Category Archives: Government

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.

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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.

Preview of readings for Thanksgiving, 2015

Joel 2:21-27

Thanksgiving is a great time to step back and ask ourselves from whence our blessings flow and to where our lives are going.  The answer to both questions ought to be the same source: God himself.  Joel says “Do not fear” not because all was well in his world but because of who God is.  All is not well in our world either but God is the same today as he was in Joel’s day.  God has never failed to bless his people.  Think about this.  In this is great cause for Thanksgiving even as our country is mired in debt and unsure of it’s place in an increasingly dangerous world.

Psalm 126

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.”  God is all about great reversals.  “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.”  This is why the most important consideration for any of us is our relationship with him.  If we get this right blessings will surely flow beyond what we could ask or imagine.

Matthew 6:25-33

This passage speaks for itself.  “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear … But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  Heather and I tested this literally when we went to Siberia as missionaries 20 years ago.   These words of Jesus were validated in our lives over and over and over.  What’s worrying you today?  What if you simply gave that to God and moved forward into his mercy, grace and generosity?

1 Timothy 2:1-7

Prayer is the most powerful tool in the Christian’s arsenal.  If we as Christians want to have a redemptive impact on our country we need to stop complaining about the lack of Merry Christmas on our Starbucks cups and start to pray consistently for our leaders.  We need to pray for President Obama, for our Senators and Congressman, for our governors, for our local leaders.  It’s so easy to disdain them.  Mark Twain said, “Suppose I was an idiot and a Congressman, but I repeat myself.”  Yet if we don’t pray for our leaders, we are even greater idiots.  And on the flip side, if we will commit to praying, we take hold of the lever of power that can move the affairs of nations.

Your Turn

What are you most thankful for?  What is your greatest present concern for your country (whether America or another)?  How do these readings lead you to respond to this concern?

Happy Thanksgiving to my readers in the U.S. and around the world.  I am profoundly grateful for you today.

“I am who I am”

Kukel PutinExodus 3:1-15
For Sunday, August 31, 2014
Proper 17 (12th Sunday After Pentecost)

We lived in Russia (Irkutsk, Siberia) during the tumultuous transition from Yeltsin to Putin during Putin’s first presidential incarnation.   At that time a very funny TV show called Kuklee (“Puppets”) parodied the machinations in the Kremlin.  This was a knock-off of a similar show in the U.K.  that some of you may remember.

When Putin came to power he did not find his character amusing.  The Kremlin told the sponsoring Russian television station NTV that Putin would no longer be appearing on the show.  The very next week, a new character, the burning bush, appeared.  The other characters asked the bush, “What is your name?”  The bush said, “I am he whose name shall not be spoken.”  I remember laughing out loud while watching this.  Putin was so enraged that the very next week the tax police descended on NTV and Kuklee ceased to exist.  In writing up this post I searched for the episode on the internet and couldn’t find it.  (If you find it please send me a link!)

Turning then back to the original burning bush event why did God say to Moses, “I am who I am?” (v. 14).  This was a powerful play on words in the Hebrew language of the original text.  To say in Hebrew “I am” sounds almost exactly like God’s proper name, “Yahweh”, which is then used in the very next verse.   God was saying this: “Moses, I know you are anxious, but do not fear, for I will be with you.

We live in a secular culture that wants to deny the existence of the supernatural and even further, to denigrate the very possibility (consider, for example, the title of the movie “Bruce Almighty”).   Our best response might be to reply calmly and confidently with Francis Schaeffer’s famous book title: God is here, and he is not silent.  Trusting in God’s gracious and real presence will bring confidence and peace to us personally, and will open the door for blessing upon everyone within our respective spheres of influence.

God is calling you and I to something today just as he called Moses to free the Israelites from Egypt.   Quiet yourself for a moment.  Listen.  Do you hear him speaking?  What is he saying?  If you actually acted on that, would it be a little scary?  Probably.  But hear what else he’s saying: “I am who I am.  I will be with you.”

Points to ponder:

  • What you you most passionate about with respect to living out your faith?
  • What is God calling you to do with your life?  With your week?  With today?
  • How could God’s commitment to be with you help you deal with the trepidation that might come from moving forward with your calling?

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.

the community of something real

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My friend Steve Sonderman (civilian at right) officiates as an Elmbrook Pastor at Jennifer Sebena’s burial.

For Sunday, December 30, 2012
First Sunday After Christmas
Colossians 3:12-17

This has been a difficult week for my local church, Elmbrook. One of our young leaders and a promising police officer, Jennifer Sebena, was brutally killed by another one of our members and her husband, Ben Sebena. This comes on the heals of the Newtown, CT tragedy and two recent local mass shootings at Azana Salon and Spa and the local Sikh Temple. Our world can be brutal beyond words. Jennifer was shot in the back of the head twice and then three times in the face. Ben was an Iraq war veteran who’s testimony had been featured at one of Elmbrook’s mens’ conferences two years ago.

I had breakfast with my friend John Witmer earlier this week. His own daughter Michelle was the first female National Guard member ever killed in combat. Thinking about Jennifer’s death, the loss he suffered, and what seems to me to be the futility of our country’s attempted nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan I asked him, “What are we still doing over there?” We couldn’t answer the question with anything other than great cynicism.

Amidst such brutality, injustice, and cynicism, what can we as the church do? We can do Colossians 3:12-17. We can be compassion and kindness in the face of brutality. We can decide to have our own lives defined by love rather than capitulation to injustice. We can let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts rather than cynicism because the greatest brutality and the greatest injustice was done to the Son of God Himself when we ourselves as humanity writ large crucified him on a cross. Yet this wasn’t the end; it was the beginning of a new community founded on faith, hope, and love.

What the world needs most is a church in the world that can be itself without reservation. When we gather, I don’t think we ought to be watering down our message to make it palatable to a wider demographic. What we ought to be doing is what we read here. We ought to be letting the word of Christ dwell in us richly. We ought to be teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom. We ought to be able to sing with real gratitude that amidst brutality, injustice, and cynicism, there is something real – a loving Father that sacrificed his one and only Son for a brutal, unjust, and cynical bunch such as ourselves.

The immediate context of this passage is Colossians 3:1 which says, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on the things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” There is a place above, and in that place Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God, having already secured our future and hope. This is more real than the computer screen on which you are reading. We are called to be the community of something real; can we stop pretending and get on with it?

Point to Ponder:
What is the voice of God saying to you about how you could help build a community of something real within your own sphere of influence this week?

hope for the ruins

Christ's Birth, Conrad Von Soest, fl. 1370-1420, Stadkirche St. Nikolaus, Bad Wildungen, Germany

Christ’s Birth, Conrad Von Soest, fl. 1370-1420, Stadkirche St. Nikolaus, Bad Wildungen, Germany

Isaiah 52:7-10
For Tuesday, December 25, 2012
Nativity of the Lord – Proper III

Isaiah prophesied that while Jerusalem currently lay in ruins God Himself would come to restore Zion (Isaiah 52:8,9).  This is what happened when Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  Jerusalem in this passage is not only a physical place but also a metaphor for the entire world.  We live amidst our own ruin (e.g. the fiscal cliff) and yet what Isaiah foresaw has already come true in Jesus, and is even now working out to restore everything within us and even around us.

Merry Christmas!