Cultural critic and wise professor, Gerald Early, once famously said, “I think there are only three things America will be known for in 2,000 years from now when they study this civilization: the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball.” Three quintessential American creations. We can’t know Jesus’ thoughts on the Constitution and baseball (although I’d like to hope that he would approve, although both are imperfect), but I do think we have some insights into Jesus’ take on jazz. It all comes down to the Hebrew idea of midrash.
Let me take a step back for a second. Just in case you are not familiar, Jazz is a musical genre born of African Americans in New Orleans of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Characterized by dynamic improvisational instrumental expression around many different and changing rhythms. A good jazz musician can hear the beat and the key and improvise in and out with beautiful and inventive ease. Take a moment and watch the video below of Mile Davis stunningly riffing and expanding upon the music around him in such a masterful way.
The Hebrew idea of midrash is similar, in that it takes the scriptural text, the context, the implications of the text, what is not said in the text, and what the possibilities of the text are and explores a dynamic dialogue with a holy text. The Talmud is a collection of Jewish scholars wrestling with the Hebrew Scriptures through the centuries and bringing new insights to their communities. When Jesus gathered with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion for the Passover feast, he was performing a new type of midrash! In Luke 22:15, Jesus says “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”. He then took the bread and wine and instead of talking about the lamb that would be slain and the blood being put on the doorposts of the house to protect the first born of the Jewish households in Egypt, he astonished them by making this imagery about himself! He is pronouncing a new midrash of meaning upon an old Hebrew story. He is taking the rhythm of the Torah and bringing a whole new innovative understanding to the word of God through Jesus, the Word of God.
The justice of God displayed in the rescue of the enslaved Israelite people, is now at work in Jesus, bringing liberation to all of humanity enslaved to sin through his death and resurrection. Then when the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, they discover the joy of God – the heart of God’s desire for how humans will interact with God and each other as found in the Ten Commandments. Back to the New Testament, fifty days after Jesus’ death and resurrection at Easter, we have Pentecost, where the Church is born and the joy of God’s desire for humanity is revealed in the equipping of people to share God’s love beyond cultural boundaries to the entire world. So the Passover and Jesus’ Last Supper display God’s JUSTICE and Mount Sinai and Pentecost bring clarity to God’s JOY for how humans are to live in relationship. Do you see it? The midrash, the jazz of God.
So, we don’t know if Jesus played a musical instrument, but he certainly played a beautiful and holy jazz improvisation on the scared, well known themes of the Hebrew Scriptures. To be a good jazz musician, you must first learn your instrument and know the traditional songs and how to play them before you improvise. The greatest of jazz musicians were always incredibly disciplined in their approach to their craft. Similarly, Jesus knew his tradition well. Remember when he was just twelve and amazed all the temple priests with his questions and understanding? (Luke 2:41-52) Later, when Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17) Before he can fulfill the law in new and profound ways, he must know the law. Before he can improvise, he has to know his stuff! So, we too are also called to read, study and seek understanding of the Bible and Jesus’ life with disciplined dedication before we can be expected to riff on and explore how Jesus is alive in our own lives. And what a discovery that will be!
The music of the Spirit is out there. Can you hear it? It’s been playing since the dawn of creation and is waiting, beckoning for you to take up your instrument and join in with the band. Perhaps you need to work on your scales and chords, or maybe it’s your time to bravely share your creative improvisational skills in the ever changing, ever transforming, ever consuming, ever loving ballad of God. Jazz and Jesus – that would be something. Jazz, Jesus and you – well now, that’s what this whole thing is about!
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
This passage from Hebrews speaks to the power of faith. If you were to keep reading the entire chapter, you would see that the text goes on to inventory a long list of biblical hopers who have lived according to God's promises. These powerful promises of faith both have inward and outward dimensions. The “assurance of things hoped for” speaks to the inward ramifications and the “conviction of things not seen” tell of the outward realities of faith. Faith has power to totally transform our internal and external worlds.
Inwardly, the assurance of faith gives us confidence in troubled times that Divine promises for peace/shalom, justice, mercy, forgiveness, and God’s unwavering love for humanity can be trusted with your whole heart. Actually, the word assurance in the NRSV translation is taken from the Greek word hypostasis, which means the “very being.” The same word, later used to describe the nature of Jesus as both God and human. So: “faith is the very being of things hoped for”. We can have more than confidence, because the reality of these promises in the midst of our sinful and dark world is as if faith in God were an advancing force operating behind enemy lines.
Outwardly, the Apostle Paul reminds us that we are the “Body of Christ.” This means that those who say they trust that Jesus is the Messiah and follow his teachings are to be the living manifestation of him in the world. Which leads us to be agents of peace/shalom, justice, mercy, forgiveness, and love for neighbors as for ourselves.
Inwardly – in faith, we sing We Shall Overcome
Outwardly – with faith, we march at Selma
Inwardly – in faith, we hold to God’s promises of direct action to bring about the end of all crying and mourning.
Outwardly – with faith, we pray with those who mourn, serve tenderly, those who weep, work tirelessly to ease pain and burdens of the wounded.
Inwardly – in faith, our hearts are moved.
Outwardly – with faith, we can move mountains.
Inwardly – we trust in the mysterious transcendence of God, that is beyond our greatest imaging.
Outwardly – we discover the immanence of God, that is intimately close to us and the desire to share it.
But, this two-fold dynamic of inward and outward faith can break down in our attempts to be faithful. We are human, after all. We can either let fear creep into our inward feelings and/or allow exhaustion to overwhelm our outward expressions of faith. Fear can lead to the futile attempt to overcome it by clinging to a sense of certainty, whereas exhaustion can lead to one to fall into indifference. Certainty and indifference, not doubt, are the polar opposites of faith. I have said many times before that doubt is not the opposite of faith, but an evidence of faith because it is a sign of meaningful wrestling. Like Jacob struggling with God until he got a blessing, we too do not struggle with things that we don’t care about. Struggle is part of the faith journey. Remember that the new name for Jacob, that God gave him, was Israel. It means: to struggle with God and humanity and to be spared.
So, if you have doubts, that is okay. It does not mean that you have failed as being a person of faith in Jesus Christ. It means you are wrestling with something. Pay attention to what blessing God may give to you.
If you have made certainty of biblical interpretation and faith your goal, you will be disappointed. Sure, it may alleviate some temporal anxiety, but it cannot encapsulate the whole of God’s purposes. You can never be 100% certain of anything in this life. In fact, even Jesus said that the angels in heaven and even he did not know the “day and hour” of his return (Matthew 24:36), so how can certainty be a goal of faith? It actually wouldn’t even be faith then, right? Faith is trust. Faith is a risk. Faith is personal. Faith is an inward movement of our spirit in tune with the Holy Spirit.
If you have told yourself that to be faithful it is up to you to outwardly solve all the societal problems, you will soon be exhausted. You will get overwhelmed. You will grow indifferent. Faith is also an outward movement of our spirit in time to the beat of God’s justice song. When we know we are not alone in the work of transforming and translating God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, we begin to discover that the journey of faith and growth is a daily one and the destination is unclear. But do you have the faith of a mustard seed? It doesn’t have to be much. Maybe you’ve been beaten down by situations and relationships in your life that were not what you needed. You’re tired, depressed, ready to let go. Please know that the invitation of Jesus to his first disciples still stands for you! They asked him where he was staying and he said to them (and to you), “Come and see” (John 1:39). Jesus did not offer them certainty, but the opportunity to be in a transformative relationship. He offers you the same with the gift of faith that will totally renovate your inward and outward lives.
We have all been on a harrowing journey this year as we all struggle to stay safe and work from home if we are privileged enough to do in the midst of this pandemic. So, I thought it would be important to get back to the basics of our faith and preach a sermon series on the “Road Trips of the Bible.” Who wouldn’t want to just get in a car and drive somewhere and leave all your cares behind? Obviously we can’t do that right now, but I did want to explore many of the stories of the Bible where God takes people on a journey of faith. So far, we started at the end of Easter, with the story of the risen Jesus on the Road to Emmaus with two disciples. Then we came back to the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph’s trip from being betrayed to becoming a blessing for the world. This Sunday, we start to take a look at the journey of Moses and the liberation of the Covenant People out of slavery.
I have been getting a good response from people and in the Zoom Bible Study on Wednesday nights at 7:00 PM (ET). So, I’ve decided to expand this series to touch on many more journeys of ordinary people being called by God to live out the divine promise of blessing for the world. We are going to dive deep into these powerful stories throughout the Old and New Testaments that, I feel, gets at the whole meaning of what religion is supposed to mean. Let me explain.
The root word for “religion” comes from the Latin word for ligament: ligare. Ligaments are, as we all know, the connective tissue in our bodies that holds bones together. In its most elemental form, the word religion means to “bind back” or to “reconnect” that which has become disconnected. These stories of journey in the Bible display the passion in which God attempts to reconnect to us. The first eleven chapters of Genesis is all about how we are broken and disconnected from God – in the second creation account of Adam and Eve, the murder of Able by his brother Cain, Noah and the flood, the Tower of Babel. In all these stories, we see how we have become disconnected to God, to each other, to ourselves, and creation. Religion is the attempt to reconnect to God.
We probably all feel pretty disconnected right now, through staying at home and social distancing when we have to go out. We salute all our essential workers who are our healthcare workers, emergency responders, grocery store workers, sanitation workers, police and fire personnel, and so many more for their service to our society. We also know that many of them are struggling with all the suffering from risks that they are taking on our behalf. That sense of disconnection has always been with us, but now we just don’t have the thin veneers of cultural distraction to occupy our minds. We are like Adam and Eve hiding naked in the Garden after taking the fruit in the hopes to “see” as God does, desperate to cover ourselves.
God wants to journey with you though this crisis. The power of these ancient Road Trip stories found in the Bible is that they are so relevant to all our situations today. They involve a call to a promise from God that demands a response from humanity. Those brave enough to respond are not perfect, as the Bible attests to, but they embraced, struggled, and trusted in God even in the midst of the sometimes hidden nature of their call. Make no mistake; you too are being called by God to become what God’s dream for you can be. Maybe joining us as we dig into these ancient and timely stories of people responding to God can help you discover in a new way your own challenges, worries, and fears and know that you can overcome them with God at your side! That is what religion is about, anyway – finding God and learning who you can become.
I'm a follower of Christ, husband, father, friend, pastor, story teller, asker of questions, inspired by biblical narratives, social justice advocate, sports enthusiast, drinker of over priced coffee and general seeker of God's redemptive possibilities. Yeah, that about covers it. (If you discover something else, let me know!)