Let us pray:
Open our eyes that we may see our story in your story, O God. May these words and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
First let me thank Carolyn for preaching last Sunday and for her kindness in checking in on the Hill family this past week while I was away on study leave. While I was away, Raine had a successful surgery to treat a gal bladder infection. Thankfully, at this writing, she is doing well and in good spirits. While at Presbytery on Friday I also heard of another family in the valley that needs our prayer – Dennis Anderson’s granddaughter had a seizure-inducing virus that gave them some fright. She ended up at Doernbecher and is receiving treatment. I ask for prayers on their behalf. Are there any updates?
Second, I facilitated a discussion at Presbyter’s Break Out Sessions on Friday discussing declining membership of our Presbytery’s churches. There were many present with good thoughts to add to my musings, all of which have become research notes for my dissertation. After last week’s class, I have a better sense of the problem I think I will attempt to address in some way. As it stands, the current definition of my problem is this: Generations X, Y, and Z are not being effectively reached by PCUSA congregations in the Pacific Northwest. Further research going forward will be geared toward finding out why. My eventual aim will be to suggest ways the church can engage them better, drawing them into active participation within the life of faith communities. Once again, I thank you for giving me the grace to pursue doctoral studies, which I hope will enrich us all.
We have quite a peculiar set of lectionary scriptures to link together in today’s passages. In Numbers, we have grumbling and snakes, divine retribution and miraculous healing by looking at a graven image sanctioned by God and made by Moses. I don’t know about you, but it just struck me as peculiar that God would first send poisonous snakes to bite and kill the grumblers, but then relent enough with the prayer of Moses to have him make a graven image of the snake as a means of healing. That just seems like a slippery slope to me toward idol worship. Didn’t they learn from the golden calf?
Then in Ephesians we have this strange passage about following the “course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.” What in the world is the writer talking about here? At first glance, I have to admit to a knee-jerk reaction I had, wanting so much to rail at Paul’s completely off base theology. “…the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.” My first reaction to was that any ruler of the power of the air is God. When talking about the spirit now at work among those who are disobedient…I thought the writer might be setting up a dichotomous cosmology with this bad spirit on one side over and against the Holy Spirit on the other – a sort of Yin and Yang existence.
Well, I suppose that is possible, but it’s not what I have experienced of God and God’s sovereignty. If anything is against God, it is our own selfish egos inflating us to be as much like God as we can get away with. But that is not what they thought at the time this was written. Ian S. Markham reminds us,
“…in the classic Greek-influenced cosmology of this period, the space between the moon and the earth, the Greeks believed, was dominated by demonic activity (according to some writers, for example Philo, these demons included both benign and evil beings), operating in the arena where the four elements of earth, water, air, and fire were mixed.
We should not be embarrassed by this cosmology. Every age will think through its theology in the context of its own particular cosmological understanding.”
I wonder, if we were to ascribe “ruler of the power of air” to something negative today, as the writer from the time period of Ephesians reflects, I would need to reinterpret it closer to my own time’s cosmological thinking. True to our contemporary context, there are multiple possibilities, based on ones’ own personal spiritual journey. If, for example, a person believed that there was a being, call it Satan or the devil if you wish, that was an antithesis of God-who is love- then perhaps that antithesis would actually be hate. But then, how would one reinterpret that which controls us?
In olden days, we might have said something like “the devil made me do it.” Today, I would suggest perhaps it would be equally true to say, “my addiction made me do it,” or “my depression makes me this way,” or even any psychological damages from childhood that might sill be enslaving us, or even, and I hesitate to point this out, any unjust social or political realities that are controlling or otherwise manipulating our culture to the point that it negatively affects our way of life and standing in the world.
This can be how we interpret a contemporary context for Ephesians 2:3: “all of us once lived…in the passions of our flesh…[and were] following the desires of flesh and senses.” Then the writer of Ephesians transitions at 2:4 “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which [God] loved us…made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved…” and now the good stuff really gets going: verse 10 reads, “For we are what [God] has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
I hope with that explanation you have made a thematic connection between the Hebrew scripture and Ephesians. I might suggest the connection is life, and life abundant. In Numbers, whenever a snake-bite poisoned person would look upon the bronze snake on a pole, that person would live. Nothing less than a healing miracle would occur. That sets the stage for a complete change of inner perspective – hopefully to gratitude for ones’ life which can now go on instead of a slow and painful death from poisoning. How, then, do these two passages and the theme of life connect to John’s Gospel message for today?
Today’s opening sentences from John read, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” And then of course we have the next verse, John 3:16, which famously states: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
There are probably more sermons out there on the first six words than any other passage in the Bible, not to mention musical scores written with it in mind or with it as text: “For God so loved the world…” God loves the world…do we? This world is full of life. Are we? May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.
 Ian S. Markham, “Theological Perspective, Ephesians 2:1-10” in Feasting on the Word – Year B, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor ((Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0
Questions for Reflection:
What are some of the spiritual or religious practices you follow in your life today?
As you think of your life as a spiritual or religious path, what were some of the features of the way on which you have walked?
What is your practice of prayer?
What were some of the truly memorable moments of worship in your life?
What contributed to making them so significant in your journey of Spirit and faith?
For what are you grateful?
Household Prayer: Morning
Help me walk with you this day. If you lead me where I fear to go, give me courage and keep me true, that I may bear my cross without shame and live in the promise of life eternal. Amen.
Household Prayer: Evening
Jesus, if I stray, show me my fault, forgive my sin, and set me rightly on your path. Keep me on the way of the cross, and lead me to the eternal joy of Easter. Amen.