Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Call to the Church to Grow Up

Most of us who have become disciples of Jesus have probably done so, at least initially, because of what we thought Christ and his Church could offer us.  We found a community that cared for us in a way that no other had.  A friend shared with us the work that God had done in their life and the joy they felt.  We thought going to church would make our parents happy or make our children more well behaved.  Or maybe we just thought heaven sounded better than hell.  As a broken and sinful people our initial reasons for seeking God will likely be mostly selfish so those reasons aren't necessarily a bad place to start but they would be an awful places to stay.

In his letter to the church at Ephesus it seems most likely that Paul is not writing to Christians who are just getting started in the faith.  According to Acts 20, Paul spent three years ministering among the Ephesians "declaring the whole counsel of God to them".  These are not babes in Christ.  Paul has instructed them thoroughly and has left behind a faithful and well established church.  Therefore, when we read the letter to the Ephesians we should recognize that we are not dealing with milk but with solid food.  In it is not only the gospel message but instructions about the consequences of that message for one's life.  Ephesians is for the Christian who is ready to mature in the faith.  Ephesians is a call to grow up.

That call begins with the first words after the letter's obligatory greeting, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ".  Those words begin a sentence that is so long that it must be broken into multiple sentences in our English translations but in Greek runs continuously from v.3-14.  In that one long sentence a theme is repeated:

  • Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ
  • who has blessed us in Christ
  • just as He chose us
  • He predestined us
  • according to His good pleasure
  • into the praise of His glorious grace
  • in whom we have redemption
  • according to the riches of His grace
  • which he lavished on us
  • making known to us the mystery of his will
  • according to his good please
  • which he planned
  • in whom we have an inheritance 
  • having been predestined according to his plan
  • so that we might be to the praise of his glory
  • in whom also you heard the word of truth
  • in whom you believed and were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit
  • to the praise of His glory
Repeatedly, it is God who acts.  God is the author of our salvation.  It is God who is to be blessed.  God set the plan of redemption in motion. Twice we are told that God did all this according to his good pleasure. Three times we are told everything that God has done for us is "to the praise of His glory".  There is no question we receive many benefits in the salvation that God has provided for us in Jesus Christ, many of which are listed in these verses.  But salvation is not primarily about us.  It is all about God.  All the benefits we receive in salvation are only meant to turn more honor, glory, and praise to God.  The mature Christian recognizes that salvation and the Church and growing up in Christ are about giving glory to God.  

But how many of us actually approach Church that way?  Sure, none of us would be so bold as to actually say that Church is all about us but just think about the ways that we talk about Church.  Think about the reasons why people, and not just any people but people we assume to be mature Christians because they have been in church for decades, leave a church: they don't like the worship style, they don't get along with the pastor, they don't like certain changes that were made.  And then they go shopping for a church that suits them and their own personal preferences: one that will keep their kids entertained, sings the right songs, where the pastor doesn't preach too long, and they are never asked to get too involved or sacrifice too much.

I'm not saying there is never a legitimate reason to leave a church.  I am saying that I think as Americans we are extremely skilled consumers.  We are quite efficient at getting what we think we need at minimal cost to ourselves.  In fact, I think we are such talented consumers that we begin to approach all parts of life that way, seeing things for what we can get out of them.  So we treat churches not so differently from grocery stores; we'll go to the one with the best service and the lowest cost until they raise their prices or change something we don't like and then we'll go to the one across town.  And we think there is nothing wrong with that because we think that churches, like grocery stores, are here to meet our needs, to serve us, and to do whatever they can to win and keep our loyalty which is really no loyalty at all.  

To the Church in America, to my brothers and sisters in Christ, to my own congregation, hear God's call through his Word: GROW UP!  

This is a call to be reminded that salvation, the Church, and growing up in Christ are not about us, not about what we like and don't like, not about our comfort, and not about how we can better be served.   It is about us serving God and serving others with his love so that we might bring honor and glory to the holy God who created us and redeemed us for himself.  Church is not about you and it is not about me.  It is about the blessed God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ...

Monday, December 20, 2010

Two Kingdoms

In Matthew 2:13-23, we are given a story that none of the other gospel writers tells.  It is the story of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary fleeing to Egypt and it gives a unique window into Matthew's understanding of Jesus right at the beginning of his gospel.

Matthew tells us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told Joseph to flee to Egypt because king Herod was about to search for Jesus to destroy him.  Joseph obediently follows the command and flees to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod.  Matthew then adds the comment that "This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet 'Out of Egypt I called my son.'"

This quotation comes from Hosea 11 and in that context has nothing to do with Jesus or the expected Messiah.  In fact, the "son" that God speaks of in Hosea is Israel whom God delivered from Egypt in the Exodus.  In Hosea 11, God speaks through the prophet about how he delivered these people and how he loved them.  God loved Israel like his own child but the more that he loved them the more they turned away from him.  In fact, they kept turning away from God so much that just like a father would discipline a child he loves so God also has to discipline Israel to get their attention.  So God allows them to be defeated by Assyria and to be made slaves once again.

Not coincidentally, the other Old Testament quotation in this passage in Matthew comes from precisely that time period in Israel's history.  Jeremiah 31:15 speaks about the people of Israel weeping over the destruction of their land and their families.  They have been laid waste by Assyria and Babylon.  All God's people have been taken into captivity and they face a hopelessness in their exile, a fear that they will cease to exist as a people.  And in that circumstance, God comforts them and says that he will one day restore them and not only that but he will one day make a new covenant with them where he will write his law on their hearts so that they won't be rebellious any more.

And Matthew tells us that this prophesy from Jeremiah was fulfilled when Herod ordered all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two to be murdered.  We can see in both the quotations from Hosea and Jeremiah that Matthew does not use these prophecies in a merely predictive way.  Matthew is not saying that Jesus meets some kind of prophetic checklist for what it means to be Messiah.  Instead, he is saying "Look, this story is like that story.  What God is doing in Jesus is like what God did in those times."  In other words, by telling us that Jesus' family fled to Egypt and that God called his Son out of Egypt, Matthew wants us to see a parallel between the Exodus, the great deliverance of Israel, and what God is going to do in this child Jesus.  And by quoting Jeremiah's words about the exile, words which are followed by God's promise of deliverance from that exile, Matthew wants us to see a parallel between what God did in the deliverance of Israel from exile in Babylon and what God is going to do in this boy Jesus.  Matthew is hinting to us right here at the beginning of his story that this new born child is going to deliver Israel from its slavery just as God did in the Exodus and the return from Exile.  This infant is going to be the new king of a new Israel.  

There is just one problem with all of that.  There is already a king in Israel.  His name is Herod and he doesn't think Israel needs delivering.  In fact, he is quite happy with the way things are since he is the one in power and he would like to keep it that way.  The last thing Herod needs is some upstart kid trying to step in on the power that he has worked so hard to gain and keep.  Herod will do whatever is necessary to hold on to the power that he has... even ordering every male child in the little town of Bethlehem to be murdered in cold blood.  In fact, other historical records tells us that Herod even had three of his own sons killed so as to insure his continued reign as king.  Of course, Herod was not especially unusual for his time.  Many in the Roman Empire acted this way, doing whatever they had to in order to insure that they kept the power they had.

And so, right here only two chapters into Matthew's gospel, before Jesus has even had a chance to grow up, we find that his kingdom is already in conflict with, already threatening the kingdoms of this world.  Matthew presents to us these two kingdoms and we must choose one or the other.  On the one hand, we have Jesus and his kingdom which stands for all of those things that we talk about this time of year; peace, love, joy, hope.  And all that sounds very nice and appealing to us.  But on the other hand, we see that there is this other kingdom.  The kingdom of Herod, the kingdom of this world.  Matthew lays bare for us that this kingdom is built on nothing other than fear, violence, greed, and power lust.  This kingdom is built on the murder of innocent children.  We are repulsed by this kingdom and yet part of us finds it necessary, pragmatic, realistic, whatever you want to call it because we can see that this kingdom holds all the weapons, all the power, all the influence.  So we are confronted with a choice: the kingdom of the helpless infant or the kingdom of the savage Herod?

From any rational, human perspective, it seems absurd to pledge or allegiance to anything other than the Herod kingdom.  As much as we are repulsed by its method, we know that it holds all the power in this world.  After all, how can you possibly build any kind of kingdom on an infant who himself is fleeing from Herod?  In fact, I think John describes the situation well for us in Revelation 12.  There John describes a sign he sees in heaven: a pregnant woman giving birth to a male child, "one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron".  And there standing before the woman is a great dragon who is waiting to devour the child the moment the woman gives birth.  Undoubtedly, this imagery in Revelation is multifaceted in its meaning but at the very least we can hear the parallel between the dragon who wishes to devour this woman's child and Herod who hopes to devour Jesus by the sword.

John and the churches to which he was writing knew this tension between these two kingdoms well because they constantly lived in the war between them.  They had pledged their allegiance to Jesus, to the kingdom built on this male child who would rule the nations but on the other hand they had to continue to make a living in that other kingdom, the Roman Empire with its Herods and Red Dragons and all the violence they could create.  I'm sure there were times when these early Christians felt like they were the child about to be swallowed by the great red dragon; that Israel their mother had given birth to the Church only to have them gobbled up by the power of the Roman empire.

The truth is, we face the same dilemma, the same tension.  While we may not face the persecution that John's church's faced, we certainly face the same pressure to compromise with the kingdoms of this world.  We see the kingdom of Jesus and we want to follow that way.  Maybe we have even pledged our allegiance to it but then we see all the power that Herod and his kingdom hold and we feel like our faith is about to be devoured by a great red dragon.

Or to bring it back to our story in Matthew, we find ourselves in a position like that of Joseph.  I have to imagine that Joseph must have said "You want me to what?!" more than once to the messenger of the Lord that appeared to him repeatedly.  It wasn't enough that Joseph was instructed to take responsibility for a child that he knew wasn't his own, now he had to flee all the way to Egypt to protect it and he could only come back when God told him it was safe?  Have you ever thought about how differently this story could have gone?  Joseph could have reasoned this wasn't his kid anyway, taken him to one of Herod's men, said here is the one you are looking for, just take him and you don't have to kill all the other male children in Bethlehem.  Not only would Joseph no longer have the social stigma of having a child that everyone else thought was illegitimate, he would also have the continuing gratitude of all the other mothers in Bethlehem for saving their sons and maybe Herod would have even thrown him some kind of reward for being such a loyal subject.  Instead, Joseph repeatedly trusts God even when it sets him at odds with the vast might of the Roman Empire.  Joseph chooses the kingdom of this helpless little boy over the kingdom of this world.  God calls us to this same radical trust.  He calls us to pledge our allegiance to the kingdom built on Jesus even while the Herods of the world do all the destruction and violence they can.  As I said before, from a merely human perspective this call will always seems like a foolish and naive one.  But in the rest of Revelation 12, John gives us the heavenly perspective on the matter.  There John tells the churches of Asia Minor and tells us that the dragon and his angels have already been defeated.  A loud voice in heaven proclaims
"Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.  And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death."
John goes on to tell us that when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth he pursued the woman who gave birth to the child and when he is unable to capture her he goes off to make war against the rest of her offspring, "on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus."  John acknowledges that in this world the dragon has power to inflict all kinds of pain and violence on the saints of God but John is in essence telling us that all the pain and violence Satan can bring is actually good news for us.  It is good news because it represents the death throes of his kingdom.  Satan thrashes about so violently in our world because he knows he has been defeated and wants to inflict whatever damage he can in the short time that he has left.  In John's view, things like Herod's slaughter of innocent children, things like the holocaust, things like the genocides of Rwanda, Congo, and the Sudan, tragedies like Haiti, the pain we feel in our bodies, the illnesses and deaths of loved ones that we so painfully mourn, while undeniably tragic are also sure signs of Satan's defeat.  They are signs that the days of the dragon, of the Herods, of the kingdoms of this world are numbered because the kingdom of that baby boy born in a manger has already prevailed.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

God With Us

The words of Isaiah 7:14 are probably some of the most well known in the book Isaiah.
"Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel."   
This is almost certainly the case not because of their original context in Isaiah but because Matthew quotes them in the first chapter of his gospel to refer to the birth of Jesus.  However, if we read Isaiah 7 as a whole we can see clearly that this prophecy is not one that Isaiah expected to be fulfilled hundreds of years later.  It was a prophecy for his own time.  Isaiah was speaking about a child that would be born very soon.

Isaiah 7 begins by telling us that King Rezin of Syria and King Pekah of Israel marched against Jerusalem the capital of Judah where Ahaz was king and Isaiah a prophet.  Isaiah doesn't give us any details as to why the kings of Israel and Syria wanted to make war with Judah but considering the historical context of the time we can make a guess.  The mighty nation of Assyria was a threat to all of three these nations but was likely a more immediate threat to Syria and Israel due to their geographic location.  So its seems likely that Rezin and Pekah were trying to intimidate Ahaz in to forming a political and military alliance with them against Assyria, something Ahaz had been hesitant to do.

Whatever the reason for their advance, Isaiah tells us that Ahaz and the people of Judah were exceedingly fearful, their hearts were shaken "as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind", when they heard that these two armies were approaching their capital.  Isaiah tells Ahaz that however intimidated he may be, God's command is not to make this alliance with Syria and Israel.  Instead, Ahaz is to stand firm in his faith and trust that God will deliver him.  In fact, God even offers Ahaz a sign through the prophet Isaiah as assurance of what God has promised.  Ahaz refuses the sign claiming that he doesn't wish to test God but Isaiah says that he will be given a sign anyway.  That sign is the child that is promised in Isaiah 7:14.  Isaiah says that this child will be born and before he is old enough to understand right from wrong the two nations which Ahaz fears will be laid waste.  This child is given the name Immanuel because his birth was a sign that God (el) was with the people of Judah (Immanu meaning "with us").

Of course, Matthew was not unaware of all of this when he decided to quote Isaiah 7:14 in his writing of the gospel.  He knew that the child of which Isaiah spoke was one that would be born in Isaiah's day and not his own and Matthew was not trying to negate that original meaning.  Nor do I think Matthew was simply looking for any Old Testament prophecy about the birth of a child which he could then use to show that Jesus' birth was really predicted hundreds of year earlier, regardless of the original context of that verse.

Instead, by quoting this verse, I believe Matthew wants us to see the story of Isaiah and Ahaz in the story of Jesus.  Matthew's quoting of Isaiah 7:14 is not about prediction or proving that Jesus is the Messiah.  It is Matthew's way of saying this story is like that story; this story I am telling about Jesus is like that story of God delivering Judah from its enemies, it is a story of "God with us".  In Isaiah, the birth of Immanuel served as a sign, a real physical reminder of God's promise to deliver his people if they would trust in Him.  In Matthew's gospel, he wishes to show us that the birth of Jesus is a sign, a real physical reminder of God's promise to deliver his people if they would trust in Him.

Of course, Matthew will go on to show throughout the rest of his gospel that he means the quoting of this verse from Isaiah in ways even more radical than this.  Matthew reveals to us that Jesus is not merely a sign of God with us as Immanuel was only a sign in Isaiah but that Jesus himself is in fact God with us, the very presence of God himself in human flesh.  As God was with the people of Judah to deliver them from their enemies, so God became even more present among us by taking on our own flesh in order to deliver us from our worst enemies; sin and death.

Monday, November 29, 2010

What Won't Save Us

As I was eating lunch today, I was browsing the most recent TIME magazine.  It's one of those typical end-of-the-year issues.  It contained several articles that looked over significant events of the last several years and tried to assign some significance to them.  The one article I had the time to read was about the election of President Bush in 2000.  It recounted the details of just how close that election was; so close that it seemed the margin of error in counting the votes would always exceed the margin of victory by either candidate.  How the votes were counted depended on who counted them and their interpretation of what constituted a legal ballot cast.

Of course, the articles go on to discuss other important events of the last several years: 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, and the recent economic meltdown.  As I read this article and pondered these events, one question kept resounding in my mind:

How much more evidence do we need that democracy and capitalism, politics and economics are not our savior?  

Don't get me wrong.  Really, please don't assume I'm saying something that I'm not as so often happen with these topics.  I think government and economic policy are important; very important.  They have their place in our world and we should continue to work to improve our policies and laws as a nation.  I'm even mostly convinced that democracy and capitalism are the best forms of government and economics that we've come up with so far as a human race.

Hear what I am saying: as Christians we are called to work to improve the laws and policies that govern our world while also constantly reminding ourselves that they are not the ultimate answer.   So often we become so impassioned about these things that you'd think all of our hope rested in them.  But shouldn't the events of just the last decade be enough to convince us that these things will ultimately always fail us?  However great democracy is, everyone still laments the current character of our politicians.  Whatever merit capitalism has over other economic systems, it can not inhibit a greed powerful enough to collapse entire economies.  I am not suggesting we all become anarchists.  I am suggesting that while we need good laws and policies to help curb the systemic injustices of our world, ultimately all those injustices, all those evils that laws are meant to prevent arise from the human heart.  At the end of the day, we don't need more laws, we need God's Law written on our hearts.  We need ourselves and our world to be transformed by a God who is greater than us.  In other words, the genuinely Christians politic has more to do with sacrifice and faithfulness, our economy one of mercy and grace.

I think Isaiah 11 expresses this truth well, though in a much more poetic and eloquent manner than I have done here.  The people of Israel and Judah certainly knew the importance of good government.  They had prospered under the rule of David and Solomon but since then they had become divided and weakened by the poor leadership that followed.  Now Assyria stood on their doorstep and Isaiah was already prophesying that God's people would be reduced to a smoldering stump (see Is 6:13), a once mighty tree of a nation reduced to an almost nothing people sent into exile.

But in chapter 11, Isaiah says that out of that stump of Jesse, that kingly family that had been cut down by the foreign nations, a shoot would come forth and a branch would bear fruit.  However, as Isaiah goes on to describe this new king, it becomes clear that he can not be a mere human being.  Just another king who can be corrupted to play in the politics of power will not do God's people any good.  So while Isaiah longs for this new king; he also recognizes there is need of something more than simply improved politics.  The reign of this king must be the reign of God himself.  Isaiah tell us that the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him, giving him the wisdom to judge justly and righteously, to uphold the cause of the poor, and to effortlessly defeat the wicked merely with the breath of his mouth.  Similar to last week's sermon text, this passage tells us that the king's just reign will lead to a radical peace.  Here it is a peace so complete that it is not limited to human relations but extends to all of creation.  Natural enemies, the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the goat, the lion and the calf lay down harmlessly together.  Infants play near cobras and adders without fear or harm.  This is a peace possible only when God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Of course, we understand Christ to have fulfilled this role as the one just judge and righteous king.  He is the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests, who was not blinded by power and influence, and who attended to the poor in his earthly ministry.  He is the one who we believe in his return will fully establish his reign as king and bring about the kind of complete justice and radical peace that is described in Isaiah 11.  It is not surprising then that John picks up the language of Isaiah 11 to portray the establishment of this kingdom in Revelation 19.  There Christ is portrayed as the one sitting on a white horse who is called faithful and true, who judges and makes war in righteousness.  He has the armies of heaven at his side but he does not need them because "from his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations" which is to say that, like the kingly figure in Isaiah 11, his words, the mere breath of his mouth is enough to defeat all the enemies of God's people.  While the imagery of Revelation 19 is undoubtedly violent, it speaks to the peaceable kingdom that will finally be established when Christ's reign is made complete.  It is that kingdom which we await in the season of Advent.  It is the politics of that kingdom which are the organizing force of our lives even while we wait for it to be established in all its glory.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Celebrating Advent

I'm sure I am not the first and won't be the last preacher to lament the status of this time of year in our culture.  Nevertheless, as I reflected on the reading from Isaiah this week, I couldn't help but think (again) about how little our practices in these December weeks have anything to do with the things we claim to value as the Church.  On Sunday, we are hearing about a savior who will bring a peace to our world so radical and complete that it will render weapons so useless and void of value that they will be melted down to be used in farm equipment.  And we celebrate and anticipate that peace with more shopping/consuming/stress/materialism/busyness/obligation?  Sounds like the opposite of peace to me.  Anyway, here are few practices, however small,  I thought might help us anticipate the radical peace that our scriptures promise during this Advent season at our church.  It's not a comprehensive list by any means.  I'd be interested in hearing any ideas you might add to the list.

·        Schedule moments of silent reflection throughout the month of December
·        Agree with a loved one to forgo giving each other another gift that neither of you really needs and give the money you would have spent to a charitable organization
·        Give your time to someone who may be lonely this holiday season
·        Read a chapter of the Gospel of Luke with your family every day in December.  If you start on Dec. 1 and read a chapter a day you will finish on Christmas Eve. 
·        Sign up to ring the bell for the Salvation Army on Saturday, Dec. 4.
·        Figure up the amount of money you spent on your largest shopping day and add that amount to your tithe one week in December. 
·        If stress and busyness are a problem for you this time of year, then commit now to saying no to at least one social obligation this holiday season.
·        Spend at least 15 minutes praying for peace and justice in our world for every hour that you spend shopping. 
·        In place of giving a gift to the pastor and his family (who already know how much you love them) give a gift to a child or teen in our church you don’t know very well (so that they will know they are loved as well). 
·        Don’t use a credit card for your holiday shopping.  If you can’t afford it now, then don’t buy it.  
·        Ask others for a Nazarene Compassionate Ministries Gift Card as their Christmas gift to you.  

Monday, November 22, 2010

Trust, Justice, and Peace

The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
 It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths."
For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD.
-Isaiah 2:1-5

These words poignantly capture the vision and hope of what Israel was called to be.  The city of Jerusalem is described here as a sort of lighthouse to all the nations.   It is lifted as a beacon to which all the nations flow like a river.  As the people of the world make this pilgrimage to Jerusalem they state the reason for their journey; that they may learn the ways of Yahweh.  In this way the highest of hopes Israel, God's express purpose for creating Israel, is fulfilled; God's law is not limited to his chosen people.  Instead, all the nations see the worth of Yahweh's teaching and therefore want to participate in it.  As a result, God's law goes out from Jerusalem and God himself acts as judge over the whole world.  The image of God as judge is a hopeful one because God is one true and just judge who will always rule righteously.  God's judgment is, in fact, so thoroughly just that it eliminates war.  The justice of God brings a peace so radical that the instruments of war, swords and spears, are no longer useful so they are converted into plows and pruning hooks, instruments that cultivate food and therefore, life.  Having been taught by Yahweh, the nations no longer have need to learn war any more.   

In a world like ours, it is tempting to see words like these as overly optimistic, even fanciful, unrealistic.  We all long for peace but isn't this a little naive?  

It is worth noting that these words were written at a time when swords and spears were prevalent and an immediate danger to the people of Judah.  While it is difficult to date these words with precision, they were surely uttered in the shadow of the threatening menace of Assyrian power. In comparison to the Assyrian superpower, Judah was a relatively weak and helpless nation, no match for Assyria's armies.  In Isaiah's day, it would have seemed that the only reason to say "that all the nations shall flow in to it (Jerusalem)"  would be if the armies of the nations were flooding into the city gates to conquer and pillage it. 

In contrast to that fearful situation, Isaiah reminds Judah of what they have been called to as the people of God: a people who walk in the light of the Lord.  This vision of what all the other nations will one day do concludes by reminding the house of Jacob what they must do now.  They must walk in the light that they have been given and trust God.  With the mighty Assyrian army on the doorstep of Jerusalem, it was tempting for God's people to grasp at any available political alliances that might save them.  Instead, Isaiah urges them to trust God to deliver them, to walk in his light, and have faith that God could accomplish the vision promised in these verses.  

In our world that kind of faith and trust will always seem naive.  There is really no denying that.  As long as we hold to the belief that trust in God is more powerful than tanks, we will not be counted among the sensible.  But Isaiah's vision is not one that fails to take into account the harsh realities of our world.  It simply goes on to also take into account the God who is mightier than any army.  It is ultimately this God, not our military and political intrigues, who will bring lasting peace to our world.  Trusting in that promise, we are called to be a people who walk in God's light whatever the circumstances.  

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Christ Alone

It seems it is always a temptation for the Church to make the gospel about Christ AND something else.  We know Christ is important (if we didn't, we wouldn't even bother with the title of "Christian") but it seems we often want to set something else up along side of Christ.  Paul corrects the Galatians for making it about Christ and works of the Law, the Corinthians for making it about Christ and their spiritual gifts.  While it is difficult to say exactly what the situation was in the Colossian church, it seems Paul is facing a similar problem there as well.  In this letter, Paul says things like
"See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ."  - 2:8
 "Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath... Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God." -2:16, 18-19

Paul goes on with similar admonitions in the verses that follow.  This seems to indicate that the Colossians have doubts about whether or not Christ alone is really sufficient for their salvation.  Paul's answer to those doubts is the magnificent Christological statement of Colossians 1:15-20.
"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn from all creation.  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him and for him.  And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  And he is the head of the body, the church.  He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and trough him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross."  
 Many scholars believe that these verses were an early Christian hymn which Paul did not write but has used here to remind the Colossians of the foundation of the Christian faith.  Paul is in essence saying "Remember, this is what you believe: Christ is God.  He is the invisible God made visible in human flesh.  As God, he is the creator and redeemer of all people."  As such, the God who is Christ is sufficient for our salvation.  As Paul says in v. 13-14
"He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."
Of course, this is Christian Faith 101.  We know that to be Christian is to confess Christ as Lord and Savior. Yet one might ask how deeply we have allowed this truth to pervade our lives.  Is Christ really sufficient for us?  We, too, often want Christ AND something else; Christ AND success, Christ AND happiness, Christ AND the respect of others, and the list goes on.  How many of us can really claim to have decided, as Paul said he did, "to know nothing ...except Christ and him crucified"?

Monday, October 25, 2010

A River of Life

Last week, we heard of God's promise to return to and restore the Temple in Jerusalem.  However, God's work of restoration does not end with the Temple.  Instead, the Temple is a kind of epicenter of God's restorative work.  The return of God's presence to Jerusalem brings life and health to the entire land.  The final chapters of Ezekiel go on to describe the restoration of the priesthood, feasts, sacrifices, the city, and the entire land of Israel.

As a part of that restoration, Ezekiel 47 narrates for us the last of Ezekiel's guided tour like visions.   Ezekiel's guide takes him back to the door of the Temple where Ezekiel sees water trickling out from underneath the threshold of the Temple.  From there, we are told several of the properties of this babbling brook which indicate to us its supernatural character.  This small stream of water turns so as to avoid the altar then continues on outside of the Temple complex.  It flows directly east, the same direction from which Yahweh had come to return to to the Temple.  It seems the flow of this stream is not determined by geographical factors.  In fact, as it flows further east, its get deeper and deeper despite there being no mention of any tributaries flowing into it.  What started as a trickle eventually turns into a rushing river which flows through the desert region of the Arabah and runs into the Dead Sea.  We are told that this sea, so full of salt that almost nothing can survive in it, will be "healed" by this river which flows from the Temple, its densely salted water turned fresh so that it will teem with life.  We are told it will be a place for "the spreading of nets" from Engedi to Enelgaim.  While the location of these two ancient towns is not absolutely certain, it is thought that Engedi was on the western shore of the Dead Sea and Enelgaim was on the southereastern shore, meaning that the entire Dead Sea will be good for fishing.  However, we are told in v.11 that the swamps and marshes will be left as salt water presumably so that there will still be a source of salt in the area for seasoning and preserving food.  On both sides of the river are an abundance of fruit trees which remarkably are never out of season.  Their leaves do not wither and they bear fruit every month of the year.  Furthermore, their leaves will have healing properties.

Clearly, this vision Ezekiel sees goes well beyond a promise for Israel's historical return from exile.  It is a promise not only that Israel will be restored to its land but that the land itself will be restored and renewed in a dramatic, other-worldly kind of way.  As Ezekiel has made clear in his other prophecies of restoration, a simple return from political captivity is not enough; a cleansing, renewing work of God that frees from the captivity of sin is needed to keep his people from falling back into their same old sins.  They need to be sprinkled with clean water and given a new heart and a new Spirit.  These dry bones need the breathe of God to raise them to new life.  A new creation is needed.

John picks up this idea in Revelation 22 as he describes the new creation which God is going to bring about.  In this new creation, there is no need of a temple since God dwells directly among his people.  So John sees this river issuing out not from the Temple but from the throne of God and the Lamb.  This river flows down the middle street of the new Jerusalem and the tree of life grows on either side of it yielding its twelve fruits twelve months of the year.  The leaves of this tree are for healing as well but not only for Israel but for all the nations.  What Ezekiel saw as God's promise to make Israel new, John sees as a promise to heal all peoples and all of creation.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Promised Temple

Over the course of Ezekiel's prophetic writings, we have been shown the full gamut of Israel's ugliness and sin.  In chapter 8, we heard of Israel's worship of other gods and Israel's complete lack of trust in Yahweh.  Chapter 16 described Israel as an unfaithful whore, actively pursuing everyone except the God who rescued her.  It is all of this sin and unfaithfulness which causes the glory of the Lord to depart from the Temple in chapter 10.  God is driven out of his own home by the filth of his people's idolatry.  As a result, in chapter 1, Ezekiel sees God not in the Temple in Jerusalem but in his chariot-throne on the banks of the Chebar Canal in Babylon.  Much of Ezekiel's writings portray Israel as a sinful and forsaken people.

But in the later chapters of the book, we are reminded that even Israel immense sins are not beyond God's healing power.  In chapter 36, God proclaimed that he would restore those in captivity to their homeland and make them clean for the sake of his own reputation.  In Ezekiel 37, God gives Ezekiel a vision of an army of dry bones coming to life, a promise of the life that God is about to breathe into this dead people.

Chapter 43 is the climax of these prophecies of restoration.  In the opening verses of this chapter, we hear that God is returning to his Temple.  Ezekiel sees the same vision of God that he saw on the banks of the Chebar except now the Spirit of the Lord is approaching the Temple from the east, away from Babylon and back to Jerusalem.  The Temple will once again be God's throne and God's footstool.   His permanent dwelling will once again be with his people.

But the final chapters of Ezekiel are not only about Yahweh's return to the Temple.  It is about the restoration of the Temple itself and all that restoration symbolizes.  When Ezekiel sees this vision of the Temple and God's return to it, there is no Temple.  It has been destroyed in the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem.  Chapter 43 comes in the midst of several chapters which meticulously describe every aspect of this new Temple, much like the meticulous description of the old Temple in earlier parts of the Old Testament.  However, whereas those earlier descriptions served as instruction, this description is one of promise.  There are no commands to build this Temple that is envisioned.  Indeed, there is no opportunity to build since those receiving the vision are still in exile.  Instead, Ezekiel is simply told to convey the vision to the people of Israel, in all of its detail oriented glory, so that "they may be ashamed of their sins."  Strangely, the designs of this building plan are also God's design for his people's repentance.  This building will stand as a physical reminder of God's faithfulness which can only remind Israel of all of its own unfaithfulness.

Of course, the New Testament writers will repeatedly use the Temple as a metaphor for the Church.  Whereas in the past God's Spirit had dwelt in a building, the Church believed that Spirit which also empowered Jesus now dwells in Jesus' followers making the Church God's new temple.  Ezekiel's vision is especially apt for our understanding of ourselves as the Temple since it is a blueprint for a promised building that can not yet be completed.  Likewise, the Church is to be a kind of blueprint for the new creation, God's final restoration of all things.  Undoubtedly, contemplating this final vision of God's restoration will remind us of all the ways that we fall short.  Nevertheless, we are also called to be a physical reminder of God's faithfulness and the promise of restoration which God intends to fulfill.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Preaching in Death Valley

And he said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" and I answered, "O Lord God, you know."  Then he said to me, prophesy over these bones and say to them, "O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord."   - Ezekiel 37:3-4
God called Ezekiel to do a lot of absurd things.  This one takes the cake.  At least the strange sign-acts for which God commissioned Ezekiel were in front of people who could see, hear, and have some chance, however small, to respond.  Not so here.  Here Ezekiel stands to preach the message he has been given by God but instead of a congregation of willing and responsive listeners, Ezekiel finds that his figurative pulpit has been placed in front of a bunch of skeletons.  And he is commanded to preach to these skeletons as if they were living people.  "O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord."  At least there will be no complaints about the length of the sermon.

What preacher, at least on some rare occasion, hasn't felt like they were doing what Ezekiel does here?  What preacher hasn't at some time or another felt like they were speaking to a congregation as lifeless as a valley of dry bones?  At some point we've all felt like our sermons were addressed to spiritual zombies who carry on as if they were alive but whose attitudes and actions say "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off."  (Of course, some of our own sermons and spiritual practices are themselves responsible for turning them into zombies but that's a post for another day.)

This is not some underhanded, back door way to complain about the spiritual failures of my own congregation.  This blog post is not a reflection on some current frustration with my own church people.  In fact, this is a bit easier to write this week because this past Sunday was one of the most alive and responsive services we have had since I've been the pastor here.  This is not to say that we don't have our own spiritual deadness.  It is simply to say that I will confront that deadness on Sunday morning when I preach and in our continued life together as a community of faith rather than in a blog post.

The point is, that as pastors, God has called us to prophesy to these dry bones of a people and as we do God asks us the same question which he asked Ezekiel and which is already running through our own minds.  Is it really possible that these dry bones can live?  Is this preaching, all this ministry doing any good?  I've said the same things over and over again and not only has nothing changed but it doesn't even seem like they've heard what I've said.

Like Ezekiel, we are probably hesitant to give an unambiguous answer.  Can these dead church people be made alive again?  Well God, only you know the answer to that question (...but I have my own opinions on the matter).  Then comes the command that demands trust: "Prophesy over these bones...".  Keep preaching. Don't let the spiritual deadness of your audience prevent you from proclaiming.  Even to dry bones continue to say "Hear the word of the Lord".  This is all Ezekiel is called to.  It is not his task to make alive what is dead.  It is his task to be obedient in proclaiming the word of the Lord, even in the valley of death where it appears there is no one able to hear.

When we preach to those dry bones over and over again, it is tempting to bring our puppet strings; to find something that will make these skeletons dance and play; to use anything we can find that will make those dry bones look and feel more alive.  At least then we would have the illusion of having an audience worthy of our preaching.  But inasmuch as we become puppeteers rather than prophets we reveal what we really believe about that question that God asks us. "No Lord, I don't believe that you can make alive what is dead so I will do my best to give death the appearance of life."

But then, probably when we least expect it, probably when we've become so accustomed to the deadness that it doesn't even feel strange to preach to skeletons anymore, perhaps when we've began to feel like enough of a skeleton ourselves that we no longer have the strength to hold up the marionette, then the bones begin to rattle together and the breath of God floods in from every direction and there is suddenly life where there once was not.  We are reminded that if we will keep proclaiming as we've been commanded then God is more than able to raise up an army of an audience to hear his word.  To continue to prophesy in the valley of dry bones is an act of trust that says to our God "I believe these bones can live again".

Monday, October 4, 2010

Can These Bones Live?

Defeat, death, and decay are the colors of darkness that fill Ezekiel's vision in chapter 37.  There has been a battle in this valley but the victors have long since moved on leaving the bones of the dead and defeated behind to rot.  In fact, by the time Ezekiel sees them, they are done rotting.  These bones are dry.  Their defeat so long past, so complete, so utterly irreversible, that there are not even remnants of flesh on these bones.  They belong to an army not only defeated but also seemingly forgotten, their sacrifice unappreciated, as they are left for the birds to pick clean and the elements to smooth over until one day they will be erased completely, no memory of them left on the earth.

In the midst of this yawning abyss, an absurd question is asked; "Can these bones live?".  A question so absurd that even Ezekiel seems hesitant to offer as an answer what he can only hope.  Instead, he throws the question back to the questioner; "Lord, you know."  And so God begins the work of reversing the utterly irreversible, breathing life where there was once death.

It is not until after the vision is complete that the identity of these bones is revealed.  One might have concluded easily enough that these were the bones of those who lost their lives defending Jerusalem against the Babylonians onslaught.  But v.11 tells us otherwise.  "Then he said to me: "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.'"  It is those who have survived that see themselves as dry bones.  This is a vision for those whose bodies are alive but whose situation is so defeated and hopeless that they feel like nothing more than dry bones. This is a vision for the living dead.

For the exiles in Babylon, this is a promise that they will one day return home.  Their exile is not endless; their destruction is not complete.  But it is also more than that.  It is a demonstration to Israel concerning the kind of God that they serve; the kind of God who reverses the irreversible, the kind of God who can rattle dry bones to life; the kind of God who raises the crucified.

Often we find ourselves asking the same question of ourselves, our churches, and our world; "Can these dry bones live?"  Can those who seem dead to all spiritual counsel ever be spiritually alive?  Can the old, aching bodies that have served Christ for so long still render faithfulness to their Lord?  Can those who have suffered immeasurable loss ever be made whole?  Can a church which has declined in number for two decades be made alive again?  Can a world so full of death and sin ever know life and peace?

Can God raise the dead?  Everything hinges on this.  If the answer is no, then we are to be pitied more than all people.  But if the answer is yes...

Monday, September 27, 2010

God's PR Team

God has a PR problem.

As God's chosen people, Israel was to represent to the world the God who delivered them from slavery.  Instead of revealing himself to all people, God had chosen to reveal himself specifically to one group of people, one nation, Israel.  In turn, the Israelites were supposed to be a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, revealing God to all the other peoples of the earth through the holy, distinctive way of life to which God had called them.  Israel was, in essence, God's public relations team.

However, one of the major themes of the book of Ezekiel is how badly the people of Israel failed in this PR task.  God's chosen people have badly misrepresented Yahweh to the nations with their syncretism and idolatry which is so severe that Ezekiel describes his own people as a prostitute who gives herself out to everyone but her husband.  As a result, God's name has been profaned among the nations.  Instead of Israel bringing honor and glory to Yahweh, they have tarnished God's reputation, bringing shame upon the name of the God that they serve.

Anyone else who found themselves in this position would simply find new representation.  Any celebrity or politician would quickly fire their agent or campaign manager if they couldn't do any better than this.  And, in a way, that is what God does too... for a time.  God does allow Israel to be taken into exile because of their unfaithful representation of him.  Israel has to know that God will not tolerate his name being dragged through the mud in this way.  But even this is only for a time.

In Ezekiel 36, God promises to bring back the people who have misrepresented him so badly.  However, God makes abundantly clear in this passage that he is not doing this for their sake but for his own.  Having failed so badly at their task, there is nothing that Israel could do to deserve God hiring them as his representatives once again.  There is nothing that Israel can offer God.  Instead, God says that he will deliver his people once again so that God himself will be honored and vindicated, so that his holiness will be known.  God is doing this so that all the nations will know that God does not abandon his people and that God is powerful enough to save, even more powerful than the mightiest nations on earth.

However, God also will not allow these people to represent him as they are.  He will not deliver them back into their old land which he gave them just so that they can go back to their old prostituting ways.  No, God promises to cleanse his people and make them holy (even though they have not asked God to do this, of course, how could such an unholy people make such a holy request in the first place).  God even says that he will perform a heart transplant, replacing their heart of stone with a heart of flesh.  God is going to give this people his own Spirit so they will follow his Law and live the life God had always called them to live.  This is the only way for the perpetual cycle of sin to be broken; to have God's own Spirit at work within us.

As Christians, we believe that this promise has been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.  We believe that the Spirit of God resided in Jesus, empowering his life and ministry, and that this same Spirit was poured out upon his followers, the Church, the New Israel.  We believe that even though God knows our often whorish ways, he continues to call human beings to be his representatives in the world.  God calls us to be made clean and to allow his Spirit to work in us so that we might truly represent him in all of his holiness.

Of course, we also know that all too often God still has a PR problem today.  So many people claim the title "Christian" and by doing so claim to represent God in their thoughts, words, and deeds.  But somehow none of those thoughts, words, or actions seem to look much like Jesus and so God's name ends up being dragged through the mud once again.  Perhaps at the root of all this is our forgetting that what God does in us is not primarily about us but about God.  We shouldn't think for a minute that this is for our sake, for our happiness, for our own self-fulfillment.  After all Jesus taught that our first request in any prayer is for God's reputation to be honored; "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name...".  We have been called to honor God in all that we do and it is for that task that God says he will make us clean, give is a new heart, and place his very own Spirit within us.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Watchman

The beginning of Ezekiel 33 reiterates an idea found earlier in the book in chapter 3; that Ezekiel is a watchman for Israel.  The watchmen was like a military scout, the ancient version of an early warning device.  It was the watchman's job to be on the lookout for an approaching enemy.  If an army was approaching, the watchman was to sound the alarm so that the people would have enough time to get inside the city walls before the enemy was at hand.  Obviously, many lives depended on the attentiveness of the watchman.  If he failed to carry out his duties responsibly, it could cost a lot of people their lives.  On the other hand, if for some strange reason the inhabitants of the city were to ignore the warning of the watchman and then died as a result, this would not be the watchman's fault since everyone had the choice whether or not they would heed the watchman's call.

The watchman is indeed an apt metaphor for Ezekiel's role within his community and the role of any prophet in any community really.  In Ezekiel's context, the very real, literal army of the Babylonians has already come and carried Ezekiel and many of his fellow Israelites into exile.  Nevertheless, Ezekiel's role as watchman continues even within the exiled community, warning those around him of the consequences of unfaithfulness to God.  But like the watchman, it is only Ezekiel's job to warn.  He has no power to enforce the warning. As long as Ezekiel issues his prophetic warning then he has done his job and it is up to those who hear the warning to respond accordingly.

As a pastor, this is one of the responsibilities I hold within this community of faith and it is one of the most difficult of those responsibilities.  Especially in a culture where someone can easily find another church to attend if they don't like what you have to say, it seems almost impossible to speak words of warning like these in a way that is edifying and beneficial when someone is on the wrong path.  Perhaps what is worse though is the powerlessness I have felt when I have uttered those words of warning.  Such words are difficult enough when they actually lead to repentance but so often they actually lead to rejection and strife.  While I continue to pray that God will give me wisdom and humility in these matters, I have also began to learn the truth that not everyone heeds the watchman's warning.  Often we must simply speak the truth in love and leave the rest up to God.

Of course, it is not only my responsibility.  The entirety of the Church has a prophetic role to play and therefore it is a task left to all of us to speak words of truthfulness and warning to our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are called to be watchmen to each other, reproving each other when we are not living up to the holy life to which we have been called.  It is my prayer that God will give us the courage to speak what needs to be spoken and the wisdom and humility to speak it well.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Obsessive Reading Disorder

My name is Dave.  I'm a readaholic.

I recently entered a 12 step program to help me address this issue.

Step 1:  Finish school and thereby finish all required reading.
Step 2:  Become pastor of your first church.
Steps 3-12: Have children.  Its not that these last ten steps mean you have to have 10 children.  Its more metaphorical than that.  Instead, these ten steps can represents the ten months you will go without sleep.  Or they can represent the ten times you will be woken up every night.  Take your pick.

Of course, its not like I hadn't dabbled a bit here and there over the last several months.  There was the reading for sermons and Bible studies.  But that's stuff that anyone could justify.

But then God decided to test me by allowing my children to actually sleep occasionally.  The more my children slept the more rested I was and the more free time I had.  It wasn't long before I started to slip back into my old habits.

I started seeing a counselor.  No, its not what you think.  I don't actually know of any counselors trained to treat obsessive reading disorder.  I was seeing this counselor to help me be a better counselor in my role as a pastor.  Little did I know the path this would lead me down.  He actually assigned reading for me as a part of my training.

So I started reading again.  It was slow at first.  But then something here or there would catch my interest.  The book I was reading on counseling was a kind of gateway reading.  It led me to reading a book on family systems therapy which led to reading a book on grief which led to reading C.S. Lewis.

But even at this point I think there still would have been hope for a quick recovery if it hadn't been for my wife.  She too had abstained for a long time because of our life circumstances which was part of what helped me to stay off the sauce.  But now someone had loaned her the Harry Potter series.  (I always knew those books were evil.)  She got a taste and it was all downhill from there.  She always had a book in her hand,  reading everywhere; on the couch in front of the TV, in bed, in the middle of the day!  It was awful.  The housework was neglected.  Children were left in my care for long periods of time.  It wasn't pretty.

Of course, what they say is true.  Its always the kids who suffer most.  I can already see how my wife's reading habits are impacting our children.  Hannah plays with letters as if they were toys and she is constantly asking me to read to her.  Malachi is not even a year old yet and he stares longingly at books as you turn the pages for him as if he can't wait for the day when he will be able to drink in their magic.  Poor kid.

But even with all the destructive effects of reading laid before me, I still couldn't help myself.  And so, after nearly a year without any binge readings, I picked up The Works of John Wesley, Vol.1.

And now its seems that things are worse than they were before.  That was less than a month ago and somehow I find myself already half way through volume 4.  I've even experimented with a few other books between volumes.  The worst part is that I can't stop thinking about when my next reading will be or what I'll read next.  Just the other day we were all in the van on the way to church and I pondered out loud to myself "I wonder if I should starting reading Luther in between volumes of Wesley so that I can compare them or if I should wait until I've finished all 14 volumes of Wesley so that I don't get them confused."  Jess was quick to point out to me that she didn't think this was a question that very many people asked themselves which I am pretty sure is just her way of telling me how special I am.  But just in case I was wrong, I decided not to tell her that I was already calculating in mind how long it would take me to get to Calvin and Barth too.

My addiction has become so severe that, as of late, I've actually tried to step back and reflect on where this compulsion for reading comes from.  For a long time, I could justify my addiction easily enough.  I was in college.  I was in seminary.  Everyone else was doing it.  I was just working hard to prepare for being a pastor and I could quit whenever I wanted.  I've even considered the very real possibility that my compulsion to read stems from having too much of my self-worth wrapped up in intellectual achievement. (I probably have the psychology reading I did to thank for that one.)  But the truth is, while all of those statements have some truth to them, none of them completely exhausts the compulsion I feel for reading.

The irony is (cue the serious part of the post) that as obsessive as my reading habits are I really do believe that this is one of the primary ways that God has chosen to work in me.  Perhaps that sounds like the ultimate crutch; like the alcoholic or drug addict saying "I can't help it.  This is just the way that God made me."  but it is, in fact, what I believe about myself.  That's not to say that I don't have to be careful about how much time I spend reading, especially in a profession where my use of time is largely self-directed and there are many important things to do in addition to studying.  I readily confess that it will always be a temptation for me to study to the extent that I neglect other important aspects of my role as a pastor (and as a husband and father).  I also recognize that when I find what I think is a good balance between reading and other aspects of life there may be others who do not agree with that assessment.

In spite of all that, I still believe that reading and study are and will likely always be one of the primary means of grace in my life.  This is about more than having answers or being prepared.  This is about how God is shaping me as His servant.  I believe this because I know how God used my time at ENC and NTS to transform me as a person.  I believe this because I know that now, as I've dedicated larger amounts of my time to studying once again, I feel God working in me in new ways again.   These last few weeks that I've spent reading Wesley have been some of the most intense time of spiritual formation I've experience in the last couple of years.  God has spoken to me about weaknesses and blind spots in my life and ministry while also helping me let go of some burdens that I've been holding onto for quite some time.  I'm looking forward to finding out what else the Word can work in me through the written words of others in the months and years to come.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Whore

Ezekiel 16 is the "R" rated version of Israel's story.  It speaks of the city of Jerusalem as a baby girl who had been left for dead, unwanted and abandoned to the elements.  But God sees this poor child, cleans it up and cares for it.  Then when the child has grown into a sexually mature woman, God enters into covenant relationship with her, binding himself to her as a husband to a wife.  This woman is given everything; fine clothes, jewelry, fine food.  God says through Ezekiel that her beauty was made perfect and she rose to be a queen.

But then, instead of being gracious to God, her husband, for all he had done for her, saving her very life and give her everything she had, she began to trust in her own beauty.  She thought that somehow she had been deserving of all this instead of recognizing it for what it was; pure gift.  So she begins to attract other men by her beauty.  The very gifts that had been given to her, the fine clothes and jewelry, are now used as tools of her prostitution.  She spread her legs open to anyone who passed by her.  Her whoring became so shameless that even the women of godless, pagan nations were shocked and embarrassed by it.  In fact, God says that she was worse than a prostitute because at least a prostitute receives payment for her act but her lust was so insatiable that she began paying others to be their prostitute!

This is the story of God's chosen people from God's perspective.  Israel had been nothing.  God called Abraham to be the father of this nation before there was any nation of which to speak.  And even once there was a group of people known as the Hebrews, they were poor, powerless slaves in Egypt; a child wallowing in its own blood abandoned to die at the hands of the world's cruelty.  It is that helpless, meaningless people with whom God chose to work.  God entered into covenant relationship with those slaves, binding himself to them at Mt. Sinai.  He made them into a mighty kingdom adorned with all the finest clothes, jewels, and foods the world had to offer.   And then somewhere along the way, Israel forgot what it had been.  Amidst all the gold and jewels, the wealth and power, it was easy to forget about the nothingness Israel had once been.  It was easy to forget that all of these things were sheer grace.  And so Israel began to depend on its own might and strength; its military and political alliances, rather than trusting in God.  Israel not only began to worship the gods of other nations.  It became so desperate for allies that it began to pay other nations for the privilege of being their servants.  The little baby which God had rescued had become the whore who embraced anyone but her rescuer.

Of course, Israel's story is our story...and that's a particularly difficult pill to swallow because it is to say that we are a collective whore or at the very least that there are whorish elements to our story.  We, too, were once a people who had nothing to offer to God.  We were wallowing in our own sin, left to succumb to its evil power.  But God rescued us, cleaned us up, cared for us, entered into covenant relationship with us and as if that weren't enough he lavishly blesses us on top of all that.  But somehow all that blessing seems to go to our heads.  Somehow we begin to think that we are deserving of it, that we have done something to earn it.  We forget what we were before God found us.  We forget that this is all sheer grace.  And so we begin to take the very gifts that God has given us and we use them to satisfy our own lusts, whatever those might be.  We begin whoring ourselves out to the latest church growth method or the current political sensibility or the newest self-help book or whatever it is that will take our money, our time, and our attention.  We will embrace everyone and everything except for the one whose embrace we truly need, the one who rescued us from our filth and made us his own.

And we shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that God will simply ignore or tolerate our whorish ways.  God says that Jerusalem will be stripped naked before her lovers (Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon) and that they will take her fine clothes and jewels and tear down her houses of prostitution and then hack her into pieces with a sword.  God uses Babylon to destroy Jerusalem and carry its inhabitants into captivity.

As serious as this punishment is, we also know that it is not the end of the story.  Despite all of Israel's unfaithfulness, God restores this broken child once again.  Despite all of our unfaithfulness, God can restore us as well.  It will mean that we have to humble ourselves and openly bare all of our sin and shame.  But if we will confess and cease our whorish ways, then there is forgiveness, cleansing, and transformation even for us.

Monday, August 30, 2010

God Chooses Exile

The Temple represented God's presence with Israel.  It was God's house.  It was the place where Yahweh's glory dwelt.  And yet, from before the Temple's existence, God had promised/warned David that he would not be bound to a building.  In Ezekiel 10, God makes good on that promise.  

Ezekiel 10 is just part of a whole vision that is recorded in chapters 8-11.  That vision begins with the tour of Israel's idolatry which we saw in last week's sermon text.  It is those idolatries and abominations which drive Yahweh out of the Temple.  Ezekiel essentially paints a picture for us of God stepping out of his house and into his chariot.  It is the same chariot which Ezekiel saw in the opening vision of his book on the Chebar canal in Babylon.  In this vision, God is communicating to Ezekiel that he is leaving Jerusalem in order to be with the captives in Babylon.  

Here is a God who would rather dwell in exile than be surrounded by sin, a God who would rather be homeless than have his house filled with idols.  Of course, this should come as no surprise for us who believe that this God is revealed in Jesus Christ; the one who said "foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."  In Jesus is the God who chooses the exile of crucifixion over the comforts of earthly power and bondage to sin.  

Are we a church that chooses exile over sin, homelessness over idolatry?  Of course, we would like to succumb to the happy delusion that we don't have to make this choice, that we can have the kingdom without the cross.  But for us to identify sin in all of its ugliness and refuse to participate in it will almost certainly mark us out as an odd sort of people, a people whom the dominant culture will quickly disown just as our savior was despised and rejected.  To choose the way of Jesus in this world is almost certainly to choose an exilic existence...but one which leads to true freedom for it is an exile in which God dwells.  

Monday, August 23, 2010

Happy is a Yuppy Word

Ezekiel 8 is a kind of tour of Israel's idolatry and syncretism.

While sitting with the elders of Judah in his house in Babylon, Ezekiel is shown a vision of those who are still in Jerusalem.  The first is some vague vision of an "image of jealousy" outside the north gate of the Temple complex.  It's not clear what this image is exactly but we are told it is an abomination which threatens to drive God away from his sanctuary.

The next stop on the tour is a hole in the wall which Ezekiel is commanded to dig through.  When he does, he sees images of "creeping things" and "loathsome beasts" having been engraved on the Temple wall, precisely the kind of images that God had forbid Israel to worship.  Meanwhile, seventy of the elders of Israel are offering incense before these images.  This could well have been an imitation of some kind of Egyptian religious ritual in hopes that the gods of Egypt (who at times had been a political ally of Israel's against Babylon) might save Israel from destruction by Babylon.  Whether this is specifically Egyptian in nature or not, it is made very clear that these rituals exhibit a lack of trust in Yahweh since the elders say "The Lord does not see us, the Lord has forsaken the land."

But Egyptians gods are not enough of an idolatry for Israel.  In the next few verses, Ezekiel sees a vision of women "weeping for Tammuz".  Tammuz was an Assyrian God of vegetation who was thought to have died every dry season and only to be resurrected every year when the vegetation returned and begin to blossom and bud with new life.  It was a rite of Tammuz worship to weep for him every dry season when he died.  Add Assyrian religion to Israel's eclectic worship.

Finally, Ezekiel is brought into the inner court of the Temple between the porch and the altar.  There are a group of twenty-five men gathered there worshiping.  Surely in this mostly holy of places at least these men will be worshiping Yahweh?  No, they have literally turned their backs on God, facing away from the Temple to worship the rising sun in the east.

As a result, God promises to act in his wrath and to not have pity.  In the past God has heard the cries of Israel when they have cried out to God for mercy but this time he promises that he will not.  Chapter nine begins by saying that God cried into Ezekiel's ears "Bring near the executioners of the city...".  God is about to put a stop to this.

As I read Ezekiel 8, I pondered what our idols, our acts of syncretism might be.  Of course, the obvious things came to mind: money, status, power, politics, nationalism, etc.  These are all things that too often we give more importance, more glory, more worship to than we give to God.  But then I ran across this blog post which perhaps states it best.

We may be in little danger of bowing down to Egyptian or Assyrian gods in our churches but there can be little doubt that most of us have mixed our faith in God with a gospel of self-fulfillment and self-centeredness which is really no gospel at all.  For the most part, those other idols of money, politics, etc are probably just extensions of of our belief that we have an "inalienable right" to the "pursuit of happiness".  But what course does that pursuit take when it meets the shadow of the cross?  We should make no mistake: God wants to slay any part of us that still submits to our own happiness as if it were a god.  Images of slaughter like those contained in Ezekiel 9 are surely disturbing... perhaps they will disturb us enough to wake us up from our own happy, idolatrous sleep.

Monday, August 16, 2010

More Than Words

In Ezekiel 4, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy without saying a word.  Instead of speaking, Ezekiel is to carry out a series of symbolic acts that represent the siege which God through Babylon is about to bring upon Jerusalem.  He is commanded to take a brick and draw the city of Jerusalem on it and then build a miniature battlefield around it.  Then he is commanded to lay on his left side for 390 days to represent the 390 years of Israel's exile and then on his right side for another 40 days to represent the exile of Judah.  But in all these instructions there are no instructions to speak.

Most of us have heard our whole lives that "actions speak louder than words" but I think that in reality that slogan takes much more patience, trust, and perseverance than most of us are willing to commit.  At some point in those 430 days, as Ezekiel lay there watching the same people pass by as he had for so many days before, people who had now seen him lay there for so many days that they didn't even bother to mock him any more, he must have wondered what the point of all this was.  No one was repenting of their sin.  No one was consulting Ezekiel about what words had come from God.  Wasn't this a waste of God's time as well as Ezekiel's?  Wouldn't another sermon about the wrath and judgment to come be just as effectual as laying here doing nothing?  Nevertheless, God commands and Ezekiel obeys.

It's not that words aren't important.  Ezekiel will do a whole lot of speaking before the book that bares his name comes to an end.  But Jesus washing the disciples' feet, healing the sick, turning over the tables of the money changers, sharing the passover meal with the disciples, all say something that mere words can not.

This is a prophetic tradition in which we, the Church, find our feet firmly planted.  We too are called not only to prophetic speech but also to prophetic acts, not least of which are things like baptism and communion.  At times, the water, wafer, and wine may seem plain, ordinary, and ineffectual things.  They may seem powerless to affect any real change in our world.  They may seem about as meaningful as laying on our side for 430 days.  And yet, our constant gathering around a broken and bloodied Lord says something that no sermon can speak.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Prophet Among Them

We are a results obsessed culture.  How much money will it make?  How fast will it go?  How much change will it affect?  These are the questions we ask.  They're not bad questions.  They drive us toward success as it is typically defined.

The Church has taken much of this cultural obsession upon itself.  How many people can we get into church?  How efficient is this program?  How much of a difference are we making in our community?  Even in the Church these are not entirely bad questions.  There must be a place for evaluating our methods.  The problem comes when we equate success with the production of certain results instead of equating it with faithfulness.

Ezekiel 2 tells us of Ezekiel's prophetic call, his ordination to be the mouthpiece of God.  We might think that with a specific call from the mighty God of the universe there might come some guarantee of results; something along the lines of "as long as you proclaim the message I have given you everyone will listen to you."  Instead, v.4-5 read
"I am sending you to them who are stubborn and obstinate children and you shall say to them, 'Thus says the Lord God.'  As for them, whether they listen or not - for they are a rebellious people - they will know that a prophet has been among them."
God gives Ezekiel no guarantees.  The people might listen or they might not.  Making them listen is not up to Ezekiel.  Ezekiel's mission is not to manufacture results.  It is only to proclaim the message that he has been given regardless of what happens.  And God says that if Ezekiel will do that then regardless of whether or not the people respond they will at least know that God's prophet has been among them.

This is the mission of the Church - to be God's prophet among the peoples of the world.  We must live and speak in a way that proclaims the good news of Christ's victory regardless of whether or not there is anyone willing to listen.  This doesn't mean that the guy on the corner with a bull-horn is justified in his evangelistic approach.  After all, he may be speaking the right words but his method of proclamation is not a faithful representation of Christ.  It does mean that we continue (or begin) to do the right things, to live the life we are called to as a church even when  it doesn't cause our church to grow.  Ezekiel is told that even as he is surrounded by thistles and thorns and sits on scorpions he is to have no fear but is to continue to proclaim the message he has been given.

Of course, proclaiming the message faithfully presumes that we know the message.  As a part of Ezekiel's call, he is commanded to eat a scroll given to him by God (which we can safely assume contains the message which God is calling Ezekiel to proclaim).  Ezekiel must do more than simply read the scroll.  He must devour it, ingest it, internalize it.  God's message has to become a part of Ezekiel himself.

So how much time have you spent devouring the good news over the last week or so?  How much have you studied Scripture?  How much time have you spent listening to God?  Whether you do the traditional "read your Bible and pray every day" or you get more creative with spiritual disciplines doesn't really matter.  Are you devouring the word?  Are you so hungry for God that his message is inside you, that it has become a part of who you are?  Only when we commit ourselves to eating the book that God has given us will the people of the world know that there is a prophet among them.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sacred Trust

Last Thursday night, I was ordained as an elder in the Church of the Nazarene.  As I have reflected on my ordination over the last several days, there is one word that comes to my mind repeatedly: trust.  While ordination is an event filled with much meaning and significance, perhaps what it signifies more than anything else is that Christ's Church has placed its trust in you.  After seven years of education and three years of applications, interviews, and full time ministry, the Church has in effect said "We believe David Young to be a trustworthy steward of the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Of course, this sign of trust on the part of the Church does not come as a surprise.  I committed myself to be a minister of the gospel 10 years ago and have been on this path ever since.  I have been pastoring a congregation for 3 years already, my calling as their spiritual leader being a substantial gesture of trust to a 25 year old in its own right.  And I've known for several months that I had already been approved by the ministerial credentials board of our district, meaning that barring some unusual event I knew I would be ordained on July 15th, 2010.  And yet, in spite of all that, there was still something surprising, unexpected, subtly grace-filled about the ordination itself.  While it was expected, I know it was not earned.  In that sense, it was like the wedding anniversary of a strong marriage; while you've always expected that person you committed yourself to years ago to be by your side you still find yourself surprised by the grace that is their presence in your life.  While you expected nothing less, you also know it is infinitely more than you deserve.   

Even while I have oriented my whole life around this calling, it is difficult for me to comprehend that the Church has entrusted to me the same gospel which Christ entrusted to his apostles so many years ago; that Christ's Church has said "Yes, we believe, as you do, that the God who created and redeemed us has called you to this ministry"; to think that this apostolic faith passed on faithfully for centuries has now been laid on my shoulders by those who had it laid on their shoulders by others who had it laid on their shoulders...  It is exhilarating.  It is humbling.  It is terrifying.  It is affirming.  It is a sacred trust that I will not forget nor forsake but by the grace of God will give myself to as long as I shall live.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Gravity of the God-Man

One of the greatest discoveries of the modern age is that of the nature of gravity.  Of course, all human beings throughout history have been familiar with the effects of gravity since anyone could drop an object and observe that it fell to the ground.  However, it took Isaac Newton (building on the work of several others before him) to recognize that gravity didn't just apply to things on earth but to the earth itself and all the heavenly bodies.  He discovered that there was a mathematical relationship that existed in the movements of the planets which was directly related to the mass of each body; the more mass an object had, the more attractional force or pull it exerted on other bodies around it.  Einstein would later discover that this "pull" was actually a curvature of space; that is, that extremely massive objects like the sun actually curved the space around them in such a way that it caused smaller objects (the planets) to "fall" towards it.  This curving of space created by the sun's enormous mass is what keeps the planets in their orderly orbit instead of shooting off into space.  Or to put it another way, we might say (in a scientifically imprecise way) that it is the "weight" of the sun which holds our solar system in place.

The final verse of Ezekiel 1 includes this summary statement: "Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord."  The entire first chapter of Ezekiel is a description of Ezekiel's vision of God.  Ezekiel begins by describing a storm cloud filled with fire.  In the cloud, Ezekiel sees four strange but magnificent creatures.  These creatures are somehow connected to wheels which turn out to be the chariot for God's throne.  All of the strangeness of this vision is meant to convey "the glory of the Lord".

Glory is one of those words we see in our English Bibles so often that we forget what it means.  How do you define glory?  The Hebrew word here is kabod.  It is most often translated glory but it also carries the connotation of being large or weighty.  That is, God's glory is his weightiness, his massiveness, his gravity.  This not unlike how we might use these words in English.  We might say that a politician carries great political weight or we might talk about how very charismatic leaders have a certain gravity about them in that they seem to have the ability to draw people into their sphere of influence.

Ezekiel 1 is a reminder of the gravity of God.  It is a reminder that this God who rides on his mighty chariot is a force to be reckoned with; a force so powerful that every other body in the universe is influenced by his movement.  Indeed, were it not for the glory and power of this God, the universe would fall apart and cease to be.  Even the king of Babylon, whose powerful armies have brought God's people into exile, is subject to the glorious gravity of this God.

But in the midst of all this massive, mighty, and weighty transcendence and glory we find something surprisingly inglorious.  Ezekiel's vision has been building to a crescendo.  First, we saw the mighty beasts and then the chariot they escort and then the throne of God on the chariot.  Now we have come to the part of the vision where we expect to see God himself.  Surely, with such mighty creatures to escort his chariot, God will be depicted as something greater still; some ten headed warrior creature that is unfathomable and indescribable.  Instead, Ezekiel sees "a figure with the appearance of a man".  To be sure, it is no ordinary man.  This man has the appearance of fire and glowing metal.  But a man nevertheless.

This is a reminder that for all God's glory and transcendence, for all God's wholly-otherness from us, this God is still for us, connected to us, inseparably like us in some way because God created us to be that way.  "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."  Not only did God create us in his image but God took on our flesh to redeem us.  While I don't imagine that Ezekiel had Jesus in mind when he saw this "figure with the appearance of a man", it is nearly impossible for us as Christians today not to thnk of Jesus when we here Ezekiel's depiction of God.  And we should, for this God in his mighty chariot is the man who was nailed to a cross.  The God whose gravity holds the unverse in place is the man whose death curves the space of our spiritual reality so that we would be drawn to God and no longer sinfully bent in on ourselves.  The gravity of God is most perfectly revealed in the humility and weakness of Jesus Christ.