Book on Old Testament is almost here!

A proof copy, pens, labels, random junk, and Nerf guns: Everything you need for a life well lived.

By Joe LaGuardia

Books are labors of love.  It doesn’t matter if a book is a novel, memoir, fiction or non-fiction, or–in this case–a collection of essays, books take years to put together, edit, tweak, rewrite, love, and hate.  It was well over four years ago I began this one, my forthcoming book containing essays on the Bible and the Old (First) Testament.  I am happy to announce that, in less than a month, I will be releasing, A Whispering Call: Essays on Sacred Scripture and the First Testament.

Here is the caption on the back:

A Whispering Call, Joseph V. LaGuardia’s second anthology of essays on Sacred Scripture, is sure to encourage, challenge, and inspire readers along the journey of faith.

A Whispering Call explores the treasure of God’s unfolding drama of redemption from the earliest pages of Genesis to the Advent of Jesus the Christ.

It places readers in the shoes of biblical heroes and villains.  It brings biblical principles to life.  It affirms God’s mission in the world and calls us to participate in that mission as a holy people.

LaGuardia crafts each essay with careful attention to biblical research and cultural insights both ancient and contemporary.  Read them for personal or group discipleship, incorporate them in the classroom, or mine them for devotional use.  By way of scripture and study, you might hear God’s whisper in your life too!

There you have it.  I hope that the book will be released in the first week of August, just in time for the school year and a revival we are planning at First Baptist Church.  It will be available to order in paperback or Kindle, and details will follow.  Keep me in your prayers, the editing process is about as fun as going to the dentist.  No offense to my dentist.

Blessings, Rev. Dr. Joe LaGuardia

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Biblical scholarship creates conflicts where they often do not exist

A picture on my desk of St. Matthew reminds me that God's Word is inspired and God-breathed.

Writing about the Bible in his latest book After You Believe, popular scholar N. T. Wright notes, “The whole story is the whole story.”  There are plenty of people who would like to slice and dice the Bible into sections; others simply ignore what they don’t like while proof-texting to support their own values.

Many who read the Bible approach it like the media approaches newsworthy stories: They look for conflict, even when no conflict exists.

In fact, the Bible is said to have many conflicts:  Between Old and New Testament, Law and grace, God of wrath and God of love, Jesus and Paul, works and faith.

It is easy for people to believe that such conflicts exist when we don’t really have time to read the Bible in the first place.  As biblical illiteracy rises, it is becomes easy to “pull one over” on the masses.  Yet, when we do take a close look at the Bible and read, as N. T. Wright admonishes, “the whole story,” the conflicts are few and far between.

Take Old and New Testaments.  The assumption is that Jesus, who inaugurated the “New Covenant” with his death and resurrection, wiped away the moral and ethical fabric of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament, so says the argument, is irrelevant.  A close look at Jesus’ ministry, however, proves the opposite.  Jesus did not do away with the Law or the Old Testament in general; rather, Jesus called his followers back to the heart of the Law.  No wonder the New Testament authors emphasize that, in Christ, God continues to etch the Law upon our hearts.

This is ultimately related to the conflict that some see between the God of the Old Testament (wrath) and the God of Jesus Christ (love).  One of my fellow colleagues who writes for the Rockdale Citizen wrote a good article on this subject last week, so I won’t spend much time on this point.

It is important to emphasize that God does not change over time.  God’s purpose is pure and consistent throughout history.  God is one who creates humankind to be in relationship with Him, and everything God does after the Fall of Adam and Eve intends to restore this relationship.

A close reading of the Law–from Exodus to Deuteronomy–shows that God seeks to liberate humanity from their wayward habits.

This also brings us right to St. Paul, who seems to contrast the Law with God’s grace throughout his letters.  Romans, in particular, seems to pit the two against each other, allowing God’s grace to win out.

Again, a closer reading shows that Law and grace are not diametrically opposed to one another, as if God’s Law did not make room for grace.  The Law was established precisely because of God’s grace.  It’s just that humanity managed to use the Law to hinder humans from reconciling with God (that’s why the Pharisees and Sadducees, who had this view of the Law, were so opposed to Jesus’ interpretation of the Law).

A last conflict seems to exist between Jesus and Paul.  We see this within churches today.  Some say that they rely on Paul’s writings and the personal moral code that Paul seems to advocate.  Others rely on Jesus’ sermons and propose a more community-centered, social justice ethic.

Paul and Jesus both care about personal salvation and community morality.  All but three of Paul’s letters, after all, were written to churches, not to individual Christians.  And Jesus speaks to individuals throughout his ministry, such as when he told the Rich Young Ruler to sell all that the ruler had.

My guess is that scholars will keep arguing that conflicts exist in the Bible for as long as they continue to do what they do.  It would benefit all of us, however, if we simply read the Bible for ourselves.

The Liberation message of Leviticus, and other thoughts on God’s Law

This month, I decided to preach the lectionary texts in church.  I don’t use the lectionary often, but when I do, God always uses those seemingly random scripture lessons in amazing ways.

Until I saw the text for February 20th.  On Leviticus.

You know Leviticus, right?  It’s the third book of the Torah and it contains those long lists of rules and regulations for Hebrew priests.

Among other things, it governs what to eat, how to dress, how to practice justice fairly, and what kind of punishments to administer for bad behavior.  When people read their Bible from cover to cover, there is a huge temptation to skip Leviticus altogether.

Nor is it a book you hear preachers preach on unless they find one or two laws that they use to condemn others (while ignoring larger portions of the book that they are likely disobeying, like wearing mixed-blend clothes).

But it was in the lectionary and, as I mentioned, God has an unusual way of showing up between the lines.

Leviticus 19 stands in a section (chs. 17-26) known as the “Holiness codes,” because of the key refrain in 19:2: “Be holy for I the Lord am holy.”  The codes remind Israel that one’s relationship with others and all of creation affect one’s relationship with God.

I was surprised to find some very interesting commands in chapter 19.  Verses 9-10 tell people to leave some of their harvest for the poor and for immigrants.  Verses 15-16 explain that justice should not be impartial, especially for the poor.  The rest of the chapter talks about how to appropriately relate to and treat women, the poor (yet again), animals, the land, and “the alien who resides with you.”

As I was wondering how I was going to preach on this chapter, it hit me.  I can’t really preach it if I want to keep my job.  If I were to simply retell these commands, I would sound very much like a socialist left-wing liberal communist environmentalist feminist who advocated for the poor, women, the marginalized, the environment, immigrants and refugees, and day-laborers.  Oh boy.

Truth is, we must always consider the source and historical background of the biblical text because if we don’t, we can read our own ideologies into the text rather than let the Bible speak for itself.  My job is safe after all.

There are so many things in Leviticus that we Christians do not follow because we know, first, that Jesus (as did Paul; see Romans and Galatians) freed us from the letter of the law to live in the spirit of the law; and, second, that times are a-changin’.  For instance, who among us would actually stone a child for talking back or refrain from a tasty barbecue pork sandwich?

Like Jesus, we have to reach deeper into this text because we are not a theocracy.  Leviticus was written for a very different culture and time.  Very few of us farm, we no longer have female slaves, and we have a federal minimum wage that governs how much we pay people.

But God’s Word still speaks to us, and there is still a message here to preach.

Leviticus is actually quite the opposite of what we think the Torah is.  We think the Torah–or law–is something that binds us or holds us in bondage.  When we read the book for what it is, however, we find that it is actually a very liberating book.  Leviticus helps us to rediscover healthy relationships–with each other, with creation, with the earth, and with those who are on the margins of society.  It liberates us from our own power-hungry, profit-margin scrambling, selfish desires to get ahead at the expense of others.

No wonder Jesus said that the two greatest commandments focused on the love that Leviticus and the Law expressed so long ago: love of God and love of neighbor.  The message of Leviticus–and the liberating Good News therein–would have it no other way.