Urban Legends pastors tell

As I’ve often complained, a major way that urban legends get spread around is as sermon illustrations.  Some of these are more in the related genre of scholarly legends.  But thanks to Trevin Wax for catching these:

1. The “eye of the needle” refers to a gate outside Jerusalem.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” says Jesus in Mark 10:25. Maybe you’ve heard of the gate in Jerusalem called the “eye of the needle.” The camel could pass through it only after stooping down and having all its baggage taken off.

The illustration is used in many sermons as an example of coming to God on our knees and without our baggage. The only problem is… there is no evidence for such a gate. The story has been around since the 15th century, but there isn’t a shred of evidence to support it.

2. The high priest tied a rope around his ankle so that others could drag him out of the Holy of Holies in case God struck him dead.

Various versions of this claim have been repeated by pastors, but it is a legend. It started in the Middle Ages and keeps getting repeated. There is no evidence for the claim in the Bible, the Apocrypha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, the Pseudepigrapha, the Talmud, Mishna or any other source. Furthermore, the thickness of the veil (three feet) would have precluded the possibility of a priest being dragged out anyway.

3. Scribes took baths, discarded their pens, washed their hands, etc. every time they wrote the name of God.

As a way of getting across the reverence of the Jewish and Christian scribes toward God, preachers like to describe the honor given to God’s name. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that scribes did these sorts of rituals every time they came across the name of God.

4. There was this saying among the sages: “May you be covered in your rabbi’s dust.”

This is one of the most pervasive and fast-spreading stories to flood the church in recent years. The idea is that as you walked behind your rabbi, he would kick up dust and you would become caked in it and so following your rabbi closely came to symbolize your commitment and zeal. Joel Willitts explains:

This is powerful stuff isn’t it? Well the only problem is that it just isn’t true… The context in which it is given in Mishnah Aboth 1:4 is expressly not what is assumed by those who promulgate this idea.

5. Voltaire’s house is now owned by a Bible-printing publisher.

Voltaire was famous for saying, “One hundred years from my day there will not be a Bible in the earth except one that is looked upon by an antiquarian curiosity seeker.” There is a myth out there that within 50 years of Voltaire’s death, his house was owned by a Bible society that used his own printing press to make Bibles. Sounds like a great story, but it’s not true. Regardless, Voltaire’s prediction of the demise of the Bible was vastly overstated.

6. Gehenna was a burning trash dump outside Jerusalem.

I’ve used this illustration many times. But there isn’tevidence to support this idea. Still, because it seems like a reasonable explanation for the origin of the Hinnom Valley as “hell,” commentators and preachers have accepted it. It’s possible that the verdict may still be out on this one, but not if Todd Bolen is right:

“The explanation for the ‘fire of Gehenna’ lies not in a burning trash dump, but in the burning of sacrificed children. Already in Old Testament times, the Valley of Hinnom was associated with the destiny of the wicked. That the valley was just outside the city of Jerusalem made it an appropriate symbol for those excluded from divine blessing.”

7. NASA scientists have discovered a “missing day” which corresponds to the Joshua account of the sun standing still.

Please don’t repeat this myth. There has been no “missing day” discovered, and the legend has been circulating longer than NASA has been in existence, with different scientists playing the part.

via Urban Legends: The Preacher’s Edition : Kingdom People.

I would add:  Medieval theologians once debated how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  Although I think this is an excellent question, this was rather a later joke at the scholastics’ expense, rather than something the scholastics actually considered.  See this.

Wrestling with God

Our Scripture in church yesterday was another one of those enigmatic, yet profoundly evocative texts:  Jacob wrestling with the LORD (Genesis 32:22-30).  Pastor Douthwaite’s sermon, again, unfolded and applied it in some striking ways.  Read the whole sermon here:   St. Athanasius Lutheran Church: Pentecost 21 Sermon.  I will just quote a few sentences:

We find out that God was there with Jacob. In fact, it was God who was wrestling with Jacob! God appearing in hostile form, in order to help Jacob. . . .

God lets Himself be overcome, to bless Jacob.. . .

The God who appeared hostile in the night was Jacob’s Saviour in the morning.. . .

The Son of God who, just as in His wrestling match with Jacob, allows Himself to be overcome by man on the cross, in order to bless.. . .

So that you, like Jacob and like this widow, though you must wrestle and struggle night and day, not let God go. . . .That in the struggle, you cling to Him alone. That in the struggle, though God seem like an enemy, you cling to Him as your Father.. . .

How do you cling to a God you cannot see? Where do you cling to Him? By, as St. Paul told Timothy, clinging to His Word.. . .

Know this: that the God who came to wrestle with Jacob, the God who came and struggled for you on the cross, the God who overcame sin, death, and the devil, the God who comes now and cares for you, will not let you go.

What were you made to see in this text?

The Rich Man & Lazarus

Those of us whose churches follow the three-year lectionary on Sunday heard  the account of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and very likely heard a sermon about it.  Last week we had what I found to be a very enlightening trading of notes on a rather challenging parable.  Let’s do that again with this parable.

Here is some of what our Pastor Douthwaite said about it.  (Read the whole sermon, which delves into some fascinating details in the text that are very illuminating.)

Don’t assume things about God, that you know what God is doing and why He’s doing it. That’s a dangerous thing to do, although (it seems to me), it’s done all the time. Don’t assume God is your friend because your life is good, and don’t assume God is against you because things are difficult and trials are many. The truth may be exactly the opposite. The man who had been so rich was now eternally poor, and the man who had been so poor was now eternally rich. . . .

Jesus has come to turn beggars into rich men. For He was the truly rich man who for our sakes became poor (2 Cor 8:9). Who came to all of us Lazarus,’ not to dip only the tip of His finger in water, but to give us the living water of His Word that we may drink and never thirst again (John 7:37-38). Who came not merely to soothe our wounds with the licking of dogs, but to wash and cleanse and heal us from the leprosy of our sin with His forgiveness. And who came to feed us not with crumbs from His table, but with the feast He has come to provide – the feast of His own Body and Blood. And these gifts He comes to give to all people, whether they be rich or poor on the outside, whether they be notorious or hidden sinners – for spiritually, we are all Lazarus’. Crippled and left to die by sin. Wholly dependent on the mercy of God. And so we pray: Lord, have mercy.

And He does. Always. Jesus is no rich man that bypasses, steps over, or ignores those in need. Who feeds the dogs and not His children. Never. For whether or not you have riches in this world, the Spirit, through the Word of God – through Moses and the prophets – directs our eyes where true riches are to be found. The riches that poured forth from the cross. The cross which shows us who God truly is, what God has done for you, and how much God loves you. So that we never have to guess or assume the mind of God – the cross is the mind of God. Who came for you, to die for you, to forgive you. . . .

But there is another clue to Lazarus’ faith, when Abraham told the rich man: “Besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” Now, it makes sense that those in torment would want to cross from there to the comfort of heaven; but who would want to cross the other way? Why would Abraham say that . . . unless, perhaps, it was Lazarus who was ready to do so. To comfort the one who refused him comfort. To serve the one who refused him service. To help the one who refused him help. For is this not the love of Christ, who did these things for us on the cross? Is this not the love of Christ living in Lazarus’ heart?

That is the love that has been given to you. By the one who did cross the chasm – the only one who could – and served you who were dead in your trespasses and sins, to raise you to a new life in Him. A new life of faith and forgiveness, and of love and service – even to those who sin against you.

For now, we bear the cross – but it will not always be so. A day of rest is coming for all who are in Christ.

via St. Athanasius Lutheran Church: Pentecost 18 Sermon.

What did you pastor do with this (or, if you are a pastor, what did you do with it)?  What did you learn from this text?  How did it affect you?

Comparing notes on the dishonest steward

The Gospel reading for yesterday was the parable of the dishonest steward (Luke 16:1-13), the guy who knew he would lose his job for embezzlement and so took the opportunity to forgive the debts of those who owed his boss money, as a way to get in good with them when he would be unemployed. His boss commended his shrewd dealing, as did Jesus, in a way. That’s a fascinating parable, but it’s one of the hardest to interpret and apply.

Churches that follow the three-year-lectionary, not only Lutherans but other denominations as well, will all have read that passage in church yesterday and very likely heard a sermon on it. That means that many of us here heard takes on what that sermon means. Let’s compile what we learned.

My pastor took the part about those who had their debts forgiven and applied it not to money but to sin: We all have a debt we cannot pay. We were forgiven it earlier in the service when we heard the absolution from the pastor.

I heard of another pastor today who observed that the steward, for all of his own problems, was showing mercy.

What aspects of the parable were illuminated for you in yesterday’s sermon? (Pastors, tell us what you did with it. Laypeople, tell us what you got out of it.)

Dumb parables?

Another great sermon from Pastor Douthwaite, preaching on Luke 15:1-10.  An excerpt:

And so Jesus says: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it?”

And the Pharisees and scribes are perhaps thinking to themselves here: What man of them? None of them! Why risk the 99 for the sake of the one? It shouldn’t have wandered off anyway. It’s probably too dumb to stay with the flock. But to preserve the 99, that – you see, Jesus – is what’s called an “acceptable loss.” But even so, if one did find that sheep, why rejoice? It needs discipline, so it won’t wander off again. Hmm . . .

Then Jesus says: “Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it?”

Well, this parable makes a little more sense, for sure, you’re talking about money here. Of course you’d look for lost money!

But then, Jesus continues, “And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ ”

Um, no. Because if you found this coin you’ve just been looking so hard for, why spend it on your neighbors? They didn’t help you look for it, did they? And why would you spend so much time looking for it if you were just going to spend it? Hmm . . .

“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. . . . [T]here is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Joy? Why? If a sinner repents, he’s just doing what he was supposed to do. And he shouldn’t have sinned in the first place! So why rejoice? These are dumb parables, Jesus. Nobody does these things.

Well, not nobody. Jesus does them. The true Shepherd. The Good Shepherd. The Shepherd for whom there are no “acceptable losses.” The Shepherd who laid down His life for all the sheep. The Shepherd who searches and does not give up. The Shepherd who loves His sheep more than you can possibly imagine. The Shepherd whose heart is filled with joy whenever one of His sheep is found. No matter who they are, no matter where they have wandered, and no matter how long they have been lost, there is joy in heaven and in the heart of the Good Shepherd when each and every sheep is back, safe and sound, in His arms.

via St. Athanasius Lutheran Church: Pentecost 16 Sermon.

“When He sees that their power is gone”

We had a wonderful Palm Sunday service, and the sermon was on a text that I don’t think I’ve ever noticed before, Deuteronomy 32:36-39.  Moses says that “When he sees that their power is gone,” that is the time when “the Lord will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants.”  When their power is gone!  What a passage for Law & Gospel and the Theology of the Cross vs. the Theology of Glory!

Postmodernists reduce everything–culture, law, government, morality, religion–to power.  One group is exercising power over someone else, and all of the veneer of civilization is just a mask to hide that fact.  So goes postmodernist cynicism.  (Notice how we Christians play into that mindset and confirm it when we create the impression that what we seek is political power.)

One line of apologetics to the postmodernists is to say that, yes, that does explain a lot.  But there is one counter-example.  One religion that is all about not power but the abdegnation of power.  God who emptied Himself of power:  Jesus on the Cross.

And this text reminds me that Christians too meet Jesus when our “power is gone,” when we admit that we are broken sinners, that we are powerless.  And that’s when the very different power from what postmodernists cynics bemoan manifests itself.  Not an oppressive power but a liberating power.  A saving power that raised Jesus from the dead and that in compassion will “vindicate” us too, raising us from every kind of death.

Pastor Douthwaite did a lot with this text.  Read the whole via sermon, which includes the quotation I gave above.  I remain haunted by this:

Besides, no matter how powerless you are, no matter how low, no matter how tired and weak and piled upon, you will never be at the bottom of the pecking order.

That spot is reserved for one person: Jesus.


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