In our morning services at Trinity CRC, we’re asking the questions Jesus asked: Do you want to get well? How many loaves do you have? What is your name? Who was the neighbor?
Iowa author Jennifer Dukes Lee sent an email to her friends this week that includes a quote from Lore Ferguson Wilbert, author of A Curious Faith. I love how she sees questions as expressions of hope and curiosity as a spiritual discipline. It connects perfectly with our sermon series!
“So the Lord God called out to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” Genesis 3:9 (CSB)
Asking a question is an act of faith: faith that we could be answered, or that we won’t be refused, or that we will like the answer, or, if we don’t, that it will lead to a better question.
To ask a question is to hope that what we currently know isn’t the whole story. If we don’t make space for curiosity in the Christian life, we will become content with a one-dimensional god, a god made more in our own image than the God who made us in his image.
Curiosity is a discipline of the spiritual sort, and it begins by asking some simple questions, questions like “Where are you?” “Who are you?” “Are you there?” and more.
I believe there’s a reason so many questions are lobbed around Scripture, from God to his people, from his people to God, from people to people, and in the New Testament from Jesus to people, people to Jesus, and Jesus to his Father.
The Bible is a permission slip for those with questions.
All these questions aren’t just pointing to answers. They’re also saying, it’s okay to ask questions. Asking questions is a part of the Christian life.
Our family attended Come From Away at the Washington Pavilion last month. This award-winning Broadway musical tells the story of 7,000 people stranded in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, after all flights into the US were grounded on September 11, 2001. We were surprised at how exhilarating and heartwarming it was – it packed an emotional punch as we felt the confusion and fear in the residents of Gander and the people stranded far from home. But it also had hilarious moments, and it exuded hope in the power of kindness and hospitality even in our darkest moments.
I had forgotten how quickly distrust between people mounted after 9/11. With the dust of 20 years blanketing my memories, I thought it had taken weeks or even months for people of different ethnic backgrounds to experience hostility against them. Come From Away blew off that dust when it showed a crowd of angry people yelling at Ali, the Middle Eastern chef from Egypt. Only a day or two into being stranded in Gander, Ali was speaking Arabic to his family back home when people in line to use the phone started accusing him: “Are you celebrating this?” “Why doesn’t he speak English?” “Are you telling your Muslim friends where to bomb next?” “Go back where you came from!”
This production did not ignore the uglier reactions people had in response to 9/11.
But it also showed equally powerfully people’s ability to respond with decency and compassion. Balancing the scene where Ali encountered hatred, there’s a scene where Garth, a bus driver from Gander, was driving Muhumuza and other passengers on a flight from Africa to one of the shelters for those who were stranded. None of Garth’s passengers could speak English and, in the darkness of night, Muhumuza and the others mistook the Salvation Army camp for a military complex. They were terrified and refused to get off the bus. How would Garth explain to them that they were safe and would be cared for there?
While trying to figure out how to put his passengers at ease, Garth noticed Muhumuza’s wife was clutching a Bible and asked to see it. Although he couldn’t read Swahili, Garth knew their Bible would have the same number system as his English Bible. Finding the spot he was looking for, Garth gave the Bible back to Muhumuza and his wife, pointing and saying, “Look! Philippians 4:6! ‘Be anxious for nothing. Be anxious for nothing.’”
And that’s how Garth and Muhumuza started speaking the same language.
It was a beautiful scene of one person finding a creative way to care for another person very different than himself, someone with a foreign culture and language. And, perhaps completely unintentional on the part of the writers, it was a beautiful reminder of the Gospel’s ongoing power to unite people and dispel fear even in the darkest moments.
In Matthew 13, Jesus tells a pair of parables describing the Kingdom of heaven. One is about a man who plants a mustard seed that grows into a large plant in which birds can perch. The other is about a woman who mixes yeast into a batch of flour until it’s all worked through the dough. Bible studies and sermons on this text usually focus on how God’s Kingdom is expanding even if it doesn’t seem to start out looking like much. And this is true. God routinely turns our expectations upside down. We think God is interested only in big and strong things when often it seems like he prefers to show his power through what appears small and weak. These parables assure us of how, often in surprising ways, the Kingdom is coming and growing whether it seems like it or not.
I recently watched the simulcast of a workshop hosted by Love INC and led by Ray Vander Laan titled “We Are the Church: Putting God on Display in a Broken Culture.” He showed that there’s even more going on in these parables.
Watch the woman for a moment. She is mixing yeast into 60 pounds (27 kilograms) of flour. Just how many loaves of bread is she baking?! My wife and son often bake bread and they use about 2½ pounds of flour to make 3 loaves of bread. They would end up with 72 loaves if they used 60 pounds of flour! The woman in Jesus’ parable must be working on a feast! So maybe this detail about the extravagant amount of dough is also meant to associate the Kingdom with words like abundance and feasting.
It was the NIV translation that told me the woman used 60 pounds of flour. The translators chose to convert the original expression into figures people can understand today. What was the original expression? The NRSV and other translations say the woman mixed the yeast into “three measures” of flour. Most readers in the western world are probably thankful for translations or footnotes that convert unfamiliar quantities into units with which we’re familiar. However, Jesus’ original Jewish listeners were probably less busy calculating the amount of dough than they were with realizing Jesus was hinting at an Old Testament story that uses the exact same expression.
In Genesis 18, Abraham and Sarah have unexpected guests who turn out to be angels – even God himself. Abraham & Sarah hurry to welcome their guests, part of which includes Sarah getting “three seahs of the finest flour” to bake some bread. I’m not sure why here the NIV translation does not convert three seahs into units more familiar to modern readers as it does in Matthew 13. The NRSV and other translations avoid specific units and get closer to the original expression: Sarah got “three measures” of flour.
So when Jesus speaks about a woman working with three measures of flour, his original Jewish listeners are not doing math in their head. They’re hearing Jesus inviting them to think about Sarah and Abraham and the extravagant feast they prepared for strangers. And I suspect this was not an uncommon thing for Abraham and Sarah to do. A little later in Genesis, Abraham’s neighbors refer to him as “a mighty prince among us” and they seek to deal generously with him. They would not have spoken and acted like this if Abraham and his family were unkind and miserly.
I therefore propose together with Ray Vander Laan that baked into Jesus’ parable of the woman with the fantastic amount of dough is the theme of hospitality. The woman is mixing dough just like Sarah mixed dough millennia ago, preparing a feast for people she didn’t even know. So, yes, Jesus affirms the Kingdom of heaven is growing, often in surprising ways. But he’s also pointing out that this growing Kingdom he has begun ushering in is a Kingdom characterized by the radical hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, a hospitality that puts aside what we were doing to offer the best help we can give when it’s needed.
It turns out that the theme of hospitality is also ingrained into the preceding parable. The man plants a mustard seed that eventually grows into a plant that, in a sense, offers hospitality for the birds, giving them a place to perch in its branches. God desires for his entire creation to be blessed by hospitality.
A sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in the church – in you and me – is that he is nurturing within us the gift of hospitality, whether it’s with friends or strangers. And, in another hint Jesus provides, all God’s people are called to grow in offering hospitality. In one parable Jesus refers to a man, in the other a woman. Both are used equally to illustrate this Kingdom principle. The Spirit equips men and women of all ages to practice radical hospitality. And as we do so, we might be surprised to discover how the Kingdom is indeed coming and growing even among ordinary people like you and me as God works through us.
These words of Jesus spoken on the cross must be some of the most gut-wrenching words in the entire Bible. They are so shockingly different than most anything else we hear Jesus speak during his ministry. Spoken by a man in unimaginable, excruciating pain, they reveal the agony Jesus is experiencing.
And indeed, Jesus has been forsaken. He has been forsaken by the religious and political systems of his day. He has been forsaken by his closest friends. And, as he bears the sin of humanity, he is, for the first time ever, forsaken by his Father. Jesus has become sin on our behalf. Because sin can never come into God’s presence, the One bearing sin is forsaken by God.
When Jesus utters these words, people mistake them as a cry to the prophet Elijah. Jewish custom suggests that Elijah might return to earth in a crisis to help those who are righteous. So the people hear Jesus calling for help. The irony is that not only do the people misunderstand Jesus’ words as referring to Elijah, they do not see that they are the ones needing help. And the One dying on the cross is doing so to help, to rescue the unsuspecting people around him.
Did you notice that while all this is happening, an eerie darkness has fallen over the land for three hours? It’s as though creation itself cannot bear to watch. The literal darkness parallels the darkness of the forsakenness being experienced on the cross.
But, digging deeper, it turns out that forsakenness is not the end of the story. Yes, Easter is coming in the next chapter, but there is a glimmer of hope already in Jesus’ words on the cross. The words Jesus says do not just come off the cuff. Jesus is quoting Psalm 22. It’s a psalm of lament, a psalm expressing pain over things going terribly wrong. So terribly wrong that the poet feels like he has been forsaken by God. However, like most psalms of lament, Psalm 22 moves from expressions of pain to declarations of confidence in God’s deliverance. If Jesus could have, I think he would have recited the entire psalm. By quoting its opening line, yes, he describes his pain, but he is also referencing the entire psalm which also includes these lines:
…He has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help… All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him.
In a surprising way, the words of Psalm 22 on the lips of Jesus on the cross offer us hope. They help us see beyond the unjust suffering Jesus is experiencing to hear instead an expression of faith in the God who listens to cries for help and comes to rescue. That means forsakenness is not the last word in Psalm 22 nor for Jesus.
The Gospel records that Jesus speaks these words during the third hour of darkness. That means he speaks them as the darkness is beginning to break and the sky is lighting up again. The growing light reflects how Jesus’ faith in God is not misplaced. Like the darkness, the forsakenness has an ending, and God’s glory and grace will be revealed through the death and resurrection of his Son.
In the face of brokenness in the world and brokenness in my own life, my faith in God is also not misplaced. I find hope in knowing and experiencing the deep love of the Father for us, vast beyond all measure, that he should give his only Son to make a wretch – you and me – his treasure.
Last Wednesday evening, the church gathered to pray. Not a specific congregation, but a good number of the people of God from the Rock Valley area. And we prayed for Ukraine and Russia. For me personally (and as was echoed in the prayer I offered on Wednesday), a psalm and a song give me words for the situation in eastern Europe. I’d like to share them with you here.
Psalm 54 (NIV)
Can you hear God’s people in Ukraine praying these words? Can you pray these words in solidarity with them?
Save me, O God, by your name; vindicate me by your might. Hear my prayer, O God; listen to the words of my mouth. Arrogant foes are attacking me; ruthless people are trying to kill me— people without regard for God. Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me. Let evil recoil on those who slander me; in your faithfulness destroy them. I will sacrifice a freewill offering to you; I will praise your name, Lord, for it is good. You have delivered me from all my troubles, and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes.
Bring Peace to Earth Again
Where armies scourge the countryside, and people flee in fear; where sirens scream through flaming nights, and death is ever near: O God of mercy, hear our prayer: bring peace to earth again!
O God, whose heart compassionate bears every human pain, redeem this violent, wounding world till gentleness shall reign. O God of mercy, hear our prayer: bring peace to earth again!
Recently my wife and I heard Halima’s story. Originally from Afghanistan, Halima has lived in northwest Iowa for several years and studied at Northwestern College in Orange City. Each summer she returns home to Afghanistan to visit family. This past summer she nearly became trapped in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over Kabul. She narrowly managed to get a flight back to the US. Sadly, she had to leave her husband and family behind. Upon returning to the US, Halima served as a translator for the US Army at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin as the Army dealt with the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Currently she works at the Mary Treglia House in Sioux City, a 100-year-old organization that helps people from other countries – including many from Afghanistan these days – make a new home in northwest Iowa.
As I listened to Halima and the needs of Afghans arriving in northwest Iowa, I thought of a story Jesus tells that includes this part:
The righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Afghan refugees arriving in northwest Iowa find themselves in a foreign environment, grateful to be safe from the Taliban, but also uncertain and vulnerable in regards to finances, work, language, and cultural expectations. They need people to help feed them by navigating a grocery store together with them. They need people to donate clothes suitable for cold Iowa winters. They need people to warmly invite them into their lives and befriend them. And along the way our new Afghan neighbors will hopefully learn English, adjust to northwest Iowa, and begin giving back to their community. If you feel nudged to befriend an Afghan family that’s new to the area, contact the Mary Treglia House – marytreglia.org or 712.258.5137.
Our Afghan neighbors also need Americans to advocate for them. To put it simply, newly-arrived refugees have one year to get their immigration paperwork in order; however, the system is so backlogged that refugees and their supporters fear they will not be able to take their next steps to permanent residency or citizenship in time. Members of Congress are considering an Afghan Adjustment Act to expedite the process, similar to when Laotians came to northwest Iowa after the Vietnam War. If you’d like to investigate advocating for our Afghan neighbors, go to this page at the National Immigration Forum.
Unless we have an indigenous background, all of us have an immigration story in our family history not unlike Halima’s. And you could say that those of us who follow Christ have immigrated from our hell-bound destinations to being welcomed into the Kingdom of God. It makes sense that people with that kind of story welcome other immigrants too.
A few weeks ago I spoke on Isaiah 55 about satisfaction and how we (myself included) are regularly tempted to look for satisfaction in things that ultimately don’t satisfy us. In my research, I found a poem and a prayer about inviting God to fill our deepest hunger.
Not just the nibble we remember eating yesterday, or that meal last Sunday the pastor spoon fed us as he waited for us to want meat and potatoes.
We feed our bodies more fuel than they can burn but starve our souls with skimpy feedings: a little here a little there when a feast of wisdom and comfort is in our grasp.
“Come and eat,” the prophet urges. “Buy wine without money that your soul may live.”
Taste the honey of Psalm 139, a platter of Isaiah 55, the comfort food of Philippians 4, the meat of Romans 8. Chew the pithy parables. Taste samples of the stories of those who have wrestled with God.
Tomorrow dish it up again; digest it so you may thrive, grow strong, mature and produce fruit.
There is a deep hunger within us, O Christ, for the food only you can give us: the bread of life found in you. We need you so desperately in our lives, and only you can satisfy our deep hunger. Yet we are such an impatient people. We want to be fed by you, but we don’t always want to sit at your table. We want fast spiritual food, not the nourishing food that comes through patient prayer, quiet reflection, service, thanksgiving, understanding, and virtue. We want your saving grace to work in a hurry so we can experience your blessings and peace now. We are not always willing to undergo the slow transformation that allows you to enter our very souls. Help us to [respond to your invitation and] come to you with repentant hearts so that in your grace we [will be filled and satisfied, going forth as] your disciples, your servants, your apostles. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
There’s this guy walking down the street who suddenly falls into a deep hole he did not see coming. It’s dark in the hole and the walls are steep.
A psychiatrist happens by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Doc, can you help me out here?” The doctor writes a prescription for Prozac and throws it down the hole.
A priest comes by and the guy calls out, “Hey, Father, can you help me out here?” The priest writes out a prayer and tosses it down the hole.
Then the guy’s best friend comes by, sees his friend down in the hole, and immediately jumps in. “What did you do that for?” the guy says. “Now we’re both stuck!”
“Nah,” the friend says, “I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”
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I love the way this story (retold by Scott Hoezee) describes my life. Sometimes things feel very dark, like I’m in a deep hole. I’ve felt this way when someone has died, when I’ve been stressed out, when the future looks uncertain. And that says nothing about the darkness in my life caused by sin – my own stupid mistakes as well as all the brokenness in the world that impacts my life. Sometimes it feels like I’m stuck in a dark hole.
Even more, I love the way this story expresses the power in relationships. Things are never quite so sad, so strained, or so scary when there’s someone with me. And when things are going well for me, this story reminds me to be the friend for someone else who feels stuck somewhere.
Mostly though I love this story because it reminds me of how Jesus is the best friend who has come down to where I’m stuck. No matter what dark hole I find myself in, he knows what I’m experiencing and offers me a peace that passes understanding. More than that, he’s strong enough to fight the power of sin in my life. In fact, he’s been in the darkest, scariest hole ever: the grave. And he even knows the way out of there!
Much of the time I feel like I need to figure out a way to get up to God. Like I need to get his attention or impress him before he’ll notice me. The fact is God came down to me in the person of his Son, Jesus. That’s what Advent and Christmas are all about this month.
Jesus is the light of the world and of my life, bringing hope to the dark places. His is the light that shows the way and illuminates God’s love for me even when my love for him is shaky and unimpressive. And he is the friend who takes away my loneliness, forgives my sin, and even promises me eternal life.
You can’t find a better friend than that for the holidays and all year round.
My family traveled back to British Columbia this past summer to see parents, grandparents, siblings, and cousins. When we arrived at the Canada border, we showed the border agent our Canadian passports. After satisfactorily answering his questions, he allowed us into Canada by saying, “Welcome home!”
At the conclusion of our trip, we crossed the American border to catch our flight out of Seattle. We showed the border agent there proof that we’re permanent residents (our “green cards”). After satisfactorily answers his questions, he allowed us into the United States by saying, “Welcome home!”
“Welcome home.” We heard those words both when we crossed into Canada and then again a few weeks later when we crossed back in the United States.
As a Christian, I believe that I am a citizen of God’s Kingdom – his reign that is already coming now and that will come in fullness when Jesus returns. Through his Holy Spirit, God is at work in Canada and the United States, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Sometimes his work is obvious; often it happens in small, barely noticeable ways. No matter where I am on this planet, a part of me should be able to hear “welcome home,” knowing God and his people are already there furthering his Kingdom presence and priorities.
I remember when we first moved to Rock Valley, it seemed no matter where we went – the bank, the grocery store, a restaurant – at least one person there knew us by name, whether an employee or another customer. I thought it was a little creepy. Were people following us around, seeing where we did business and analyzing what we all bought?? It felt foreign, not at all like our previous home in British Columbia. But we quickly realized that’s part of the charm of small town life and we’ve come to love the friendly, familiar faces around town.
While we were in British Columbia this summer, I stopped at the bank one afternoon and spoke with a teller. There I was just another customer, a number in the system. It has been that way nearly as long as I can remember. I do not expect any employee at any Royal Bank branch anywhere in Canada to know my name. Yet all of a sudden, despite everything being normal, standing in that Canadian bank felt foreign.
Because I am a citizen of God’s Kingdom, I also believe that nowhere on earth will feel completely at home on this side of Jesus’ return. I am grateful for familiar sights, smells, and sounds, but realize that they are either only temporary or faint previews of much richer things to come when God’s reign is seen and embraced in full.
Welcome home? Yes – in part today. One day there will be no more international borders and all who are in Christ will feel at home in ways we only begin to sense now.
I wrote these reflections for this week’s “Perspectives” column in the Rock Valley Bee. I noted we moved to Rock Valley 9 years ago this month. –
Near the beginning of the Bible is the famous story of the flood. God’s response to the grievous sin in the world is to destroy everything on earth, save Noah, his family, and all the animals on the ark. After the flood waters recede, Noah’s family and the floating zoo emerge on dry land. And then God makes a promise: “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God seals this promise with an everlasting sign in the sky: “I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”
Now, where we read rainbow, the original Hebrew only has bow; everywhere else in the Old Testament this word is used, it is used literally as a bow, as in a bow and arrow. The curved arc of a rainbow is meant to remind us of a the curved arc of a bow. In Bible times, the bow was a deadly weapon of war. A bow struck fear in the hearts of Old Testament people maybe like tanks or machine guns do in people today.
But the rainbow in the sky shows us we no longer have to fear God’s weaponry. The late CRC Pastor John Timmer puts it this way: The rainbow symbolizes that “God has hung up His bow and will never again be provoked to use this weapon against His creation… Never again will there be judgments that annihilate everything.”
Picture this with me: If the rainbow in the sky reminds us of the curve of a bow and arrow, that makes the horizon the string of the bow. If you put an arrow in this bow in the sky, in what direction is the arrow pointing? The arrow is pointed away from the earth and pointed toward heaven, toward God. God is essentially saying, If this weapon ever needs to be used again, it will strike me.
And isn’t that exactly what happened? Thousands of years after Noah hammered nails into the ark, Romans hammered nails into the hands and feet of God in the flesh, Jesus, crucified on the cross. Ultimately, the arrow is aimed at the cross where God takes the curse of our sin and the brokenness of creation on Himself. Jesus is stricken; He suffers and He dies on that cross, taking upon Himself our sin.
Every rainbow reminds us of how instead of bending towards destruction, God’s heart repeatedly, over and over again bends towards grace. God does not give up on His creation. God does not give up on you or me. He comes. He rescues and saves – just like he did with Noah, his family, and all the animals on the ark.
I got the idea to preach a series of messages on Noah and the flood, the ark and the Gospel from my colleague and fellow student at Regent College, Paul Donison, rector and dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Plano, Texas. You can listen to his message on the rainbow here. His entire series about the Gospel in the flood is worth listening to. –
In his Sermon the Mount, Jesus says,“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Reading the late John Timmer’s book God of Weakness shone some light for me on Jesus’ familiar yet hard-to-entirely-understand words. Maybe this will speak to you too.
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The God of Scripture is a God who pronounces the poor blessed. The poor are people who are not self-made and are not self-sufficient. Because they are less walled in by what they possess, they are potentially more open to God. The reason Jesus warns the rich is not that he regards riches as bad per se, but rather that material prosperity easily isolates us from God. Riches of any kind represent power, and power gives us an advantage over others. It makes us independent from them. It also makes us feel independent from God. Jesus calls the poor blessed because the poor are able to listen to someone besides themselves, because they know they’ll never manage on their own.
Poverty before God makes us more receptive to God’s riches. Weakness before God makes us more receptive to his power…
Poverty in the Bible is a frame of mind, not first of all an economic condition or a question of money. Rather it’s a question of the heart.
Economic poverty, by itself, is not a virtue. After all, you can be dirt poor and yet be as greedy as the man in Jesus’ parable who tore down his barns and built bigger ones to store all his grain and his goods.
And then again, you can be a person of means and yet have the soul of a pauper.
To be poor is to be weak before God, to be open to him. God doesn’t need strong people. He prefers working through the poor in spirit; not through the poor as such, but through those whose poverty makes them receptive to him.
These poor can also be found among the rich, for there is a poverty of body as well as a poverty of soul. Each evokes God’s pity.
God loves everyone, even those who are well-off. It’s just that he has a much harder time getting through to them. (pages 17, 76)
I read God of Weakness while on vacation last month and it inspired me to share this in today’s Rock Valley Bee and here. I also write about the Beatitudes at the start of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in this blog post. –
People opposed to the apostle Paul’s ministry got a crowd riled up in Thessalonica by shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also!” They weren’t lying; perhaps they were even paying Paul and his associates an compliment. Author Mark Buchanan wrote an entire book inspired by this charge against Paul (a book I highly recommend, by the way).
Back in 1962, a devotional appeared in Forward Day by Day also based on the charge against Paul, that he was turning the world upside down. When I came across it recently, I felt like it could have been written today.
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Many sincere church people today seem to see Christianity as a social stabilizer rather than as an insurrectionist movement. They often say things like: “In a world of constant and terrifying changes, we need some things that stay unchanged, to which we can anchor our lives; and why can’t we find that blessed security in our religion?”
There is a sense in which they are right. God stands fast and changeless, and our only refuge is in the divine changelessness.
But this world is always changing; it must. And Christians are to be revolutionaries making certain the changes conform to God’s will. This is why the great Christians are always bent upon “turning the world upside down.” And no sooner is a change made than someone finds a way to use the new order for ungodly ends. The world always needs turning upside down. We dare not accept things as they are. God commands us to go forth in his power to attack entrenched greed, cruelty, and godlessness. This means change. And Christians know how to turn the world upside down in such a way that God can set it right side up. –