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

pablo

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.

152h

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!

 

enjoying our freedom?

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
For Sunday, June 26, 2016
Proper 8

Never have we been so free as we are in the Secular West.  So then why aren’t we enjoying it?  Galatians 5 provides an explanation.

bacon_head-vi

Head VI, Francis Bacon, 1949, Hayward Gallery, London

I just returned from an amazing week at Acton University with 1,100 other adult learners from 51 countries to learn about faith, liberty and economics.  The most moving part of the week for me was hearing Father Sirico during the final plenary session share about how as a five year old growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s, he noticed numbers on his Jewish neighbor’s arm and asked his Mom what they meant.  His Mom explained that just as cowboys brand cattle so some people thought they could brand other people to designate those others their property.  This experience became among Father Sirocco’s first inklings that we as human beings are  profoundly different than animals.

Lord Acton, the Acton Institute’s namesake, said this about freedom: “True freedom is not the ability to do whatever we want, but rather having the power to do what we ought” (paraphrased).”    This is precisely what the Apostle Paul addresses with the Galatians in chapter 5 of his letter to them.

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (v. 13).  “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, …” (v. 19).  “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control” (vv. 22-23)”.  “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (v. 1).

As Francis Bacon understood so well in “Head VI”, the painting above, we in the West are free to do whatever we want (including now even choosing our own gender).  Yet we’ve lost our minds in the process.  Only in turning back to God will we start to identify with what we ought to do as well as find the power to do it.

Think about the people in your sphere of influence.  Are they enjoying their freedom?  Really?   How about you yourself?  It’s a revealing question, but it can be one of the most liberating ones you could ever ask yourself.  May the Spirit of liberty lead us forward in both grace and truth.

Lenten reflection on a life verse

For Sunday, February 21, 2016
2nd Sunday in Lent

“He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?”
Micah 6:8

This is my life verse.  On my tombstone may it read, “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”  As we’re on this Lenten journey I decided to reflect further on what’s really here.  I’m in both the Hebrew and Greek 10 minutes a day clubs on alternating weeks.  (To join, just commit to spending 10 minutes a day in the given language).  I have a calendar entry on the top of each Monday to remind myself.  During my recent Hebrew weeks I’ve been exploring Micah 6:1-8 in depth.  There is so much here.  For today I’ll confine myself to the three key terms in verse 8: justice, kindness, and walking humbly.

The Hebrew word translated “justice” is ‘mishpat‘.  I like to remember key Hebrew words because when I run across them multiple times they become friends with a depth and range of meaning that can’t be conveyed directly from one language to the next.  ‘Mishpat‘ carries with it the idea of true religion manifesting itself in social concern (Expositor’s Bible Commentary (EBC)).  As Christians we need to be known what we’re for more than what we’re against.  One of the things we’re for is justice.  This means a culture in which every person is valued for the image of God in them and in which every person is encouraged to thrive.  I recently visited a Milwaukee ministry called “Word of Hope“.  Pastor Cliff said, “Our job is to take away every excuse a person has to fail.  If they need a job, we’ll help them find one.  If they don’t have a ride to get there, we’ll arrange one.  If they have some underlying issues that prevent them from keeping that job, we’ll work through that with them.”  This is the justice of the gospel in action.  “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).

The Hebrew word translated “kindness” is ‘hesed‘.  I first became friends with this word in seminary when studying the book of Ruth with Dennis Magary.   If you ever have a chance to study with Dennis take it!  The kindness that Ruth extended to Naomi, that Boaz extended to Ruth (and vice versa), and that God extends to us through Ruth’s grandson King David and then on through Jesus is this very word ‘hesed.  It’s God’s unfailing love.  God is saying, “I’ve got your back.”  It’s my Russian missionary colleagues putting $200 in our bag to enable my wife Heather and me to purchase a snowsuit for my son Karcher that we otherwise couldn’t afford while in Siberia.  ‘Hesed’ can cause tears of gratitude to well up in your eyes.  ‘Hesed’ is also reciprocal.  When you’ve experienced it you can’t help but extend it to others because every time you do you experience it again.  To fail to show ‘hesed’ was to break the covenant and to break the covenant was to reveal that you were never part of it in the first place (EBC notes).

The phrase “to walk humbly” is based on two Hebrew words.  The first, ‘tzana’, means “to be humbled” as an extension of acting in a cautious manner (Kohlenberger / Mounce).  A derivative appears in Proverbs 11:2:  “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom” (EBC).  So many of us live in pride: so few of us live with wisdom.  Humility is the difference.  The second Hebrew word used here meaning “to walk” is ‘halak’.  God wants us to ‘halak’ with him because he is already and always ‘halak’ing’ with us.  It is as Eph. 5:15 says: “Therefore, be careful how you walk, not as unwise men, but as wise, because the days are evil.” So putting it all together, “to walk humbly” is to live intentionally in view of God’s glory and presence in our lives.

Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.  This is a high calling both glorious and fulfilling.  Where is the path on which we will flourish?  Right here.

Your turn

  • Do you have a favorite or life verse and what brought you to it?
  • What would you like written on your tombstone?
  • How can Lent helping you reconnect with your own life verse and calling?

Finding freedom in grace

Van Gogh, "Harvest in Provence", 1888, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Van Gogh, “Harvest in Provence”, 1888, Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Romans 10:8b-13
For Sunday, February 14, 2016
First Sunday in Lent

We all know intellectually that we’re saved by grace through faith.  So why then do we  so often get verklempt in our attempts to perform for God?  The internal tape says, “I have to go to church.  I have to go to Bible study.  I have to serve.  I have to pray.  I have to, I have to, I have to …”  Actually, we don’t!

The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart” (Rom. 10:8).  Israel made the mistake of trying to earn salvation through performance.  Paul says earlier in this chapter, “Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.  For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge…  Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (vv. 2, 4).

Have you believed?  Have you confessed Christ as Lord.  Then you have God’s righteousness.  There is no DO in the gospel, only DONE.  “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (v. 13).

Stop performing in a vain attempt to earn God’s approval.  Embrace the freedom we have to be God’s people given the righteousness we have by faith.  We live in a world starving for grace and grace needs to come alive first within ourselves.  Only then can we extend it to others.

Your Turn
Where is the grace of God leading you this week to experience freedom?
(For me it was calling Birch Creek Music Camp to offer my services as a jazz drummer for this summer’s camp in Door County, WI).

A great resource for Lent
My good friend Jim Van Eerden has put together a fantastic multimedia lectionary called The Pilgrim Year.   The section on Lent could be a great resource for helping you to embrace the freedom of God’s grace leading up to Easter.  I highly recommend it!
(Disclaimer: this paragraph is sponsored content.  For a 5% discount use budget code PASSPORT).