Mary’s visit to Elizabeth.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 November

In which both of them prophesy to one another.

Luke 1.39-56

When I teach from the gospels, it tends to throw people. Y’see, most of the interpretations we hear in American churches are based on cessationism, the belief prophecy and miracles only happened in bible times, and don’t anymore. As a result of this false, faithless belief, popular Christian culture isn’t familiar with how prophecy works. So when they read about prophets in the bible, they don’t understand what these people are doing. Either people don’t recognize what they’re saying is prophecy, so they miss it altogether; or people interpret everything based on how they imagine prophecy works—and they’ve got some pretty immature ideas.

Starting with why Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth. I kid you not: I’ve heard it preached Mary went to Elizabeth because she wanted to hide her pregnancy. ’Cause that’s what women did in the past when they got pregnant outside of marriage: They went to “visit relatives” for a while… then came back with a new “baby sister” or “cousin.” (Or, if they aborted or gave up the baby, nothing.) Supposedly this is what Mary did: Hid.

Baloney. When Gabriel told Mary she was gonna have a miraculous birth, she knew how babies re made; she naturally wanted to know how this was possible. Gabriel’s answer, as I pointed out, wasn’t all that satisfactory. But for proof, for confirmation—’cause prophecy requires confirmation—Gabriel pointed to Elizabeth. She was pregnant. Mary didn’t know this—nobody knew this—’cause Elizabeth was in seclusion. Lk 1.24 But here was the proof Mary’s pregnancy came from God: “Your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age… and she was called sterile.” Lk 1.36 KWL And if you think that’s impressive, wait till God’s next miracle.

I know; people claim Mary had no doubts whatsoever, and totally believed Gabriel. But that’s not consistent with the scriptures. Why would she then rush to see Elizabeth?

My irritating politics.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 November

My worldview must be built on nothing less than Jesus’s blood and righteousness.

My politics annoy people.

I’m not as conservative as my friends assume I should be. To their minds, all Christians should be as conservative as they. If we’re not, they wonder just how Christian we really are. ’Cause in their minds, Christianity is conservatism; conservatism is Christianity; if you follow Jesus you’re naturally gonna think like they do. Thanks to the human self-preservation instinct, they assume because I don’t think like they do, I’m the one at fault. I’m wrong. (Doesn’t help that I’ll totally admit that.)

I’m not as progressive as my other friends assume I should be. To their minds, all Christians should buck the knee-jerk conservatism of popular Christian culture, ’cause it’s hypocrisy, corrupted by social Darwinists who’ve manipulated gullible social conservatives into adopting their worldview and voting their way. Because I still side with conservatives on many issues, they reckon I’m still stuck in my old knee-jerk ways; I’m not as “enlightened” as they. Not yet. I’ve come this far, so they’ve not given up hope. But they do wish I’d hurry up.

So whenever I express a view, I’m gonna annoy one camp or the other.

That’s the trouble with being a political moderate. Contrary to what Rush Limbaugh’s always taught, a moderate isn’t someone who wants to please everybody and can’t pick a side. Such people do exist, but they’re not moderates. They’re apolitical: They don’t have a side—and don’t care enough to choose one. A true moderate has totally chosen sides: We ally with conservatives on certain issues, progressives on others. Not for the same reasons—because our worldviews don’t match.

See, I’m trying to follow Jesus. No, I’m not saying my conservative and progressive friends aren’t trying to follow Jesus. Some of ’em are, and some not. Some of them think they are, and some aren’t even trying. It’s just that in my quest for Jesus, he points me in directions different Americans consider leftward or rightward. I’m trying to be consistent with his standard, not any one party’s.

I know; some of you totally understand Jesus transcends politics, so you can respect that. But plenty of people don’t believe any such thing: If Jesus could vote, he’d absolutely be in their party. No question. Have you seen the pagans in the opposition party? Great googly moogly.

“Lay down your life” means what now?

by K.W. Leslie, 20 November

John 15.13.

John 15.13 NIV
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

I know; George Benson’s popular 1977 song “Greatest Love of All” (which Whitney Houston remade in 1985) said learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all. Obviously the lyricist didn’t read her bible, and figured the way to feel best about herself was to value herself way above her friends. (Didn’t I just write about how people are inherently selfish?) No surprise, popular culture gets it wrong again.

Translators are awfully fond of phrasing this verse Yoda-style: Object-verb-subject “Greater love has no one,” rather than the usual subject-verb-object “No one has greater love” of today’s English. (The NRSV phrases it normally.) It’s ’cause the King James Version is the most familiar form of the verse, and if translators make it too different for no good reason, people balk. I think clear, readable English is a darned good reason. But that’s me.

Anyway. Right after the average preacher quotes this verse, it’s immediately pointed out, “Jesus demonstrated this very truth himself: He laid down his life for his friends. He died for their sins on the cross. He died for all of us, because he considers all of us his friends. There’s no greater love than Jesus’s love.”

There is no greater love than Jesus’s, but when Jesus made this statement, he wasn’t talking about his soon-coming death on the cross. He was talking about submitting to one another, Ep 5.21 instead of looking out for ourselves. It’s about living for one another. Not dying for one another.

How Mary became Jesus’s mother.

by K.W. Leslie, 16 November

Some of the story behind Mary of Nazareth.

Luke 1.26-38

Last week John’s birth was foretold; this week Jesus’s. Goes like so.

Luke 1.26-38 KWL
26 In Elizabeth’s sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a Galilean town called Nazareth,
27 to a young woman affianced to a man of David’s house, named Joseph;
a young woman named Mary.
28 Entering, the angel said, “Hail, your honor! The Lord’s with you.
You’re blessed above all women.
29 She was alarmed by this message, and was speculating about what this greeting meant.
30 The angel told her, “Don’t fear, Mary: You’ve found grace with God.
31 Look, you’ll conceive in your womb. You’ll give birth to a son. You’ll name him Jesus.
32 He’ll be great. He’ll be called the Most High’s son.
The Lord will give him his ancestor David’s throne.
33 He’ll be king over Jacob’s house in the age to come. His kingdom will never end.”
34 Mary told the angel, “How will this happen?—since I’ve not been with a man.”
35 In reply the angel told her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.
The Most High’s power will envelop you
and the holy one produced will be called God’s son.
36 And look: Your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age.
This is actually her sixth month—and she was called sterile.
37 No word of God is impossible.”
38 Mary said, “Look: I’m the Lord’s slave.
I hope it happens according to your word.” The angel left her.

In Orthodox tradition, Mary was at the Nazareth well, so most Christian art depicts her there, with Gabriel either greeting her, or saying something profound as she looks downward in humility. Something pious, and posed—you know, like artist’s models will do.

Today, the well, and the cave it’s in, is underneath St. Gabriel’s Church in Nazareth. As our tour guide rightly pointed out, if it wasn’t the very place Gabriel appeared to Mary, it doesn’t entirely matter; Mary did go to this well to get water, since it’s Nazareth’s only natural water source. (As a city of 74,000 today, it has to tap a few additional water sources.)

When the art doesn’t depict Mary at a well, it’s often of her at home. Sounds reasonable, ’cause Luke says Gabriel entered, and we usually figure that’d be a building. The Roman Catholics built a chapel, the Basilica of the Annunciation, over the cave where they think Mary’s family lived. Yep, another cave. Caves are all over Israel, and I remind you Jesus was both born in, and buried in, caves. Once again, western art got it wrong: Mary’s family could hardly have afforded the Roman villas they often depict her in. Nazareth was just not that sort of town.

How CCLI shakes down your church.

by K.W. Leslie, 14 November

Thanks to CCLI, copyright-exempt churches across the United States are paying a lot of unnecessary royalties.

One of my responsibilities at my church is multimedia. Yep, I’m the guy who makes sure the words to the worship songs are on the screen, so you can sing along to them.

When I was a kid we still had hymnals. Then we upgraded to overhead projectors; then PowerPoint; then specialized multimedia presentation software which was pretty much PowerPoint with a huge database of songs. Currently I’m using this app called ProPresenter. It’s not bad.

Whether you’re using one app or another, it pretty much works the same way: Our worship leader tells me which songs she intends to inflict on us Sunday morning. If I don’t already have slides for that song, I hop onto the CCLI database and get the lyrics. Then make slides for the verses, the chorus, the bridge, the “extemporaneous riffs” which are really just imitations of what the original musicians did on their YouTube video, and there y’go. Ready for Sunday.

What’s CCLI? It’s Christian Copyright Licensing International, a royalty collection agency. They charge each church an annual fee (anywhere from $49 to $4,260, depending on size), which grants permission to collect sheet music from their site. Chord, lead, or vocal sheets, and their site can transpose it into other keys for you. (That feature’s actually quite handy.) Once you inform them which songs you’ve used, they’ll send royalties to the artists.

And, they claim, you need them. If you do all sorts of things in your church—display or photocopy lyrics, distribute chord sheets, sing popular songs—you need CCLI. What’s implied is you need them lest you violate copyright laws. Point of fact, what you only get from them are sheet music and lyrics.

That’s not nothing. Other lyric websites might misspell words, mix up lyrics, forget to capitalize God’s pronouns, and get the chords wrong. Although years ago I heard Phil Keaggy complain CCLI didn’t get his chords right either, which is why his fans were having such trouble duplicating one of his songs. (To be fair, CCLI probably got the bad info from Keaggy’s publisher, who transcribed the song without any input from Keaggy.)

But copyright protection? Actually, CCLI doesn’t give you that. ’Cause your church doesn’t need it.

You read me right. Your church doesn’t need copyright protection. American copyright laws specifically exempt churches. I’ll quote you the law ’n everything.

Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106 [the copyright holder’s rights], the following are not infringements of copyright: […]

(3) performance of a nondramatic literary or musical work or of a dramatico-musical work of a religious nature, or display of a work, in the course of services at a place of worship or other religious assembly[.] 17 USC §110

Meaning, in other words, singing a song in church, whether as worship, or as “special music.” Meaning when you play a song over the loudspeakers.

If you do this in church, you’re fine. You’re legal. The music publishing companies won’t send a jackbooted tach team to interrupt your services and haul the pastors off to music jail. No matter how much the more paranoid folks in your church would love to see that scenario, as proof the world is out to get ’em.

Back to the Book Pile.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 November

I know; books aren’t everyone’s thing. That’s why, according to Christ Almighty’s stats, last month’s Book Pile article was the least-read thing last month. The public has spoken, and it’s a resounding, “Good Lord, Leslie, you write 1,000-word essays and you expect me to throw books on that? What’re you trying to do, kill me?” Followed by a quick Netflix binge, just to get the foul taste out of their system. (Shudder.) Reading. Ugh.

But for the tiny minority who wants to know what literature I’m plowing through, ’cause they figure it’ll give them some insight into my odd little mind, here y’go. Glean what you can from it. This month:

Next month, more books. ’Cause I’m gonna keep reading… and gonna keep ranting about the stuff I read, whether it’s the obligatory book-review stuff, or the things I read for fun. Yeah, I read theology books for fun. It’s how I roll.

Sealed—not yet baptized—with the Holy Spirit.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 November

’Cause there’s a difference between the two, despite what non-charismatics claim.

Ephesians 1.13-14 KWL
13 In Christ you heard the truthful word—the good news of your salvation!
In Christ you believed; you were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit!
14 He’s the down payment of our inheritance—
releasing our trust fund—praising God’s glory.

’Member when you got saved? Maybe not; maybe it was a gradual process. Doesn’t matter. At some point in that process God decided to take up residence in your life. We call it indwelling. You got “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,” as Paul put it. He’s in you. Right now. Whispering God’s will into you. Hope you’re listening.

Now, non-charismatics claim when the Spirit gets into us like that, yeah it’s called indwelling, but it’s also called “the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” Lk 3.16, Ac 1.4-5 Those two events, they insist, are one and the same. ’Cause the Holy Spirit gets in you and on you, kinda like the water does in the baptismal when you don’t hold your nose.

Why do they claim this? ’Cause they’re non-charismatics. A charismatic believes God absolutely does miracles in the present day. A non-charismatic really doesn’t think so. Some of ’em will be full-on cessationist and claim the miracles stopped back in bible times. Others know better—why even pray, why even ask God for stuff, if he’s tied his own hands and won’t intervene? But they either insist miracles are rare, ’cause for some reason God doesn’t want to overplay his hand; or they insist God only works through natural means, not supernatural.

And if God doesn’t do supernatural stuff, the Holy Spirit’s baptism doesn’t look like it does in Acts 2. Instead it’s invisible. Unnoticeable. Can’t tell the difference between Spirit baptism and when your phone starts to vibrate in your pants pocket. Plus it happens when you got saved: When you were sealed to the Spirit, you were simultaneously baptized by him. Didn’t you feel great when you came to Jesus? Well that’s Spirit baptism. You’re welcome.

Charismatics, by comparison, believe Spirit baptism is gonna resemble its description in the bible. Maybe not with rushing wind and tongues of fire. Then again, maybe so. But if that doesn’t happen, there will at least be speaking in tongues—a topic I’ll discuss elsewhere.

But not today. Today I just wanna make clear: Getting sealed with the Spirit is not the same as getting baptized in the Spirit. One happens when you come to Jesus. The other happens when the Spirit decides you’re ready to use his power.

Taking God’s amazing grace for granted.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 November

Legalism is the opposite of grace. But we’re quick to cry legalism if it gets us out of stuff.

CHEAP GRACE /t Éip gre…™s/ n. Treatment of God’s forgiveness, generosity, and loving attitude, as if it’s nothing special; as if it cost him little.

Whenever I bring up the subject of cheap grace, some Christian invariably objects: “Grace is not cheap.” Even if I’ve explained in advance what I mean by cheap grace; even if I’ve written an entire essay defining the idea.

Every. Single. Time.

’Cause some Christians don’t read. The title’s about cheap grace, so they skip to the comments and object: “Grace isn’t cheap!” They see a link to an article about cheap grace, so they respond to the link or the Tweet or the post, “Grace isn’t cheap!” While speaking, I use the words “cheap grace” in a sentence, and they wait for the first chance to interrupt: “Grace isn’t cheap!”

YES. I KNOW. I’M TRYING TO MAKE THAT POINT. I WOULD IF YOUD LISTEN. So can you please keep your knee from jerking just this once, and give me a minute? Okay? (Betcha I’m still gonna get those comments regardless. You just watch. Ugh.)

Adam Clayton Powell Sr. gets credited with coining this term, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer with popularizing the heck out of it in his The Cost of Discipleship. It’s used to describe “grace”—whenever this grace is misdefined and malpracticed by irreligious Christians. As Bonhoeffer put it,

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. “All for sin could not atone.” The world goes on in the same old way, and we are still sinners “even in the best life” as Luther said. Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin. […] Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Bonhoeffer 44-45

That’s cheap grace: Taking expensive, valuable, amazing grace, and demeaning it by using it as a free pass to sin. Taking God’s safety net, and bouncing on it for fun like a trampoline.

Part of the reason people object to the term “cheap grace” is they don’t like to see God’s generosity taken so casually like that. Well, me neither.

Part of it’s ’cause they don’t think God’s grace actually can be cheapened.

One heck of a birth announcement.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 November

In the other gospels John just shows up. In Luke he’s miraculous.

Luke 1.5-25

Most Christians vastly underestimate the importance and significance of the prophet John bar Zechariah, whom we more commonly know as St. John the baptist.

Largely it’s because we see John as a minor figure, and kinda weird. He showed up, made a lot of noise, preached obedience and repentance… and once Jesus showed up, he faded away. (Or got arrested and beheaded. Same difference.) His only purpose was to point to, and baptize, Jesus, and that done, he died.

Others figure John’s a much bigger deal than that. But only because they believe—incorrectly—that John was the first prophet to appear in 400 years. Supposedly after Malachi finished the Old Testament, God went dark. For four centuries he said nothing and did nothing. Then John shows up, and wham: Prophecy’s back! Revelation is back! The miracles turned back on! God is up to something.

Yeah, that’s entirely wrong. ’Cause

  1. The apocrypha, the “extra books” in non-Protestant bibles, tell of historical events which God was obviously involved in.
  2. Josephus, the first-century Pharisee historian, also told of miracles in those 400 years.
  3. Two, count ’em two, prophets show up to proclaim baby Jesus: Simeon and Anna. Lk 2.25-38 Both of ’em are described as old (Anna was 84) and had likely been prophesying for decades before Jesus was born.

Not to mention the obvious prophetic abilities of Jesus’s parents Joseph and Mary, or John’s parents Zechariah and Elizabeth. In fact everybody with a speaking role in the nativity story (save Herod, of course) was a prophet! But, as usual, cessationist dogma trumps basic reading comprehension.

God has always been talking. There have always been prophets. John didn’t stand out because he was the first prophet of the New Testament era. He stood out because he was an extremely significant prophet: He was Messiah’s herald. And his story begins with an angel, who stands before God’s presence, actually heralding him. Even Messiah’s herald gets the royal treatment. But that’s just a hint as to how important John was, and is.

Jesus’s two genealogies.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 November

Which happens to be a big fat bible discrepancy many Christians skim over.

Matthew 1.1-17 • Luke 3.23-38.

Most Christians are aware Jesus has two genealogies.

These aren’t genealogies the way we do ’em. We do family trees: We include ancestors from all sides of the family, fathers and mothers both. Often we include aunts, uncles, and cousins; if we’re not particular about blood relations we’ll even include step-parents. Our family trees can get big and complicated.

Hebrew genealogies don’t. They turn into trees downward, when they’re listing one person’s descendants, as you can see from the first chapters of 1 Chronicles. But when they’re listing ancestors, they’re straight lines: You, your father, your father’s father, that grandfather’s father, that great-grandfather’s father, and so on back.

Thing is, Jesus has two of these lists. In Matthew 1, it’s a list of ancestors from Abraham to Joseph. And in Luke 4, it’s a list of male ancestors backwards, from Joseph to Adam to God. And they don’t match.

Parts do. But a whole lot of it doesn’t. I’ll let you read it. My translation. In Matthew I dropped the repetitive, superfluous instances of “begat”; in Luke all the “son of” (Aramaic bar) statements. You know their relationships.

Matthew 1.1-17
1 The book of the genesis of Messiah Jesus,
bar David, bar Abraham.
2 Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.
Jacob: Judah and his brothers.
3 Judah: Pérech and Zérakh by Tamar.
Pérech, Hechrón, 4 Ram,
Amminadáv, Nakhshón, Salmón.
5 Salmón: Boaz by Rahab.
Boaz: Obed by Ruth.
Obed, 6 Jesse, King David.
David: Solomon through Uriah’s woman.
7 Solomon, Rekhav√°m, Aviy√°h,
8 As√°f, YehoŇ°af√°t, Yor√°m,
9 Uzíyahu, Yotám, Akház,
10 Hezekiah, Manashéh, Amón, Josiah.
11 Josiah: Yekhony√°hu and his brothers during the Babylonian exile.
12 After the Babylonian exile: Yekhony√°hu.
Yekhonyáhu, Shaltiél, 13 Zerubbabel,
Avih√ļd, Elyak√≠m, 14 Az√ļr,
Chad√≥k, Yakh√≠n, 15 Elikh√ļd,
Ele√°zar, Matdan, Jacob.
16 Jacob: Joseph, Mary’s man.
From her was born Jesus, who’s called Messiah.
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David: 14 generations.
From David to the Babylonian exile: 14 generations.
From the Babylonian exile to Messiah: 14 generations.
Luke 3.23-38 KWL
23 Jesus himself was starting round his 30th year.
He was presumed the son of Joseph bar Ili—
24 bar Maddát, Leví, Malkhí, Yannaí, Joseph,
25 Mattityáhu, Amos, Nahum, Heslí, Naggaí,
26 Mákhat, Mattityáhu, Shimí, Yoshí, Yodáh,
27 Yochanán, Reishá, Zerubbabel, Shaltiél, Nerí,
28 Malkhí, Adí, Kosám, Elmadán, Er,
29 Yesh√ļa, Ele√°zar, Yor√≠m, Matt√°t, Lev√≠,
30 Shimón, Judah, Joseph, Jonám, Elyakím,
31 Mal√°h, Man√°h, Mattat√°h, Nathan, David,
32 Jesse, Obed, Boaz, Sheláh, Nakhshón,
33 Amminadáv, Admín, Arní, Hechrón, Pérech, Judah,
34 Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Térakh, Nakhór,
35 Ser√ļg, Re√ļ, P√©leg, √Čver, Shel√°h,
36 Ke√Įn√°n, ArfakhŇ°√°d, Shem, Noah, L√©mekh,
37 MetuŇ°el√°kh, Enoch, Y√©red, Mahalal√©l, Ke√Įn√°n,
38 En√≥sh, ҆et, Adam, God.