snatching victory from the jaws of unlikelihood

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“Finding of Moses”, Giovanni Battista (1696 – 1770) National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
For Sunday, August 24, 2014
Proper 16 (11th Sunday after Pentecost)

God has a habit of snatching victory from the jaws of unlikelihood.  This week it’s Moses, who was born only because some Egyptian midwives defied Pharaoh.  Moses would otherwise have been killed at birth along with all the other Jewish males who were under Pharaoh’s death decree.

The midwives themselves make for an interesting aside. Because they are God fearers, they refuse to obey the decree.   Pharaoh finds out about it and confronts them.  They respond with a very creative fabrication: “Well, all-wise Pharaoh, you are right to be concerned about these Jews.  The Jewish women are so vigorous that they give birth before we can get to them!”  The text then says, “God dealt well with the midwives.”  In my ten years living in Russia I saw this jujitsu-like tactic employed often.  Redirection is more effective than direct resistance when one finds oneself in a minority position.  This kind of thinking maybe be more useful to the American church in days ahead.

Back then to unlikely Moses.  After hiding him for three months, his mother applies some additional creativity.  She builds a little basket and puts him in the reeds of the Nile.  Note that she didn’t just abandon him.  “She watched.”  What happened was exactly what she hoped.  Someone came and found little Moses, and that someone just happened to be a member of the royal family, Pharaoh’s own daughter.  Moses very name becomes the mnemonic for the story: he was “drawn out” of dire circumstances.

This snatching of victory from the jaws of unlikelihood is something God does regularly.  He did it through Joseph, who is sold into slavery by his brothers.  He did it through Jesus, who was crucified by an unjust regime for crimes he didn’t commit.  He did it for us, who being so dead in our sin, had no chance of new life until God came in and drew us out of condemnation.

The next time we wonder, “Can God really use poor insignificant me?” remember just who is acting on center stage.  If our Father can save a nation through a kid snatched from the reeds of a river, then surely he can, will, and even now is using us for the glory of his redemptive purpose.

Points to ponder:

  • What has you most discouraged at the moment?
  • How does reflecting on God’s ability to draw victory from unlikelihood reframe your circumstances?
  • How does God’s character and history give us hope in the midst of unlikelihood?

 

dysfunctional families in the purpose of God

"Joseph sold into slavery", Johann Friedrich Overbeck, 1816, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany.

“Joseph sold into slavery”, Johann Friedrich Overbeck, 1816, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany.

For Sunday, August 10, 2014
Gen. 37
Proper 14

Israel was a dysfunctional family just like many of ours.   In this case, the father Jacob has made the classic error of favoring one son over the others as symbolized in the long robe with sleeves he made for him (v. 3).  Apparently sleeves were a big deal back in those days.  This would be like me buying my youngest son Noah a Corvette after having made his two older brothers drive my car when it was available.

Jacob’s other sons had taken their family flocks from the Valley of Hebron, where they lived, north to Shechem.  This was a distance of 60 miles north and would have taken them through the disputed territory of the contemporary West Bank (see map).   Why go 60 miles?  Was the flock so big it ate that much grass?  More likely they went to where the water was.

Josephs journey into slavery

Joseph’s journey into slavery with reference to modern boundaries.

Joseph’s brothers are infuriated when they see the fancy robe that Jacob made for Joseph.  They proceed to throw Joseph in an empty well and then sell him into slavery.  So much for brotherly love.

With a family like this how could God possibly accomplish anything?  Take heart, o fellow member of the family dysfunctional.  As we know, God used this episode for great good later in the larger story.  Joseph will later say to his brothers, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.

Referring back to one of the readings from recent weeks past, observe how the Spirit’s presence and intercession lead to God’s purpose being accomplished through the dysfunctional family which is us (Rom. 8:26-30):

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings.  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes on behalf of the saints according to God’s will.  And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose,  because those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified.

God in his sovereign grace is intent on glorifying us, and as he did not fail with Joseph or his father Jacob, nor will he fail with us.  Hallelujah.

Points to ponder:

  • What is the deepest pit you’ve been thrown into over the course of your life?
  • How might the fact that the Spirit is interceding for you encourage you in navigating the pain and discomfort of that experience?
  • How does this story move you to pray for your own family of origin?

the power of the gospel and prayer

Jacob Encountering Rachel with her Father’s Herds, Joseph Ritter Von Fuhrich, 1836. Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria.

For Sunday, July 27, 2014
Seventh Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 12)

My intention is to use this blog to share what God is working into my own life in the hopes that it will encourage the work of God in others and bind us together bind us together for the cause of the kingdom.  This week, amidst so many remarkable insights and encouragements, the most important thing to share is the power of the gospel and prayer.

The power of the gospel (the good news of Jesus) is that it so aptly and completely captures our sinful condition while also providing an exit from it.  This week we see Jacob attempting to execute on the scheme of stealing his brother Esau’s birthright, only to be out-schemed by his Uncle Laban (2).  The message?  We’re all a bunch of schemers but God is on to us!  Yet at the same time he loves us deeply: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38,39).  Amidst the painful brokenness of my scheming he invites me to draw on his strength: “Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually” (Psalm 105:4).

This is a great reminder as we see brokenness not only in ourselves but throughout our world.  In recent days a Malaysian plane was shot down errantly over the Ukraine and there has been desecration of the human remains.  Awful and abhorrent.  Elsewhere Hamas has been lobbing rockets into Israel, Israel has invaded Gaza, and protests against Israel have sprung up in London and Paris.  Israelis and Palestinians are fighting  over tunnels dug under Israel’s security wall.  Brokenness, horror, suffering, pain.

How do we go about addressing much less solving problems such as these?  The gospel invites us to start with prayer and to remember that the Holy Spirit himself is praying right alongside us:  “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:26, 27).  As we are forced to acknowledge the strife in ourselves, in our families, in our cities, in our nations, and in our world, this is very good news indeed.

Point to ponder:  
How could prayer be a key weapon in our ministry arsenals this week?

Footnotes:
(1)  http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54267.
(2)  See Expositors Bible Commentary on Gen. 29:14b-30.

buying a stairway to heaven? … it makes me wonder

stairway-to-heaven-wallpaper-hd-1

For Sunday, July 20, 2014
Sixth Sunday After Pentecost

In Gen. 28, one of this week’s readings, Jacob has a dream of a stairway to heaven.  Having grown up in the 1970’s my mind immediately goes to Led Zeppelin’s song of the same name.  Are you still here?  Figure I probably lost a few people there, but think about it: why would Led Zeppelin draw upon the biblical imagery of this story in this song?  It’s because they are speaking to a spiritual problem.  The song’s lyrics begin:

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

As one interpreter puts it insightfully, the song is about a woman who has based her life entirely on the pursuit of material things.  She’s sure that “all that glitters is gold” and that she can buy her way to heaven.  In actual fact when she arrives at heaven’s gates there is a sign saying that she cannot enter because “her life lacks a spiritual base.”  So continue the lyrics:

There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.

Ooh, it makes me wonder

The end of the song brings the dilemma to a point of decision:

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last. . .

We “wind down the road, our shadows taller than our soul” because our souls are so shrunken spiritually by our material world.  What then is the remedy?  The words of this week’s second reading, Psalm 139 (vv. 23, 24), is the tune we’ve been listening for:

Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life.

I certainly know the lady in the song because I see how often, as my friend Gary Gregg puts it, that I “believe the lie embedded in the offer”.  I don’t want my life to be about the chase for material more.  I want it to be about Jesus, forgiveness, repentance, grace, and peace.  One way I can do this is by not letting other interests crowd out a daily devotional time with God.  Another way is to keep the gospel in the forefront and let any purchasing serve that greater purpose.

We cannot buy the stairway to heaven for the price of entry is far beyond our ability to pay.  Fortunately, the stair’s builder has made a way for us through the death of his son, if we will only repent and believe.

Points to ponder:

  • To what extent do you know the lady in the song?  How is God calling you this week to build up the stature of your soul?
  • What other thoughts or questions do the lyrics of this song bring to mind for you?

this is a football

Vince Lombardi, Eponymous Coach of the Green Bay Packers

Vince Lombardi, renowned Coach of the Green Bay Packers

Matt. 28:16-20
For Sunday, June 15, 2014
Trinity Sunday

Vince Lombardi was famous for starting every Green Bay Packer season by holding up a football and saying, “Gentleman, this is a football.”  The point was to get back to the very basics of the game to provide a sure foundation for everything that would follow.  Jesus conversation with his disciples on the mountain of Galilee was his “this is the football” speech.

The text says, “They worshipped him but some doubted.”  Jesus wanted them to be crystal clear on who he was, what he was calling them to do, and where he would be while they did it.

Who Jesus was:  “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  Think about this.  The one we follow has been invested with all authority, not only on earth but also in heaven.  This ought to give us confidence as we represent him to a broken world.   We don’t need authority to be conveyed on us by the media, by elites, or by anyone or anything else, for all authority has already been vested in him.

What he was calling them to do:  He was calling them (and is calling us) to make disciples.   We know this is the focus of v. 28 because in the original language this is the only finite verb in the sentence.  The other actions are all subsidiary being denoted as participles (going, baptizing, and teaching).  What is a ‘disciple’?  A follower.   As Christians, at the very foundation, we are followers of Jesus.  And we are to make other followers.

But how do we do that?  The participles have already made this clear.  First, we go to them.  This is what Jesus himself did.  He went to others and invited them to follow.  Second, we baptize them.  To baptize to call to a symbolic and public proclamation of burying an old life and rising to a new one.  It is to say, “I am all in.”  How today’s church desperately needs leaders who will call others to commitment, especially men.  Third, we teach them to obey.  To teach to obey is not to impart information but rather to train for action.  Navy Seals do not sit in a classroom.  They train for action; so do Christian disciples.

Where he would be while they did it:  Where would Jesus be?  What does the text say?  “I will be with you.”   Now wait a minute.  After Jesus ascended doesn’t the Bible say he sat down at the right hand of the Father in heaven?  So if he’s there, how can he also be here?   He is there in the person of Jesus, yet he is also here, in the person of the Holy Spirit.  How easily we allow ourselves discouragement.  We say to ourselves, “I can’t really follow Christ wholeheartedly.  It’s too hard.  It’s too uncomfortable.  It’s too inconvenient.”  Too hard?  Too uncomfortable?  Too inconvenient?!  With God himself in the person of the Holy Spirit in residence in our own souls?!  

Brothers and sisters, this is our mission.  Time to get into the game.

perspective (Acts 1:6-14)

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For Sunday, June 1, 2014
Year A, Seventh Sunday of Easter

How easy to get caught up in the vagaries of the weekly news cycle.  We read the daily news and think, “God, are you asleep at the switch?”  Jesus’ disciples didn’t have the Drudge Report but were nevertheless very much like us.  Just before Jesus’ ascension they asked him, “So Lord, now that you’ve been resurrected, is this (finally?…) the time you are going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).  Jesus response is telling: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”  What?!  But we’ve been working so hard to chart this out.  We want to know the plan, Jesus.  What’s the plan?!  (Exasperated sighs).

“Here is the plan,” Jesus responds.  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Perplexed disciples’ faces …. So … how does that answer our question about restoring the kingdom to Israel?  Answer: you are thinking far too narrowly.  God’s plan involves far more than wresting political control of 1st Century Palestine from the Romans.  God’s larger plan is actually to restore all of creation to himself and everything that has happened from then until know is in the unfolding.

So put away the charts, stop assuming you have it all figured out, and in the power the Holy Spirit, tell everyone you can what you are witnessing in our midst.  Hallelujah.

Points to ponder:

  • How is the Spirit moving in your life to live out the gospel story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration?
  • Who would you most like to share this with?
  • How could you make this happen this week?

making the case

“St. Paul Preaching in Athens”, Raphael, 1515, Royal Collection of the United Kingdom

Acts 17:22-31
For Sunday, May 25, 2014

6th Sunday of Easter, Year A

What would be a compelling case for the gospel in our culture?

Conventional wisdom, at least within my own evangelical tradition, is to build a nice building, provide contemporary worship, good children’s ministry, and hope their lives are transformed.  There are however problems with this approach.  First, it only gets off the ground in more affluent areas (i.e. the suburbs).  Second, decision making becomes driven by the need to pay the mortgage (even if only at a subsoncious level).  As a result, while some life transformation takes place, it happens in  isolation from the wider culture.  Third, rather than the church serving it’s members the members end up serving the church’s programs (again, ultimately, to pay the mortgage).

Apostolic wisdom approach the problem differently.  First, get out there.  The church’s best communicators are not tied to a Sunday morning pulpit but rather engaged in the very centers of culture.  In this case, The Apostle Paul was speaking to the Areopagus, a council of city leaders.  This would be like speaking to the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) here in Milwaukee.

Second, engage in appreciative inquiry.  Paul was greatly distressed to find a city full of idols (v. 16).  What are the idols filling our cities (e.g. consumerism, careerism, self-fulfillment)?  Paul spent time conversing with his audiences, which included pagans in the marketplace and God-fearers in the synagogues (v. 17).   The purpose of these conversations was not be primarily to convert, but to understand and build empathy.  What if we said to ourselves, “Ministry, at least in this stage, is not about getting my message out, but rather letting their questions sink in?”

Third, offer a persuasive apologetic.   Having developed an appreciation for the culture (beliefs, practices, values) of his audience Paul framed his communication of the gospel accordingly.   He knew that a primary value in Athens was knowledge.  Yet they had an altar “To an unknown God” (v. 23).  This was a cultural admission that there was something missing.  Paul said to himself, “Aha, that’s my opening.”  He proclaims to them that the God they do not yet know is there and wanting a relationship with them (v. 24, ff.).

If Paul were giving a similar speech today to the MMAC, where would he start culturally, and where would he finish in terms of an invitation to follow Christ?   Where would he start and finish where you live?  The path to the answer involves getting out there, engaging in appreciative inquiry, and constructing a persuasive apology.  May we have the courage to bring apostolic wisdom to bear on the opportunity before us for the glory of Christ and the gospel.