A Prevailing Presence

Psalm 48
For Sunday, July 4th, 2021
Year B, Proper 9

The Grand Tetons, Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Have you ever been emotionally enthralled with a view of majesty? For me, it was seeing the Teton mountains in person for the first time. They rise out of the plains of Wyoming with no foothills to tip off their presence. They are absolutely majestic.

We each need a prevailing presence in our lives, and for Christians, this prevailing presence is the majesty of God. This is what Psalm 48 is all about.

Psalm 48 gives us 3 marks of a prevailing presence: a sure defense (vv. 1-3); a resounding victory (vv. 4-8); an enduring guide (vv. 9-11).

A Sure Defense (vv. 1-3)
The first mark of a prevailing presence is a sure defense. “Within its citadels God has shown himself a sure defense (v. 3)” Have you seen a contemporary picture of the main hill of Jerusalem? There is a gentle slope upward capped off by the Dome of the Rock. Imagine what the view would have been with the temple of David there! It would have created the emotional connection that we Americans have for The White House, or Mt. Rushmore, or the Tetons. We think in our hearts, “Now there is something solid that I can hang on to when everything else hits the fan.”

It is so powerful to experience God having one’s back in the midst of tumult. My wife Heather and our family had spent ten amazing years ministering in Russia, in Siberia actually. Suddenly, it all came to an end very unexpectedly under extremely painful circumstances. As painful as it was, we experienced God having our backs over and over again as we navigated our way forward thru the wreckage. We learned at a very core and emotional level that God really is our sure defense. Our Father wants us to know this about him!

Most of us have experienced trauma, difficulty, or profound loss at some point in our lives. It’s part of living in a fallen world. Yet once one knows God has one’s back, there is a fearlessness and ferocity that develops that nothing can stand against. What does Romans say? We are more than conquerors. Why? Because God is our sure defense!

A Resounding Victory (vv. 4-8)
The second mark of a prevailing presence is a resounding victory. V. 4 talks about the kings of the earth coming in force against Mt. Zion, yet in all their might, “as soon as they saw it, they were astounded; they were in panic, they took to flight.” They were trembling as women in childbirth! It was as when a strong east wind absolutely obliterates the ships of Tarshish. I can hear the wood planks cracking and shearing from here, centuries away. Yet amidst all this tumult WE ponder his steadfast love (Hebrew ‘hesed’). God’s right hand is filled with victory. What is in his right hand? Ultimately, his son’s absolute obliteration of sin at Calvary.

I remember when the Green Bay Packers won their first Super Bowl with Brett Favre. We Packers fans had suffered for decades since the great days of the Ice Bowl. But here it was: a resounding victory. It was absolutely thrilling.

Even MORE thrilling is Jesus victory on the cross. Think about it: no one can ever take that away from us! IT IS FINISHED.

An Enduring Guide (vv. 9-11)

The third and final mark of a prevailing presence is an enduring guide. The author encourages us to “Walk about Zion, go all around it, counting it’s towers, consider well its ramparts; go through its citadels …” Why, so that we know how many towers there are? … So that we know where to find our glasses when we set them down unattentively? … So that we know how the whole thing is constructed? No! It’s so that we develop a mental picture of God’s prevailing presence that will never leave us!

‘Consider well’ means to meditate until a firm mental picture is implanted in our minds and hearts. It’s what professional golfers do when visualizing their next shot. Let’s fix this in our minds: “He will be our guide forever.

How often do we subconsciously think we have to figure everything out in life for ourselves, and that we are alone? In actual fact, we reside in the very heart of Mt. Zion spiritually every day, and it is from this place, and this emotional safety, that God wants us to live out each day in strength, in joy, in peace.

Conclusion
It’s too easy to read Psalms like Psalm 48 and think subconsciously, “Oh yeah, I know, God is great. God is majestic. Okay, now let’s get to something more useful.” Yet there is nothing more useful than connecting emotionally, physically and spiritually with the prevailing presence of God in our lives.

Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised in the city of our God.

Be Careful What You Wish For (1 Sam. 8)

https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55721

For Sunday, June 6, 2021
2nd Sunday After Pentecost
Year B, Proper 5

Was there ever a time in your life as a kid when you wanted something, you knew your parents were against it, but you were convinced your parents were wrong? Only later did you discover how right your parents actually were. That is what is happening in 1 Samuel 8.

The people of Israel realized they were in a predicament. Their leader Samuel had been holding things together as judge, prophet, and priest. But his sons were corrupt. The people realized they needed something different. But instead of coming to God in repentance to reform their country and take responsibility themselves, they wanted someone else to solve the problem. They didn’t want to be different than any of the other nations but rather to be just like them. They wanted the easy path.

God says to Samuel, “They are treating you exactly the way they have been treating me since I brought them out of Egypt. They forget me and they turn to other gods. Warn them about what they are asking for. They’ll end up giving away 50% of everything they have and earn, but if that’s what they want, give it to them.” And so it was.

Why were they so unable to make better choices? Pride, arrogance, ignorance, and passivity. Will things be any different for us today? Only if we humble ourselves and realize we too are prideful, arrogant, naive, and passive.

Let’s do some business today with God for ourselves, our families, our churches, our communities, our states and our countries. Let’s be careful what we wish for.

The Taste of Freedom (Rom. 8:12-17)

This stone stele was erected along one of the paths that lead to Santiago de Compostela, an important pilgrimage site. Santiago de Compostela, Spain. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56146

For Sunday, May 30, 2021
Trinity Sunday, Year B

Think of a time in your life when you really felt free.

For me, it was one morning on a motorcycle cresting the pass overlooking Pagosa Springs in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. The entire valley floor opened up before my son Noah and I in a glorious display of shimmering golden and green sunlight. The taste of freedom was palpable.

So it is meant to be for us in our spiritual journeys. This passage is about the taste of freedom that comes from realizing we are no longer under the claim of the flesh but now under the claim of the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes to really appreciate what God wants to say to us we need to change translations. There is a newer translation called The Passion Translation (TPT) that does a great job capturing some of the emotion that Scripture is intended to convey by speaking truth to us in contemporary English language. It’s so easy for us to get caught up in tradition. We end up domesticating the gospel. The gospel was never meant to be caged! Let this passage speak to you uncaged. I’ll share the whole thing here from the TPT:

12 So then, beloved ones, the flesh has no claims on us at all, and we have no further obligation to live in obedience to it. 13 For when you live controlled by the flesh, you are about to die. But if the life of the Spirit puts to death the corrupt ways of the flesh, we then taste his abundant life.

14 The mature children of God are those[a] who are moved by the impulses of the Holy Spirit. 15 And you did not receive the “spirit of religious duty,”[b] leading you back into the fear of never being good enough.[c] But you have received the “Spirit of full acceptance,”[d] enfolding you into the family of God. And you will never feel orphaned, for as he rises up within us, our spirits join him in saying the words of tender affection, “Beloved Father!”[e] 16 For the Holy Spirit makes God’s fatherhood real to us as he whispers into our innermost being, “You are God’s beloved child!”

17 And since we are his true children, we qualify to share all his treasures, for indeed, we are heirs of God himself. And since we are joined to Christ, we also inherit all that he is and all that he has.[f] We will experience being co-glorified with him provided that we accept his sufferings[g] as our own.[h]

That last phrase “provided we accept his sufferings as our own” can be jarring. Yet all it means is that we put ourselves under the discipline of his discipleship. He died on the cross for our sins. When we accept that, when we own that, our own challenges become the light and momentary afflictions that they actually are, which we gladly accept, for the sake of qualifying to share in his inheritance as co-heirs of our Heavenly Father.

What does freedom look like for you today?

The Church in the World

Vincent van Gogh, “The Church at Auvers”, 1890, Musée d’OrsayParis

John 17:6-19
For Sunday, May 16th, 2021
7th Sunday of Easter, Year B

This is a very significant post for me. I named this blog “Church in the World” and realized in studying this passage that it speaks about precisely the name of this blog: the church in the world.

What did Jesus want the community that commits to follow him to look like and be? Here is the answer. Let’s set aside for a moment our current conceptions of ‘church’ and let Jesus prayer repaint the canvas for us.

The church in the world that Jesus envisioned carries 3 marks of identity:
● We carry the Father’s name revealed
● We are unified in purpose
● We experience the completed joy of Jesus

We carry the Father’s name revealed (vv. 6-8)
The first mark of the Church in the world is that we carry the Father’s name revealed. Jesus says, “I have revealed your name to the men you gave me out of the world” (v. 6, NET). Because we carry our Father’s name, Jehovah, we understand that everything comes from him (v. 7). We accept and really understand that Jesus came from his Father who is now our Father (v. 8a). We believe that our Father sent his son to save us (v. 8b).

How easy it is to lose sight of these ground truths amidst all our concerns about theological propriety, worship styles, and church issues of 100 stripes. We carry the Father’s name revealed. That is what matters!

I remember working with some young pastors in Siberia. I encouraged them to meet in groups of 3 and simply come together around the wellspring of the gospel, drop their guards in complete confidentiality, and let the Spirit encourage them. They were gone for about an hour. When they came back, the light in their eyes and the joy in their hearts was an absolutely beautiful thing to behold. We carry the Father’s name revealed!

We are unified in purpose (vv. 9-11)
The second mark of the Church in the World is that we are unified in purpose. Jesus prays, “Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one as we are one” (v. 11). To be “one” means to be “unified”. Please note that the context of this unification concerns our mission versus or theologies or organizations. We must understand that that rather than the church having a mission, the mission has a church! God the Father so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son. His son completed the mission given to him by the Father. The Son is glorified in us: our unity in continuing the mission brings the Son of God glory!

How easy it is to lose the forest for the sake of the trees here. Unify not around everything that doesn’t ultimately matter. Unify instead around the one thing that ultimately does: the mission of reclaiming those who belong to the Father out of the world.

We experience the completed joy of Jesus (vv. 12-14)
The third and final mark of the Church in the World is that we experience the completed joy of Jesus. Jesus prays, “But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves” (v. 13). As the church, as a community of believers, we are intended to experience together the completed joy of Jesus! Jesus, when he was with our spiritual forbearers, “kept them safe” and “watched over them.” Now Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, knowing that he completed his mission, and that not one of us that belongs to him can ever be lost. Can you imagine the joy that must bring to Jesus as he looks down upon us? He wants us to carry in our own hearts this very same joy. It is the joy of victory complete.

There is something very special knowing that you’ve done something that no one can ever take away. Think of the satisfaction you would have as the winner of a Super Bowl or of a World Cup. How much greater is our joy knowing that we have won the ultimate spiritual battle because of what Jesus accomplished for us by dying sacrificially for us on the cross and then being raised to life to show his total victory over pain, suffering and death!

Conclusion
Jesus closes his prayer for us by asking that his Father keep us safe from the evil one. We are safe from the evil one. Jesus asks that the Father would sanctify us (set us apart) in truth. The Father has. Jesus tells the Father that he has sent us into the world. We have been so commissioned.

We have our victory already secured. We have our protection. We have our orders. Now, the only question that remains is this: will we go and fulfill our destiny as the Church in the World? How thankful I am today for the shared identify, victory and calling that I have together with you.

You ready? Let’s do this!

For there the Lord commanded the blessing

Psalm 133
For Sunday, April 11, 2021
Second Sunday of Easter, Year B

Mount Hermon in Northern Israel (https://www.elal.com/magazine/en/portfolio-items/travel/ideas-info/mount-hermon/)

Have you ever had your emotional fur rubbed the wrong way? How do we get from there back to a place of relational shalom? Psalm 133 gives us a picture of the glory and joy of the destination so we can push thru what is encumbering us.

How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.” Can you think of a time in your life when you enjoyed complete unity with someone else – perhaps a parent, a spouse, or a good friend. Memories that come to mind for me are a conversation about coming to Christ in junior high school with a good friend on the side of my parents’ house; locking in as a jazz drummer with one of my favorite bass players; and having a good laugh with my wife Heather over a shared experience we had just this morning.

David says that such unity is like precious oil running down Aaron’s beard. This is not a simile that most of us will relate to readily. When I first read it I wanted to reach for the emergency spot remover in my satchel! Who wants oil on their beard much less on their clothes?! Yet think in terms of overwhelming abundance and the picture will come into focus. Often when I’m writing and studying I’ll light a candle and burn frankincense. The light of the candle and the aroma of frankincense bring my too easily troubled mind and heart back into a place of peace and strength, or shalom. The unity God wants for us with him and with others is this shalom.

Then follows another difficult to access simile. “It is like the dew of Hermon, which flows down upon the hills of Zion.” The key to unlocking this one is to understand that Mount Hermon was the chief mountain of the northern kingdom of Israel while Mount Zion was its counterpart in the south. When David wrote this he was mourning over the split between the northern and southern kingdoms of the formerly unified Israel. He was mourning over the splits within his own family. I’m sure many of us can identify at this point. Mount Hermon was renown for the heavy dew that graced its slopes every morning because of the moist climate. Mount Hood in Oregon might be a good equivalent. Mount Zion on the other hand was very dry in the summer. David is saying when there is unity that the blessings of abundance flow to the places of lack so that everyone wins. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

For there the Lord commanded the blessing.” Unity is what our Heavenly Father enjoys in constancy. He enjoys it within the three persons of the Trinity, he enjoys it with his bride, the church, and he enjoys it with everyone who responds to the forgiving and healing voice of the Holy Spirit. Hear his voice today. Respond to our Father’s committed grace. Receive Jesus’ forgiveness and healing. This is where the Lord commanded the blessing.

NOW I get it

Acts 10:34-43
For Sunday, April 4, 2021
Resurrection of the Lord, Year B

The Apostle Peter was a passionate man. This sometimes got him in trouble, like when, in front of a charcoal fire, he denied Christ three times in a moment of abandonment and anger. Yet even though failing at that crucial moment, Jesus did not reject Peter, but rather, appearing to him personally after having been raised from the dead, restored Peter to leadership. Where? Again, in front of a charcoal fire (see the Gospel of John’s account). Can you imagine the gratitude and commitment this evoked in Peter’s heart?

Peter opens here by saying, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” This has a double meaning. On one level, Peter is thinking about Jews and Gentiles. He’s saying, “Now I get it. God wasn’t out just to save Israel. He was out to save every nation on earth!” That was a stupendous discovery! Yet on a deeper level isn’t it likely Peter was also thinking about himself? God doesn’t show partiality even to leaders that fail at crucial moments!

We live in a culture that wants to be lord of it’s own reality, but there is only one Lord “ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead.” This is the best news any nation or person could ever receive. Forgiveness of sins is available. Healing from the devil’s oppression is available. Jesus Christ, Messiah, is the one about whom “all the prophets testify”. Because of what he accomplished on the cross, WE are acceptable to him, full stop.

NOW I get it!

Quiet Committed Resolve

Albrecht Altdorfer, “Crucifixion with Mary and John”, 1515-16, Staatliche Gemäldegalerie zu Kassel, Kassel, Germany.

Isaiah 50:4-9a
For Sunday, March 28, 2021
Liturgy of the Passion, Year B

How do we win our biggest spiritual battles? This passage in Isaiah points to the way.

“The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (v. 4). This hits me very personally: I’m called to be a teacher and sustain others with God’s Word. Of course, in the passage, it applies first and foremost to Messiah, but by extension, it applies also to all who follow him, and particularly to those with a calling to write and teach. At the present moment, many of us are weary; weary of the state of our countries; weary of the state of our families; weary of the state of our souls.

Jesus won the biggest spiritual battle ever fought. How? Through overwhelming force of personality? Through superior organization? Through military firepower? Through cleverness? No. He won the biggest spiritual battle ever fought through quiet committed resolve.

“The Lord has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward.” We need to open our ears to what the Spirit is saying, not rebel when things start to become uncomfortable, and commit to pressing into the battle when others would shirk away.

“I gave my back … my cheeks … my (face)” (v. 6). Actions speak louder than words. Actions of humility, and the inner confidence and faith required to exercise it, speak loudest of all.

“The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (v. 7). Let’s recognize we are not in this battle alone. May our visages reflect the resolve of inevitable victory. Because Christ triumphed on the cross, we will never be put to shame for following him, no matter the light and momentary afflictions that may attend.

“It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” At the moment of his crucifixion, Jesus had but a few wavering disciples still on his side. Everyone else was declaring him guilty! Yet he was immediately and ultimately found innocent in the one court that mattered: the court of the Heavenly Father. In that same Holy of Holies is our personal victory assured.

Live this week with quiet committed resolve!

A Mystery Man Who Matters

Heb. 5:5-10
For Sunday, March 21, 2021

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B

I haven’t posted in a long time but am resuming again! If you are a returning reader to this blog would love to hear from you! If you are a new reader, would love to hear from you too!

Abraham gives a tenth of everything to Melchizedek

What do you know about the Mystery Man named Melchizedek?

If you are like me, your mind might immediately go to, “Oh man, that is some arcane Bible knowledge that I really don’t have time for!” Yet for the author of Hebrews (whom I personally think was Apollos) Melchizedek was a very important topic. Why? Because Melchizedek is crucial to the unfolding of the gospel story. Melchizedek is the Mystery Man who matters.

First, Melchizedek is the key to unlocking the mystery of how Jesus could be a high priest. Without Melchizedek, Jesus would have had to be a Levite in Aaron’s line even to be a priest, much less a high priest. But Jesus wasn’t a member of the tribe of Levi. He is the Lion of the Tribe of Judah. So the only way for him to also be a high priest is if there was another priestly line outside of the Levitical priesthood. Aha: enter our mystery man Melchizedek.

Gen. 14 introduces Melchizedek as king of Salem and a priest of El Elyon who blesses Abram. Abram reciprocates by giving to Melchizedek a 10th of everything he owned! (Gen. 14:20). Melchizedek then gets mentioned again in Psalm 110 in a reference as cryptic as a Q drop. Some person would be declared a “priest forever in the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:4).

Second, the re-emergence of Melchizedek meant the end of the Levitical priesthood. Our author will have much more to say about this later in Hebrews (see chapters 7&8). But for now, think about the significance of this: the Levitical priesthood is over.

Third, Melchizedek opens the door to our eternal salvation. What we needed was someone who experienced all the travails that we do, yet overcame them. That is Jesus. Yet he had to become our priest in order to represent us, and that never would have happened without Melchizedek.

Hebrews can be one of the hardest books to understand in the entire Bible, yet it can also be one of the most rewarding, because it explains how the Old Testament relates to the New Testament, and how the New Testament is a fulfillment of all to which the Old Testament pointed. Some will suggest that with the coming of the New Testament, the Old Testament became obsolete. Nothing could be further from the truth. God’s promise to Abraham was made for eternity. The New Testament unlocks for us how God has moved to fulfill and secure it. We need both Testaments because we can’t appreciate either without the other!

There is a spiritual principle in all of this too. God has a way of coming to our rescue in unexpected ways but in ways that he has hinted at all along, and only make sense in retrospect. If you are facing a challenge today, you can know that God has already put in place the seeds of your deliverance!

For a great commentary on Hebrews, check out David Gooding, The Unshakeable Kingdom.

Who defines reality?

1 Cor. 6:12-20
For Sunday, January 14, 2018
Second Sunday After The Epiphany, Year B

We live in a culture that wants to elevate self as having the right to define it’s own reality.  The problem is that reality has already been taken by someone else.

gauguin_christ-jaune

Paul Gauguin, “The Yellow Christ” (Christ Jaune), 1889, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York

One of the Lectionary readings this week is 1 Cor. 6 in which The Apostle Paul is challenging the Corinthian’s thinking on sexual identity.  How striking the parallels between the Corinthian’s thinking then and conventional cultural wisdom today.  We desperately want to define our own realities.

In Planned Parenthood versus Casey (1992) Justice Anthony Kennedy famously said,

At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

Contrast this with what The Apostle Paul says about our human identity here in 1 Cor. 6:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? … For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

The reality is that we did not create ourselves nor do we have the right to create our own existence.  We can pursue this illusion in a desperate quest for freedom and autonomy yet true freedom will be found only when we embrace who we actually are: creations of God intended to be a temple for his Holy Spirit.

What does it mean for your reality this week that you have been bought with a price?  How would you most like to glorify God this week?

A Thanksgiving Day Blessing

We live in a nation of discord.  So it was when President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday on October 3, 1863.  The encouragement he found then is the same encouragement available to us today.

Brownscombe_First Thanksgiving

Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth, 1914, Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts

One of the things I love to do when we sit down as a family for Thanksgiving dinner is to read Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.  We live in a culture so distracted by our digital devices that we can no longer remember from where we came or why.  Taking a moment to reconnect with history can do much to clear the fog and help us remember what really matters and why.

Abraham Lincoln made his Proclamation on October 3, 1863.  Just as we are presently experiencing the present strife of Weinstein and Moore so was he experiencing strife, and actually of a far greater magnitude: the country was at war with itself.

The first thing Lincoln does is observe that even amidst the strife any sensible heart will see that we remain under “the watchful providence of Almighty God”:

The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

Another thing Lincoln does is call for penitence and mercy.  These are concepts we’ve almost forgotten but how we need them today as he did then:

And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to him that, for such singular deliverances and blessings; they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

Our greatest challenges personally and nationally are neither political, nor even cultural, but spiritual.  May all who are Christians join me today in humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience.  May all who are fellow citizens, Christian or otherwise, join me in reaching out in tender care to those among us who are widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers.

How would you like to stand for our country in penitence?  To whom has God put on your heart today to extend mercy?  Please share your comments below.

I dedicate this post to my good friend and newly bereaved widow Lida Pederson, whose dear husband Doug went home to be with the Lord this week after a prolonged battle with Alzheimer’s Disease.

Happy Thanksgiving.
November 22, 2017.