply identify the divine with the natural world.


Creation is charged with sacredness because God made it and thus it points to God in an almost sacramental sense. But creation is not God.


I’m thinking about the creation story this week for Sunday’s sermon.

I’ve learned the hard way that there are a few sermon topics that have the potential to get listeners’ dander up if you mess with their preconceived notions:

1. Blood Atonement

2. Heaven (and Hell)

3. Forgiveness

4. Authority of Scripture

I’ve learned the hard way that for many what’s at stake in the creation story in Genesis 1 isn’t what it says about the goodness of God or creation. What’s at stake is whether scripture is authoritative or not. Is it really the Word of God, or how do we understand it as the Word? Can it be trusted? Our need to protect scripture, in other words, often forces us into a way of reading Genesis that would’ve been alien to the ancient Jews and even to a first century Jew like Jesus: a literal reading.

I expect to get some pushback this Sunday. Accordingly, I thought this essay by NT Wright on how scripture is authoritative could be helpful.

Biblical Authority: the Problem

When people in the church talk about authority they are very often talking about controlling people or situations.  They want to make sure that everything is regulated properly, that the church does not go off the rails doctrinally or ethically, that correct ideas and practices are upheld and transmitted to the next generation.  ‘Authority’ is the place where we go to find out the correct answers to key questions such as these. This notion, however, runs into all kinds of problems when we apply it to the Bible.  Is that really what the Bible is for? Is it there to control the church?  Is it there simply to look up the correct answers to questions that we, for some reason, already know?

As we read the Bible we discover that the answer to these questions seems in fact to be ‘no’.  Most of the Bible does not consist of rules and regulations—lists of commands to be obeyed.  Nor does it consist of creeds—lists of things to be believed.  And often, when there ARE lists of rules or of creedal statements, they seem to be somewhat incidental to the purpose of the writing in question.  One might even say, in one (admittedly limited) sense, that there is no biblical doctrine of the authority of the Bible.  For the most part the Bible itself is much more concerned with doing a whole range of other things rather than talking about itself.  There are, of course, key passages, especially at transition moments like 2 Timothy or 2 Peter, where the writers are concerned that the church of the next generation should be properly founded and based.  At precisely such points we find statements emerging about the place of scripture within the life of the church.  But such a doctrine usually has to be inferred.  It may well be possible to infer it, but it is not (for instance) what Isaiah or Paul are talking about.  Nor is it, for the most part, what Jesus is talking about in the gospels.  He isn’t constantly saying, ‘What about scripture? What about scripture?’  It is there sometimes, but it is not the central thing that we have sometimes made it.  And the attempt by many evangelicals to argue a general doctrine of scripture out of the use made of the Old Testament in the New is doomed to failure, despite its many strong points, precisely because the relation between the Old and New Testaments is not the same as the relation between the New Testament and ourselves.[1]  If we look in scripture to find out where in practice authority is held to lie, the answer on page after page does not address our regular antitheses at all.  As we shall see, in the Bible all authority lies with God himself.

The question of biblical authority, of how there can be such a thing as an authoritative Bible, is not, then, as simple as it might look.  In order to raise it at all, we have to appreciate that it is a sub-question of some much more general questions.  (1) How can any text function as authoritative?  Once one gets away from the idea of a rule book such as might function as authoritative in, say, a golf club, this question gets progressively harder.  (2) How can any ancient text function as authoritative?  If you were a Jew, wanting to obey the Torah (or, perhaps, obey the Talmud) you would find that there were all sorts of difficult questions about how a text, written so many years ago, can function as authoritative today.  Actually, it is easier with the Talmud than with the Bible because the Talmud is designed very specifically to be a rule book for human beings engaged in life in a particular sort of community.  But much of what we call the Bible—the Old and New Testaments—is not a rule book; it is narrative.  That raises a further question:  (3) How can an ancient narrative text be authoritative?  How, for instance, can the book of Judges, or the book of Acts, be authoritative?  It is one thing to go to your commanding officer first thing in the morning and have a string of commands barked at you.  But what would you do if, instead, he began ‘Once upon a time . . .’?

These questions press so acutely that the church has, down the centuries, tried out all sorts of ways of getting round them, and of thereby turning the apparently somewhat recalcitrant material in the Bible itself into material that can more readily be used as ‘authoritative’ in the senses demanded by this or that period of church history.  I want to look at three such methods and suggest that each in its own way actually belittles the    Bible, thereby betraying a low doctrine of inspiration in practice, whatever may be held in theory.
Timeless Truth?

A regular response to these problems is to say that the Bible is a repository of timeless truth.  There are some senses in which that is true.  But the sense in which it is normally meant is certainly not true.  The whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation is culturally conditioned.  It is all written in the language of particular times, and evokes the cultures in which it came to birth.  It seems, when we get close up to it, as though, if we grant for a moment that in some sense or other God has indeed inspired this book, he has not wanted to give us an abstract set of truths unrelated to space and time.  He has wanted to give us something rather different, which is not (in our post-enlightenment world) nearly so easy to handle as such a set of truths might seem to be.  The problem of the gospels is one particular instance of this question. And at this point in the argument evangelicals often lurch towards Romans as a sort of safe place where they can find a basic systematic theology in the light of which one can read everything else.   I have often been assured by evangelical colleagues in theological disciplines other than my own that my perception is indeed true: namely, that the Protestant and evangelical tradition has not been half so good on the gospels as it has been on the epistles.  We don’t quite know what to do with them.  Because, I think, we have come to them as we have come to the whole Bible, looking for particular answers to particular questions. And we have thereby made the Bible into something which it basically is not.  I remember a well-known Preacher saying that he thought a lot of Christians used the Bible as an unsorted edition of Daily Light.  It really ought to be arranged into neat little devotional chunks, but it happens to have got all muddled up.  The same phenomenon occurs, at a rather different level, when People treat it as an unsorted edition of Calvin’s Institutes, the Westminster Confession, the UCCF Basis of Faith, or the so-called ‘Four Spiritual Laws’.  But to treat the Bible like that is, in fact, simply to take your place in a very long tradition of Christians who have tried to make the Bible into a set of abstract truths and rules—abstract devotional doctrinal, or evangelistic snippets here and there.

This problem goes back ultimately, I think, to a failure on the part of the Reformers to work out fully their proper insistence on the literal sense of scripture as the real locus of God’s revelation, the place where God was really speaking in scripture.  The literal sense seems fine when it comes to saying, and working with, what (for instance) Paul actually meant in Romans.  (This itself can actually be misleading too, but we let it pass for the moment.)  It’s fine when you’re attacking mediaeval allegorizing of one sort or another.  But the Reformers, I think, never worked out a satisfactory answer to the question, how can the literal sense of stories—which purport to describe events in (say) first century Palestine—how can that be authoritative?  If we are not careful, the appeal to ‘timeless truths’ not only distorts the Bible itself, making it into the sort of book it manifestly is not, but also creeps back, behind the Reformers’ polemic against allegory, into a neo-allegorization which is all the more dangerous for being unrecognised.[2]

Witness to Primary Events?

So, more recently, we have seen attempts on the part of many scholars to make this very difficult text authoritative by suggesting that it is authoritative insofar as it witnesses to primary events.  This emphasis, associated not least with the post-war biblical theology movement, at least has the merit of taking seriously the historical setting, the literal sense of the text.  The problem about that, however, can be seen quite easily.  Supposing we actually dug up Pilate’s court records, and supposing we were able to agree that they gave a fair transcript of Jesus’ trial.  Would they be authoritative in any of the normal senses in which Christians have claimed that the Bible is authoritative?  I think not.  A variation on this theme occurs when people say that the Bible (or the New Testament) is authoritative because it witnesses to early Christian experience.  There is a whole range of modern scholarship that has assumed that the aim of New Testament study is to find the early Christians at work or at prayer or at evangelism or at teaching.  The Bible then becomes authoritative because it lets us in on what it was like being an early Christian—and it is the early Christian experience that is then treated as the real authority, the real norm.  In both of these variations, then, authority has shifted from the Bible itself to the historically reconstructed event or experience.  We are not really talking about the authority of the Bible, at all.
Timeless Function?

Another (related) way in which the Bible has been used, with the frequent implication that it is in such use that its authority consists, is in the timeless functions which it is deemed to perform.  For Bultmann, the New Testament functioned (among other things) as issuing the timeless call to decision.  For Ignatius and those who have taught Jesuit spirituality, it can be used in a timeless sense within pastoral practice.  Now this is not a million miles from certain things which I shall be suggesting later on in this lecture as appropriate uses of scripture.  But at the level of theory it is vital that we say, once more, that such uses in and of themselves are not what is primarily meant when we say that the Bible is authoritative: or, if they are, that they thereby belittle the Bible, and fail to do justice to the book as we actually have it.  All three methods I have outlined involve a certain procedure which ultimately seems to be illegitimate: that one attempts, as it were, to boil off certain timeless truths, models, or challenges into a sort of ethereal realm which is not anything immediately to do with space-time reality in order then to carry them across from the first century to any other given century and re-liquefy them (I hope I’m getting my physics right at this point), making them relevant to a new situation.  Once again, it is not really the Bible that is being regarded as the ‘real’ authority.  It is something else.
Evangelicals and Biblical Authority

It seems to be that evangelicalism has flirted with, and frequently held long-running love affairs with all of these different methods of using the Bible, all of these attempts to put into practice what turns out to be quite an inarticulate sense that it is somehow the real locus of authority.  And that has produced what one can now see in many so-called scriptural churches around the world—not least in North America.  It seems to be the case that the more that you insist that you are based on the Bible, the more fissiparous you become; the church splits up into more and more little groups, each thinking that they have got biblical truth right.  And in my experience of teaching theological students I find that very often those from a conservative evangelical background opt for one such view as the safe one, the one with which they will privately stick, from which they will criticize the others.  Failing that, they lapse into the regrettable (though sometimes comprehensible) attitude of temporary book-learning followed by regained positivism: we will learn for a while the sort of things that the scholars write about, then we shall get back to using the Bible straight.  There may be places and times where that approach is the only possible one, but I am quite sure that the Christian world of 1989 is not among them.  There is a time to grow up in reading the Bible as in everything else.  There is a time to take the doctrine of inspiration seriously.  And my contention here is that evangelicalism has usually done no better than those it sometimes attacks in taking inspiration seriously.  Methodologically, evangelical handling of scripture has fallen into the same traps as most other movements, even if we have found ways of appearing to extricate ourselves.

The Belittling of the Bible

The problem with all such solutions as to how to use the Bible is that they belittle the Bible and exalt something else.  Basically they imply—and this is what I mean when I say that they offer too low a view of scripture—that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book and it is our job to turn it into the right sort of book by engaging in these hermeneutical moves, translation procedures or whatever.  They imply that the real place where God has revealed himself—the real locus of authority and revelation—is, in fact, somewhere else; somewhere else in the past in an event that once took place, or somewhere else in a timeless sphere which is not really hooked into our world at all out touches it tangentially, or somewhere in the present in ‘my own experience’, or somewhere in the future in some great act which is yet to come. And such views, I suggest, rely very heavily on either tradition (including evangelical tradition) or reason, often playing off one against the other, and lurching away from scripture into something else.  I have a suspicion that most of you are as familiar with this whole process as I am.  If you are not, you would be within a very short time of beginning to study theology at any serious level.

My conclusion, then, is this: that the regular views of scripture and its authority which we find not only outside but also inside evangelicalism fail to do justice to what the Bible actually is—a book, an ancient book, an ancient narrative book.  They function by tuning that book into something else, and by implying thereby that God has, after all, given us the wrong sort of book.  This is a low doctrine of inspiration, whatever heights are claimed for it and whatever words beginning with ‘in-’ are used to label it.  I propose that what we need to do is to re-examine the concept of authority itself and see if we cannot do a bit better.
The Bible and Biblical Authority
All Authority is God’s Authority        

So, secondly within the first half of this lecture, I want to suggest that scripture’s own view of authority focuses on the authority of God himself.  (I recall a well-known lecturer once insisting that ‘there can be no authority other than scripture’, and thumping the tub so completely that I wanted to ask ‘but what about God?’)  If we think for a moment what we are actually saying when we use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’, we must surely acknowledge that this is a shorthand way of saying that, though authority belongs to God, God has somehow invested this authority in scripture.  And that is a complex claim.  It is not straightforward.  When people use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ they very often do not realize this.  Worse, they often treat the word ‘authority’ as the absolute, the fixed point, and make the word ‘scripture’ the thing which is moving around trying to find a home against it.

Click here to read the rest.

The Risk of Love

Jason Micheli —  September 21, 2012 — Leave a comment

I posted earlier about the Christian conviction that sin/evil is nothing, literally ‘no-thing.’ If you’re like me when I first heard this metaphysical perspective, then you’re head is hurting.

On the one hand, it’s easy to see how logic dictates the nothingness or unreality of evil. On the other hand, putting the matter into these philosophical categories doesn’t necessarily answer our felt questions about why bad things happen to good people (aside: if we’re sinners, then the adjective ‘good’ is an assumption isn’t it?) or why wholesale tragedies like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan occur.

A less philosophical, easier to understand, but only slightly more satisfying way to think about this comes from Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. Its an answer rooted in God’s risk of love towards us.

For Augustine, the drama of the human story and the beauty of the Christ story is that God creates so that we can share life and love with God.

God didn’t create a mechanized universe in which we have no choice but to worship dutifully. God wasn’t creating automatons or servile followers. God was creating friends and lovers. Because God is in the Trinity loving relationship, God wants to share loving relationship with us.

Consider my wife.

What makes our relationship authentic, loving and beautiful is that both of us love one another freely. It’s a free exchange of love. It’s reciprocal. Nothing is forced. If it was, you’d call it abuse not love. You’d think it tragic.

As any friend or lover knows, loving relationship can’t be coerced. If it is then it’s only a pale imitation of the actual thing.

In creation, then, God risks that we might not reciprocate God’s love. God hardwires us for love. God calls us back to relationship through Abraham, Israel, the prophets and Christ but God never forces our hand.

The risk inherent in God’s love is our freedom.

And as we are free to love God we are free to love other ends.

What we call sin is disordered love: love of money, love of pleasure, love of an ideology etc.

And what we call evil is often the wreckage of our disordered loves. The fact remains evil is mysterious and, as the Book of Job (38) amply demonstrates, any theory or explanation of it ultimately proves unsatisfying. As vague and metaphysical as it can sound, I can’t help thinking our calling evil ‘a shadow, nothing, not God’ is as faithful a way of speaking as we can legitimately muster. In the face of suffering, what Christians should speak are not answers or theories but confessions and professions. We should affirm not God’s providence (‘there’s a plan for everything…’) but the scope of God’s love (‘Jesus wept…’).

After all, what is critical for Christians to remember in such discussions- and this is what Augustine was keen to secure- is that the Cross is the full measure of God’s love and character and that all of creation shimmers with that same perfect charity and love.

Explanations may prove elusive but this way of speaking of God forbids faithful Christians from ever consigning another’s suffering to God’s will, and in the face of natural evil Christians should only mourn, help redeem disaster and to keep looking for creation’s goodness that lies below tragedy’s surface.

Because if God is Trinity peace is always a more determinative, if at times hard to see, reality.


Question: ‘Dad, did God make dinosaurs too?’

Answer: ‘God made everything.’

Question: ‘Well, why doesn’t it say in the bible that God made dinosaurs with everything else?’

Answer: ‘Go brush your teeth.’

Whenever the family and I go someplace like the National Zoo or the Natural History Museum, I have a little game (read: annoying habit) of embarrassing my wife. Looking at the skeletons of dinosaurs, say, or an evolutionary chart in the ape house I’ll loudly say something like: ‘Of course, if you actually believe in that Darwin nonsense’ or ‘Naturally, it’s all a conspiracy by liberal humanists.’

It only adds to my wife’s embarrassment (read: irritation) when my mock pronouncements are actually met with ‘Amens’ from overhearing bystanders. I admit I’m always a bit surprised by them too. I can only imagine what sort of experience a zoo must be to those who don’t believe in the underlying premise behind every cage and exhibit. It must be a maze of lies and misinformation to such people, begging the even more problematic question of why, if evolution etc isn’t true, God has created a world seemingly designed to mislead us.

My boys have started trying to juxtapose dinosaurs (which they love) with God (whom they love). I take a less sarcastic angle with them and try to make sure I don’t say more than the bible tries to say.

Creation is our worship theme for the coming weekend and its got me thinking of those people I always run into at zoos and museums. And I’m wondering where you fall on this topic?

Do you think the Genesis account is literally true? Do you think its something else? How many creationists are out there actually?

On a related note, here’s NPR’s story about an evolutionary themed Dr Pepper ad that’s provoked complaints from Christians.


We’re in a sermon series on the ‘Seven Truths that Changed the Word: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas.’ This weekend’s theme is Creation Ex Nihilo. I seldom reflect too much on creation theology, mostly, I think, because creation theology tends to be abstracted from the particularity of Christ.

But that doesn’t mean creation isn’t an integral part of our faith. It isn’t to say that creation isn’t a part of the Good News. There’s plenty of grist for reflection.

This week I’ve been thinking about those people I encountered on doorsteps and how impoverished their faith-view was because if there’s one thing the Genesis story makes clear about creation: It Really Is Good. 

Yes, creation is fallen. Yes, the present world as its splayed across the front pages of the Washington Post is far from what God intended with the opening salvo of the Genesis story. Yes, creation is, as Paul writes in Romans 8, groaning while it awaits Christ’s final redemption. And it’s true we’ve turned what God’s given as gift into an object to be used and abused at our pleasure.

Traditionally, Christians- no, Protestants- have been very faithful when it comes to affirming creation’s broken-ness.

So good, in fact, I don’t think we need to dwell on it anymore.

Traditionally, Christians- no, Protestants- have been sinfully terrible at affirming the goodness of God’s creation.

Christians have even neglected the goodness of creation in the name of faithfulness. Far too often Christians have emphasized the ‘spiritual’ at the expense of the material, thinking that true fidelity required a miserly disposition towards the pleasures of this world.

Misreading St. Paul, Christians have regrettably thought faithfulness required a distinction between the spiritual and the material, between the body and the soul, between the spirit and the flesh. Mistakenly looking towards the pie in the sky, Christians just as often have stressed the goodness of the next life at the expense of this life.

The variety and frequency of error notwithstanding, a Christian confession of God as Creator can abide by no division between flesh and spirit, material and soul. When we say God created the heavens and the earth, we remember that God declared our surroundings ‘good.’ God looked upon our earth, our bodies, our felt experience and called it ‘very good.’

Good food is very good. Love for another is very good. A beautiful vista, a deep friendship, a worthwhile endeavor- they’re all very, very good because that’s how God made them.

Christianity isn’t about practicing a sort of split personality syndrome when it comes to our religious versus everyday lives. Christian selflessness doesn’t mean we regard creation with a miserly disdain. An authentic Christianity sees every moment and every object in our lives as graced. Failure to enjoy life and creation is in a very real sense a theological failure.

Christians are so often so focused on the Cross they forget that God deemed our earthly, fleshly lives good enough to take flesh himself in Christ.

The temptation to divide existence into spiritual and material distinctions is a fourth century heresy called Manicheanism, which in St. Augustine’s day saw the created world as inherently corrupt, broken and even evil. The spiritual, heavenly, world precisely because it was not finite was desirable. Thus the goal of the spiritual life was to escape our earthly lives to the spiritual realm.

St. Augustine devoted a large number of years to debating and defeating the Manichees. Even though modern believers still exhibit a propensity to divide the spiritual from the material, Augustine believed the Trinity warned against any such inclination. If God is Trinity and if Creation is the result of God’s gracious, unnecessary self-giving, then to question Creation’s goodness is, in effect, to question the goodness of God.

The Way Up is the Way Down- Philippians 2.1-11

It might surprise some of you to hear that, as gentle and considerate as I appear to be, I have a tendency to be contrary.

And while I wouldn’t say that I have a short fuse exactly, I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I can be cranky, maybe even a little confrontational.

For example-

There was the recent ‘episode’ that has since come to be known in my house as ‘Daddy’s Grocery Store Freakout.’

And before I tell you about ‘Daddy’s Grocery Store Freakout’ I should say first that, as a responsible preacher, I try hard, whenever sharing personal stories, never to present myself in a heroic light.

I try hard to avoid stories in which I appear to be the wise or faithful one. I usually avoid any anecdotes where I’m the good example or where I do the right thing.

You can take that as my disclaimer that ‘Daddy’s Grocery Store Freakout’ is an exception to that rule. In this instance, it’s the other guy who’s the idiot.

A couple of Sundays ago I fell asleep on the sofa watching Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince with the boys. I woke up from my nap to Gabriel staring at me, nose-tip to nose-tip, and saying ‘Daddy, it’s almost time for dinner.’

With just a yawn and a stretch, I headed to the grocery store. As I pushed my shopping cart through the entrance I caught my reflection in the glass.

My bed-head hair was mussed every which way.

My undershirt was covered with tomato sauce stains from lunch that looked a little like blood. My eyes were heavy and bloodshot.

And I had what looked like a scar across my face from the zipper of the pillow I’d been sleeping against.

In sum: I looked like a crazy person.

After picking up a few odds and ends, I stood in the produce section staring aimlessly at the bare Sunday shelves and wondering what on earth I could make with just japanese eggplant, jalepenos, and Italian parsley.

And I swear- it’s because I was trying to think of a recipe NOT because I was eavesdropping that I overheard him.

One of the store employees was sitting against the refrigerator, where the cabbage normally goes. Three other, younger, employees were huddled around him.

To protect the identities of the innocent and the idiotic, I won’t go into names or descriptions. I’ll just tell you what I heard.

“My best advice is for you guys to stay completely away from her’ the one leaning against the cabbage section said to the three.

And he nodded with his chin in the direction of ‘her.’

And again, I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop but I couldn’t help it. When he nodded in ‘her’ direction, like gravity was pulling me, I looked over my shoulder to see who the ‘her’ was he had in mind.

‘She’ was near the other side of the store, working a cash register.

‘She’ was a teenager it looked like. She couldn’t have been more than 18.

And ‘she,’ I could tell from the scarf wrapped around her head, was a Muslim.

That’s when I decided to eavesdrop.

‘How do we stay away from her?‘ one of Produce Guy’s three disciples asked.

‘Don’t talk to her. Period.‘ He said without equivocation. ‘Pretend she’s not there. If she says something to you, act like you didn’t hear her. If she needs help with something, tell her you’re busy with something else. If a manager tells you to work with her, say you’re in the middle of something.‘ 

His three disciples all nodded like receivers watching a quarterback draw up a play.

What I heard shocked me, but I didn’t say anything.

I didn’t say anything until I heard him say: ‘Remember, she worships a false god. That’s a sin, and God doesn’t want you associating with sinners. God hates sinners.‘ 

Thus began what’s come to be known as ‘Daddy’s Grocery Store Freakout.‘

I left my cart and stepped over to their huddle and said, in love: ‘Excuse me, it sounds to me like you don’t know what the blank you’re talking about and maybe you should just shut your mouth.‘ 

It was his turn to be shocked.

He stood up from the cabbage section and held up his hands as if to say ‘no harm, no foul‘ and said: ‘There must be a misunderstanding; we were just having a religious conversation.‘ 

And that’s when I lost it:

Misunderstanding? I’ll say. You’re telling these poor idiots that God doesn’t want them helping someone else? 

That God wants them to deliberately ignore someone else? 

That God wants them to treat someone like they’re not even a person? 

   You’re telling them that God hates sinners? 

And you call yourself a Christian? 

You’ve completely lost the plot. 

If you really believed in Jesus Christ none of those words would ever come out of your mouth.‘ 

And that’s when I realized I’d been poking him in the chest with my Japanese eggplant.

He gave me a patronizing smile, like I was the one who didn’t get it.

‘Do you go to church?‘ he asked. ‘Maybe if you went to church you’d understand…‘ 

‘Yeah, I go to church‘ I said. ‘In fact, I go every Sunday. I’m there all the time. Aldersgate United Methodist Church. We’d love to have you visit us sometime.‘ 

And that’s when I realized that all the other customers in the produce section were motionless, as though suspended in time, staring in shock at me.

And for a brief, sobering moment I was able to see myself as they must’ve seen me: a man with red, bloodshot eyes, wild hair, and what looked like a scar across his face and blood splatter on his shirt, screaming about God near the cabbages, with an eggplant in his hand.


Don’t let the pretty poetry and lofty language fool you.

This song, which Paul cuts and pastes into his letter here in Philippians chapter 2, it’s meant to shock you.

Because those last few lines of the song:

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend…
11 and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

      Those last few lines aren’t original- not to Paul, not to any other Christian, not to anyone in Philippi.

They’re lifted straight from the Old Testament, from Isaiah 45- which, in case you don’t know it, is one of the Bible’s fiercest statements against idolatry, against worshipping any other god but the one with a capital G.

And what does Paul do with this song from Isaiah?

Paul, a lifelong Jew, who for his entire life at least twice a day would’ve recited in prayer: ‘The Lord our God the Lord is One.’ 

Paul, a Pharisee, an expert in the Law who you can bet knew that the very first law, the law of all laws, was ‘You shall have no other gods besides me.’

What does Paul do with Isaiah’s song?

He sticks Jesus in the middle of it.

He says that:

Because Jesus knew power and might aren’t things to be grasped at but given up.

Because Jesus emptied himself of heaven.

Because Jesus made himself poor even though he was rich.

Because he exchanged his royal robes for a servant’s towel.

Because Jesus stooped down from eternity and humbled himself.

Because he forgave 70 times 7.

Because he blessed those who cursed him.

Because he went the extra mile for those who cared not for him.

Because he put away the sword and turned the other cheek and loved his enemies.

Because Jesus remained faithful no matter it cost him, no matter where it led him, no matter how it ended.

Because he did that,

God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.

And that’s the shock.

Because the name that is above every name…is Yahweh.

The name that is above every name is ‘I am who I am.’

The name that is above every name is the name that was revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush, the name that was too holy to be spoken aloud or written down.

That’s why, in its place, the ancient manuscripts always used the word ‘Kyrios’ instead: ‘Lord.’

The same word Paul attaches to Jesus here in the middle of Isaiah’s song.

It’s meant to shock you- that this God who appeared in a burning bush and spoke in a still, small voice, this God- the one and only God- comes to us fully and in the flesh as Jesus Christ.

It’s intended to shock you- that Mary’s son is as much of God the Father as we could ever hope to see.


I was in the middle of ‘Daddy’s Grocery Store Freakout’ when I realized all the eyes of the produce section were on me, looking like they were waiting for someone- anyone- to taser me and put me back in my straight jacket.

So I looked up and smiled and it must’ve seemed more creepy than conciliatory because just like that all the shoppers scurried away to safety. So did Produce Guy’s three disciples, who went back to work.

But Produce Guy wasn’t ready to let me leave without proving how I was wrong and he wasn’t.

‘You must be one of those Christians who think we all just worship the same god’ he said dismissively.

‘No’ I said, and just like that I was shouting again.

‘You don’t get it. You don’t get it at all. I

 believe our God couldn’t be moredifferent

I believe our God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

That means you can’t say anything about God that you can’t also say about Jesus Christ. 

So unless it makes sense to you to say ‘Jesus hates sinners; Jesus doesn’t want you to serve that person; Jesus wants you to treat that person like they’re not a person; unless it makes sense to you to say that about Jesus, then you should just shut your mouth.’ 

I said, in love.

But he didn’t follow.

He just squinted at me and said: ‘Maybe you should talk this over with your pastor. Maybe he could help you understand.’ 

     ‘Yeah, maybe. I’ll ask him about it.’ 


I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that when it comes to the Trinity, our belief that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, most of you think it’s a hustle.

You think it’s some philosophical shell game that couldn’t have less to do with your everyday life.

But pay attention-

That’s not how Paul speaks of the Trinity here.

Paul’s not interested in philosophy or abstraction.

Paul’s concerned with your mindset. With your attitude. With your love.

The Philippians weren’t locked in any doctrinal disputes or theological debates.

They were just at every day odds with each other.

And so Paul sends them these words about the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

For Paul, the Trinity isn’t about intellectual games.

For Paul, the Trinity’s more like grammar that governs our God-talk.

Trinity keeps us from saying whatever we like about God, doing whatever we want in the name of God, believing whatever we wish under the umbrella of a generic god.

Trinity is Paul’s way of making sure that we can’t say ‘God’ without also saying ‘Jesus’

I mean, think about it-

Think about how many people you’ve heard, after a natural disaster or a tragic death or the diagnosis of disease, say something like: ‘It’s God’s will.’

Trinity means that for that to be a true statement you have to be able to remove ‘God’ and replace it with ‘Jesus.’

Trinity means that it’s not a true statement unless you’re able to say:

‘My mom’s cancer was Jesus’ will.’

‘Hurricane Katrina was Jesus’ will.’

‘9/11 was Jesus’ will.’

For Paul, Trinity functions not as a philosophical concept but as a grammatical rule. Trinity binds us to the character and story of Jesus.

We can’t say or think or act like God hates ‘sinners’ because we know Jesus didn’t.

We can’t say or think or act like God doesn’t care about the poor because we know Jesus did.

We can’t say or think or act as if God is against our enemies because we know Jesus loved them.

We can’t scratch our heads and wonder if we need to forgive that person in our lives because know what Jesus said about it.

And the doctrine of the Trinity refuses to let you forget that his words aren’t the words of any ordinary human teacher.

Teachers can be dismissed.

But his words are 100%, 3-in-1, the Word of God.

When Jesus says to the woman about to be stoned for adultery ‘I don’t condemn you’ that’s God speaking.

And when Jesus offers living water to the woman at the well, who has about 5 too many men in her life, that’s God’s grace.

And when Jesus says to Zaccheus, a villain and a traitor and a sinner, ‘Tonight I’m eating at your house’ Trinity makes sure we remember that that’s an invitation stamped with the seal of heaven.

For Paul, the fact that this God couldn’t be more different- it couldn’t be more practical.


I don’t freak out on people all that often.

But that’s not to say that I don’t run into people every day whose behavior doesn’t square with their beliefs, whose opinions are dearer to them than the mind of Christ, who are so set in their ways they refuse to conform to the Way.

And so if you want to make me less cranky.

If you want to make your pastor happy.

If you want to make my joy complete.

Give don’t grasp.

Serve don’t single out.

Don’t puff yourselves up with conceit.

Don’t fill yourselves up with ambition.

Don’t act out of selfishness.

Empty yourselves of the need to be right.

Regard anyone as better than yourself.

Pour yourselves out overtime for others.

Stay faithful to the Son’s words because that Son’s the fullness of the Father, and his name is inseparable from the name that is above every name.

And if that’s true then the way up in this world is by stooping down.

This weekend the Rev Dr Dennis Wayne Perry will kick-off our fall sermon series, Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas. First up, is our belief that not all dead men stay dead.

In anticipation of what I’m sure will be a riveting sermon by our facial hair-challenged assistant pastor, here’s a good account of the Resurrection as historical happening from Parchment and Pen.

Just as we test the historicity of any event, not through emotional conviction, but with historical evidence, I would like to devote some time to laying out a brief historical case for the Resurrection of Christ, the central issue of the Christian faith.

Here is what we need (the tools of the trade):

1. Internal Evidence: Evidence coming from within the primary witness documents, the New Testament.

2. External Evidence: Collaborative evidence coming from outside the primary witness documents.

Internal Evidence:

  • Honesty
  • Irrelevant Details
  • Harmony
  • Public Extraordinary Claims
  • Lack of Motivation for Fabrication

The entire Bible records both successes and failures of the heroes. I have always been impressed by this. It never paints the glorious picture that you would expect from legendary material, but shows them in all their worst moments. The Israelites whined, David murdered, Peter denied, the apostles abandoned Christ in fear, Moses became angry, Jacob deceived, Noah got drunk, Adam and Eve disobeyed, Paul persecuted, Solomon worshiped idols, Abraham was a bigamist, Lot committed incest, John the Baptist doubted, Abraham doubted, Sarah doubted, Nicodemus doubted, Thomas doubted, Jonah ran, Samson self-served, and John, at the very end of the story, when he should have had it all figured out, worshiped an angel (Rev 22:8). I love it! (ahem).

And these are the Jews who wrote the Bible!

In addition, the most faithful are seen as suffering the most (Joseph, Job, and Lazarus), while the wicked are seen as prospering (the rich man). In the case of the Gospels, the disciples who recorded it claimed to have abandoned Christ and did not believe in His resurrection when told. Even after the resurrection, they still present themselves as completely ignorant of God’s plan (Acts 1:6-7). Women are the first to witness the resurrection which has an element of self-incrimination since a woman’s testimony was not worth anything in the first century. If someone were making this up, why include such an incriminating detail? (I am glad they did—what an Easter message this is for us today!)

Irrelevant Details:
The Gospel writers (especially John) contain many elements to their story that are really irrelevant to the big picture. Normally, when someone is making a story up, they include only the details that contribute to the fabrication. Irrelevant details are a mark of genuineness in all situations.

Notice this small segment of the Gospel of John 20:1-8 (HT: Gregory Boyd, but modified):

“Early on the first day of the week (when? does it matter?), while it was still dark (who cares?), Mary Magdalene (an incriminating detail) went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one who Jesus loved (John’s modest way of referring to himself—another mark of genuineness) and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have taken him!” (note her self-incriminating lack of faith here). So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. They were running, but the other disciple out ran Peter and reached the tomb first (who cares who won the race? a completely irrelevant detail). He bent over (irrelevant, but the tomb entrance was low—a detail which is historically accurate of wealthy people of the time—the kind we know Jesus was buried in) and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in (why not? irrelevant detail). Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb (Peter’s boldness stands out in all the Gospel accounts). He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head (irrelevant and unexpected detail—what was Jesus wearing?). The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen (somewhat irrelevant and unusual. Jesus folded one part of his wrapping before he left!). Finally the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went inside (who cares about what exact order they went in?)

The four Gospel writers claim to have witnessed the resurrected Christ. The same is the case for most of the other writers of the NT. The four Gospel writers all write of the same event from differing perspectives. Although they differ in details, they are completely harmonious to the main events surrounding the resurrection, and all claim that it is an historical event. Many people are disturbed by the seeming disharmony among the Gospels since the Gospel writers do not include all the same details. However, this is actually a mark of historicity since if they all said exactly the same thing, it would be a sign that they made it up. However, the Gospel writers contain just enough disharmony to give it a mark of genuine historicity.

Click here to read the rest.

In case you missed church this Sunday, here’s the last installment of our ’12 sermon series: Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School. This one comes from friend, mentee and Duke student, Taylor Mertins…

The smell was unbearable. Though he had lost track of the days, Ham was still unaccustomed to the rocking of the boat and the smell of damp animals constantly bombarding his senses. As he made his way throughout the bowels of the ship, checking on his brothers and their families, feeding the animals, and plugging leaks, Ham’s tortured mind kept replaying the details of what brought him to this ship.

His father had always been a quiet man; he mostly kept to himself and lived a humble life. His daily routine was not often interrupted until the day he began gathering copious amounts of wood from the forest. Ham could not understand the change in his father’s ambitions, but he respected him enough to not question this new driving force. Over the months a ship began to form out of the collected wood and Ham, along with his brothers, helped their father by collecting two of every animal from the surrounding countryside. Ham’s unwavering faith sustained him through the trying months where a ship stood in an open field, miles from the nearest water source. When others would have doubted his father’s project, Ham remained steadfast. And then the rain began. As the days passed, and the rain continued, Ham began to understand why his father had dedicated all of his energy to the giant raft; a flood was coming.

Ducking underneath the wooden support beams Ham pondered whether or not the boat would ever again rest on solid land. Tormented by the incessant rocking, Ham went onto the deck of the ship in order to calm his system. Usually filled with noise and activity, when Ham arrived on the deck all was silent and most of his family had gathered on the side of the boat. Worried that someone had fallen overboard, Ham rushed to the edge of the boat with his eyes drawn to the water until his father, Noah, placed a hand on Ham’s shoulder and pointed to the mountaintops that pierced the edge of the horizon: their journey was coming to an end.

The months after the flood passed by without the interruption of any major catastrophic elements. Ham and his brothers were initially shocked to discover the absurd amount of devastation that had been underwater. But as time passed, they cleaned and prepared to create a new home. While Ham and his family settled back into normalcy, his father began to cultivate fields of grapes in the same manner that he built the ark – he kept to himself yet worked with profound dedication. Eventually the fields yielded their fruit and Noah began to produce an abundance of wine.

One morning Ham was distressed to discover his father missing from his usual presence in the fields and went off to find him. Upon entering his father’s tent, Ham took in the disheveled room and tried to make sense of what was before him: Noah was completely naked surrounded by a number of empty wine bottles. Ham looked upon the body of his father and felt sorry for him, for his trials and tribulations with the ark, for his drunkenness, for his nakedness, and for his shame. He left the tent in order to find his brothers Shem and Japheth and tell them what had happened.

After debating what needed to be done, Shem and Japheth found a cloak and laying it on their shoulders they walked into their father’s tent backwards to cover the nakedness of their father. Throughout the day Ham continually walked past Noah’s tent and waited patiently for his father to awake. When Noah finally awoke from his drunken stupor, news of his nakedness and drunken escapade from the night before had made its way throughout the family. Noah, usually a man of few words, angrily made his way through the camp until he stood before his sons: “Ham I have come to curse your son, my grandson, Canaan; lowest of the slaves shall he be to his brothers! My other son Shem, blessed by the Lord my God you shall be, let your nephew Canaan be your slave! Japheth, may God make space for you in the tents of your brother Shem, and let your nephew Canaan be your slave!”

… I have no idea what this passage means. I am starting my third year of seminary and I haven’t the faintest idea how this scripture made it into the canon. I have dreaded this moment over the last few months, knowing that I was invited to come in my home church, where I would stand before so many people I love and care about, people who made me into the Christian I am today, people who helped nurture my call to the ministry. I have been terrified about preaching this sermon because I simply have no idea what this scripture means.

Now don’t get me wrong, my last two years at Duke Divinity School have been amazing. I have garnered a significant theological education, unrivaled in the United States. My professors have taken me through amazing lectures on a myriad of subjects. I have learned how to appropriately pronounce words like eschatology, pericope, pneumatology, hermeneutics, dogmatic apologetics, latitudarianism, curvatis, kerygma, infralapsarianism, and sometimes I even know what those words mean. I have served churches in North Carolina and Michigan. I have participated in funerals and comforted grieving families. I have celebrated with parents as the brought their infant forward to be baptized into the body of Christ. I have committed myself to the call that God placed on my life so many years ago, but I still don’t know what to do with Noah’s hangover.

To begin, everyone here already knows the real story about Noah and the Ark, it’s the one your children watch on Veggie Tales, and the one your grandmother told you when you were growing up – Noah, a man of God, is the only righteous human being left; God commands him to build an ark and procure two of every animal in order to repopulate the earth after the flood; the flood comes and desolates the land, but Noah’s faith in God’s calling sustains him and his family; after the water recedes God creates a rainbow in the sky signifying the new covenant… However, this is not the end of the story.

Over the last few years I have come to appreciate the fact that the bible is full of mysterious, confusing, and seemingly un-preachable, stories. Over the last month Jason Micheli has taken this church through some of the more bizarre collections of the Word of God: You have heard about: Isaiah’s unwavering faith in the Lord to the point of remaining naked for three years; David collecting 100 Philistine foreskins in order to marry Saul’s daughter; Paul literally preaching and boring a young man to death; and God jumping out in the middle of the night in an attempt to kill Moses.

Jason has skillfully and articulately brought these stories to life, he has connected them with the modern world and brought forth a message applicable for today. Moreover, he has done what every preacher is called to do: make the Word become flesh and dwell among us.

Unlike Jason Micheli, I do not have a particular story that reflects the scripture for the day. I’m sure if Jason were preaching this morning he would tell us about getting a call one morning at his last church to visit a family within the community. Upon arriving Jason would have discovered the father passed out naked in the living room after a night of binge drinking. Jason’s description of the room would be so vivid and adjectival that we, the congregation, could smell the burnt bacon emanating from the kitchen and feel the tapioca colored carpet under our feet. At that point he would take the time to describe with absurd detail the feeling of a bead of sweat developing on his temple and slowly running down to his collar. He would then tell us about the fight that happened between the drunken man and his son, and then give us a wonderful sermonic twist by emphasizing the grace of God and then end with a witty sentence that we would carry with us the rest of the day. Unlike Jason Micheli, I do not have a story about meeting a drunk, naked man asleep on the floor.

I do not know what to do with our story today.

Most of us have never even heard it; we are content with the Veggie-Tales version that ends with the wonderful rainbow in the sky. But, if we end the story with the Rainbow we are left to wrestle with one of the bible’s most troubling theological questions: If God destroyed the world with a flood in order to destroy sin, why is the world still so messed up today?

Genesis 9.18-29 is full of problems: theological, historical, and logical:

Noah, who “found favor in the sight of the Lord” (Genesis 6.8) and who “did all that God commanded him” (6.22) was set apart from this rest of retched humanity in order to survive God’s destruction. After the flood God blesses Noah and commands him to be fruitful and multiply three times, insuring him and his family that God would never again “curse the ground because of humankind.” And how does Noah react? He builds a vineyard, gets drunk, and falls asleep naked in his tent. This doesn’t make any sense. Why would the one human, the only one God chose to save, ruin this blessed opportunity of life on drink and nudity? Why would he so defile the earth that God just saved? Why would he blatantly ignore the covenantal rainbow in the sky for a night of debauchery? It doesn’t make any sense.

But the passage isn’t over yet: Ham, the faithful son of Noah, the one who stood by his father through the ark’s construction and the great flood, Ham discovers his father’s naked body. Ham, like any good son, tells his brothers in order that they might cover up their father’s mistakes, his nakedness and drunken behavior. And how does Noah reward his faithful son? He curses his own kin! It doesn’t make any sense.

Click here to continue reading T’s sermon.

We’re winding down our sermon series, ‘Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School.’ This coming Sunday we’re tackling, perhaps unwisely, the troubling passage in Exodus 4.24. Look it up, enough said.

Here’s an old sermon on the little known story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. This was my second stab at the same passage. I guess Joseph’s moral fortitude all depends on how was good-looking Potiphar’s wife…


Genesis 39

  I can’t; I’m not that strong. That’s not my story. 


My sermon title for you today is: In Between Doxologies.

The narrative of Genesis 39 is bookended by the doxology: ‘The Lord was with Joseph.’

At its beginning and at its end, this story asserts that the Lord was with Joseph.


But a lot happens in between.


The same is true of the Christian life, for there is much sadness, sorrow and second-guessing sandwiched in between Sundays. In between Sunday’s lofty amen, praises and Gloria Patris, our faith has to touch down and make contact with the real world.


When I deliver the benediction week in and week out and send you forth from the worship gathering, you’re sent out into a world that appears altogether deprived of dream-coats, divine intrusions or dramatic change.


In between our Sunday doxologies, we make our lives on difficult terrain. In between our Sunday doxologies, most of us lack Joseph’s uncomplaining resolve, consistent virtue and unwavering faith.

For God’s Providence is hardly that apparent, and we are seldom that strong.


The Joseph story is not an easy template around which we can stencil our lives.


Too often, when we hit up against the uncertainties of the real world, echoes of stories like this one rattle around in our memory and we think: I can’t; I’m not that strong. That’s not my story.


A congregation as smart as this one knows well that the Joseph story begins with the hopeful hints of a dream and ends with the joy of a tear-stained reconciliation.


But much happens in between.


Joseph’s dream-coat’s been worn ragged by more than a few nightmares.


The dream-bearer’s brothers have sold him into slavery, and, as chapter 39 opens, Joseph falls into the charge of Potiphar, an otherwise unknown Egyptian officer. The nightmare abates briefly as Joseph, the slave, wins his Egyptian master’s trust.


Soon Joseph has the entire Egyptian estate prospering. For a little while, the dream-bearer finds favor and comfort living under the yoke of the Egyptian empire.


But it was not to last.

For reasons ambiguous, Potiphar’s wife preys on Joseph. She may think she is looking for love, but like all such instances of sexual abuse it is really about power.


Joseph possesses a power and a virtue that Potiphar’s wife can only intuit, and she grabs after it even as she grabs for his clothes.


Joseph resists without hesitation. His virtue is as ironclad as a chastity belt. Yet Potiphar’s wife proves herself a persistent predator. She wins their seductive stalemate by accusing him of rape, waving his loincloth in the air as the damning evidence.


Her accusations fall on easy ears, for Potiphar throws Joseph into prison where, we are once again assured: ‘The Lord was with Joseph.’ 


No, Joseph’s story is no simple template for the life of faith.

He bears the dream with ease and grace through what we would consider an unqualified nightmare.

Joseph is no easy model of faith.



No matter the nightmares, Joseph never doubts- never resents- his divine dreams.


Through brotherly betrayal, enslavement and imprisonment; the dream-bearer never, he never once distresses. Taking everything in stride, he never utters a single complaining word about his enslavement.


After Potiphar’s wife makes her predatory accusations, Joseph is never given a fair hearing- because he never asks for one.


He never protests her charges. He never seeks retribution. He never utters an angry, disparaging word about this sly woman or her fool of a husband.


Through what we would, no doubt, consider a nightmare, Joseph bears the dream with steadfast ease. Joseph body-surfs the waves of tribulation and he never once relaxes his resolve.


He never once questions his predicament. He never once frets that the burden is too much to bear. He never once shakes his fist at the sky and pleads to know why the God who gave him dreams now has given him nightmares.

Joseph is no easy model of faith.


     I can’t; I’m not that strong. That’s not my story. 


I first heard those words on a steamy summer morning at the state prison in New Jersey where I ministered.


Those words pierced me with their honesty…and their hard-felt, heart-felt accuracy. In the tiring humidity, Hector Castaneda looked at me with his reluctant eyes, and- with his spare response- revealed my pastoral wisdom to be that of a bathtub: shallow but deep enough to drown in.


Hector’s beige jumpsuit showed a year’s worth of wear. He was a bit older than me and a little taller. He was stocky with short, black hair, and he had the gardner’s hands of his previous profession.


His bulky, unfashionable, state-issued glasses slid down his sweaty nose. Hector and I sat in the chaplain’s classroom just off the prison auditorium. These grimy industrial fans blew stale warm air on us and drowned out our voices.


I was the theologically trained pastor, sitting in a squat plastic chair. Hector sat across from me; he had made an appointment. To tell me his story.


Hector told me of the father back in Guatemala he never knew. He told me about the multitude of jobs his mother always selflessly juggled. He half-smiled and told me of his two small children, the children that his wife had recently left with their grandmother without explanation and without a return address.


He confessed his crime, his only one. A common one. He was guilty, yes, but his guilt was grossly exaggerated by the strict, immigrants-only sentence he had received.


Hector told me about the guards, the police officers, and the judges who all looked very much like me. And the lawyer, who also looked a lot like me and who had stopped calling once the money ran out.


Hector looked at me with earnest eyes, waiting for a wise word from this theologically trained, spiritually sophisticated pastor- a teacher of the faith.


And what did I say?


What word did I offer?


I pointed him to a concise, little prison drama in Genesis 39.


I culled my pastoral insights and tried to acquaint Hector with Joseph, the dreamer who suffered many nightmares and found himself behind bars…with nary a complaint.


I held up patient, resilient Joseph, and I encouraged Hector to stencil his life around it. It’ll work out; just stay in the lines.


But Hector checkmated me with his incisive reply: I can’t; I’m not that strong. That’s not my story. 


And of course Hector was right.

I should’ve realized that Joseph makes for a difficult trace when the faithful life succeeds only in getting your things stolen every night because you refused to fight back- because that was be the Christian thing to do.


I should’ve realized Joseph was a painful model of faith, when you got beat up weekly for breaking the jailhouse silence and reporting abuse through the proper channels- because that was the Christian thing to do.


I should’ve remember the prejudicial slurs that I’d heard firsthand coming from the mouths of Hector’s guards.


I should’ve recalled the angry letters from Hector’s elementary-aged kids, wondering why he was not yet home and how they needed his help on their homework.


No, Hector’s story had a few more details than Genesis 39.


Joseph was no simple stencil for the life of faith.



Friends, this is my tenth year of ministry. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that folks like Hector are all around us.


They may look different. They may surprise you. They may come to church every Sunday dressed gloriously and sing like angels.


But, like Hector, they feel pulled by the tension between faith and life.


God’s voice frequently sounds muted to them. God does not always overwhelm or intrude upon their lives. There are some who are so mired in the ups and downs of their everydays that falling in and out of faith is the only constant rhythm to their lives.


Yes, there are folks like Hector all around you, if you only look.


You may be like Hector yourself, thinking you can’t, thinking you’re not strong enough, thinking this Story isn’t your story.


Hectors are everywhere. The Josephs are rare indeed.


Joseph’s resolve is not necessarily our resolve.

Joseph’s virtue is not always our virtue.

Joseph’s faithfulness is not often our faithfulness.


More often than not, when we’re knee-deep in the gray water of life- the real world, what will come to us won’t be Joseph’s unwavering, uncomplaining unafraid resolve.

What will come to us will be something more like Hector’s exhausted confession: ‘I can’t; I’m not that strong. That’s not my story.’ 

But here’s the thing-


It doesn’t have to be.


Joseph’s story doesn’t have to be our story. Or, better still, our story doesn’t need to resemble Joseph’s story…

Because you and I:

We have Jesus.


We have the One who modeled the life of faith and obedience perfectly.

For our sake.

For all time.

We have Jesus of Nazareth, the One in whom God has come to us and through whom God has become one of us- for us.


Neither Hector nor I nor you can reliably trump trial and tribulation, day in and day out.


But we need not despair, because for forty days Jesus Christ faced that which Israel never could, that which we cannot.


     We can’t; we’re not that strong. 


But we don’t have to be, for in Jesus Christ God does that which we cannot do ourselves.

In the garden, Christ prays in our place, because he dares to pray ‘Thy will be done’ even as he knows that prayer will lead him to the Cross.


We can’t. We’re not that strong.


But we don’t have to be.


Rather than despair over what you’re not, over who you’re not- you can instead rejoice that in Jesus Christ God becomes the accursed, the condemned, the Judge judged in your place.


So come to the Table and do not despair over the disparity between who you are and who God would have you be.


But rejoice- rejoice that Jesus Christ is the one true sacrifice for all those ways and all those days when you are not as strong, not as virtuous, not as resilient as Joseph.


Come to the Table and rejoice- because more than anything this bread and this wine remind us that its not our faithfulness- its not our obedience- that God measures us by. It’s Jesus Christ’s.


Come to the Table and rejoice- because more than anything this bread and this wine remind us that our weakness has been overwhelmed by his strength, his obedience counts for more than our disobedience, our every sin and our every shortcoming has been swallowed up by his perfect sacrifice.


Come to the Table and rejoice- because more than anything this bread and this wine promise us:

that when you’re in between the doxologies in your life

when you’re sure you can’t

when you’re locked away in some dark place

and you’re convinced you’re not strong enough-

it’s not your strength God’s given you to lean on.

But Jesus Christ’s

     That’s our Story. 

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.


Free Falling

Jason Micheli —  August 20, 2012 — Leave a comment

Check out Jason G and Andreas’ musical take on Eutychus in Acts 20; it’s set to Tom Petty’s ‘Free Fallin.’ It’s part of our ‘Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School’ sermon series.

Don’t worry we’ll return to ‘reverent’ music after Labor Day.

Free Falling

Jason Micheli —  August 20, 2012 — Leave a comment

Check out Jason G and Andreas’ musical take on Eutychus in Acts 20; it’s set to Tom Petty’s ‘Free Fallin.’ It’s part of our ‘Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School’ sermon series.

Don’t worry we’ll return to ‘reverent’ music after Labor Day.

Boring God

Jason Micheli —  August 20, 2012 — Leave a comment

We’re in the midst of a sermon series on ‘Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School.’ Here’s one from Acts 20.7-12. Paul, apparently, was windy and/or boring.

Some years ago I served as a chaplain at the UVA Hospital. It was a regular 9-5 gig, excepting that once a week I covered the overnight shift.

One of the responsibilities of the overnight chaplain was to supervise the transfer of dead bodies from the hospital’s possession to whichever funeral home the dearly departed’s family had selected.

And so, if paged in the middle of night I’d call down to the morgue:

‘This is the chaplain’s office’ I’d say, when the attendant picked up.

And no matter the employee, the response was always the same:

‘Yeah, chaplain, we’ve got a live one. Need you to pick up.’

I’d trudge down into the bowels of the hospital, and, after gathering the necessary paperwork, the attendant and I would push a body bag, down a long tapioca-colored hallway, to a delivery door, where a funeral home employee would be waiting.

We’d push the body through the doors and then, like a UPS man dropping off your latest purchase from EBay, I’d ask the funeral home person to ‘sign here please’ and then the ‘package’ would be his.

The morgue itself with its walk-in fridge, stainless steel tools hanging along the walls, the tiled floor and rubber mats and the music blasting from a boom box- all together it reminded me of the restaurant kitchen where I’d once worked.

A mental association that turned my stomach.

Compared to the holy moments I spent with people during their deaths, the moments I spent with them afterwards, in the morgue, always struck me as disconcertingly casual.

For example, the first time I went to pick up a body- a farmer who’d died when his tractor rolled over on him- when I arrived at the morgue the attendant, a 40-something mustached man, was watching the Adam Sandler movie, Happy Gilmore, and eating pepperoni pizza.

‘Want some?’ he asked with his mouth full.

‘No thanks.’

Or there was the time when the attendant caught me wrinkling my nose at a decidedly postmortem smell and asked: ‘Wanna know what that smell is?’

‘Not really’ I thought.

That,’ he said, ‘is the smell of job security.’

Or, for instance, I’d always associated the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s song, ‘Under the Bridge,’ with my first kiss. But now I associate it with the middle aged lawyer who aspirated while trying to eat a pastrami sandwich on the toilet.

The morgue attendant sang ‘sometimes I feel like my only friend’ as we pushed the former counsel for the defense through the double doors.

Some of the bodies I came to claim were people I’d been with as they died, people whose hands I’d held and whose eyes I closed to this world with my palm.

And so it always felt odd to me to see these same people again as they were zipped into what looked like garment bags by an attendant who oftentimes was snacking on a Spicy Hawaiin Hot Pocket and laughing to David Letterman’s latest Top Ten List.

Sometimes the attendants would want to chat it up about UVA Football.

At other times they’d offer me bits of professional trivia.

‘Did you know,’ an attendant said one night as he zipped up a body, ‘that an adult kidney can fit inside a 7-11 Big Gulp?’

‘No, I didn’t know that’ I said, as I briefly tried to imagine the scenario in which discovery was made.

It was gallows humor. I suppose anything else would’ve made it an impossible job.

As a pastor I’ve been around a lot of dead bodies. It’s never really bothered me. But in the morgue the bodies existed in a kind of limbo without anyone to give them context.

I could handle being around the bodies; what I couldn’t handle was their anonymity.

And I think for that reason I’d always ask the attendant for whatever they could tell me about the person.

So that’s how one winter night, I learned about George.

As George was zipped into a bag I asked the 20-something attendant: So, how did he die?

‘Heart attack’ he said, ‘in his sleep.’

‘I guess that’s the way to go’ I said.

‘Yep, they didn’t know he’d died until the service was over.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘He died in church, fell asleep and had a heart attack. The ushers didn’t

realize he was dead until the organ stopped playing.’

‘Can you imagine that?’ the attendant said. ‘Someone sleeping so hard

through church that he could die and no one would know?’

‘You must not be a United Methodist,’ I said.

‘The paperwork says he died at Mt Pisgah Church- do you know that church?’ he asked me.

But my mind wandered. I thought about…

Jake, who was a member of my church and who every Sunday would fall stone cold asleep about 3 sentences into my sermon and who, after I’d been preaching a while would start to argue with his ex-wife in his sleep.

And so when the morgue attendant asked me about Mt Pisgah Church, even though I’d never heard of it and did not know where it was, nonetheless I replied:

‘Yes, I know that church.’

‘I preach there all the time.’

Evidently, according to St Luke, preachers like me have been boring people to death since the very founding of the Church.

That might not come as a surprise to you, having to listen to Dennis every other week, but why on earth would St. Luke ever openly admit that?

Luke’s supposed to be an evangelist remember.

These stories are meant to convert people to the faith not confirm all their worst assumptions about the faith.

What kind of advertisement is this for the church? Come check out our church; our pastor’s a killer preacher? 

The story’s even worse than it appears at first glance.

This is the very first mention in the entire New Testament of a Christian- not a Jewish- Sabbath Service.

In other words, this is Kick-Off Sunday for the history of Christian worship and does St Luke have to report?

That Paul is full of hot air and drones on all day, because he’s on his way to Jerusalem and has to leave in the morning.

And so on Kick-Off Sunday Christian preaching claims its first victim.

It’s an odd story. Why would Luke tell it?

It gets even worse.

Paul’s victim is one of only two ‘young people’ mentioned in the New Testament. There just aren’t a lot of youth in the New Testament.

The first one mentioned is the rich, young ruler that Jesus sends away in tears because the young man doesn’t want to sell all his stuff and give the money to the poor.

The other young person mentioned in scripture is Eutychus, who’s killed by one of Jesus’ preachers.

Eutychus- his name in Greek means ‘Lucky,’ which is ironic since he’s not.

It’s a strange story.

And it’s a strange story for Luke of all people to tell.

Luke’s Book of Acts is filled with hyperbolic stories that cast the church in a flattering, almost heroic, light.

Peter’s sermon convert thousands.

Paul’s conversion is filled with dazzling light and high drama.

The apostles routinely evade evil by just a hair’s breadth.

This mention of a youth named Lucky whom Paul bores to death- it doesn’t jive with the rest of Luke’s book.

So why would Luke even jot it down?

After all, Luke was there when it happened.

Luke’s not simply recording something told to him. Here in chapter 20, Luke switches from 3rd person narration to 1st person plural. He says ‘we.’

He was there. So Luke knows what bad press this is for the church.

There’s every reason not to, so there must be a reason why he does include this story.

What are we to make of this story?

It’s not just an odd story for Luke to tell.

It’s odd the way Luke tells it too.

Luke goes overboard with details up front in the beginning of the story.

He tells you about the time and the bread and the lamps and the young man’s name and the exact floor on which the sanctuary was located.

Luke gives all these details in just a couple of verses but then he just, ho-hum, matter-of-factly mentions that Paul brings Lucky back to life. That’s it.

It’s an odd way to tell a resurrection story.

And it’s odd that we don’t hear from Eutychus at all.

He just goes home to nurse his sore back and bruises.

And everyone else- they get back to worship as though this kind of thing were an every day occurrence.

The attendant matched the toe tag on George’s foot with the name on the transfer papers.

‘So, have you ever put anyone to sleep?’ he asked absent-mindedly.

‘Me? No, I’ve never put anyone to sleep’ I lied.

‘Really?’ he squinted at me.

‘Look,’ I shot back, ‘it’s harder than it looks. It takes hours every day. They can’t all be home runs. Believe me, if I could stage car chases in the sanctuary or take half-naked women into the pulpit with me I would.’

He just laughed.

We were about to push George down the hallway to wait for the hearse, but the attendant looked at his watch and said: ‘We’ve got a few minutes. I’ve got a couple sandwiches if you want to grab a bite. Liverwurst.’

I realize some people might think it revolting to eat pureed liver in the approximate vicinity of several dozen corpses not to mention the many appendages and organs with no body to call home. You’re entitled to opinion.

But since I was a boy I’ve not been able to resist liverwurst.

He handed me a sandwich and I sat down at his desk. He got a paper towel and, as casually as if he were sitting at a picnic table, laid his liver sandwich on George’s chest.

‘So you don’t go to church?’ I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. ‘I did as a kid.’

‘Alright,’ I said, ‘you tell me. What could someone like me do to make worship less boring to someone like you?’

He wiped is mouth. ‘I don’t think there’s anything you could do.’

‘Why not?’ I asked.

‘The problem’s not preachers. The problem’s every one else. They make Christianity seem so dull. Most Christians are as cold and stiff as old George here’ and he patted George’s midsection.

‘Even God must be bored by them.’

It’s not really fair to beat up on preachers for being boring.

It’s too obvious. One of the reasons I became a preacher was so I wouldn’t have to sit out there in the pews and suffer like you.

I don’t know how you do it. In an age of iPhones and iPads and Facebook and PowerPoint and Hulu and IMAX to just sit quietly for 20 minutes and listen? That’s a nearly impossible task.

And I know I can be boring, predictable, prosaic. I can see everything from up here-I’m well aware there’s some of you on whom I have an almost narcotic effect.

But, even still, I’m not sure that I’m the problem.

I mean, I’m only up here preaching for one hour a week.

That leaves 167 hours in the week when you’re the preacher.

167 hours in which you proclaim, in which you announce, in which you communicate to anyone around you and everyone in your lives whether or not this God is interesting enough, captivating enough, compelling enough to give not just an hour of your time but to give your lives to.

This past week I studied surveys, done by the Barna Group, of Christians in their teens and twenties. According to the research, a sizeable majority of young people find Christianity to be boring.

Know why? It’s not because of worship or sermons or songs.

No, a majority of young people think Christianity is boring because faith doesn’t appear to be a relevant, real-life, or every day thing for the adults in their lives.

In other words, the way to make young people more excited about the faith isn’t contemporary music or pyrotechnic sermons or flat screens in the sanctuary. The way to make young people more interested in the faith is for there to be more interesting Christians.

When you think about it, to make this God seem boring is quite a feat.

This God, who shed eternity and took on flesh as a poor Jewish carpenter.

This God, whose teaching is always upside down and unexpected and not as we would like it.

This God, who befriended all the wrong people and offended all the right people until it landed him on a cross.

This God, who swallowed up Death and then handed us the keys to his Kingdom and invited us to give our everything to it.

I mean- you can dismiss this God. You can argue with this God.

You can doubt, or disbelieve or run away from this God.

You can even hate this God if you want.

But for God’s sake don’t make this God seem boring.

And maybe that’s Luke’s point

in telling this story the way he does

so ho-hum, matter-of-fact

about this congregation where no one even blinks at a little thing like

someone being raised from death to life.

Because apparently they’re used to that kind of thing.

Maybe this is Luke’s way of saying that this is how Christianity should be.

Maybe Luke’s saying

that God- the Living God- should be such a part of our lives

not just in here

but out there and everywhere

such a part of our lives

that resurrection is an every day expectation,

Maybe Luke’s saying

that God should be such a part of our each and every day life

that we should just expect for this God

to wake people up

to shake people up

to knock people down

and raise them up to a new way of life.

A church with expectations like that

could survive even a boring preacher.

A preacher with that kind of church

would be lucky.

The Jawbone of an A%$

Jason Micheli —  August 17, 2012 — 2 Comments

We’re doing a sermon series this August on ‘Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School.’ As part of the series, I’m posting some old sermons on random, bizarre stories of the bible. Here’s one from Judges 15. Turns out, Samson’s not the savory character we make him out to be when teaching his story to children. 

Judges 15

“With the jawbone of a donkey, heaps upon heaps (of bodies), with the jawbone of a donkey I have slain a thousand men.”

     This is the Word of the Lord?


Samson said to them, “If this is what you do, I swear I will not stop until I have taken revenge on you.”

This is God’s Word?


As I’ve confessed before, I’m a closet Calvinist. So I know the First Article of the Second Helvetic Confession of 1563 states: ‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.”


That is, when scripture is proclaimed faithfully and faithfully received by its listeners, it ceases to be an historical word and becomes a Living Word from God.


In other words, when I preach scripture faithfully and you hear scripture faithfully its no longer something God spoke long ago, it’s something God speaks, to us, today.


And most of the time I believe that.

But today I wonder.

I wonder about scripture like:

Samson said: when I do evil to the Philistines, I will be without blame…

So he struck them down hip and thigh with great slaughter.”

I wonder how this is (or ever was) God’s Word?

The Book of Judges could be the book of the bible people have in mind when they say dismissive things like: ‘The Old Testament- it’s so bloody and violent.” 


It’s in the Book of Judges that the tribe of Judah- the People of God- kill ten thousand Canaanites and then celebrate their victory by cutting off the thumbs and toes of the Canaanite leader.


The Judge Gideon is well-known for the 300 trumpets that give God’s People a surprising victory over the Midianites. Not as well known is that Gideon later slaughters a whole city of his own people out of rage.


It’s in the Book of Judges that Abimelech, Gideon’s son, executes all seventy of his brothers on the same altar stone.


It’s in the Book of Judges that Jephthah burns his daughter, his only child, alive to honor a victory God gave him over the Ammonites.


That’s all in the Book of Judges, God’s Word.


And it’s in the Book of Judges that Samson, the hero of children’s stories, first kills 30 after losing a wedding feast bet; then kills even more for the death of his wife and father-in-law; then kills 1,000 of the Philistines who try to capture him; and finally kills over 3,000 in a dying act of revenge.


I don’t know what they told you in Sunday School, but Samson is like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elliot Spitzer, Anthony Wiener and Tony Soprano rolled into one.


Samson’s story is blood-soaked and sordid, it’s seedy and salacious. Samson’s sinful and selfish and, ultimately, a failure.


But that’s not how his story was supposed to go.


His birth announcement came by way of angelic annunciation. When the angel gives his mother the good news, the angels tells her that her son is to be set apart- just as God wants his People to be set apart from the idolatrous peoples around them.


So, her son is to drink no wine, to touch nothing unclean and to cut not a hair from his head. Her son is to deliver Israel from the Philistines who rule over them. That’s what it meant to be a judge.


After Samson grows, the Spirit of the Lord stirs in him; the Spirit of the Lord blesses him; the Spirt of the Lord gifts him with great strength.


But being blessed by God and fulfilling God’s will for your life are not the same thing.


Rather than being set apart, Samson sets his sights after a Philistine woman that catches his eye.

And when she’s given to another man, it sets off a spiral of vengeance that consumes him.

Samson sets fire to the city’s grain and crops and vineyards and olive groves. He ruins their whole economy, and they determine to ruin him. The Philistines retaliate by setting fire to the woman and her father.


For the two lives they take, Samson takes a great many more lives until, finally, blinded and shorn of his hair and bound in chains, Samson kills himself and takes 3,000 others with him.


‘So those Samson killed at his death were more than those he had killed during his life.’

     That’s how Samson’s story ends.

This is the Word of God for the People of God.


What are we supposed to do with this scripture? What are we meant to learn from this scripture? How are we to believe God can speak through this scripture?


     Perhaps, notes one biblical scholar, Samson’s story is meant to be a cautionary one. According to this biblical scholar, Samson illustrates “the challenges of God’s People remaining faithful in a hostile culture.”

Thus Samson is consecrated to not drink a drop of wine and instead he drinks himself into a violent rage.

Thus Samson is consecrated to never touch anything that is ritually unclean and instead he cannot keep his hands off of Philistine women.

Thus Samson is consecrated to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines, but the Israelites prefer the Philistines and they betray Samson into the enemy’s hands.

So perhaps the Word God wants us to hear in this story is a word of caution about living in a culture that doesn’t share our values. Perhaps.

But then what lesson are we to draw from the fact that Samson all but annihilates that culture with his final act of revenge?

Or maybe, argues another biblical commentator, God gives us Samson’s story to function like an allegory.

According to this biblical commentator, Samson signifies all of Israel. And so Samson’s promiscuity with the Philistine woman from Timnah, and after her with a Philistine prostitute, and after her with Delia- Samson’s promiscuity symbolizes Israel’s religious infidelity.

And the way God’s Spirit comes to Samson again and again and again when he least deserves it is a metaphor for how God can’t help but be faithful to God’s People.

So it’s kind of like Amazing Grace but with a much higher body count.

In his commentary on the Book of Judges, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, said we should see Samson as a Christ-figure.

There’s the fact that his birth is announced by an angel to an unlikely mother-to-be- just like Jesus.

There’s the fact that from the day of his birth he’s set apart to bring deliverance to his people- just like Jesus.

There’s the fact that the Spirit of the Lord comes upon him and anoints him for God’s purpose- just like Jesus.

And he’s betrayed by his own people- just like Jesus.

He’s bound and handed over to his enemies- just like Jesus.

He’s tortured- just like Jesus.

He dies with his arms outstretched- just like Jesus.

And with the jawbone of a donkey he slays a thousand men- just like…no, wait.

Far be it from me to critique John Wesley, but he doesn’t answer the question any better than the biblical scholars do.

How is this God’s Word for us?


     On October 2, 2006 Charles Carl Roberts carried his guns and his rage into an Amish schoolhouse near Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania and shot ten children, killing five and then killing himself. The Amish community’s display of forgiveness, in the aftermath, became an international story.

Not as well-known is that eight days before the school shooting, in a neighboring Amish community in Georgetown, Pennsylvania, twelve-year-old Emmanuel King left his home around 5:30, as he did most mornings, to help a neighboring Amish family milk their cows.

He rode his scooter out his family’s mile-long farm lane and turned right onto Georgetown Road. As he rounded a slight turn, an oncoming pickup truck crossed the center line, struck little Emmanuel and threw him to the far side of the road.

The truck hit a fence post and sped away.

The next day, a reporter covering the hit-and-run accident went to Emmanuel’s home, but what the reporter found was not what he had expected- a gracious spirit toward the woman whom police considered and later confirmed to be the hit-and-run suspect.

Emmanuel’s mother was grief-stricken but nevertheless wanted to convey a message to the woman: “She should come here. We would like to see her,” she told the reporter. “We hold nothing against her. We would like to tell her we forgive her.”

When the driver read the newspaper headline, ‘A Boy’s Death, a Family’s Forgiveness,’ she did a surprising thing: she went to the King family home to receive their words of forgiveness. She returned again for Emmanuel’s viewing and again for his funeral. Over the next several weeks she came back three more times and, later, she bought a new scooter for the children on what would have been Emmanuel’s thirteenth birthday.

When a reporter asked a family member why they would forgive the woman who killed their son and left him dead in the ditch, the reporter was told: “Because when you forgive, you’re the one set free.”


When you forgive, you are the one who is set free.

That’s it.

Even though Samson can break any bonds they bind him with; even though he can pull down the pillars of a palace; even though he can shake off any shackles they snap on him- Samson’s never really free.

He’s never really free because he never stops being a prisoner to the wrong that was done to him. He never stops being captive to thinking he’s without blame. He never escapes the urge to ‘do to them as they did to me.’

He’s never really free because Samson was a Judge for twenty years, yet when he dies, even after his eye-for-an-eye ways have left him blind, he dies praying vengeance for a wrong that by then is twenty years old.


Over the past few weeks, I’ve solicited your religious questions to help shape our fall sermon series. And many of your questions have been just what I would expect.

There have been questions about heaven and hell, salvation and people of other religions, faith and science, and homosexuality.

But what’s surprised me is that more so than any other question, you all have asked me questions about forgiveness:

What exactly is forgiveness?

How do I forgive?

How do I know if I’ve really forgiven my ex-husband?

If I tell my mom I forgive her for her drinking do the words mean forgiveness has happened or is something else required?

Do I have to forgive the person who abused me?

My brother hasn’t apologized for what he’s done to our family. Is it possible to forgive someone who doesn’t apologize?

How can I forgive God for my child’s cancer?

Are there conditions for forgiveness?

Is it ever too late to forgive?


Maybe God gives us this scripture because Samson hits closer to home than we think.

Sure, Samson torches the tails of foxes, but plenty of you know what its like to set off land mines in your marriages.

Sure, Samson sets fire to vineyards and olive groves, but plenty of you know what its like to burn and smolder with anger.

Samson slays with a jawbone, but plenty of you know what its like to grab after any word you can find to hurt someone who hurt you.

You know what its like to be convinced you’re the one without blame.

You know what its like to say they did it to me first, they have it coming, they deserve what they get.

Sure, Samson pulls down the pillars of a palace, but he’s not the only one who’s nursed a resentment for twenty years.

He’s not the only one whose life got derailed, whose gifts from God got wasted, whose purpose in life went unfulfilled because of a wrong that went unforgiven.

Samson hits close to home.

So I want you to know-

Even though he can tear a lion in half with his bare hands; even though he can slay one thousand men with a jawbone, even though he can shrug off chains like they were melted wax- Samson’s actually incredibly weak.

Even though he had the strength to bring down the walls of a castle- Samson never had the strength to forgive.

Because with his dying breath, Samson prays for revenge.

But with his dying breath before he gives up his Spirit, Jesus Christ prays ‘Father, forgive them for they know not  what they do.’ 

     If you think Samson is stronger then you haven’t lived.


To bear the cost yourself of a wrong done to you takes strength.

To refuse to make someone pay for what they did to you takes strength.

To refrain from lashing out at someone when that’s all you want to do takes strength.

It takes strength because that kind of forgiveness hurts.

It takes strength because that kind of forgiveness can feel like agony.

It takes incredible strength because that sort of forgiveness will only add to your suffering.

To give up all the anger, to sacrifice every justification you’re entitled to, to absorb the pain done to you rather than pass it on, that is suffering.

But with Jesus Christ as my witness, it’s the only suffering that leads to Resurrection.

Because when you forgive, you’re the one who’s set free.

This is the Word of the Lord.








100 Foreskins: A Love Song

Jason Micheli —  August 13, 2012 — 1 Comment

We’re week #2 in our sermon series, ‘Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School.’ What do you do liturgically with a story about 100 Foreskins as the price of a wedding? Write a love song of course. Here’s the video from worship. Lyrics below from Jason and Andreas, our resident comic bards.

Also, included below is a ‘serious’ song to complement the theme, written by Andreas.

Michal/Music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, words by Andreas Barrett and Jason Gottshall


Michal, King Saul

Has enticed me with his cunning call,

My Michal.


Michal, my dear,

I must walk the razor’s edge, I fear.

Let me be clear–


I love you, I love you, I love you

But I have got to say,

Though I will rise to circumcise

And no man will foil this mighty mohel, 

I feel for each one.


Michal, my love,

Help me now that push has come to shove—

Where are my gloves?


I need them, I need them, I need them

And have you seen my keys?

Hello, goodbyes to all those guys;

By expert craft, they’ll get the shaft—

You know what I mean.


I love you.


I want to, I want to, I want to

Or there is no reward.

To win your hand by Saul’s command,

I’ll commit these crimes one hundred times

So you’ll understand.


Michal, my sweet, 

You may find there is no meaner feat,

Let me repeat—


For our wedded bliss, we’ll have a bris

So you’ll understand,

My Michal.

Skin Deep (That’s What Love Is)  ♦  Words and music by Andreas Barrett


Love is patient, love is kind, but love can catch you from behind and cut you to the quick;

That’s what love is.

Love is humble, never cruel, but one exception to the rule can leave you reeling, feeling sick;

That’s what love is.


Grand designs can sometimes seem unfit,

But winning hands are joined by acts they may commit.


Is that what love is for?

Skin deep, love is only skin deep.

Is that what love is for?

Skin deep, love is only skin deep.


Love is longing, lovers bleed just to satisfy a need, a need that steals the soul;

That’s what love is.

Broken hearts are the refrain when fools will pay the same unending toll

To know what love is.


A house of cards can fall one hundred ways;

Ace to faces, truth erases what deceit conveys.


Is that what love is for?

Skin deep, love is only skin deep.

Is that what love is for?

Skin deep, love is only skin deep.


This August we’re doing a sermon series on Stories They Never Taught You in Sunday School. This weekend’s story was Saul’s demand for 100 foreskins as the price for David to marry Michal. It’s in 1 Samuel 18 but, really, the sermon tracks the entire David and Michal relationship, from 1 Samuel 16 to 2 Samuel 6.

Next week: Paul preaches in Acts 20 and literally bores someone to death.


100 Foreskins: A Marriage Sermon

A few weeks ago, my son Gabriel and I went to Guatemala with a mission team from Aldersgate. Our first leg was the 6:00 AM flight to Miami.

Because I was scared to death of oversleeping and missing our flight, I decided not to sleep at all. Instead I stayed up all night, watching every episode of the Walking Dead, manically packing and repacking my bags and eating three cans of Salt and Vinegar Pringles and two entire jars of kosher pickles.

Needless to say, by take-off I was red-eyed, exhausted and had inside me at least as much gas as the plane itself.

Because Gabriel insisted on the aisle seat, I got stuck with the middle. The window was already taken with a woman who was typing on her phone and had a People magazine on her lap.

She looked to be in her fifties. She had perfectly permed hair and she was wearing large costume jewelry- the kind that go with real estate balloons or cocktail glasses.

While everyone else on the plane was wearing sweats, jeans or yoga pants, she was wearing a pantsuit- as though the mannequin in the Talbots window had suddenly come to life and decided to catch a flight to Miami.

She looked, I thought, like a retired Stepford Wife, and so when she turned towards me, held out her moisturized hand and said: ‘My name’s Daphne’ I thought to myself ‘Of course it is.’

And when I asked if she was going on vacation to Florida and she said ‘No, I live in Miami’ I thought to myself ‘Of course you do.’

I’d planned- hoped- to sleep the entire flight.

However I hadn’t planned on how a 6 year old could complicate such plans. Where I was nearly catatonic with fatigue, by take-off Gabriel had already eaten two glazed donuts, a pack of Lifesavers, several pieces of bubblegum and was jacked up on an alchemy of Cherry Coke and airplane anticipation.

Sleep was the last thing on his mind therefore sleep was going to be the last thing I got on the flight- what, with Gabriel asking every 4 seconds:

Daddy, can you reach that?

Daddy, can you get my comic book?

Daddy, can I watch a movie on your iPad?

Daddy, when will we be there?

Daddy, do they have candy in Guatemala?

Daddy, if we crash on an island, like in Lost, do you have any skills to keep us alive?

‘No’ I shamefully admitted.

Realizing sleep was going to be an impossibility I decided to read instead, and I pulled out a book: Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage.

I was re-reading it to prepare for this sermon.

But that was the last thing I’d ever say to a stranger on a plane because then they might think that I’m a pastor.

I’ve learned the hard way that being strapped to a chair with no where to go but the toilet is about the last place you want tell someone you’re a minister.

For example-

There was a different flight to Guatemala, years ago. An elderly Spanish woman was sitting next to me. She was terrified of flying and when she found out I was a man of the cloth, she death-gripped my arm and wept ‘Padre, Padre, Padre’ over and over and then insisted I pray the ‘Our Father’ for the duration of the flight.

Ever since then I try never, ever to tell someone on a plane what it is I do for a living. In fact, I just try to avoid conversation.

Ironically, I’ve found the best way to avoid conversation is by pulling out a bible and letting it lay open on my lap, turned suggestively to somewhere in the Book of Revelation.

Not even Christians want to start a conversation with that kind of person.

But this time I didn’t have my bible. In my bleary-eyed exhaustion I’d mistakenly packed it in my checked luggage. All I had in my carry-on was a theology book- definitely not an option- and a book on marriage.

I pulled the book out of my backpack as the Fasten Seatbelt sign dinged off, and I opened it on my lap.

As soon as I did so, I could feel Daphne’s mascara-heavy eyes no longer reading her article about Tom and Kate but instead bearing down on me with gossipy curiosity: Here’s this man with blood-shot eyes… and a child… and no mother in sight…reading a how-to on marriage…must be trouble on the home front…I could feel her thinking.

‘Are you getting married?’ she asked pointedly and cast an eyebrow Gabriel’s way as if to suggest ‘you’re doing it all backwards.’

When I replied ‘Oh no, I’m already married’ she let out a sigh and said ‘That’s good.’

A moment or two passed. I turned a few pages until I landed on a chapter entitled ‘The Secret of Marriage.’

Daphne’s curiosity was killing her. I could feel it.

‘Are you a counselor? she probed.

‘No’ I said and pretended to go back to reading while she sat there dying to know why I might reading this particular book.

‘Are you a psychologist?’

‘Nope’ I said and left her to stew.

I turned a few pages more. Daphne shifted restlessly in her seat, trying not to appear like she was reading over my shoulder.

When the suspense finally got the better of her, she just blurted it out:

‘Are you and your wife having trouble? Is that it?’

And maybe because her question struck me as a bit forward coming from someone who’d only known me since we’d reached cruising altitude.

Or maybe because I’d gone 24 hours with no sleep and my insides were constricting from cabin pressure and gas pains.

Or maybe because the delighted look I spotted behind her fake eyelashes reminded me of a cat about to pounce on an unsuspecting ball of yarn.

Whatever the reason, I decided then and there to screw with her.

Gabriel was busy watching True Grit on my iPad and couldn’t out me.

So I gathered my breath as though I was about to unload a terrible burden and I said: ‘Yes, my wife and I are having trouble.’

‘The worst kind’ I said. My voice heavy with appropriate sorrow and resignation.

‘Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that’ she lied.

Then she turned in her seat to face me.

‘You poor thing.’ She patted my thigh and for a moment I thought she might pull out a cookie and a glass of milk from her matching Coach handbag.

‘Goodness, I didn’t even get your name’ she said.

‘David,’ I replied. ‘You can call me Dave.’

‘Nice to meet you, Dave.’

‘Nice to meet you too, Daphne.’

‘What kind of trouble are you and your wife having? Money problems? Lots of young couples have problems over money.’

‘No, nothing like that’ I sighed.

‘You can tell me.’

‘Gosh, I don’t know where to start’ and I threw up my hands like I was lost in my own despair.

‘Why not start at the beginning?’

‘The beginning? I…I guess I could do that’ I said, biting my lip with uncertainty.

She stuck People magazine into the seat pocket in front of her, a sign to let me know she was all ears to whatever heartache I needed her to assuage.

‘I guess it all started when I killed a man’ I said nonchalantly and watched as Daphne accidentally swallowed her chewing gum.

‘…took his head clean off, this huge guy.’

Daphne shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

‘I was in the military’ I explained.

‘Oh, where did you serve?’

‘In the Middle East,’ I said, ‘in the Philistine region.’

She nodded and pretended to know where that was.

‘Well, anyway my wife’s father, Sal, he took notice of me and offered me a job.’

‘What sort of work?’ she asked.

‘He’s in politics’

‘And is that how you and your wife met?’

‘No, I wish it was that simple. No, I hadn’t been working for him for very long when he had first episode. That’s what my wife calls it anyway, an episode. Personally, I think something just possessed him. At any rate he just came off his hinges one day and attacked me. Tried to kill me. It was crazy’

‘Goodness’ Daphne said, licking her lips over this unexpected morsel of melodrama. ‘And you and your wife started dating after that?’

‘No, actually I dated her sister for a while. We were even going to get married.’

‘What happened?’

‘She ran off and married another guy.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry’ Daphne said and I could see in her eyes that she was wondering what sort of Jerry Springer Show home I must be raising Gabriel in.

‘Don’t be sorry’ I said. ‘Michelle- that’s my wife- we started dating practically the next day. We fell in love in no time. We were wild for each other. I would’ve done anything for her. I mean you wouldn’t believe the crazy things I gave her just to prove how much I loved her.’

‘What kinds of crazy things?’ Daphne giggled.

‘Foreskins’ I said.

‘Hundreds of them.’

But she must’ve misheard me over the engine noise because she started to tell me how her husband bought her a mink last Christmas but that it’s never cold enough in Miami to wear it.

Just then the stewardess came by with the beverage cart. Daphne ordered a Diet Coke. I asked for a black coffee. Daphne took a sip and asked ‘So when did your troubles start?’

‘Honestly, they started right after we got married. I blame it on her father. He just had it in for me. It got so bad Michelle had to choose between us. She cut off contact with her Dad completely.’

‘That’s a lot of stress on a brand new marriage’ Daphne observed.

‘I know’ I sighed like a Tennessee Williams character.

‘But we got past it. Or I thought we had.’

‘You see right after that I got busy with my career and I spent less and less time at home. And I’m successful, I’m good at what I do. Michelle thinks I care more about my subjects- I mean my clients- than I do my own wife.’

‘There are an awful lot of husbands who can’t show their wives the same kindness they show everyone else’ Daphne said, and I stopped to wonder if maybe she was speaking first hand.

‘I know,’ I said, ‘I’m probably guilty of that too I suppose.’

‘I’m sure you’re not like that David.’

‘Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t even told you told you the worst of it.’

‘So tell me.’ Daphne encouraged.

‘Well, I threw this party. Our boss was coming into town; he hadn’t been there in years and he’s not the sort of boss you want to get on the bad side of, if you know what I mean. So I threw this party of like biblical proportions. Anyway I was dancing. I’ve always loved music. I even write songs in my spare time.

I guess I just got caught up in the music. I wasn’t even drinking. Before I knew what had happened I was dancing completely naked.’

Daphne blushed. ‘That’s disgusting’ she said.

‘Well, uh, what do you mean disgusting? Anyway, Michelle didn’t like that.’

‘No, I imagine she wouldn’t’ Daphne said.

‘Yeah, we had a big fight, one of those arguments where you’re both twisting and turning the other’s words back on them. Michelle said everyone else’s praises had gone to my head, that I believed everything people said about me, that I had a Messiah complex. And I got angry, I guess because I knew it was true.’

‘That’s the thing about marriage,’ Daphne said and started to play with her wedding ring, ‘your spouse sees you for who you really are not who you like to think you are. Marriage exposes you and that kind of truth can hurt.’

‘I guess I feel like we’ve both changed’ I said. ‘Michelle and I, we’re not the same people we were when we first fell in love and got married.’

‘Well of course you’ve changed’ Daphne said, ‘what did you expect? Marriage changes us. Having kids changes us. A career changes us. Age changes us. You’ve got to learn to love the person your spouse is now not hold on to who you thought they were when you first got married.’

‘I don’t know’ I said. ‘I think it might be too late for Michelle and me.’

‘It’s never too late’ Daphne said.

‘I don’t know about that. I think it’s probably too late for Michelle and me. Too much history you could say.’

‘I’ve always said if you both just try to love your spouse like Jesus loves us then a marriage can get through anything’ Daphne said.

I was shocked to hear the word Jesus come out of her mouth.

‘You’re a Christian?’ I asked.

She nodded. ‘Read my bible every day.’

Not all of it, I thought.

‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt. What were you saying?’

‘Just that Jesus loves us not for who we are but for who his love can make us. Jesus didn’t look out for himself or make himself first; he gave himself up for us even when we didn’t deserve it. I think that’s the recipe for forgiveness in any kind of relationship.’

And I just sat there, staring at this strange woman.

‘Too preachy?’ she asked.

‘No,’ I said, ‘I was just thinking that’s actually really good advice.’

‘Well, Dave, you just put it to good use.’

We talked a bit more, about Tom Cruise and Kate What’s-Her-Name, about the weather this time of year in Miami, about my prolific career in politics.

Finally I put my chair back and closed my eyes for about 3.5 seconds before Gabriel asked me to take him to the bathroom.

Later, when we got off the plane, I saw Daphne pulling her suitcase behind her down the terminal.

She was talking to someone on her phone: ‘So I met this man named David. What till I tell you his story. You won’t believe it.’