Poor Leah. She’s pathetic. This 17th century painting depicts Jacob (on the right with Leah) hauling her before Laban her father in indignation after Jacob discovered he had just spent the night with her instead of his preferred bride, her sister Rachel.

As our text from Genesis 29:31 – 30:24 shows us, Leah continues playing second fiddle to Rachel in Jacob’s affections, while trying desperately to obtain his love by the only means available to her, having babies. In her defense, we are told at the outset that it is God who “opened her womb.” The children she bears with Jacob are the Lord’s gift to her. But she wrongly imagines that means God is also granting her an improved position with regard to Jacob. No, he still prefers Rachel, as the rest of Genesis makes clear.

Even the writer of Genesis seems to give in to Jacob’s preference for Rachel, and her first son becomes the focus of the end of the book. If one had to guess, you might imagine that Joseph would become the ancestor of the kings of Israel and ultimately of the Messiah.

Yet it is out of Leah that the ancestor of the kings and of Jesus comes. And that ancestor is not even the firstborn of Jacob and Leah, but their fourth son, Judah.

So a younger son of the less-loved wife becomes the head of the tribe which brings forth the salvation of the world. It’s another confirmation that God does not see things as we do, does not always focus on the most attractive, on the first in line, on the most likely to succeed. No, He regularly chooses the unloved, the hopeless, the foreigner, the least of the least, in order to accomplish His purpose, because His purpose is to show love to all, no matter one’s standing in society or in a family.

May God’s love to Leah and her fourth son remind us of His love to us when we are feeling left out or forgotten or unloved. May it also remind us to be careful how we regard the people around us who don’t seem to have much going for them. God might be in their corner. Leah might be their mother.

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I generally like to post images with these blog posts, either some contemporary image that connects with the Scripture text at hand or some classical painting or icon of the biblical story. As I looked for images of the first murder in Genesis 4:1-16, Cain slaying his brother Abel, my attention was focused by one particular site which called attention to the skin tones in one of these paintings. Made aware by that note, I began to look at other paintings of the primal fratricide. Overwhelmingly in these images, including in paintings by Titian and Rubens, Cain is portrayed with darker skin than Abel.

My survey of Cain and Able art on the Internet is by no means scholarly or definitive, but it certainly appears as if there is at least an unconscious, if not conscious, tendency to associate dark skin with spiritual failure, violence and uncivilized behavior. It’s a little ironic in this context because Cain ends up being the founder, in a sense, of human civilization as he builds a city in Genesis 4:17.

I would not have even noticed that difference in color between images of Cain and images of Abel if someone else had not pointed it out. That suggests to me that there are whole realms of unconscious prejudice and injustice in us which help perpetuate the misunderstanding and hatred which generated that first murder. We allow our minds to be influenced by differences which are not differences and fail to attend to the darkness of our own hearts and to address, as God says to Cain in verse 7, the sin which “is lurking at the door…”

We must resist trying to answer the question just why Abel’s offering of an animal sacrifice was acceptable while Cain’s offering of fruit and grains was not. Both sorts of offerings appear later and are commanded by God. It’s much more likely to be some interior state of the soul which was different in the brothers rather than some quality of their offerings, though even about that we cannot be sure.

However, neither should we imagine that there is ultimately no difference between the offerings other than God’s simple to choice to accept one rather than the other. That leads us down the path Karl Barth and I am sure others take to see the doctrine of “election” appearing for the first time in this text. That kind of thinking will only leave us helpless in the hands of a capricious and ultimately unjust God. No, it is probably better to err in the direction of offering some mistaken account of Cain’s failure and Abel’s success in worshiping God, than to place the whole division between the two in some inscrutable whim of the their Creator. Such a god would not be worthy of their or anyone else’s worship.

Yet the real question for us in this text is how to do what God asks Cain to do in verse 7, to master that sin that lurks at the door, to overcome and let go of the tendency to violence that arises among even in the closest of human relationships.

Fortunately, God Himself shows us the path which is ultimately made plain in Jesus. In verse 15, God is merciful to Cain, sparing his life and protecting him from a retaliatory murder by others in turn. There is our model, even in regard to those who have gone far down the path of Cain. We resolve nothing by further killing, but our brothers and sisters, and the world, are saved when we imitate our God by extending grace and forgiveness.

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Happy new year to everyone! This past Saturday, while I was home on a little vacation, we took our Christmas tree down to make room for the Epiphany open house we host each year. But our lights outside are still up and will be for at least another week. Some strings, wrapped around trees in our yard, stay up all year even though we don’t turn them on.

A few years ago it seemed like we were almost the only house in our neighborhood with Christmas lights, but there seem to have been a few more this year than in the past. There is something cheering and heartening about coming home in the dark (which is anytime after 4:30 or so here in Oregon in midwinter) and seeing all those lights ablaze in the darkness.

Unless you spend a lot of time out in the wilderness or in developing countries, it may be hard to imagine Isaiah’s situation as he wrote our text for this Sunday, Isaiah 60:1-6, in a world without electric lighting of any sort, much less gaudy displays of Christmas lights. As he declares, “Arise, shine…!” he can only have in mind candles, oil lamps and such shining in the “thick darkness” over the earth and its peoples in verse 2.

The light with which God’s people are called by Isaiah to shine is a borrowed light. As the rest of verse 2 says, “the Lord will arise upon you; and his glory will appear over you.” It’s to that light shining in and through God’s people that nations and kings will come in verse 3.

Christians understood those prophetic words to be about the glory of God appearing in Jesus Christ. The kings of other nations who would come to the light evoked the visit of the magi in Matthew 2, which we also read this Sunday. In fact an important day in the church year, Epiphany on January 6, is all about the shining forth of God’s glory in Jesus. Isaiah’s text helps remind us that His light is meant not only to shine upon us but through us in the dark.

In many ways, these seem like dark times. For the first time since my childhood, nuclear war seems again a live possibility for our world. Our nation is deeply divided, not only politically, but by a constantly widening gap between those who are wealthy and those who are not. Yet again in the history of our faith, Christians themselves are divided from each other, over seemingly irreconcilable differences in politics and morality. We are meant to be a mirror reflecting our Lord’s light, but further splits in the already thoroughly splintered reflection seem inevitable.

Yet, for all that, Isaiah calls us to arise and shine. And I believe we can. It is always God’s light, not ours. Perhaps our own inability to reflect or even perceive His light very well will make it more apparent that is truly He who shines in the darkness around us. Let us remember John 1:5, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

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At Home

Beth and I have owned three houses over our marriage. Our first was in Nebraska and we had it for about 6 years. Our second was in Springfield when we came to Oregon and is where our daughters grew up. There were many memories made over 15 years in that place. The third, where we live now in Eugene, we bought a little over 8 years ago to get closer to our church and quit driving 20-30 minutes each way every day to work and school. The memories there are starting to add up now too.

All our houses have been “used,” built by others, although the second was only a couple years old when we bought it. We’ve never had the fun and excitement of planning and building a house “to order,” but it’s a pleasant day dream.

This Sunday’s sermon text from II Samuel 7:1-16 turns on a little divine play on words around who is going to build a house for whom. This lectionary text was chosen to key off the Gospel lesson from Luke 1:26-38, where the angel Gabriel promises Mary that her Son will be given “the throne of his father David.” So this Old Testament reading takes us back to place where David is promised an everlasting kingdom, a dynasty that will last forever.

The divine joke happens because in the first part of the text, verse 2, David wants to build a “house,” a permanent place for the Ark of the Covenant, which is still sitting in a tent, the Tabernacle. God surprises everyone, even Nathan the prophet, by announcing that He doesn’t want a house from David. In fact, God is going to build David a “house,” meaning that dynasty of which Mary’s Son became the culmination.

Which all might make us reflect a little on the importance my generation puts on home ownership and all that goes with it. Perhaps we ought to have thought a bit more about preparing ourselves to live in the eternal house that God offers us through Jesus Christ. In Him is where we have a truly permanent place to live.

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“My luck is bound to change.” “His luck is sure to run out.” “Things just have to get better.” “I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.” All those phrases express in some form the “Gambler’s Fallacy,” sometimes also known as “The Monte Carlo Fallacy.” The technical name is “the fallacy of the maturity of chances.” The idea is that a long string of events on one side of things, like a coin coming up heads in a toss ten times in a row, somehow makes it more likely that an event on the other side will occur.

The problem is that even after ten heads in a row, the chance of tails (or heads) in the next toss remains 50-50. That’s true even after 100 heads in a row, or a thousand. We have the sense that things ought to “even out,” and there is even good evidence that coin tosses do even out in the long run. However, the coin, and the physical universe, retain no memory of what’s gone before. Though it seems counter-intuitive, the chance of tails (or heads) remains the same for the next toss no matter how many heads have come up before.

Many gamblers, including those at a famous roulette incident in 1913 in Monte Carlo, have learned the hard way the fallacy of expecting things to even out for them. The laws of nature just aren’t written that way. However, there is a higher law than the laws of nature, written by the Creator of the laws of nature. So our text for this Sunday, Isaiah 61:1-11, testifies to God’s promise that He will even things out for His people, that the misfortune and punishment they have endured will be recompensed with divine blessing and favor.

The first couple verses of the text, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…” are famously quoted by Jesus in Luke 4:18-19.

For Isaiah the point is that God is going to restore what was taken away from Israel in the exile to Babylon. They will be able to rebuild their homes, plant vineyards and pasture flocks in peace and prosperity and joy after long years of suffering and slavery in a foreign country. As God says in verse 8, “I will faithfully give them their recompense.” That is, He will “re-compensate” them for all they have lost.

As Christians, our job is to accept the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of recompense in Jesus Christ and to look forward to the final and complete recompense that is promised when Jesus returns, while disbelieving all forms of the Gambler’s Fallacy regarding short-term events in our world.

For those who have mourned the heartlessness and immorality of the current administration and reigning party in America, last night’s victory in Alabama for Doug Jones probably feels like a bit of recompense, an evening out of the score on the side of decency and justice. As the first part of Isaiah 60 verse 8 says, “I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing.”

Yet we must avoid the temptation to Gambler’s Fallacy thinking even when “luck” turns toward our own conceptions of social good. There is no political law of nature guaranteeing recompense for wrongs that are done, no “invisible hand” of the market or any other force in this world that will always even things out for those who are poor and oppressed. Our only hope is in a Lord who loves His people so much that He and He alone will not allow them to suffer forever. As we read in Isaiah 40 verse 10, “his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” True recompense comes to us with the arrival of the true God, not with anyone else.

So this Advent let us turn from all our short-term and very possibly false expectations of better fortune through some sort of natural evening out of events. And let us turn more and more toward our true and perfect hope that we have a Lord who will in fact come to even out this world and provide joyful and everlasting recompense to those who hope in Him.

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This year, we were going to encourage our congregation to fast in some way during Advent. As things turned out, I think I got in all my fasting before Advent even began. Two weeks of diarrhea because of a C. difficile infection forced me to live on the “BRAT” diet, bananas, rice, applesauce and toast, plus some jello. No Thanksgiving dinner for me. If I never see another banana, it will be too soon.

The first medication I was given did not help, and relief and comfort finally began to arrive in the form of a second antibiotic that slowly began to turn the tide. I am very grateful now to be returning to a normal diet and finding my gut behaving itself.

As I turn to our text for this Sunday, Isaiah 40:1-11, it occurs to me that my forced “fast” and even our voluntary acts of fasting and renunciation enact for us in miniature the kind of experience reflected for Israel in Isaiah’s prophecies. They endured a long period of suffering followed by God’s provision for their relief and comfort.

The focus of Isaiah’s prophecies is Israel’s exile in Babylon. Chapters 1 to 39 are written from a perspective leading up to that awful event, warnings that it is coming interspersed with a few words of hope and promise of return and renewal. With chapter 40 the perspective changes to the exile already in progress and almost over. God calls for His people to be comforted in verse 1 and then in verse 2 declares “cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

Verse 3 goes on to announce the deliverance out of Babylon, a highway in the wilderness on which God’s people will return to their own land. Their comfort will take the tangible form of an actual return to their rightful place in the world.

Though we may bemoan current states of affairs, we in North America continue to live lives where discomfort is often relatively swiftly alleviated. There was a remedy for my infection and I could hope for a not-too-distant recovery. So it is good to have seasons like Advent and Lent, where we step back and willingly allow ourselves some sacrifice or discomfort. In those times, we can more deeply appreciate God’s plans to bring lasting comfort to all His people.

The middle of our text, verses 6 to 8, is a reflection on our true condition, that human life is like grass, springing up but quickly fading away and dying. What could possibly comfort us in the face of that reality? The answer appears in the final verses of the passage in the promise of the arrival of God in our midst. It is His coming that will put all suffering to flight and grant us eternal and lasting comfort.

In the last image of the text we see our Lord as the Good Shepherd, carrying His lambs. Our ultimate comfort is in the arms of Jesus.

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Trusted with Talents

Though it is often unrecognized in these times, the Bible has deeply influenced our culture and language, including even what our words mean. This Sunday’s text from Matthew 25:14-30 is a prime example. The parable’s use of the Greek word “talent,” what was then a measure of weight and, as applied to precious metal, an amount of money, created a new meaning for the word in many other languages. As Christians read and interpreted this parable, they did it understanding the “talents” to represent something God has bestowed upon each individual. So the word “talent” came to¬†mean a personal natural endowment, some sort of skill or ability possessed by an individual. The original meaning of the word as a unit of weight or currency has almost completely disappeared, except in studies of ancient society.

Thus sermons on this parable almost inevitably interpret it along the pathway carved out by linguistic development over the centuries. That is, we take Jesus to be talking about the stewarding of individual abilities, spiritual gifts, or the like. We understand that He means for us to take whatever natural blessings we enjoy and put them to work for His kingdom.

That kind of interpretation of the “talents” in terms of what the word has come to mean in English (and Spanish and modern Greek and I would guess in several other languages as well), that is as individual ability and resource, is fine as far as it goes. We do in fact want to use well the gifts God has given us and put them to use for Him.

However, we need to remember that the word “talents” in the parable did not mean “talents” in our sense when Jesus told the story. We must also recognize that the parable is plainly set in a context (between two other parables and after chapter 24) aimed at being ready for the return of Christ. The “talents” with which the slaves are entrusted may have more to do with the message and practical work of the kingdom than with exercise of personal abilities.

Sure, we can let this story urge us not to waste our talents in the modern sense. But it also needs to call us to be faithful and diligent with the Good News of the kingdom of God and its living demonstration in our lives. This parable may actually be akin to the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, a word about whether the message of Jesus produces any concrete results in the way in which we live once we’ve received it.

So thank God for your talents, but don’t get too wrapped up in whether you are using them to their fullest. This parable is more about whether you and I are doing as Jesus said in Matthew 6:33, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness [justice!], and all these things will be given to you as well.”

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In or Out?

Exclusion is not a very popular topic, at least in the Christian circles in which I typically go round. Exclusiveness, so we imagine, characterizes those nasty fake Christians of the alt-right or at Westboro Baptist Church, but not us gentle, Christ-like, progressive Christians who love and accept everyone.

A few of my friends and at least a couple of the theologians I read regularly (Robert Farrar Capon and David Bentley Hart) are universalists who adopt the view that Christ’s salvation will extend to all people, no one excluded. I haven’t yet been convinced, though I certainly wish universalism were true, because I keep bumping into texts like our Gospel reading for this Sunday, Matthew 25:1-13, the parable of the ten virgins. As much as I’d like to have Jesus be the all-inclusive, totally accepting savior my universalist friends advocate, what He said just doesn’t always square with that sort of inclusivism.

God forbid that I give the impression that I am in favor any form of hate speech or activity. May what I’m saying not offer any hint of excuse for excluding people from God’s love on the basis of race or culture or language or gender or even on the basis of moral purity. But the Scriptures do in fact confront us with texts that turn on the idea that God does and will exclude at least some people from His kingdom.

Sunday’s parable is difficult not just because of the exclusionary tone. It’s hard to discern just where it is pointed. Some later interpreters have made it out to have the same concern as the parables of the two sons and the wicked tenants (Matthew 21), God’s turning to Gentiles when the Jews were unreceptive to Jesus. The long-standing traditional view of the church is that it is about the final judgment, along the lines of the parable of the sheep and the goats later in the chapter. On the latter view, the “oil” which half the virgins lack, is good works or love or something of that sort.

The other difficulty of the parable is that it is hard to situate the story itself in a concrete cultural setting of wedding customs. We know very little about Jewish wedding customs in Jesus’ day and what we do know does not completely fit the story as Jesus tells it.

So I have a lot to think about before preaching this parable on Sunday, but I’m starting from the point that it suggests to me that we ought not be too complacent about our entry into the kingdom of God and our status in His judgment. A Christian faith that produces little in the way of actual activity or preparation for the coming of our Savior is foolish, like the impractical foolishness of the ditzy girls in this wedding story. May we not be ditzy about how we ready ourselves to meet the Lord.

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Pure Hope

There’s nothing like pregnancy to make a woman want to get in shape. At least as far as I understand it, the news that there is a new precious little life inside one’s body transforms your priorities. Ideally, all other pleasures and concerns take backseat to the priority of bringing a child into the world. In that hope of welcoming a strong, healthy son or daughter, one takes strong measures.

Alcohol, of course, is the first thing to go. Beth, my wife, gave up chocolate (a huge sacrifice) and caffeine during her first pregnancy. She took an exercise class. She took vitamins. She watched her diet. Life got reordered around the hope and promise of the coming birth.

Something like but even greater than the hope of pregnancy is what John has in mind in our text for this Sunday, which we are celebrating as All Saints Sunday. I John 3:1-3 speaks of our status as believers in Jesus Christ. We are “children of God.” The only begotten Son of God has brought us into a sibling relationship with Himself, making us also God’s children.

Verse 2 is wonderfully suggestive, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” There is more to what Jesus has done for us and will do for us than we can see right now. We have this new status as God’s sons and daughters, but the full ramifications of that status are yet to be seen. It’s much like the expectation of pregnancy when one knows and understands that a child is on the way, but the full implications of that arrival are yet to be disclosed, and will take years and years.

The full implications of what we will be in Christ “when we see him as he is,” will take an eternity to unfold. The joy of knowing God’s love will keep on growing and expanding, far beyond anything we may anticipate now. Yet, like the hope of pregnancy, the hope of our ongoing birth as children of God calls us to measures of preparation. John says that “All who have this hope in him purify themselves…”

We see something of what that purification means in the Gospel reading for All Saints Sunday, the Beatitudes from Matthew 5:1-12. The children of God will cultivate and follow a spiritual discipline and virtue that prepares them to receive the love and blessing of God, even things like spiritual poverty, meakness, and a sadness (mourning) for the evil of this world. One of the beatitudes is specifically for the “pure in heart.”

As we remember this Sunday those who have gone before us and who in Christ are already experiencing some of the fruition of that hope of what we will become in Him, their lives call us to take those measures which prepare us to be with them. We think especially of those Christians whose lives are shining examples of those who have purified themselves in the hope of that new life. May our worship this Sunday help us to imitate them and purify ourselves in hope.

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In His Hand

A day’s wages for an ordinary laborer in Jesus’ time was a single coin, a Roman coin called a denarius. It was small, about the size of a dime, but thicker and heavier and made of silver. The common word for money in several languages, like dinero in Spanish, comes from the name of this coin.

Denarii were generally imprinted with the image of the current emperor. In our text for this week from Matthew 22:15-22, that would have been Tiberius, the successor of Augustus Caesar. In response to a question about paying taxes, Jesus requested and held a denarius like this because it was the amount of a general “head tax” on every man in the empire.

Presumably the question about paying taxes to Caesar was religiously motivated for the Pharisees and Herodians who were trying to trap Jesus. Along with the emperor’s image, the tax coin was imprinted on the front with the title “divine son.” So it might have seemed problematic for faithful Jews to pay a tax to someone with pretensions to divinity using a coin which expressed those pretensions.

Jesus famously derailed the question which might have trapped Him into saying something subversive against the civil government by declaring in verse 21, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…,” to use the KJV language. Caesar’s image is on the coin, so it clearly belongs to him. This call for submission to payment of taxes, even unjust taxes, is often ignored by conservatives who would rather point to Romans 13 to talk about acquiescing to a current governing party or politician while at the same time urging rebellion against taxation and cutting of taxes.

The real cutting edge of Jesus’ answer is the second half of verse 21, “and render unto God what is God’s.” If we are to give to the emperor the coinage on which his image is imprinted, then let us give to God that on which His image is imprinted. In the world of the Bible, it is our own selves which are stamped with the image of God. It is our own very beings which are to be rendered back to their divine owner.

So the thought for the week is how we may practically and regularly give our lives back to God from whom they came, how we may concretely acknowledged His stamped image on us. He intends that His image be manifest in us, that in giving ourselves to Him we look more and more like Him in His love and grace.

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