Monday, September 21, 2009

The Hardening of Pharaoh's Heart

After it arose in an on-campus Bible study, my daughter suggested that I address the question here in a blog article. Since the Northwoods Seelsorger loves the opportunity to ruminate on deep theological issues, he couldn't resist the temptation to oblige. The question at hand - "Did God harden Pharaoh's heart?" - presents one of the classic dilemmas of biblical interpretation: the potential contradiction. I say 'potential' because it appears as such without taking into consideration the entire context of the passage in question, as well as what has historically been called the analogy of scripture (or analogy of faith), that is, the interpretive rule of allowing the entirety of scripture to interpret and inform itself.

In the book of Exodus we read of how Pharaoh, supreme leader of Egypt, is progressively offered the mercy and grace of God through the ministry of Moses, only to spurn it in the end in confirmed unbelief. Specifically, it is said that his "heart was hardened." That is, his resolve to do and believe what he wished was firm and unyielding. He refused to change. Theologically, Pharaoh was simply impenitent. He shut himself off from God and His Word. His choice, his will.

There is a progression in the hardening of Pharaoh's heart that leads up to the passage in question (Exodus 9:12), which is a critical consideration for understanding what is happening. Let us first consider the following passages as our context:
Exodus 7:13 - Pharaoh's initial confrontation with Moses. Even though Moses prevails over Pharaoh's court magicians, the Bible says: "Still, Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them." He will not listen or respond to the truth, even when it is so plain and clear to see. He has already closed himself off from the beginning. Unbelief is unreasonable and irrational.

Exodus 7:22 - The first of 10 plagues has been visited on Egypt (the Nile, the source of life itself to the Egyptians, is turned into blood rendering it dead to life), sending a clear message from God that He wishes His people to be freed. But, as this verse indicates, "Pharaoh's heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said." Second chance is rejected.

Exodus 8:15 - When God visits the land with a second plague, namely the invasion of frogs, Pharaoh panics and calls Moses in to plead for mercy (vss. 8ff). By God's grace and mercy Moses pleads before Yahweh, and indeed the frogs are taken away. However, "when Pharaoh saw that there was a respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them, as the LORD had said." Notice that Pharaoh hardened his own heart!

Exodus 8:18b - Now even Pharaoh's own magicians recognize that these events are from the "finger of God." Yet, as predicted, "Pharaoh's heart was hardened...." Nothing changed. He wouldn't even listen to his own advisers, who as unbelievers themselves can see the plain truth.

Exodus 8:32 - It seems as if Pharaoh is finally softening, as he initially gives permission for the Israelites to go into the wilderness to worship, as was requested. Moses pleads with God to take the swarm of flies away, which He graciously does. Still, no real change: "But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go." Again, Pharaoh is hardening his own heart, even in the face of God's mercy.

Exodus 9:7 - The Fifth Plague breaks out with a death of the livestock in the land. Five plagues to convince Pharaoh to change his mind. The result? "But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go."

Exodus 9:12 - It is only with the Sixth Plague that we now read the passage that "the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh." Six times he was given an opportunity to change his mind (the first being before the first plague.) As the Lutheran Study Bible comments: "The Lord confirmed Pharaoh in his persistent unbelief." Was this an act of divine judgment? Very much so. Yet it came, as all of His judgment do, only after a period of mercy and grace. Pharaoh had many chances which he spurned and ignored. God did not single Pharaoh out to deliberately harden his heart, he merely allowed him to remain what Pharaoh had already done to himself. Although the time of mercy remains in this world to preach the Gospel so that hearts are turned to the Truth and thus brought to faith, God will not forever tolerate stubborn unbelief. Eventually his judgment will allow the person to remain as they wish. As C.S. Lewis once said, the gates of hell are locked from the inside. We seal our own judgment by the free will of our own unbelief. The judgement is that God allows it to be, He is not the original cause. This is the sense of what it means that "God hardened Pharaoh's heart" after it is abundantly clear from several verses prior that Pharaoh had already done it to himself.

Exodus 9:34 - This time it appears that despite what occurred in in the previous account, Pharaoh now repents: "This time I have sinned," he told Moses. So again Moses pleads with God for mercy. Again God grants the request. And again - you guessed it - Pharaoh forgets and goes back to where he was before: "But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had ceased,he sinned yet again and hardened his heart...So the heart of Pharaoh was hardened..." Was Pharaoh truly repentant as it originally seemed? Hardly. The fruits of true godly repentance would not be to return to immediately return to the sin when the consequences were lifted.

Exodus 10:16 - The same pattern as with the 7th plague, but now with locusts. - "I have sinned," Pharaoh again says. "Now therefore forgive my sin..." Yes, it says a second time that "The LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart." However, don't lose sight of what is going on here. Pharaoh is not a repentant man. He's playing games with God. He does what he does only for his own good. This is not a confession of faith and it is plain to see.

Exodus 10:27 - Once more we read "The LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart." Pharaoh's response to Moses is absolute rejection now. He banishes him from his presence. He tells him he never wishes to see him again. "As you say," Moses replies. "I will not see your face again!" The days of mercy have ended. Pharaoh shut the door in God's face.

Exodus 11:10 - The last instance where we read that "The LORD hardened Pharaoh's heart." Yet it is noted that "Moses and Aaron did all these wonders before Pharaoh." He was given repeated opportunities to see God's work and respond. Jesus once said that He had to work while it was day, for the night was coming when no man can work. The "day" for Pharaoh came in the first six plagues. The "night" came in the last ones. But God's grace and mercy are never lacking.

The analogy of scripture, also reminds us in places such as Ezekiel 33:11, 2 Peter 3:9, and 1 Timothy 2:3 that God does not desire the loss of the wicked. He has no pleasure when they perish. He yearns for their salvation. God is not a God who desires eternal separation from His creation. He is governed by love and mercy. Yet, He is also governed by divine justice. Sin can be forgiven, but if faith be not present and forgiveness is rejected, the person is finally lost in the self imposed hell of unbelief; he faces the consequence of his own sin, willingly rejecting a mediator or substitute to pay the price. The Father has given to us in His Son the way to salvation. This offer of atonement is for all, none are excluded: "For God so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son..." (John 3:16).

The story of Pharaoh in some ways is a foretaste of the latter days in which we now live: "Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars who consciences are seared..." (1 Timothy 4:1,2). we know that as long as time remains so too does the opportunity to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ for the salvation of unbelievers. Still, the tragedy is that many will seal their own fate in this life long before they die. They will close the door of mercy and turn their backs on God. After a time God will simply leave them to be. Even in the time of Jesus when He sent out the 12 and the 72 on their missionary journeys, He informed them to "shake the dust from their feet" if the occupants would not listen. The Gospel would not come their way again. That is the worst judgment of all.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Religious News Service Blog

If you enjoy keeping up with religious news around the country and world, you would do well to check out the Religious News Service blog. Especially noteworthy is the recent addition of their daily "religious round-up" which presents a quick summary of newsworthy items of interest through the world, along with links to the full stories. Of particular interest to me this week was Thursday's article "Is religion a dead beat?" Apparently major newspapers continue to drop religion beats as budgets suffer in this down economy: "Newspapers across the country have been eliminating their religion beats," Stern wrote Tuesday on his Journal News blog, called Blogging Religiously. "It seems that religion is seen as a ‘soft news' beat and a luxury at a time when newspapers are emphasizing breaking news on their websites."

The Blessings of Being a Pastor

As pastors we often complain about the burdens and dysfunctions of the church. Dealing with sinners in a sinful world presents untold challenges and frequent heartache to those who serve. Many a day we simply wish to quit and leave it all behind. Unfortunately the dark side of church life and the realities of our people's struggles too frequently predominates in our minds. It clouds over the joys and blessings that come from the Lord of the Church who has given us an incomparable privilege to labor in His vineyard as undershepherds of the Good Shepherd. So today I wanted to simply pause in my own journey to give thanks and reflect on the equal, if not surpassing, number of blessings overlooked in the process of slogging through the difficult labor of shepherding the church.

This morning I made a visit to the local hospital to see a mother and her newborn child. It occurred to me in leaving that as a pastor I have the unique privilege of entering into the most private moments of people's intimate lives, often in ways others never know. I stand with them in the difficult moment of death to comfort them with the truth of eternal of life in the risen Christ, often assisting in carrying out their earthly remains as my final act. I celebrate that same gift of life by the font of Holy Baptism, being the hand that has the high honor of pouring water on this tiny head through which God works faith in the power of His Spirit. A few days ago I officiated at a wedding as well, and had the opportunity to present Christ as the model of their love, setting the tone of their future marriage. What a great gift to be the one who brings the Word of Christ into so many personal moments of life. In times of acute crisis and in times of pure joy I share the sorrows and joys of living with people who have become my friends and family in Christ. We share each others sufferings. We support each other when faint. How easy it becomes to lose sight of these simple realities. How easy it is to allow the frustrations of failure to block out faith in God's hidden and effective work among us.

May the Lord of the Church renew in me daily a joy of service that sees in each act, no matter how humble or small, a precious opportunity to live the reality of Christ in this troubled world. And may He strengthen my spirit to maintain the fight when the struggle against the forces of hell are so fierce that I am tempted to lay down my sword and surrender. To be a pastor is a holy calling for which I am not worthy, yet one for which I should offer constant thanks that the Lord chose me from among many to be His prophet in a difficult day. Thank you, Lord, for this honor. Forgive me my weak and self-serving tendencies. Strengthen me through your Word and Sacrament, that I will be found faithful in the days yet to come. I commit myself unto you assured of your never ending sufficiency. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Is Harmony Always Harmony?

According to Jon Coyne of Jesus First, this past year's cycle of district conventions demonstrated a rare image of harmony in Synod. He pointed to the election of the district president by affirmation in the California-Nevada-Hawaii convention as a prime example of "speaking as one in a positive way." With the election safely passed, he further remarked that "The days of that convention flew by without the discordant sounds of argument and contentious vote."

Now I am the first to be pleased with meetings free of rancor and disagreement. After all, as a pastor, I have lived through too many of these. On the other hand, I must wonder if a meeting completely free of disagreement is always good. By this I mean that when a meeting "flies by" without a single dissenting vote one begins to question whether anyone is paying attention. So often I have seen meetings begin and end quickly without any questions for the single reason that it was late and people wanted to go home. They didn't want to do the hard work of getting to the truth of the matter. So they slid by the easy way just to get to the end of the meeting.

Sometimes the "discordant sounds of argument," as unpleasant as they are, reflect people needing to find the truth and combat error. Using the word "argument" unfortunately casts the entire matter in the most negative light. It seems that every time people disagree the immediate label is "argument and contentious." Emotions inevitably rise as people contend for the truth. Such emotions easily become mistaken for sinful anger. Yet such need not always be the case. Anger surfaced in our Lord as He witnessed the desecration of "His Father's House." Would we dare to label His actions that day as "discordant sounds of argument"?

I fear that the vision in some quarters today casts the ideal future of the Synod largely as one happy family where no one ever dares to disagree. As many know this is still the sign of a dysfunctional system. Harmony for the sake of harmony merely reflects the desire to avoid confrontation. It does not contend for the truth. Hopefully the Synod will not repeatedly frown on the desire among some to press for the truth even when it makes them uncomfortable. We need these voices. Otherwise we will simply slide by into the pleasant white light of oblivion.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Reserved Parking for Handicapped Clergy?

The other day when I went to the hospital for a visit I naturally turned into the reserved spot for clergy. However, I wasn't sure what to do when I got there since they had painted these nice new handicap symbols on the pavement right on that spot. To the left of this picture there is another sign indicating that handicap people were to park to the left with an arrow pointing in the opposite direction of the "Clergy Parking Only" sign. Faded handicap symbols were also still visible on the pavement in front of that sign, so that now all four parking slots seemed designated for handicapped only. When I brought this dilemma up to the folks inside they theorized that maybe this was only for handicapped clergy. Ok......

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

CROP Hunger Walk

March of Dimes, CROP Hunger Walk, Muscular Dystrophy Telethon - staples of the community-wide fundraisers many of us experienced annually in our youth. As American as mom and apple pie. They all seem innocent enough; just a sincere desire to help the less fortunate who suffer from disease, disability and disaster. Recently the CROP Hunger Walk came across my desk once again and I became curious about its background. Where did it actually originate? Is it connected with some church organization? I knew so little about it. For those who have been curious about the same questions and may be thinking of participating, the following is provided by way of disclosure.

CROP Hunger Walk
describes itself as "Neighbors walking together to take a stand against hunger in our world. Together we raise awareness and funds for international relief and development, as well as local hunger-fighting." Fair enough. Sounds like another relief organization. CROP, by the way, is not a 'stand alone' organizaion, however. It is a subsidiary of the parent organization Church World Service. In very small print at the bottom of their web page the following brief line is offered by way of explanation as to the purpose of the organization: "Church World Service works with partners to eradicate hunger and poverty and to promote peace and justice around the world." Although short, this sentence tells much. As opposed to just a simple relief agency, CWS obviously involves itself in political issues as well. Which should be no surprise when one traces CWS to its parent organization the National Council of Churches. Founded in 1950, they describe themselves, in turn, as "the leading force for ecumenical cooperation among Christians in the United States. The NCC's member faith groups — from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African American and Living Peace churches — include 45 million persons in more than 100,000 local congregations in communities across the nation."

A careful examination of the last two websites will quickly reveal the unique agenda of boilerplate liberal Christianity: eco-justice issues, global warming, women's issues, ecumenical relations, universal health care, etc. Now don't get me wrong. They also address issues of poverty and hunger. But beware. This is not simply a relief agency. It is a political advocacy and relief agency, whose agenda is distinctly directed by politically and religiously liberal influences.

You can read for yourself the articles they include and see what they represent. They speak for themselves.

I did not find much help at LCMS website regarding the background and purpose of the CROP Hunger Walk. This is surprising considering that many LCMS parishes probably participate in it. After doing an internal search I did find this statement regarding the NCC: "The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod does not belong to either the National Council of Churches (NCC) or to the World Council of Churches (WCC). However, on the recommendation of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations, the Executive Director participates in the NCC's Faith and Order Commission as a representative from a nonmember church body. At the request of the synodical President, the Executive Director generally attends WCC assemblies as an observer." Interestingly I also found a link to Church World Service under the heading "Disaster." Specifically it was the Church World Service Emergency Response Program.

In terms of agencies that we can and should support to help the poor and hungry and displaced, I can think of no better one than LCMS World Relief and Human Care. Rev. Matt Harrison is doing a wonderful job here and above all I trust his theological discretion.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Is Denominational Idenity Important?

Popular opinion would claim that denominational loyalty has been declining for decades. We see our young people grow up, move away, and too often drop out of the church of their youth for other faith groups. Friction over communion fellowship, especially within conservative Lutheran circles, demonstrates that many people see little value or purpose in such distinctions. Church signs reveal much about this seeming decline as the denominational label is reduced, hidden, or dropped entirely to appeal to a broader range of unchurched or church-shopping visitors.

Recently, as many are aware, the ELCA made the headlines of the major newspapers when they approved the full inclusion of openly gay pastors. Yet one wonders: How many people in the pew paid attention enough to really care? And how many congregations within that denomination shrugged off the decision as something far removed from their little corner of the world? Will this decision create a ripple or a tidle wave of desent? I fear that it might be more the former.

In the course of taking in new members from other church bodies I have found that many people have little to no awareness of what their previous denomination taught. Even Roman Catholics are amazingly ignorant of what their church believes and teaches. And how many times have you heard someone say regarding Lutherans and Catholics: "Well, they seem to be pretty much the same"? I have, and too many times to count.

A study by the "Faith Communities Today" documented that denominational loyalty is actually fairly high in some areas. Interestingly enough that is true of the ELCA according to that study. Of course, this does not hold true for all, and anecdotal evidence seems to continue to point to a general weakness of such identity, at least in my experience.

Among pastors the same experience exists too. Some treat their denominational identity as a mere label with little implication to how they teach or practice their faith. Some, on the other hand, become so sensitive to it that they suffer great guilt when they see their denomination stray from their own convictions. Denominational identity can be either bane or blessing to clergy, depending on how they view it.

Many of the mega churches today are becoming mini-denominations in themselves. I recently read in Christianity Today that some are even forming their own seminaries. Their pastors, who appear regularly in the mainsteam media and on their own televised programs and services, publish books and conduct seminars and workshops that seem more popular with mainline pastors than their own denominational resource. Even within the LCMS I suspect that many of our largest churches see little need for denominational headquarters. They individually support their own missionaries at times, and self-publish.

So what is the future then for denominations, especially within places like the LCMS? Are the days numbered now for the large mainline synods? Will the future of our synod involve more and more splinter denominations, such as ELDoA? And how do we strengthen denominational identity among the people of the pew? Certainly the steady steam of beaurocratic fliers and prepackaged programs does not hold much promise. Will the recent shock of the ELCA's decisions produce a revival in more conservative quarters such as Missouri? We'll see.

I believe that much depends on the individual pastor's teaching and practice. He remains the living icon of their denominational identity. If a given pastor ignores the church body, chances are great his people will remain ignorant of what is occuring outside thier walls. If the altar remains open to any and all during Commnion, the erosion of this identity will continue even faster.

Denominational identity, however, should not be seen as a mere 'brand name.' At its best it should hold before the world a witness of the church's confession. In the past to say "I am a member of the Missouri Synod" meant something about what you believed. To some degree it still does. The future is unwritten as to how strong that will remain.

P.S. In case the point of the picture above escaped you, check out the article "Denominations, Toothpaste, and Toilet Paper: Just the Facts Ma'am" by Mark Roberts. Would you believe that some Protestants are more loyal to their toothpaste brand than their denomination? They are more loyal to other things as well. Read his article, it's rather revealing. You may also wish to check out his article "What's Good About Denominations?" Dr. Roberts is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), yet his article seems quite applicable to other denominations as well.