Deserts yearn to bloom

Isaiah 35:1-10
For Sunday, December 11, 2016
Third Sunday of Advent, Year A

Deserts are dry, desolate, and parched.  Yet just a little water changes everything.  So it is with the gospel.

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Photo by Jordan Whitt via Unsplash.

My wife Heather and I were in Scottsdale Arizona this past April for the Pinnacle Forum National Conference.  The desert flowers were at their peak.  To see life spring forth from such apparent desolation is breathtaking.

How often is it that we live in quiet desolation not realizing that with just a little water everything could be transformed?  This is what the gospel does.

The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.   Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy (Isaiah 35:1).  I’ve seen this in Scottsdale, I’ve seen it in Palm Springs, and I’ve seen it in Siberia.  That last one was a different kind of desert: a spiritual desert.  In our ten years serving leaders there, we learned quickly that we didn’t have the answers, but that Jesus and the gospel did.  We started something called the Wellspring Pastors’ Network (Источник).  We got the idea from John 4:14:

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The pastors I worked with were parched.  I was often parched.  The cities we lived in were parched.  But as we came together around the wellspring of the gospel everything began to change.  This doesn’t just apply to Siberian pastors.  It applies to personal addictions, to marriages, to families, to organizations, to communities, to countries, and yes, even to local churches.

Are you parched?  Have you thought about a glass of water?  That feeling we  get when we slake that thirst?  That’s a pointer to the gospel’s ability to slake our spiritual thirst.  Ultimately, all of our problems are spiritual at the core.  That’s why the gospel always works.

How have you seen the gospel pour into your life and bring a desert to life?  If you haven’t, what would it look like if it did?  Sometimes even starting to envision it, with prayer, can start the wellspring.

 

The Ultimate Contrarian

"Device to Root Out Evil", Dennis Oppenheim, 1938 - 2011, Vancouver, Canada.

“Device to Root Out Evil”, Dennis Oppenheim, 1938 – 2011, Vancouver, Canada.

Jeremiah 32:1-15
For Sunday, September 25, 2016
Year C, Proper 21

I’m back this week with my good friend Jeremiah.  I just can’t stay away from this guy.  Here he’s buying real estate in the face of a Babylonian invasion.  What we’ll discover is that God sometimes calls us to be the ultimate contrarians.

20 years ago I was reading this passage while traveling by train to Iasi (“Yash”), Romania.  My colleague asked what I was reading.  I said, “Jeremiah 32”.  He followed, “What are you getting out of it?”  I said, “It’s possible I’m supposed to buy an apartment where we live in Irkutsk, Siberia.  Buying an apartment in the risky Russian real estate market of the time was certainly contrarian.  But with the help of some generous donors buy it we did, and it became a wonderful gathering place for our growing Russian family of friends.  We named it “The Anathoth Hospitality House” after the property Jeremiah is buying here.

As we follow the Lord there will be times he asks us to be the ultimate contrarians.  We will do things that just don’t make sense outside of God’s economy.  What Jeremiah does here is truly astounding.  He is under house arrest for telling his King that fighting the Babylonians is pointless because God has already doomed Judah to defeat.  Then God tells him to buy a piece of property, one that the Babylonians have already overrun.  Yet Jeremiah receives confirmation when his cousin Hanamel makes the very same request that God did.  This is a wonderful example of prophetic confirmation.  When God tells us things he will often send someone to us to confirm that we have really heard from him.

Jeremiah buys the property, and says something very moving: “Take these deeds … and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time.  For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel:  Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

Jeremiah could see what no one else could.  As bad as things looked in the moment, there was hope just over the horizon.  Jeremiah turned out to be right.  After 70 years of The Babylonian Captivity, the people of Judah returned and houses and fields and vineyards were indeed bought again.

This can offer us tremendous encouragement in this present cultural moment.  When Christians are being marginalized and labeled as racists and bigots we can see over the horizon to the day when Jesus consolidates the victory already won on the cross.  We can therefore be gracious even to our foes.  For like us, they are made in the image of God, and houses and field and vineyard will again be purchased in the land of our kingdom.

God and vengeance?

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“Desolation” by Thomas Cole

For Sunday, September 11, 2016
Year C, Proper 19
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

(Re-posted from Sept. 9, 2013)

What place could vengeance possibly have in the heart of a good and loving God? This week’s first reading, Jer. 4:11-12, 22-28, raises the question.

This is not a passage to which one turns for spiritual solace. “A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights …. not to winnow or cleanse – a wind too strong for that … For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children … They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good. The whole land shall be a desolation … I have not relented nor will I turn back.” This reminds me of the time I was so mad at my oldest son that I told him he could no longer live under my roof and was consigned to the garage until his conduct changed. I was an angry parent, and righteously so (for the most part). But can a truly good God really act in vengeance? Logically, we might want to argue know, but scripturally, the answer is clearly “yes”.

The fortunate thing is that the gospel story doesn’t end with judgment. As mad as God was in Jeremiah, he found a way to redeem the situation through the death of his own son Jesus. Fools continue to say in their hearts, “There is no God” (Psalm 14) but God is nevertheless intent on recovering his wandering sheep (Luke 15). While just vengeance indeed awaits those who refuse God’s purpose there is grace awaiting those who come to the realization that they formerly acted in ignorance (1 Tim 1).

It’s a mistake to think that God never gets angry or even vengeful. His love and righteousness demand as much in the face of rebellion, corruption, and oppression. Yet may each of us find grace for our time of need.

Who shapes the clay?

Jeremiah 18:1-11
For Sunday, September 4, 2016
Proper 18, Year C

Am I really a boy or a girl?  Amidst the massive transformation our culture is undergoing as regards gender, Jeremiah 18 provides both insight and hope.

Else Berg, "Potter"

Else Berg, “Potter”

One of my former co-workers underwent a gender change.  I met with him over coffee to seek understanding and offer friendship.  He appreciated this.  As I reflected back on that conversation I realized that a crying need in today’s culture is to find identity.  This may help explain the current interest in tattoos and the Burning Man Festival.

So is identity something we each have to choose for ourselves?  Jeremiah 18 provides a very different answer: our identity is shaped by God.   This applies not only to individuals but also to nations.  God says, “At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.

As clay, rather than trying to shape ourselves, the Bible invites us to pursue a relationship with our Potter.  The hard truth is that God is going to shape us whether we like it or not.  “Now, therefore,  therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”

The good news is that God offers us the chance to turn back to him before he reshapes us.  Jesus did not come to condemn anyone.  He came “that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

What do you think about the current gender controversy swirling in our culture?  What insights would you point to from this passage or other parts of the Bible?

 

God’s incredulity

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Jeremiah 2:4-13
For Sunday, August 28th
Proper 17

I think to understand Jeremiah 2 you have to be the parents of teenage boys.  One time a teenage boy I know well was trying to get into his home.  The doors were all locked and he didn’t have a key.  He decided to solve the problem by kicking in the back door to the garage.  Mind you, this was the very same door the boy’s father had just repaired a day earlier.  Arriving home from work, the father saw the broken door frame, and was incredulous.  “What in the world were you thinking?!”

This is how God is feeling about us in Jeremiah 2.  “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?!” (Jer. 2:5).  Reading through the rest of the passage there are a number of other statements underscoring God’s incredulity at his people’s rebellion:

  • “When you went your own way you didn’t even ask where I was!” (v. 6)
  • “You enter this amazing Promised Land and proceed to defile it!” (v. 7)
  • “Your leaders didn’t even ask for me!” (v. 8)
  • “Has there ever been another people who changed their god despite those gods being false?!” (v. 11)

God is so incredulous, and so alone in his incredulity, that he’s reduced to talking to the heavens.  “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord” (v. 12).  The two things God was most incredulous about were these:

  • “You have forsaken me, the fountain of living water” (v. 13a)
  • “You have dug cisterns for yourselves rather than relying on me (and they leak!)” (v. 13b)

Why are we so often so spiritually stupid?  It is because the spiritual synapses of our frontal lobes just haven’t connected.  They need to connect, NOW.  Let’s not waste another day, shall we?   Let’s stop kicking in the doors of God’s inheritance and start asking for his help!

 

 

 

 

People of destiny

Jeremiah 1:4-10
For Sunday, August 21, 2016
Year C, Proper 16

What difference can I possibly make in the world?  In our weaker moments all of us ourselves this.  The answer is every difference, if we would only understand the calling God has on each of our lives.

Jeremiah the Prophet

Jeremiah is one of my favorite characters in the Bible.  He became such when I came to understand something God directed him to do later in life.  God said, “Jeremiah, the Babylonians are coming to overrun your country.  So I want you to buy land in your hometown of Anathoth.”  Who would buy real estate in the face of an impending Babylonian invasion?  Only someone who knows the end of the story.  Jeremiah bought that land and it worked out very well for him and his descendants.  Likewise, we once bought real estate in Siberia.  Despite very long odds it worked out for us too!

What moved Jeremiah to make that purchase is what we read about here in Chapter 1.  God had a call on his life from before he was born.  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (v. 5).  The same is true for each of us!  Ephesians provides confirmation: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10).

We may not be called to be a prophet as Jeremiah was.  But look at all the other aspects of Jeremiah’s call from chapter one that do apply to each one of us who follow Jesus:

  • We are known by God (v. 1a)
  • We have been set apart  (v. 1b)
  • We have been appointed to a specific calling (v. 1c)
  • God’s words have been put in our mouths (through the Holy Spirit) (v. 9)
  • We have divine authority to speak to nations (v. 10)

Jeremiah’s reaction was the same one we have.  “But Lord, I’m only a child” (v. 6).  What the Lord said to Jeremiah then he says to us today:  “Do not say, ‘I am only a child’.  You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you” (vv. 7 – 8).

So said Jesus to his disciples as his last words before ascending to heaven.  “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations. . . And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:18 – 20).

A preaching outline

Becoming people of destiny (3 touchstones):

  • We are called from before our birth (vv. 4-5)
  • We are commissioned to proceed (vv. 6 – 8)
  • We are commended with divine authority (vv. 9 – 10)

Points to ponder:

  • Do you believe God has a call on your life?  If not, where does the argument above fall short?
  • Do you know what your specific calling is?  Here is a great resource to help.
  • Have you embraced the divine authority of your call?  If you did, what difference would it make?

 

Navigating hostility: the prophetic edge

Luke 10:1 – 20
For Sunday, July 3, 2016 (Proper 9)

What are we to do as Christians if our message is met with hostility?  Luke 10:1 – 20 shows us how to navigate such situations with both integrity and even love.

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Hostility is something that Christians will face more and more in the Secular West.  I experienced this at my former workplace.  Employee Resource Groups (ERG) based on LGBT or racial interests were welcomed, encouraged, and sponsored.  Yet a proposed ERG based on faith was denied, despite multiple attempts to adjust the scope of the group; one proposal was too narrow; the next was too broad.  Already in many workplaces there is pressure from HR departments for executives to declare themselves allies of LGBT groups.

So what are we as Christians to do?  What’s fascinating about Luke 10 is that we see the same message delivered two different ways, depending on how the message is being received.  When Jesus appointed the seventy to spread his message, the message they were to deliver was always the same: “The kingdom of God has come near” (v. 9, v. 11).  Yet notice the difference in tone with which this message is conveyed.  In the first scenario, if well received, they were to stay in homes, cure the sick, and as a point of encouragement say “The kingdom of God has come near!”.

However, in the second scenario, when received with hostility, they were to use a very different tone.  They were still to say, “The kingdom of God has come near”, but to precede this with”Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you” (v. 11).  Notice they weren’t to go away quietly and keep their faith to their private selves.  Nor were they to attempt to become more winsome.  Instead, they were to communicate the message with a prophetic edge.

This is something we are going to learn, do, and get very good at.  In fact, this is actually a very loving response to hostility.  The kingdom of God is indeed near, and people deserve to know, whether by way of encouragement or prophetic warning.

Where have you observed the gospel being received with hostility?  What would it feel like to have the courage to engage in this situation with a prophetic warning?  How about giving it a try?   Please let me know how it goes!