Good news for all creation

An unexpected word shows up in the Great Commission as recorded in the Gospel of Mark. In the more familiar version in Matthew, the risen Lord Jesus instructs His disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations.” In Mark, the language is even more inclusive: Jesus says, “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15).

All creation? Does that include “hill and vale and tree and flower, sun and moon and stars of light?” Preaching to people is one thing, but how do you preach to things?

I don’t think we’re supposed to begin expecting plants and animals to respond to the Gospel in rational, human ways, but I do think this verse reminds us of how the Good News of Jesus impacts literally everything. The apostle Paul writes of how “creation has been groaning.” In some way, shape, and form, “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into … freedom and glory” in part as God’s people go about their work and in whole when Jesus returns. When it comes to redemption, God has His eyes on all creation, on everything He has made – from enormous blue whales swimming the oceans to infinitesimal quarks within an atom. God’s purposes in bringing new life has an impact on a universal level.

It makes me wonder… Is the way we tenderly care for our pets an expression of Christ’s life-giving presence in us? If God’s purpose is to redeem creation, are we cooperating with that purpose on our farms, or is God going to have to make a lot of repairs because of the ways we’re using His animals and land? Can we make connections between recycling and celebrating the resurrection? Creation graphic found via GoogleDo our industries “preach” to the environment God’s good, life-giving intentions for His world?

In addition to the image-bearing humans God puts in your life, what other parts of creation are you going to bless because the Holy Spirit of the risen Christ is alive and working in you?

I originally wrote this for Trinity’s CRC’s “Grace Encounters” newsletter, a publication of our Outreach Team.

Where are the nails?

The ancient Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero once described crucifixion is the “most cruel and horrifying punishment.” According to my study Bible notes in Mark 15, it involved a rough, wooden beam, approximately 30-40 pounds, carried to execution site by the condemned after severe beating. (Sometimes criminals died from the beating before they could be crucified!) Heavy, wrought-iron nails were driven through the wrists and the heel bones to secure the victim to the cross.

We know these details thanks to history and films such as The Passion of the Christ and not so much from the Gospel accounts of the Nails graphic found via Googlecrucifixion. Did you know that the Gospel writers don’t even refer to nails when describing Jesus’ crucifixion?

That Jesus would be nailed to the cross was foretold by the psalmist – “…They pierce my hands and my feet…” – and the prophet Isaiah – “…He was pierced for our transgressions…” And after the resurrection, the disciple Thomas declared, “Unless I see the nail marks in His hands…” In addition, Peter affirms in his Pentecost sermon that nails were used with Jesus’ crucifixion: “You, with the help of wicked men, put Him to death by nailing Him to the cross.”

So there’s no doubt that Jesus was nailed to the cross; it’s just that the Gospel narratives don’t actually mention nails at the moment of crucifixion. The Gospels seem less interested in the gory, “blood-and-guts” aspect of the crucifixion and invest more words in describing the shame and suffering Jesus endures as His friends abandon Him and the authorities condemn Him.

Observing this, James R. Edwards writes in his commentary on Mark’s Gospel how

the crucifixion of Jesus is narrated … with utmost restraint and objectivity. There is no intention to exploit the savagery of crucifixion either to sensationalize Jesus’ death or to evoke sentimentality from the reader. …The accent on the crucifixion narrative falls not on its brutality and cruelty, but on the shame and the mockery to which Jesus is subjected. (p. 453)

As He suffers and dies on the cross, Jesus is deeply shamed …So that we don’t have to be. Jesus dies that we may live.

That is more profound even than the bloodstained goriness of the scene. And by not getting lost in the gory details of the scene, the Gospel writers help us focus on the most significant part of Good Friday. With whom are you going to share that today?

Putin is not a moral hero

Decision magazine, March 2014Decision magazine’s choice to feature Russian President Vladimir Putin as March’s cover story for the “high moral standard” he takes on homosexuality does not sit well with me. I continue to have tremendous respect for Billy Graham and the organization that bears his name, but I think holding Mr. Putin up as a moral hero is a serious misstep.
I wrote this letter to the Decision editors expressing my concern…

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11 March 2014

Dear friends at Decision,

I was disappointed and saddened by your current cover story on Russian President Putin. Even though I also value protecting children from “propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia” (not that those two things are the same), as a Christian, I cannot condone the homophobic culture Mr. Putin is creating in Russia. As Christians, we are called to love people who identify themselves as LGBT – they are imagebearers of God in whom the Holy Spirit is capable of working. Would a gay person reading this article be drawn to Christ or pushed away from Him? I suggest the latter is more likely, which makes it counterproductive for an evangelistic magazine to so prominently feature it.

Moreover, I am disturbed that a man you admittedly describe as “ruthless” and prone to “controversies” is held up as a moral example: It’s as though you are saying that he might be a murderer with a sordid personal life, but as long as he has an anti-homosexual agenda, he’s on our side. Why do you focus on a single issue at the near exclusion of profoundly non-Christian behavior?

The article cites that Mr. Putin has “vowed to protect persecuted Christians.” That’s good news, but the article sidebar perhaps sheds light on the reason – namely that more and more Russians identify themselves as Christians. Has Mr. Putin experienced a spiritual awakening, or is he simply appealing to Russian voters? Because he does not publicly quote the Bible or claim to follow Jesus, I remain skeptical of his motives.

Finally, the current events in Ukraine and the denouncement from global leaders of Russian military activity in that region create within me even greater disappointment that you portray Mr. Putin so positively.

Your cover claims that Decision is “the evangelical voice of today.” I consider myself to be an evangelical Christian, but your attempt to make a Mr. Putin a role model most certainly does not represent my perspective. Certainly there are more winsome and Godly global leaders on whom you can shine the spotlight next time.

Stanley J. Groothof
Rock Valley, IA

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To the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association’s credit, Amy T. Pitt, Vice President for Donor Ministries, mailed me this reply (click to enlarge)…

Letter from Decision magazine

The other miracle of the Transfiguration

(I wrote this a few years ago, but recently speaking at Trinity CRC on the Transfiguration brought it to mind again.)

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If there’s one disadvantage to knowing Bible stories, it’s that they don’t always surprise us anymore.

Take the story of Jesus’ transfiguration for example. This is the Transfiguration of Jesus artwork by Andrew Grayincredible, mountaintop experience that confirms for the disciples Jesus’ authority and glory. That Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white and that Moses and Elijah show up to spend time with the Lord is all pretty amazing and must have boosted the disciples’ faith as well as encouraged Jesus. But what happens next is equally amazing, even though we easily miss it every time.

If you can, pretend you’ve never read this story before. Call to mind that just before Jesus and the disciples ascend the mountain, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah (even though he has little idea what that means) and Jesus promises that people around Him will surely not taste death before they see that the Kingdom of God has come with power.” Now here is Jesus on the mountain, His divinity and mission confirmed by His Father. If we didn’t already know what happens next, we might think the next logical step would be for Moses and Elijah to escort Jesus into the heavenly realms where He visibly reigns for all earth to see. From there Jesus fires down photon torpedoes on the hypocritical religious leaders of the day and nukes the detested Romans! Yay! The End.

If we didn’t already know the story, that might be one way we’d guess it would go. I think the way it indeed ends is actually even more amazing: Jesus returns down the mountain with the disciples. Jesus remains with the disciples.

Had Jesus actually been given the choice to return to heaven or stay with the disciples, He would have chosen to stay. Jesus insists on being “on the way” with His friends and followers. He doesn’t finally join up with us at the end when we at last have everything figured out. No, He is with us always. His grace is truly amazing (to say nothing about His patience, considering how His disciples then and today regularly misunderstand and misrepresent Him). I like how one of my commentaries on Mark’s Gospel puts it:

Jesus is with the disciples. The disciples – then as now – are not expected to go it alone in this hard and joyous thing of discipleship.
———– James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, p. 269

Mountaintop experiences are great, and we can be thankful for them.  But they don’t last. The surprising Good News is that we don’t encounter Jesus only on the mountaintops. He does not reserve His presence for the lucky few who can occasionally find themselves on spiritual highs. Jesus is with us in the dark valleys of trouble and suffering as surely as we sense His nearness on a mountaintop.

Perhaps it is in the dark, low, painful, weak places that we especially experience Jesus’ tender presence and strength, and there are able to truly glory in Him.

Artwork by Andrew Gray found at WordLive.
Original 4th Point post: High Mountains, Dark Valleys.

Prayer as a way of life in the presence of God

This past Sunday evening at Trinity CRC, I spoke about the time Jesus’ disciples discovered they could not exorcise a demon out of a boy no matter how hard they tried. So the boy’s father pleads with Jesus Himself to help, and Jesus promptly “rebukes the impure spirit,” sending it on its shrieking way.

Afterwards the disciples ask Jesus why they were unable to deal with the situation and Jesus replies, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” The funny thing is that nowhere in this particular Your God Is Too Safe by Mark Buchananstory does Jesus actually pray!

Thinking about this, one of my favorite authors, Mark Buchanan, writes in Your God Is Too Safe:

My temptation is to say, “Well, it’s different for Jesus. He’s God incarnate. He doesn’t need to pray to cast out demons.”

But that’s the wrong answer. Jesus became fully human. He emptied Himself, humbled Himself, became a man, a servant. He was made like us in every way in order that He might completely understand our condition, with all our frailty and temptation and limitation.

No, the correct answer is that Jesus does not need to pray at this moment because He has already a well-established discipline of prayer. Mark 1:35 is typical: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where He prayed.”

Granted, there are other occasions when Jesus pauses to offer a prayer before performing a might deed. Stopping to intentionally pray about something is not a bad practice.

Nevertheless, Jesus also demonstrates how prayer is not a technique to be mastered, but a way of life. Prayer is not merely a pious exercise, but the “complete dependence on God from which sincere prayer springs” (to quote C.E.B. Cranfield’s commentary on Mark’s Gospel). Jonathan Edwards is attributed to saying, “Prayer is as natural an expression of faith as breathing is of life.”

Jonathan Edwards quote graphic found via Google

Echoing this, we read at our staff meeting Wednesday morning something about Brother Lawrence that echoes this: Brother Lawrence believed

that it was a great delusion to think that the times of prayer ought to differ from other times… His prayer was nothing else but a sense of the presence of God, his soul being at that time insensible to everything but divine love. And … when the appointed times of prayer were past, he found no difference, because he still continued with God, praising and blessing Him with all his might, so that he passed his life in continual joy.
—————————- (The Practice of the Presence of God, p. 26)

I’m encouraged to know where that kind of joy can be found.

Cross nonsense

Not a Fan by Kyle IdlemanI recently read and appreciated Not a Fan by Kyle Idleman. It connects well with our current series at Trinity CRC where we’re working through the Gospel of Mark.

One of my favorite parts of the book is where the author writes about 1 Corinthians 1:18…

“For the message of the cross is foolishness
to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved
it is the power of God.”

One version puts it this way: “The message of the cross doesn’t make sense…” (CEV). Dying to yourself doesn’t make sense for the fan [that is, those who like to keep a safe distance from Jesus], but the follower [of Jesus] understands that dying is the secret to really living. That’s why we sing about the wonderful cross.

The cross that represented defeat –
for a follower it is an image of victory.

The cross that represented guilt –
for a follower it is an image of grace.

The cross that represented condemnation –
for a follower it is an image of freedom.

The cross represented pain and suffering –
for a follower it is an image of healing and hope.

The cross that represented death –
for a follower it is an image of life.

The cross may not be attractive,
but for a follower it is beautiful.

Taking up a cross and dying to myself sounds like torture. We think that such a decision would make us miserable. Is that what it means to follow Jesus? We wake up every morning and commit to misery. But when we die to ourselves and completely surrender to Him, there is a surprising side effect to dying; we discover true life. In a twist of irony, we find that giving up our lives gives us the life we so desperately wanted all along.  (pp. 170-171)

Closed doors, open windows

Photo by Angelo DeSantis

Despite our best efforts to seek God’s leading and desire and will, there are moments and even seasons where we wonder what to do next: Opportunities we feel called to pursue dry up and we worry where God’s taking us (or not taking us). We thought our path to the future looked pretty straightforward, but suddenly we’re encountering unexpected twists and turns, and what we’re supposed to do now isn’t clear like we thought it would be. The door we thought we’d walk right through has closed in our face.

If the apostle Paul were here today, I suspect he’d be nodding his head: Yup, I’ve experienced that, too…

Please continue reading my message based on Acts 16:6-40 here.

Window photo by Angelo DeSantis on Flickr.