Category Archives: Religion

All God wants

Micah 6:1-8
For Sunday, January 29, 2017
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

All God wants is that we open our hearts to the amazing love he lavishes upon us.  Micah 6:1-8 is an invitation to do just this.

 

from-shittim-to-gilgal

From Shittim to Gilgal was when Israel actually entered the Promised Land (http://www.israel-a-history-of.com/battle-of-jericho.html)

I have a special love for this passage because Micah 6:8 is my favorite verse of the Bible.  In fact this verse is largely responsible for inspiring my wife Heather and me to become missionaries in Irkutsk, Siberia for 10 years from 1994 through 2003.  I distinctly remember when we first arrived at the Irkutsk airport.  We had 10 big duffle bags (9 too many, but we didn’t know any better).  We weren’t even sure if anyone was going to meet us at the airport.  But we were there.  God had done amazing things to get us there: he provided colleagues, funds, and training in Russian culture and language.  Yet what a thrill to put our own two feet on the ground so long promised and hoped for.

This must have been how Israel felt when they crossed the Jordan river.  Yet how soon we all forget and fall back into saying, “God, what have you done for me lately?”

Our passage alludes to this whole dynamic with the simple phrase, “and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal” (v. 5).  In the Expositor’s Bible Commentary Thomas McComiskey, who was a Professor of Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School during my years there, does a wonderful job explaining just what happened.  In this small stretch of what was a much longer and larger journey God defeated the Midianites (with whom Israel had been illicitly sleeping), stopped the flow of the Jordan so Israel could cross it on dry land, and then worked for them to bring down one of the great fortress cities of all time, Jericho.

A God who would do such things, even when we are sleeping with the enemy, is a God who really loves us!  As McComiskey goes on to say, the context of the passage is God asking his people, “What have I done to weary you of wanting to love me?” (v. 3).  The answer is nothing.  The mountains and hills which have witnessed all things from the beginning of time (v. 2) know this to be true.  They are the jury here.

Now if you were a people who had been rescued from slavery, rescued from a far-away foreign country (Egypt), given great leadership (in Moses, Aaron, and Miriam) (v. 4) – note that last one is a woman – if you were a people who had all of these blessings, how could you not fail to follow faithfully?  What a bunch of dumbbells!  Well, hello pot, meet kettle, whom you have just called black.  This is us.  We blow it persistently.  We are broken but God is still unfailingly committed to blessing us.

In our honest moments, we will find ourselves saying, “Well, yes, God is indeed good, but how could I possibly thank him enough?  Why even my firstborn son wouldn’t be sufficient thanksgiving!” (v. 7).

Here then is the kicker.  God says, “Look, I don’t want your firstborn son.  I don’t even really want your offerings.  All I want is your heart.  All I want is that you make an attempt each day to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with me (v. 8).

This invitation is so welcoming and so freeing, it’s remarkable.  We can do this!  In most situations, do we know what the right thing to do is?  Yes, of course!  Do we know what it would mean to be kind?  Well, give us a minute, but sure!  Do we know what it means to walk humbly?   We certainly know it when we see it, and we can emulate what we’ve seen.  So yes again.

“That’s it?” you say?  “That’s all God wants?”  That’s all God wants.   So how do we give God our hearts.  Here are three simple suggestions:

  • Make your highest priority each day a personal appointment with your boss (the spiritual one – God):
    • Read his Word.  The lectionary is a great way to make this a habit.
    • Journal.  What’s happening in my life?  What is God saying to me about it?
    • Pray.  The first step in humility is recognizing we can’t figure it out on our own.
  • Create a daily reminder on your smart phone that says simply, “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly”.  This alone will transform your life.
  • Ask God to give you one random act of kindness to extend each day. It’s a blast.

Your Turn

God not only extends his heart to us corporately through his word, but he does it personally with each of us?  Where and how has God done this for you?

 

A call for expository preaching

mosai015-large

Baptism of Christ“, mid 12th century Cappella Palatina di Palermo, Palermo, Italy.

When we read God’s word, or preach and teach it, it’s important that we come to own what we’re reading, and that our hearers come to own it for themselves. We ought to meet people where they are, yes, but also lead them to where they need to be. Where we need to be is with Jesus and on his mission. As for preaching, I prefer the expository method because it still seems to be the best vehicle for accomplishing these ends.
Here is an expository sermon outline for one of next week’s Lectionary readings, Isaiah 42:1-9:
We are called to bring justice to the nations through Jesus.
4 aspects of Jesus’ ministry of justice:
As the servant of God the Father (v. 1)
  • Upheld (v. 1a)
  • Chosen (v. 1b)
  • The delight of his Father’s soul (v. 1c)
Working according to the Father’s heart (vv. 2-4)
  • Softly (v. 2)
  • Graciously (v. 3)
  • Resolutely (v. 4)
Leading God’s people
  • Called in righteousness (v. 6a)
  • As a light to the nations (v. 6b)
  • To heal and liberate (v. 7)

With the seal of divine authority

  • His name (v. 8a)
  • His exclusive glory (v. 8b)
  • His ability to foretell the future (v. 9)
If you were preaching or teaching this passage, what approach would you take, and why?
For me, it is incredibly encouraging as a New Year begins to realize that Jesus is and will bring justice to the nations. How we all need this, whether in the U.S, Russia, Syria, Israel, Iraq, or anywhere else. How amazing it is that we carry a message that actually is good news to EVERY people upon the earth, because one day, it’s all going to come together, in a way that affirms the best in all of us.  Where and when in your life have you already experienced glimpses of this future reality?
I’ll be visiting the U.N. and meeting some world leaders in February. This might be a very encouraging message to share with them.
Happy New Year!

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.

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!

 

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).