Category Archives: Religion

Hope-fueled boldness

Giovanni_Bellini_016-large

Giovanni Bellini, “Transfiguration of Christ”, Naples, Italy, 1480 – 1485.

2 Cor. 3:12-4:2
For Sunday, February 7, 2016
Transfiguration Sunday

We ought to be exceedingly bold in living out the gospel.  This is the only conclusion we can reach once fueled by the power of this passage.

To understand what the Apostle Paul is saying here we need to start back at v. 7.  Paul is contrasting the ministry of the old covenant with the ministry of the new.  If the ministry of the old covenant, which brought condemnation, set Moses’ face aglow, how much more should the ministry of the new covenant, the gospel, set our faces aglow?  “Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold” (v. 12).

Secular culture tells us that we are free to worship in any way we like, privately.  But there’s the rub.  As Chuck Colson, one of my mentors (and he can be yours too) liked to say our faith is to be personal but not private.  One of Chuck’s favorite quotes was from Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper: “There’s not a single square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Jesus Christ who is Lord of all does not cry out, ‘Mine!’ “.

So what would a boldness reboot look like?  “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.  Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.  On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (ch. 4:1,2).

Father, may the Apostle Paul’s excitement and passion for the hope and freedom he found in you be so utterly contagious for us that we can’t stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.  Let us be the church in the world.  Amen.

Your turn

  • Where do you most struggle to be bold with your faith?
  • What encouragement do you find in this passage to be bolder?
  • If you succeeded what would it look like?

How bold should we be?

The Apostle Paul’s answer In 2 Cor. 3:7, ff. is very bold.  Paul notes that Moses’ face was radiant after meeting with God (Exodus 34).  Paul then asks, “If Moses face was radiant in carrying the message of condemnation, how much more radiant are our faces in carrying a message of freedom?”  So how bold should we be at work, at school and with friends?

Paul lays it out for us.  “Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness …  We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God” (2 Cor. 3:12, 4:2).

But I’m afraid,” we say.  Wouldn’t it though be refreshing to go all in with the same love and passion for God that Paul had?  To put it bluntly, our fear is misplaced.  “Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience” (2 Cor. 5:11).

All in is the very best place to be.  Paul knew it and we know it.  Let’s go.

Authentic leadership manifests in humility

The great passage of Scripture that forms my life verse, Micah 6:8, reads, “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”  The grammar and syntax of the Hebrew original suggest that amongst these three key ideas, the greatest emphasis is on the last, “to walk humbly”.  Within this last phrase, the greatest emphasis is on being humble (Hebrew Hiphil).

God himself modeled humility for us by sacrificing his one and only Son so that we could be restored to relationship with him.

Want to be an authentic leader?  Then model humility as God did for us.

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.

Brood of Vipers

Mosai004-large

John the Baptist Announcing the Messiah, Cappella Palatina di Palermo, Palermo, Italy (mid 12th century)

Luke 3:7-18
For Sunday, December 13, 2015
3rd Sunday of Advent

Crowds were willing to journey into the desert to hear  John the Baptist preach. Yet he must have missed the Seeker Sensitive Memo. He opens with, “You brood of vipers.” Now why would people traipse out into the dusty desert to hear that? It’s because we all thirst for the truth and want to be forgiven and transformed.

John’s point is that there is more to being a Christian than merely “avoiding the wrath to come” (v. 7).  We are called to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (v. 8).  If I look at my life as a tree where is the fruit?  Is there actually any difference in the way I set priorities, spend money, treat my wife, love my family, and pursue my daily work?  Is there?

John says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees” (v. 9).  See the axe at bottom left within the picture above?  We can pose as Christians all we want but if all we are is dead wood we will be cut down will all the rest of it!  And why not?!

The crowd says, “Ooh, that’s not good for us!  What should we do?” (v. 10).  John as a good pastor provides some great application.  Have an extra coat?  Share it with someone.  Are you a tax collector?  Then don’t over-collect to line your own pockets.  Soldier?  Then don’t use your power and authority to your own advantage.  May I pause at this point to ask the lawyers among us to pay particular attention to that last one?  Pastors, you too!  (Didn’t see that one coming, did you?)

John’s audience might have come out into the desert merely to avoid pain.  (I find I often do the same.  It’s ugly. )  Yet now John’s hearers are truly captivated by his message.  Note that it isn’t contemporary music, stage lighting, or even dry ice that captivates them.  It is his message.  They even start to ask themselves, “Wow, could this be Messiah himself?”

John quickly disabuses them.  “One who is more powerful than I is coming, and the throngs of his sandals I am not worthy to untie“.  Having just been utterly transfixed by the man in front of them can you imagine what it must have been like to anticipate the arrival of one infinitely greater?  Absolutely electric!

This was good news indeed (v. 18).  These people knew their world was broken.  They knew all too well the tremendous injustice, callousness, and selfishness that marked their culture.  And now here before them was a man announcing that the transformation they so deeply longed for was coming soon.

So what’s the bottom line?  For me it’s “Don’t settle for the status quo.  Don’t let your life be defined by mere pain avoidance.  Don’t play at being a Christian.  Lean into transforming faith in every moment and in every relationship.”  I think of my role as father of my family, as a member of my church, and as a business person.  Exciting stuff.

Your Turn
How about you?  Are you also tempted to settle for pain avoidance in place of authentic transformation?   What’s the next action this passage is calling for from you (whether giving away a coat or something else)?

Soul check

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Psalm 25:1-10
For Sunday, November 29, 2015
Year C, First Sunday of Advent

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (v. 1).  This act is the essence of a transformed life.  How often is it that I forget or fail in this?  So many other things clamor for my soul’s attention, whether it be the football game, a worry at work, or rank selfishness.  What better way to start Advent than to take a Soul Check based on Psalm 25?

The soul check described here involves two steps.  The first step in a soul check is to understand God’s way (vv. 8-10):

  • he is good and upright (v. 8)
  • he leads the humble in his way (v. 9)
  • his way is steadfast love and faithfulness (v. 10)

To be humble means I recognize that I can’t figure things out on my own and that I open my life to the Lord’s guidance to correct my faults and move one step closer toward living well for his glory.

The word translated “steadfast love” is ‘hesed’.  This is one of the great words of the Old Testament and refers to God’s overwhelming kindness, concern, and generosity to us.  For example, ‘hesed’ is the central theme in the Book of Ruth as we read of Boaz’s ‘hesed’ for Ruth as a reflection of God’s ‘hesed’ for his people including us.

The second step in a soul check is to pursue God’s way (vv. 1-7):

  • Express trust (v. 2)
  • Ask for deliverance from shame (v. 3)
  • Ask to be taught his paths (v. 4)
  • Ask to be lead in truth (v. 5)
  • Ask him to remember his mercy (v. 6)
    • not remembering past sins
    • but remembering your steadfast love

Do you ever struggle to know how best to pray.  If so here is a great list.  How about we try it for this next week and then compare notes here in the comments?

As the hymn says how prone I am to wander.  Thank you Father for this soul check to start Advent.  To you I lift up my soul.  Be glorified in me.  Amen.

Representing the Kingdom of Heaven

Nikolai Ge,

Nikolai Ge, “What is Truth?”, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia, 1890.

John 18:33-38
For Sunday, November 22, 2015
Reign of Christ (Proper 29)

fr-lgflagToday’s post is dedicated to the citizens of Paris.  Thank you for all you are and give to the world.  We grieve tearfully for the terror inflicted on you yet we insist to you that hope remains.  Life is meant to be so much more than just tending your own garden in an act of despair.  Let God enter the garden and the beauty that is already yours will be transformed and used for his glory.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate asks Jesus.  This is what as known as a close-ended question in which the idea is to elicit a simple “Yes” or “No” response.  Prosecutors like to use these because it let’s them control a line of questioning.

Yet Jesus won’t play along.  He responds, “Did you come up with that on your own or have people been talking to you?”  When being questioned it’s a good idea to get behind the immediate question to the motive driving the question.

Pilate responds, “Am I a Jew?”  He is saying: “Look, I don’t get into the vagaries of Jewish politics.”  Then he asks Jesus, “What did you do?”  The implication is that whatever it was, it must have been bad, because the Jews didn’t like the Romans, yet here they are handing over one of their own to these very Romans.  It reminds me of the time some Russian pastors tried to hand me over to Russia’s federal security service (but that’s a story for another time).

Jesus responds in a way that answers Pilate’s first question (Are you King of the Jews?) as well as his second one (What did you do?): “My kingdom is not of this world.  If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews.  But now my kingdom is from another place.

“Aha!” says Pilate, “So you are a king.”  Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

Jesus point was that whether or not he was a king was actually secondary.  What was primary was his mission which was to testify to the truth.  “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  This is the key phrase in the entire passage.  Here’s a way to preach this:

“Representing the Kingdom of Heaven”
3 aspects of our identity as Christians of the kingdom

  • we are a kingdom not from here, but for here (v. 36)
  • we belong to the truth (v. 37a)
  • we listen to Jesus voice (v. 37b)

For the sake of brevity, please unpack these for yourselves.  But regarding the first point, oh to be a church that can speak to this culture rather than just mimicking it in some sad parody.  Regarding the second, what power there is in having our feet firmly grounded in the bedrock of truth when the culture around us so evidently has both feet planted firmly in mid-air.  Regarding the last point, doesn’t this sum up what authentic Christians do?  We hear Jesus voice and then actually listen to it!  Remarkable.  Radical.  Profound.

Jesus is speaking to us.  He’s speaking to us about our identity.  He’s speaking to us about our calling.  We are representatives of the kingdom of heaven called to redeem the world to its Creator.  There is no person or place that I would rather be.  How about you?

Inheriting the good life

Sergey Brin, a rich young man who co-founded Google

Sergey Brin, a rich young man who co-founded Google

Mark 10:17-31
For Sunday, October 11, 2015
Year B, Proper 23

A  rich young man, who by virtue of being rich at a young age may well have been the 1st century equivalent of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, comes to Jesus and asks, “Good Mentor, what must I do to inherit the good life?”  The interaction which follows gives us three profound insights into the question of inheriting the good life.

Impossible to self-qualify …

The first insight into inheriting the good life is that it’s impossible to self-qualify.  Jesus’ initial response to the rich young man’s question is to respond with a question.  “Why do you call me good?  Only God is good.”  Sergey isn’t expecting this.  It unsettles him.  This is good because now his soul is open to real influence.  When we come prayerfully to the Scriptures, and put their authority over us versus under us, this is what happens.

Now that Jesus has the man’s full attention, he says, “Look, you know the answer to your own question.  You need to keep the commandments.”   The man responds, “Yes, of course, and I’ve kept all of them since my youth.”  And now comes a piercing blow: “You lack one thing.  Go, sell everything you have, and give your money to the poor.”  The man’s face falls, and he goes away crushed, for his wealth is the very foundation of his present identity.

Now, as for us, is the point that we too should sell everything we own?  No, not unless God directly asks us to.  The point is that it’s impossible to self-qualify for inheriting the good life.  None of us are so good at keeping the commandments that we’re up to God’s perfect standard of righteousness.  There will always be something each of us lacks.

… but qualification granted

The second insight into inheriting the good life is that while it’s impossible to self-qualify for it, it is possible to be granted qualification.  Jesus’ disciples were stunned and dismayed at the interaction they had just witnessed.  “So then who can be saved?”  Jesus says this:  “For mortals it’s impossible, but not for God.”  If we want to inherit the good life, we are going to need God to qualify us for it.  He offers this qualification to each of us if we will only believe that Jesus died on the cross to forgive our sins.

The guaranteed bonus

The third and final insight is this: there is a guaranteed 100-fold bonus involved for those who who choose to follow Christ.  I can tell you from personal experience that this is true.  When Heather and I went to Siberia as missionaries 22 years ago we left everything: our home, our extended families, and our jobs.  We went over there with 10 big black duffle bags.  (That was 9 bags too many as we were later to learn).  Yet what a return we received on our investment.  We literally received 100-fold in terms of God providing housing, Russian friends and family, and the profoundly significant work of restoring people be to hope and flourishing life.

So, do we want to inherit the good life?   We can’t qualify ourselves, but God can qualify us, and when he does, it comes with a 100-fold blessing for the sake of His name.  This is the business our God does best.

Your thoughts?

  • What in this did you find particularly encouraging?  Challenging?
  • Where in your own life have you seen God deliver on his 100-fold bonus in response to a decision to follow him?

Commendable faith

Biblical Tyre

Mark 7:24-37
For Sunday, September 6, 2015
Year B, Proper 18

Why did Jesus go to Tyre (modern day Lebanon)?  Mark hints at an answer in saying “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there” (v. 24).   It may be that Jesus needed some peace and quiet after having to interact with those extra grace required Pharisees and teachers of the law.  Self righteous religious people are just not very appealing, are they?

Despite not wanting anyone to know where he was, Jesus “couldn’t keep his presence secret”.  Authentic Christians don’t have to go out of their way to be seeker friendly: their authenticity is so attractive, that the seekers find them, even when such Christians are just trying to keep a low profile.

In this case, a Syro-Phoenician woman finds Jesus.  Her daughter is possessed by a demon.  She asks Jesus for help, and he responds strangely: “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs” (v. 27).  What in the world does that mean?  What Jesus is saying is this: “My mission is to the Jews, and you are a Gentile.  It’s the Jews who are at my table, and relative to them, you and your daughter are merely the Jewish family dogs.”  Ouch!  Here this nice woman comes to Jesus for help and he insults her.  The woman would have been well within her rights to walk away in disgust.  But she doesn’t, because she’s desperate.  She responds, “But even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs” (v. 28).   Jesus is so impressed with her persistence and faith that he says, “You may go,the demon has left your daughter” (v. 29).

This Syro-Phoenician woman had commendable faith.  If her life was changed by mere crumbs of the gospel falling off the table of Jesus’ mission, how much more will our lives be changed if we will simply trust and obey our Heavenly Father in the name of his glorious and all-powerful Son?

What problem are you facing today?  Maybe it’s a family issue like the Syro-Phoenician woman had.  Maybe it’s a job challenge.  Maybe it’s a financial challenge.  Will you come to Jesus with this challenge and trust and obey that he will carry you through in his love and power?   This is our call to commendable faith.

The problem with cut and paste

Jean II Restout : Pentecôte

Jean II Restout : Pentecôte

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
For Pentecost Sunday
Sunday, May 24, 2015

I love most things about the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).  Following the annual church calendar is a wonderful spiritual rhythm that I’ve come to appreciate through fellowship in a mainline Congregational church as well as my Siberian sojourn and exposure to Eastern Orthodoxy.  As an evangelical I wish this was something more of my fellow believers could understand and appreciate. This is particularly true on special Sundays like this Pentecost Sunday.

At the same time, I have a pet peeve with the RCL editors.  Why do you so persistently cut and paste?  This week the verse citation is the give away.  ‘Psalm 104:24-34, 35b.’  Hmmm… so we are supposed to read everything except v. 35a.  What does that say?  ‘May sinners disappear from the earth, and the wicked vanish!”  Ouch.  What’s the harm in excluding it?

The harm is that we change the message.  We allow our present worldview to hold sway over the text rather than giving the text permission to challenge our worldview.  In this case v. 35a is crucial.  Without it we’re focused on the good of the Lord.  With it the focus shifts to the good of the Lord in a world gone bad.

Sin is real.  Wickedness is real.  The world is not what it should be.  Take where I live, for example, Milwaukee.  60% black unemployment, profound segregation, and profound family dysfunction (and not just in the ‘hood).  What causes this?  God?  No!  What then?  Sinners and wickedness.

God is praying (through his Spirit) and acting for the world to conform to his intention.  He is calling us to pray and act likewise.   So two suggestions.  First, when the RCL cuts and pastes refuse to go along.  Second, with respect to this passage, pray the unredacted prayer of the Psalmist: “May my thoughts be pleasing to him.  I will rejoice in the Lord.  May sinners disappear from the earth, and the wicked vanish.  Praise the Lord, O my soul.  Praise the Lord.