Real change

This past Sunday evening at Trinity CRC, I spoke on Psalm 51 and the events in King David’s life that precipitated him writing it. Graphic of Psalm 51 found at digitalsojourner.comAmong one of the penitential psalms, Psalm 51 is a deep expression of sorrow over one’s sin and the havoc it created. As the notes in my new NLT Parallel Study Bible explain, “This psalm expresses one of the clearest examples of repentance in all of Scripture. Countless broken sinners have found in these words an exquisite expression of their deeply felt need for God’s mercy and forgiveness.”

In many of our prayers, we ask God to change a situation or to change a problem: We pray for favorable weather and bountiful crops. We pray for restoration for a relationship that is at (or past) the breaking point. We pray for peace in places in the world where there is violence. And these are good prayers; indeed, other psalms ask for a change in the poet’s situation.

But I think Psalm 51 is so powerful because it acknowledges how my biggest problems are not external but rather internal: Don’t change my circumstances, Lord. I’m the problem. Change me.

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When I make the words of Psalm 51 my own, I’m inviting God to do something new in my life. And, in Jesus Christ, that is the one thing our loving heavenly Father loves doing most.

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Right Time Right Place: Jordan Vogel

Jordan VogelI’ve enjoyed getting to know Jordan Vogel since arriving at Trinity CRC a year and a half ago. When we arrived, he was studying psychology and criminal justice at Dordt College and playing forward on the Defenders basketball team – the team for which his dad also played in the 1980s. Now Jordan is playing basketball professionally in Belgium. This past season he was with Mercurius BBC; later this year he’ll be playing for Gembo BBC. Here he reflects on the cool opportunities God is giving him in sports…

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name “Jesus?”
Surrender, giving your life’s control over to God.

Do you remember how old you were when you started liking and playing basketball?
I’ve played basketball as long as I can remember. My first organized team was at RVCS in 5th grade I believe, but it didn’t become a passion of mine until my junior year of high school at Western.

What is the most exciting part about being in professional basketball?
The most exciting part is the realization that I’m now making a career out of the game I love. I can remember when being a professional athlete was a dream, then a possibility, and now its actually happening. I feel so blessed to have gotten this opportunity and its very gratifying to know that all my hard work has paid off.

What do you miss the most when your career takes you far from your home in northwest Iowa?
The people and the knowledge of the area. All of my family and best friends are here and communication is hard because of the time difference, but I frequently use Skype and things like that to stay in touch. When I’m in Belgium and need to run some what would be simple errands, I have to ask somebody or look online to see where a store is located… It really turns into an ordeal sometimes!

What joys and challenges are there in not only being a basketball player, but a Christian basketball player?Jordan Vogel playing for the Dordt Defenders
My faith keeps me very grounded. The majority of people in Antwerp acknowledge religion, but they don’t practice any part of it. It was a challenge at times not to get caught up in that lifestyle because I was trying to make friends and fit in, which often meant staying home on Saturday nights so I would be rested for church on Sunday instead of going out with my teammates. So that is a challenge, but it is also a joy because I was frequently asked about my faith and it gave me the opportunity to tell people about God. Playing basketball really serves as my platform for ministry. Yes I am a basketball player, but I am a Christian first.

What advice do you have for anyone who hopes to play in professional sports?
First my advice is to make it your primary focus. If you want to be a professional athlete, then you have to make it your first priority and base your daily schedule and decisions around it. It’s a lot of hard work and the preparation for it isn’t always fun, but believe me its worth it. That being said, most importantly, keep God in charge. I was constantly praying and asking God to open doors and lead and that gave me a great sense of peace which allowed me to just focus on improving my basketball skills because I knew that if God’s plan for me was to play professional basketball, it was going to happen.

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Watch Jordan in action with the Dordt Defenders…

Relationship, not ritual

The setup of Jesus’ well-known parable of the Good Samaritan is a Artwork by Noah, a 2nd grader at Trinity CRC Rock Valleylawyer asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The question betrays the assumption that the lawyer can work to achieve eternal life. His faith is defined as salvation by works. Just as he worked hard to get where he is now, he figures he can also work his way into eternal life. And he thinks he can do it entirely by himself. It’s as though he says to Jesus, “Just tell me what to do and how much it will cost, and consider it done. Then I can tackle the next challenge that interests me.” For this man, salvation is not a gift to be received but something to be achieved.

So it’s interesting that he uses the word inherit. As pastor and author Gary Inrig points out in his book about Jesus’ parables, there’s a The Parables by Gary Inrig“contradiction implicit in the man’s question. You can’t do something to inherit a gift. Inheritance is based on relationship, not achievement” (p. 32). An inheritance is based on who you are, not what you’ve accomplished. The lawyer is asking for a list of things to do; Jesus prods him towards embracing who he should be.

Pastor Inrig continues:

Biblical faith does not involve primarily a series of ritual acts, but a heart relationship to God, which shapes every facet of life. And this relationship to God is inseparable from our relationships to people around us…

The [lawyer] wants a list of rules that people can keep. Jesus prescribes a relationship to God that shapes life. Eternal life is not earned by works; it is received in a heart relationship with God. (p. 33)

Pastor Inrig alludes to how our relationship with God revolutionizes our relationships with others – even our enemies, as the parable of the Good Samaritan demonstrates. We emulate the compassion of the Samaritan not in an effort to win God’s love, but because we want our lives to give evidence to the reality that we already have it.
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Burn the plows, burn the ships

When the prophet Elijah calls Elisha to be his successor, Elisha makes a clean break from his past. Elijah finds Elisha “plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and [Elisha] himself [is] driving the twelfth pair.” It’s good, God-honoring farm work. But when God calls Elisha to something new, Elisha says good bye to his parents, slaughters the oxen, and burns his plowing equipment.

In short, there is no going back for Elisha.

Elisha reminds me of Hernán Cortés, the Spanish Conquistador who added large portions of Mexico under the rule of Spain. In 1519, he ordered that the ships that brought his troops to the Americas be destroyed. (It is commonly held that Cortéz ordered the ships burned, but historical records indicate he had them sunk instead.) In destroying his fleet, Cortés took away from his soldiers the possibility of failure and turning back. They had no choice but go forward with their mission.

Graphic of burning ships found via Google; artist unknown

I wonder what “plows” or “ships” Jesus is inviting me to burn. What things am I tempted to go back to instead of wholeheartedly pursuing Jesus’ calling on my life? Selfishness? Arrogant self-reliance? Pursuit of prestige? Idolatry of money? Desire for control?

In his song “Burn the Ships,” Steven Curtis Chapman ponders how Satan tempts us to turn back from following Jesus, exhorting us to burn the ships if it means staying close to Jesus.

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?
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