Category Archives: Arts and Entertainment

Reclaiming the Joy of the Lord

Scroll of Isaiah from Qumran (Muzeʼon Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem))

Nehemiah 8:1-10
For Sunday, January 24, 2016
Third Sunday After the Ephiphany

This passage is wholly appropriate for the season of Epiphany because an epiphany is precisely what is taking place here.  When a culture hears truth it knows it and will weep with mourning for how far it has strayed.  At the same time such truth is life-giving and the joy of the Lord speaking it will become the peoples’ strength.

It had been a long 70 years in Babylon, Long enough to forget what it meant to have God in the center of the culture.  Yet now, by providence through the Persian conquest of Babylon, Israel found herself home again in Jerusalem, standing before her temple, at the start of the civil year.  This was a State of the Union moment.  Ezra the scribe (a precursor to Charles Krauthammer on Fox News?) brings out the Book of the Law of Moses.

Ezra read from the book with interpretation so that the people could understand the meaning (v. 8).  This is the essence of good preaching.  I once heard Stuart Briscoe, Pastor Emeritus of Elmbrook Church, and one of the most gifted expository preachers in the country, say to a mutual acquaintance, “All I’ve done is found a good book and shared what I’ve read there with all who would listen.”  Transformational preaching is no more or less than this.  Expository preaching will always be relevant because it is the conveyance of transforming truth.

So convicted were the people of how far they had allowed their country to stray that they wept.  Oh that Christians around the world would take ownership for the state of our Unions.  People and nations will thrive when the truth of the gospel is heard and lived by even a remnant.

At the end of the reading, Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the scribe (journalist), and the Levites (priests or pastors) said with one voice, “Go, and celebrate, and share your blessing with those who lack, and do not be grieved, because the joy of the Lord is your strength” (v. 10).

This passage is a call for us as individuals to recommit ourselves to the daily reading of Scripture.  It’s a call as well to preach the Scriptures exposition ally in our churches.  Finally, it’s a call to reclaim the joy of the Lord that our countries and cultures would thrive.  May we neither wander nor falter nor fail to respond to so high a calling.

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.

preserve this our city

"Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel", Duccio, di Buoninsegna, -1319?, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

“Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel”,
Duccio, di Buoninsegna, -1319?, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Matthew 1:18-25 (Isaiah 7)
For Sunday, December 22, 2013
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A

I was fascinated to learn this week about Duccio’s “Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekial” (pictured above).  It’s a story that spans from the National Gallery of Art in present day Washington, D.C. all the way back to 14th century Tuscany, Italy, and the city state of Siena.

Duccio di Buoninsegna (say that three times fast) was a prominent Sienese artist with a reputation that extended as far as Paris.  His Siena studio received a commission from the government of Siena to create a magnificent altarpiece called the Maesta, that would serve as a crown jewel of the already famous and beautiful Cathedral of Siena.  The idea was to raise the profile of Siena, and it’s allegiance with the Roman Emperor, as against that of it’s archival Florence, which was allied with the Pope (1).

The Maesta (“The Majesty”) was intended to celebrate the majesty of God as revealed in the coming of Immanuel (Messiah as “God with Us”).   It was a stunningly beautiful free-standing sculpture 7′ high by 13′ wide consisting of many images.  The theme on the front was Mary’s role in Jesus’ birth while the theme on the back was the life of Christ.  The work en toto was the 13th Century equivalent of a modern cinematic blockbuster.  If you had the good fortune of walking into the glorious Cathedral of Siena, and then walking up to the alter to take communion in front of this even more glorious Maesta, it would be an experience of a lifetime.

Across the front of the base of the Maesta was a predalla, a horizontal band of narrative scenes.  Front and center on the predella was “The Nativity’.  It’s only 18″ tall and 34” wide, but it was the invitation to enter into the majesty of the larger work.  When you approached the Maesta this is where your eyes would go first.  Then you would be drawn into the majesty of the entire narrative until finally eyes moved above Mary’s own ascension into heaven and you were forced to contemplate your own mortality in light of eternity.  Mind altering, to be sure.

Duccio flanks the nativity scene itself with the Prophet Isaiah on the left and the Prophet Ezekiel on the right.  Each is holding a scroll.  On Isaiah’s scroll is written ‘ECCE VIRGO CONCIPIET & PARIET FILIU & VOCABITUR NOMEN EIUS EMANUEL’, Latin for “Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Immanuel” (from Isaiah 7:14).   Right… , that certainly makes good sense.

On Ezekiel’s scroll, however, is inscribed  ‘VIDI PORTA I DOMO DOM CLAUSA VIR NO TRSIBIT P[ER] EA DOMIN SOLUS ITRAT ET IT P[ER] EA[M]’, for “I saw a door in the house of the Lord which was closed and no man went through it. The Lord only enters and goes through it” (Ezekial 44:2).   Wow, not the Ezekiel verse I expected.   Yet this was always the citation from Ezekiel that resonated with the Sienese, because for them, “the door” was Mary, and if it wasn’t for her, Immanuel could never have come into the world (2).

The Maesta was installed in the cathedral of Siena on June 9, 1311.  Here is how one participant described the event:

And on that day when it was brought into the cathedral, all workshops remained closed, and the bishop commanded a great host of devoted priests and monks to file past in solemn procession. This was accompanied by all the high officers of the Commune and by all the people; all honorable citizens of Siena surrounded said panel with candles held in their hands, and women and children followed humbly behind. They accompanied the panel amidst the glorious pealing of bells after a solemn procession on the Piazza del Campo into the very cathedral; and all this out of reverence for the costly panel… The poor received many alms, and we prayed to the Holy Mother of God, our patron saint, that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor or enemy.

Wow!  After reading that I need to see “The Nativity” in the National Gallery of Art in D.C.  And I need to see the parts of the Maesta that remain in Siena as well as the Cathedral itself.  What an incredible story God weaves over time and through nations.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to organize some Christian Worldview culture vulture trips for amazed people  such as us?

I love the last part of the description above.  “The poor received many alms, and we prayed to our patron Saint that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor, or enemy.”  My prayer today for the poor among us, for you and me, for our families, for our churches, for our cities, for our countries, and for our world is that God might do likewise for us.

Merry Christmas.

finding Shalom

John Glover, "Ullswater, Early Morning", 19th Century, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

John Glover, “Ullswater, Early Morning”, c. 1824, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

For Sunday, June 9, 2013
3rd Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 5)

John Glover was a famous English landscape painter.  This is a painting of Ullswater Lake in the English Lake District and was likely on or near land that he owned.    Glover subsequently moved to Australia on his 64th birthday in 1831 and purchased a large tract of land in what is now Tasmania.  He subsequently became known as the father of Australian landscape painting.  It seems fitting that “Ullswater, Early Morning” should hang in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.  It’s as if God himself is bringing together the best of England and Australia and blessing both of them.

When I look at this landscape it speaks to me with one quiet word, “shalom”, a Hebrew word that might be rendered in English as “flourishing”.  In this painting all is well with a stunningly beautiful yet tranquil world.

Why is is that we so seldom experience shalom?  We get so busy that we forget that for which we are striving.  What is ‘that’ if not shalom?  What if we could make some time and space so that shalom could be found not merely at the end of the journey but in every day and every moment of it.  This is what the gospel offers to us if we will only create the time and space for it to take root in our souls, families, and circles of influence.

There are also beautiful pictures of shalom in this week’s readings.  Elijah says to the widow of Zaraphath, “Your jug of oil will not fail.”    The God of Psalm 146 creates the heavens, the earth, and the sea, and then promises to keep faith with us forever.  The God of Psalm 30 turns the mourning of depression into dancing.  The Galatian Christians marvel that the man who was their Grand Inquisitor is now champion of their cause.

God gives each of us places to find shalom.  For Glover it was no doubt in the countrysides of England and Australia and in his paintings of them.  For me it is in my man cave where I’ll light a candle, burn some frankincense, and  experience the light and sweet aroma of my Heavenly Father.

Where is a place of shalom that God has given you?  It would be wonderful if some of you could share the places God has given to you.

Masaccio’s Trinity

“Holy Trinity” by Masaccio. Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy, c. 1426.

For Trinity Sunday
May 26, 2013

Trinity Sunday is one of my favorite Sundays.  We move on this day from the lectionary season of Easter to the Season After Pentecost, or Ordinary Time.  I prefer the latter term, because it focuses on what this season is rather than what it comes after.  God has invaded our ordinary world which has opened for us the door to the extraordinary, such that our lives will never be the same.

Images are powerful.  Witness the flood of images from yesterday’s devastating tornado in Moore, Oklahoma.  An image can tell a story that words sometimes can’t convey.  One might be able to describe the devastation in Moore, but seeing is believing.   My prayers go out today to all the families impacted, especially the ones who have lost children.  May God’s mercy be seen in how we as his people respond to what has happened.

Just as images can help us understand things horrible so can they help us understand things wonderful such as the Trinity.  One of this week’s art images on Vanderbilt’s Revised Common Lectionary site  is Masaccio’s “Holy Trinity”.  This is a beautiful western Christian iconographic meditation on the reality of and relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Khan Academy provides an insightful analysis of the painting here.  One’s eyes go first to the Father who stands in the center of his creation and presents to us his Son Jesus who has died on the cross to free us from our sin.  But where is the Holy Spirit?  See the collar of the father’s tunic?  It is in the shape of a dove.  All of the paintings orthogonals point to the foot of the cross.  This is the foundation from which we are to understand and relate to the Trinity.  Jesus’ mother Mary and best friend John are close by.  Jesus was a human who walked among us and who enjoyed deep and meaningful relationships while among us.  Our eyes move further downward to the two patrons who are worshipping as we are to worship.  At the very bottom of the painting is a corpse over which is inscribed “What you are, I once was.  What I am, you will be.”  This is an invitation to consider the meaning of life, death, and immortality.

In a culture in which the prevailing image of Christianity is often narrow-mindedness, hypocrisy, and bigotry, this is an image worth sharing.  In a world in which catastrophes such as the Moore Tornado occur this is a place to find healing and hope.  Soli Deo Gloria.

The Big Reveal

Rene’ Magritte, “Son of Man”

Jeremiah 33:14-16
For Sunday, December 2, 2012
Year C, First Sunday of Advent

This is a big day in the life of lectionary devotees as we move from the Season After Pentecost of Year B to the Advent of Year C. The Revised Common Lectionary takes us through the entire Bible once per year over a three year cycle (Years A, B, and C) with each year focusing on different passages. I find this to be a wonderful discipline to cultivate and rhythm to follow.

An ‘Advent’ is the arrival of something very important. The Advent in this case is the arrival of the long-predicted Messiah. It is Jesus and he arrived on our terrestrial ball around 4 B.C. (Before Christ). The question of how Jesus could have been born before the calendar based on his life allows will have to be taken up at another time.

Jer. 33:14-16 is one of the key biblical references to the Advent of Christ. God says a day is coming when he will fulfill the promise he made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah which was that someone from King David’s line would emerge who would restore righteousness to Judah, Israel, and the temple.

Jesus did this when he came, not in the way expected of Messiah, but he did bring righteousness to Judah and Israel, and was himself the restored temple (“Destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.”). The ultimate restoration of the Promised Land, whose meaning itself was expanded in Jesus to include the place where God himself reigns, awaits the Second Advent of Messiah.

The most important consideration however for us is on a personal level. Jesus restores our righteousness. He gives us a place of safety and security in which to live. We have a taste of this now but we have not yet experienced its fullness which will come in heaven. What this passage and the Advent of Christ in general ought to do is bring is to a place of grace, freedom, rejoicing, and consecration. Jesus is God’s Big Reveal and it is in our relationship with Him that we will discover all that we were intended to be and do.

the real deal

Aivazovsky, “The 9th Wave”

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; 
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

Lamentations 3:22, 23
For Sunday, July 1st, 2012
Proper 8 

These are some of my favorite words in the whole Bible and express beautifully why I am a Christian.  God really is here.

His steadfast love (Hebrew ‘hesed’) never ceases and his mercies never come to an end despite all of the sin I’ve committed against him.  His love and mercy are new every morning.  Hurray!  Today is a new day.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul.  Are there challenges in my life?  Sure.  For example, I battle against low-grade depression.  Yet knowing that my soul is safe, loved, and secure in the love of God makes this a battle that can be won.  This is why I continue to hope in him.

Christianity doesn’t get a fair hearing in popular media.  Just last night as a family we were watching a SciFi movie called “Mist” featuring a crazed woman with a Bible who is thankfully put out of her misery with a bullet to her head.  Yet this is not the real deal: Lamentations 3:22, 23 is.

Modernity has resulted souls adrift with neither anchor nor sustenance.  Christianity, anchored in the historical reality of the resurrection of Christ from the dead for the forgiveness of our sins, invites us to a better way.  May our souls find their portion.

The Vision of Isaiah 6

Donald Jackson, “Vision of Isaiah”, from St John’s Bible

Isaiah 6:1-8
For Sunday,  June 3, 2012

Often when I’m in church and the pastor is preaching from a specific text I want to know more about the passage itself. Are we trying so hard as evangelicals to be relevant that we short-change both the inherent relevance of the texts we present as well as the ability of the Holy Spirit to bring life-changing understanding to our hearers? Isaiah 6:1-8 is a text begging to be mined and proclaimed.

First, there is the idea that God is both transcendent above us yet immanently with us.  What could be better than a God who is both all-powerful and immediately accessible?  This is the God whom we Christians worship.

Second, there is the description of the Seraphs.  These are not angels but special attendants to the throne room of God.  They cry out, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  Some interpreters think in these three cries of Holy are acknowledgements of each person of the Trinity.

Third, there is the Seraph purifying Isaiah’s mouth and life.  Isaiah hears the Lord saying, “Who will go for us?” and his response is a joyful, “Here I am, send me!”

This text invites us to become purified, called, and emboldened just as Isaiah was.

a voice in the wilderness of uncertainty

Annunciation to the Virgin Mary (detail)“, Pontormo, Jacopo da, 1494-1556.

For Sunday, December 4, 2011
Second Sunday of Advent

The wilderness of uncertainty is where our culture has chosen to stake its tent.  It’s in vogue to be uncertain: to be certain is deemed arrogant and narrow-minded.  Of this thought is the Secular West, ironically, most certain.  The problem is this: while the wilderness can be a good place for the occasional adventure, it’s not a very hospitable place to live.  Hence do this week’s readings call us gently, lovingly, and compellingly to better ground.

This week’s first reading comes from Isaiah 40, which is a profoundly beautiful chapter of the Bible.  “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2).  The gospel invites us to come out of the wilderness and make our home by the verdant river of God’s grace, alongside which we have received from the Lord’s hand “double for all our sins“.

The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8).  One of the most important roles of the church in the world is to proclaim the Word of God.   We get so caught up in the latest social developments, whether the Tea Party or the Occupy Movement, that we forget that these things, albeit important, are ultimately fleeting.  What is going to last?  What has lasted from the very beginning in Eden, through successions of the rise and fall of empires, up to this very day?  The Word of the Lord.  When we proclaim this Word, however imperfectly, we are grounding ourselves in something both true and enduring.  How a culture living in the wilderness of uncertainty needs this slake of truth.

Turning then to this week’s second reading in Psalm 85 we read: “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?  Show us your unfailing love, O Lord, and grant us your salvation” (v. 6).  What God wants is not that we would continue hurting, but rather to heal us through his unfailing love.  There is comfort, confidence, and strength in his redemptive purpose for each of us.   “Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven” (v. 11).  The gospel is like a cool spring flowing down a rock on a sky blue sunny day.  May this cool water and warm sunshine refresh our souls and bring joy to our bodies.

In this week’s third reading, Mark 1, Mark the evangelist begins his gospel by quoting from this week’s first reading.  He follows the quotation with this: “And so John came” (v. 4).  In other words, the voice of the wilderness has been revealed.  It is John the Baptist.  This John said, “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).  When we come to Christ by believing in his ability to forgive our sins, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our lives.  God marks our confession of faith with his own personhood in the person of the Holy Spirit.  Don’t despair, for if you have believed, the Holy Spirit is in you.

Finally, in this week’s fourth reading, the Apostle Peter sums up what the reality of the gospel means for each of us who believe: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.  The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be layed bare.  Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?  You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (2 Pet. 3:10-12a).

Reader’s Corner:
What is God putting on your heart this week to live out a holy and Godly life?  How might your unique gifts and talents be used by your Heavenly Father to speed the coming of the day of God?

secular and spiritual calendars

Bartolome Estaban Murillo, “Adoration of the Magi”
17th Century, Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, USA (1)

Why even bother paying attention to a spiritual calendar?  Isn’t it a contrivance anyway based on centuries of ecclesiastical accretion?  What relevance does it have to a modern secular world?  


Setting aside the spiritual question for a moment, what’s the importance of calendars?  They are critical.  Without them we wouldn’t be where we need to be when we need to be there for the sake of the important people in our lives.  We use calendars to map out priorities and make realistic plans.  Businesses understand the importance of the calendar, which is why they report results from one quarter to the next and plan their steps from month to month, week to week, and day to day.  

In a secular world, where time is of the essence, how then can our spiritual calendars be ignored?  If we can’t manage our spiritual calendars, how in the world are we going successfully to manage our secular ones?  What really is important?  Why are we doing what we are doing?  Are we doing the right things at the right times?  These are questions that both spiritual and secular calendars, properly used, can answer.  

Yes, “centuries of theological accretion” is certainly one way to perceive the lectionary and how it shapes liturgy.  But there is another way to look at it: in terms of centuries of theological understanding.  The great irony is that we can’t get away from liturgy.  Every church has one, even if it’s announcements followed by a chorus followed by a video.  The question is not whether to be liturgical versus non-liturgical: the question is whether what kind of liturgy we’ll have.  

Christmas is now past and Epiphany is now upon us.  Epiphany is a Greek word meaning “manifestation of God”.  The Baby Jesus has come.  Now the true import of his life begins to be manifest to the world and to us.  

Epiphany is book-ended by the two events in the New Testament where the three members of the Trinity appear together.  The first is the Baptism of Jesus.  The second is Jesus’ Transfiguration on Mount Tabor.  In both cases the Father speaks, the Spirit is made visible, and the Son is made manifest.  

This is also manifest: we matter to God.  We are his Creation, blessed by him, and crowned with purpose, truth, and grace.  On this day, in this week, in this month, and in this year may the Epiphany be made manifest in and among God’s people in the present as it has been in the past.

The Franciscan Church of the Transfiguration
Mount Tabor, Israel (2)

Image credits:
1)  Wikipedia, “Epiphany (holiday)
2)  Wikipedia, “Transfiguration of Jesus