Category Archives: Religion

I Was There

2 Peter 1:16-21
For Sunday, February 26, 2017
Transfiguration Sunday, Year A

Following Christ well means giving special consideration to those predecessors who were there from the beginning.  We have just such an example in the Apostle Peter who says of the Transfiguration, “Look, I was there.”

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Giovanni Bellini, “Transfiguration of the Christ“, circa 1480, Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.

At 53 I’m old enough now to remember important things in our country’s history that aren’t part of the collective memory of younger generations.  As I read Peter’s account of the Transfiguration this week my mind went back to “The Miracle On Ice” in Lake Placid, New York, in 1980, when the U.S. Olympic Mens’ Hockey Team, a bunch of amateurs, somehow managed to defeat the mighty juggernaut represented by those red jerseys with the white letters that spelled C.C.C.P. (for Сою́з Сове́тских Социалисти́ческих Респу́блик, or in English, U.S.S.R.).  This was supposed to have been impossible.  Yet I saw it happen live on TV.  I was there.

Peter was there when Christ was Transfigured.  This was among the few seminal events of his life.  As Matthew tells us in this week’s gospel reading, it was Peter who upon seeing Jesus along with Moses and Elijah on top of the mountain where the Transfiguration took place said, “Lord, if you like I could put up tents for each one of you.”  At that very moment a bright cloud overshadowed the already brightly transfigured beings and said not of Moses or Elijah but only of Jesus, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  So awe-inspiring was this that the disciples fell to the ground in abject fear.  Peter suddenly understood the significance of who Jesus really was in a new and dramatic way.  This was literally God’s own son!  That put Jesus beyond category even with respect to the great Moses or Elijah.

Peter is concerned that his readers keep their faith anchored in Christ Himself as the Son of God.  There were “cleverly designed stories” (v. 16) threatening to lead his fellow believers astray.  So it is in every age.  What are some of these stories in our own day?  Perhaps that Jesus promises health and wealth.  Perhaps that Jesus didn’t really intend marriage to be between one man and one woman.  Perhaps that Christianity is just one attempt to lay claim to ultimate truth among many others.

In order to discern truth from deception we need the help of our friends who were with Jesus from the beginning.  Peter is just such a friend.  Here is the help he gives us in this passage:

  • Anchor our faith in the truth of God’s word.
    We have the prophetic message” (v. 19a).
  • Interpret subsequent revelation in light of the revelation already given.
    You would do well to be attentive to this as a lamp shining in a dark place” (v. 19b)
  • Remember that ultimately Scripture comes not from men but from God (v. 20-21).
    No prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation …

This last point is especially important.  The difference in the way progressives versus conservatives interpret Scripture can be represented in two contrasting syllogisms, as I learned from the dear Dr. Harold O.J. Brown at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the 1990’s.  The progressive syllogism goes like this:

  • Scripture was written by men
  • Men are fallible
  • Therefore, Scripture is fallible

Conservatives however, follow a different syllogism for their interpretive approach:

  • Scripture was written through men but ultimately by God
  • God is infallible
  • Therefore, Scripture is infallible

Each of us must choose which syllogism or paradigm we will follow.  This choice will then determine whether we interpret the Bible in light of culture, or culture in light of the Bible.  Only in the latter case do we obtain a point of reference from which to discern where our culture is blind and how it can begin to see again.  In the former case we are merely a bunch of blind people mumbling to one another within an ever darkening room.

What are the formative events of your own life for which you can say, “I was there?”  Do you approach Scripture with the same authority that Peter did?   What are your thoughts regarding the extent to which our belief about the infallibility of Scripture impacts our ability to speak prophetically to culture?

 

It All Belongs To You

1 Corinthians 3:10-23

For Sunday, February 19, 2017
Seventh Sunday After Epiphany, Year A

In a well-intentioned desire reach people we put great effort into making our ministries attractive.  Yet in so doing we run the risk of forgetting what matters most.  It all belongs to them.

st-martin-and-the-beggar

St. Martin and the Beggar, San Francesco, Assisi, Italy, 1320.

It’s so easy to get caught up in ourselves, especially in ministry.  I used to run the college-age ministry at my church.  We worked hard on putting together good meetings.  On our best days these meetings honored who God wanted us to be as a worshipping community. Yet on other days we would get so caught up in what we were trying to do for people that we forgot the significance of the people themselves.  Without realizing it we started to presume that the people were there to serve our program rather than our whole ministry being there to serve them.   The same dynamic can play out in any organization, whether in business, education, or government.

In light of this notice what Paul says to the Corinthians in this week’s reading:

So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
– 1 Cor. 3:21-23

What matters is not the attractiveness of our events.  What matters is the inheritance every Christian has in the gospel of Christ.  “It all belongs to you.”  It isn’t about who is leading.  What it’s all about is the inheritance we have received in Christ, an inheritance which conquers the world, life, death, the present and future.

If we really get this we will lead differently.  We will lead in a way that honors the inheritance reflected in each person we serve.  My former pastor Stuart Briscoe’s philosophy of ministry was this: “Preach the Word.  Love the people.  Follow the Spirit.”  Notice that second part.  The reason we “love the people” is precisely because all that we are about as Christians belongs to them.  As leaders we are not more important than the people we serve.  We are less important because it all belongs to them.    Whenever I’ve been with Stuart I’ve felt this tangibly.  I mattered more to him than he mattered to himself.  There is a huge difference between a leader whose focus is his program versus a leader whose focus is his precious people.

So how do we live and lead in a way that affirms that “It all belongs to you”?  Here are some ideas:

  • Invest at least 30 minutes a day praying for those we lead and serve
  • When meeting with those we serve, really listen with an intent to understand, love, and serve, rather than to defend, discount or dismiss.
  • Slow down and simply serve in the moment.

As a member of your own church, business, or organization, when have you most felt like it all belonged to you?  What does this experience suggest about ways to affirm in our fellow believers the precious inheritance we have in Christ?

 

 

 

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.

 

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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

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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.

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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!