Falling down with my enemies

To the church in Philadelphia, Jesus gives the encouragement to keep holding on. They have little strength left from enduring rejection and persecution from the leaders of the local synagogue who deny Jesus is Lord. But they can indeed hold on knowing their current situation will not last forever. Jesus promises He is coming soon, giving the church hope that the time is coming when wrongs will be righted.

More than that, Jesus tells the Philadelphian church they can look forward to the day when those who hurt them will “come and fall down at [their] feet.” Those opposed to God and His people will one day experience the return and victory of King Jesus. At that time they will hear Him say He is on the side of His people and He loves them.

But as Lou Lotz once noted, this talk of enemies groveling at one’s feet smacks of triumphalism and vengeance, and seems to be out of character with Christ’s command to love our enemies. True, but the picture of poor souls who have always resisted Jesus and harmed the church bowing down to Jesus’ followers helps me in two ways: 1. I’m given hope: Ungodliness will not endure forever. One day, to quote Pastor Lotz, “the tables will be turned, and God’s people will be vindicated.”

2. This picture also offers inspiration: Christians desire to love their enemies, to love their enemies to Christ. The more Christ’s reconciling grace is in me, the more I want no one being punished at my feet. I’m not saying there won’t be anyone; I’m just saying Christians love their enemies and the church’s enemies with the dream that all of them will change and love Jesus today and in eternity.

I’m fascinated by the actual words used in Jesus’ letter to Philadelphia, that those who oppose Jesus and His church will one day “fall down.” This is the same language used elsewhere in the Bible (in Revelation 4, as one example) for falling down in worship! I think I’m supposed to love my enemies, praying that they’ll fall down in worship with me and all God’s people.

Graphic found with Google

Morning star

Photo found with Google
In his letter to the church of Thyatira, Jesus gives that church and the church today one of the most encouraging promises you’ll ever receive. To the church that, by grace, repents and holds on, Jesus promises “the morning star.”

One of my favorite professors at Regent College was Darrell Johnson. He taught me that the morning star is the star that “appears at the darkest time of the night… It usually emerges at that point when the night is as dark as it’s going to get. When it appears, there is no sign of the dawn. But when it appears, very faint and small at first, you know that the night cannot withstand the dawn; it is just a matter of time until the dawn wipes the night away.”

Even when things are the darkest, Jesus assures me He is with me – and not only with me, but also ruling over all things and caring for me until the last bit of darkness in my life has dissolved forever.

I said that in a sermon at Trinity CRC a couple weeks ago. And people said “Amen!” I’m glad they were encouraged too.

God wins

We are currently working through Revelation in our evening services at Trinity CRC. Revelation is the last book of the Bible, penned by the apostle John as he received a remarkable vision from Jesus himself. For many people it is a “closed” book, very difficult to read and understand. That’s both sad and ironic, considering how the word revelation itself comes from the word revealGraphic found at crosswalk.comand God very much wants to reveal things to us as we read Revelation!

I admit that Revelation is not always the easiest part of the Bible to read. But it’s not as terribly complicated as you might think. The message of Revelation can be summarized in two hope-filled words: “God wins!” Knowing that God currently reigns and will reign forever, his people confidently follow him and serve others. Granted, this is not easy, and Revelation acknowledges that in its vivid descriptions of the forces that distract us from purposeful living grounded in Christ and guided by the Bible. Thankfully, Revelation also shows how God is stronger than all those bad influences combined. What’s more, he is always present with his people, even in the toughest times.

One author who’s helped me understand Revelation a bit better is theologian and preacher Fleming Rutledge. I love this part from her book The Bible and The New York Times:

The book of Revelation has taken a bad rap. Once you get the hang of it, it really isn’t all that difficult. It shouldn’t be left to the David Koresh’s of the world. Almost all reputable interpreters today recognize that Revelation is poetry and liturgy. It is not a Rand McNally map of heaven. It is not a timetable for the end of the world. It is not a “Bible Code.” It is by no means as weird as we have been led to believe. It is full of encouragement, hope, and comfort, especially for oppressed people. When Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa was fighting the good fight against apartheid all those decades, he used to say, “Don’t give up! Don’t get discouraged! I’ve read the end of the book! We win!” The celestial vision arises out of the Revelation of Jesus Christ himself, the Son of God who reigns in heaven and who has drawn back the curtain just for a moment to allow us a glimpse of God’s future. (page 17)

In Christ, we win in the end, no matter how bleak things might sometimes look. My mistakes, brokenness, and sin – even my death – will not have the last word. God will. Personally, that fills me with a lot of hope and gives me purpose today. The next time you have an open Bible in front of you, find some of that hope and purpose for yourself in Revelation.

I wrote this column for this week’s Rock Valley Bee.
I’ve shared the quote from Fleming Rutledge
before.

Working in the vineyard

This past Sunday I spoke on Jesus’ parable of the vineyard owner who had two frustrating sons. When asked to work in the vineyard, one son told his dad to take a hike. Later, however, he changed his mind and indeed went to the vineyard. The other son quickly agreed to help with the work. Unfortunately, he was all talk and no action – he didn’t lift a finger to help his dad. A number of things can be said about this parable including the importance of our words matching our actions – and God’s grace when they don’t.

The Gospel of John - A Commentary by F. Dale BrunerCommentary writer Frederick Dale Bruner pointed out a couple interesting things in this parable that I didn’t have space for in my message.

First is the obvious observation that the father has a vineyard and work needs to be done in it. Likewise, our God our heavenly Father has a people and we are called to work with one another and for the benefit of one another. When Jesus calls us to life in His name, He is inviting us, among other things, to come to work. The Kingdom of God is growing and expanding around us; it will continue to grow and expand with or without our help, but blessed Vineyard photo found via Googleare those who serve God and one another and are part of God’s Kingdom-building enterprise.

Second is the attention to the urgency to the father’s request: “Son, go and work today in the vineyard.” It’s not a panic, but there’s certainly pressure to get going. Likewise, there is urgency in our calling to work in God’s Kingdom. Regardless of our age in life or stage in faith, God has put us right where we are for specific reasons. Each one of us has connections and can help others in ways that maybe no one else can. God calls us to make the most of those opportunities today because tomorrow could be too late.

The Holy Spirit of God breathes life in the people of God, equipping us to work – and to do that work promptly and eagerly. This week I’m working on cooperating with Him.

The rest of the story

This past Sunday I spoke at Trinity CRC on the Heidelberg Catechism’s Lord’s Day 17 Q&A 45 and mentioned my surprise at how briefly the catechism treats Jesus’ resurrection. It takes eight questions and answers to cover Jesus’ suffering and death but only one question and answer to explain the resurrection. If the resurrection stands at the center of faith, you’d think the church’s teachings on it would be a bit more thorough.

Well, in my research for Sunday’s message, I was reminded how the Heidelberg Catechism was not split up into Lord’s Days when it was first published; the only divisions were the 129 questions and answers. Maybe it’s helpful not to see a big break between Lord’s Day 17 and the ones after it: Everything beyond Q&A 45 can be read in light of Jesus’ resurrection! The rest of the whole document – Q&As 45-129, each one – works out in greater and greater detail what it means that Jesus lives!

Isn’t that kind of how the New Testament reads? Each Gospel clearly attests to Jesus’ resurrection and begins to reveal its implications. From there every book in the New Testament makes at least a passing reference to it, many places actually delving deep into its significance. In fact, by word count, the Bible says more about the resurrection than the crucifixion and death of Jesus.

Lord’s Day 17 summarizes the Bible’s teaching of how the implications of Jesus’ resurrection explode in our lives. His resurrection changes everything! We “share in [Christ’s] righteousness,” we’re “raised to a new life,” and we have “a sure pledge … of our blessed resurrection” after we die. In other words, the resurrection is a historical fact for our salvation that brings renewed purpose to life today and gives us hope for the future.

It might not take a lot of words for the catechism to describe this, but it’s Good News that fills entire books and fills all of life.

Empty grave graphic found via Google

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.

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.)

::– –::– –::

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.

The Good Shepherd feeds his sheep

A couple weeks ago I spoke at Trinity CRC about the time Jesus feeds 5000 people with five loaves and a couple fish. Each time I read the story in the Gospel of Mark, I cannot help but hear echoes of Psalm 23. If there were only one or two allusions to this well-known psalm, maybe you could call it a coincidence; but with at least three or four allusions, it seems to me that Mark is intentionally trying to get his readers to connect these two texts.

Psalm 23-Mark 6 Chart

If you also consider the context of Mark 6:30-44 in which King Herod has John the Baptist beheaded during a banquet he throws for his high officials, you could add another allusion to Psalm 23 – namely the part about being in the presence of one’s enemies (vs. 5).

Why does Mark invite us to connect Psalm 23 with this part of his Gospel? In his commentary on Mark, David E. Garland says that “the principle task of a shepherd is to bring sheep to food and water. Jesus … is the true shepherd who feeds His sheep so that they may ‘not be in want’” (p. 255).

I love how Mark describes the crowd: They eat and are “satisfied” (vs. 42). Regardless of circumstances, Jesus satisfies better than anyone or anything else! We see it happening in Mark 6 and, in case we miss it, the Gospel writer points us to Psalm 23 that we may recognize Jesus as the Good Shepherd and call Him our loving, providing Lord.

The Good Shepherd by the Mafa Christian community in Cameroon

Do you see more connections between Psalm 23 and Mark 6? Please share them in the comments below!

Mary’s Advent song

When I spoke on Mary’s song – the Magnificat – as part of our Advent series here at Trinity CRC, I noted that her song is steeped in the Old Testament: It echoes of Hannah’s song and reads like a psalm.

Magnificat artwork found via Google. I could not find the name of the artist.

One of the resources that helped me appreciate the theology in this text was the Groundwork discussion on Mary’s song a few weeks ago led by Dave Bast and Scott Hoezee. This quote didn’t make it into my message, but I still like it:

The Son of God is growing within Mary and it’s as though she “is bursting with theology and she sings these incredible things about God the Mighty One,
God the Holy One,
His mercy extending [from generation to generation].
She’s a compendium in this song, like a theological encyclopedia of all the great characteristics of God.
It’s though she’s bursting with God-ness
and just can’t hold it in.”

I love this picture of being so filled with the goodness of God that you’re about to burst!

And here’s one more thing that Dave and Scott said in light of the fact that this song comes from young, pregnant, unwed Mary:

“If you had a teenage daughter who sat in the living room one day and sang about economic and social upheaval and revolutions, you’d say, ‘Where’re you getting that from?’ You don’t expect that on the lips of a young girl. But here Mary is saying God is up to such an incredibly new thing in history here that all what we consider the normal ways of the world are going to be turned right upside down.”

…Actually, in coming to earth as a human, God isn’t really turning things upside down. He’s restoring them back to right-side-up! It’s what I’m keeping my eyes open for this Advent.

Physical

Word and SacramentsThe diploma on my wall declares I am “qualified for and admitted to the Sacred Ministry of the Word and the Sacraments in the Christian Reformed Church.” Although the language on my diploma gives them equal weight, I probably think of myself as a minister of the Word more than as a minister of the sacraments. (Look! I even capitalize Word but not sacraments!) Other people will call me a preacher before they’ll call me – what? – a sacrament officiant.

I appreciate that without the Word – both the Word written and the Word made flesh – there would be no sacraments. And I understand that, echoing Belgic Confession article 2, God makes Himself known to us most clearly by His holy and divine Word, more clearly than any physical things of the world – even water, bread, and juice, I suppose.

But having reflected on the sacraments over the past several blog entries, I don’t think it would hurt me to remember more often the “sacraments” part of the line on my diploma. The Belgic Confession goes on to teach in article 33:

God has added [the sacraments] to the Word of the gospel to represent better to our external senses both what God enables us to understand by the Word and what he does inwardly in our hearts, confirming in us the salvation he imparts to us.
For they are visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible, by means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

God gives us five senses, and He uses all five to communicate the mystery of His love with us. Preaching is connected mostly with the sense of hearing. The sacraments allow God to “speak” to us through more senses: We see and hear the water poured into the baptismal font and feel it on our heads; we see, touch, smell, and taste the bread and juice. Teachers know that students may remember things better if they are engaging more senses while learning the material – even the sense of smell, believe it or not. Through the sacraments, God engages all our senses to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” something He wants and helps us always to remember.

I wouldn’t be able to fully do my job if I was limited to only engaging peoples’ sense of hearing (i.e. preaching). People would be missing out on something if speaking was the only tool of my trade. As CRC pastor Leonard Vander Zee writes,

We need more than words. To echo the pop star Madonna, we are material beings in a material world. Graciously God stoops to us, as to children, communicating his grace and salvation through the material stuff of bread and wine.

God uses everything He can to help us receive and perceive the Gospel. Some of the things God uses may include a beautiful rainbow (as God did with Noah), dreams (think of Joseph – both the Old Testament Joseph and the New Testament Joseph), even a painful thorn in the flesh (something with which Paul struggled). I’m most grateful for how God graciously speaks to us through the Bible and, especially these days, how He communicates grace to us by means of water, bread, and juice (to echo “Our World Belongs to God,” ¶37). When it comes to experiencing God’s grace, I’ll take all the ways God uses that I can get!

Recent posts about Baptism:
 “Identity”
 “Drowning”
Recent posts about the Lord’s Supper:
 “Hungry”
 “Invited” (part 1)
 “Invited” (part 2)

Word and Sacraments graphic
from Trinity Lutheran Church, Copperas Cove TX

Invited (part 2)

Talking about inviting children to the Lord’s table, people sometimes turn to the apostle Paul’s commands to the church in Corinth and ask, Can children “examine themselves” while “discerning the body of Christ?” If not, will they be partaking “in an unworthy manner” andGraphic from A Place at the Table by Thea Leunk “eating and drinking judgment on themselves?”

Thorough explanations of the context and meaning of 1 Corinthians 11 include one by Calvin Seminary’s Professor of New Testament, Jeffrey A.D. Weima, in The Forum (scroll down to the Spring 2007 edition). All I’ll highlight for now are two things (both from the Faith Formation Committee’s report in the CRC’s Agenda for Synod 2011, pp. 582ff): 1. Like all of God’s directives, these commands are not meant to be a source of anxiety and legalism; instead these commands are meant to be life-giving! Obeying them brings joy, integrity, and justice. 2. The context of Paul’s commands in 1 Corinthians 11 reveals how rich members of the Corinthian church were celebrating the supper in a way that excluded and humiliated their poorer fellow believers. Paul’s instruction to “eat together” – or to “wait for one another” (v. 33, NRSV) – still encourages us today to wait for, welcome, and receive fellow members of “the body of Christ” (v. 29) so we can all celebrate together around the table.

Paul’s warning to the Corinthians prompts us to ask how well we discern the body today. As in Paul’s time, barriers between believers continue to persist based on economic factors: Many sisters and brothers in Christ who struggle with poverty sadly find a warmer reception at a soup kitchen than a worship service. Other members of God’s family who sometimes feel isolated on the margins include adult singles, persons with disabilities or mental illness, people who have gone through divorce, ex-offenders, and many others. Perhaps children can be added to list: Do they feel like second-class citizens when, despite being told they are covenant children of God, they only get a whiff of the aroma of bread and juice while the nearby adults fully “taste and see” that God is good? Is this a life-giving way for the body of Christ to embrace and obey these commands?

Still, we must not neglect the call to examine ourselves and the warning not to partake in an unworthy manner. Can children do this? In thinking about this, I find the Heidelberg Catechism helpful at Lord’s Day 30 (which is grounded in 1 Corinthians 11):

Q. Who should come to the Lord’s table?
A. Those who are displeased with themselves because of their sins, but who nevertheless trust that their sins are pardoned and that their remaining weakness is covered by the suffering and death of Christ, and who also desire more and more to strengthen their faith and to lead a better life. Hypocrites and those who are unrepentant, however, eat and drink judgment on themselves.
(Q&A 81)

If there’s one thing we cannot accuse children of, it’s being hypocritical! Young children don’t do pretense; generally speaking, they are without guile. Just ask the embarrassed parent whose child said, “Daddy & Mommy like to sleep in on Sundays” after the minister commented on not seeing the family for a few weeks! It’s not until we’re older that we become skilled at hiding the discrepancies between what we say and do. In sum, we should sign up children if we’re looking for role models on being un-hypocritical.

Thinking about not being unrepentant, one of the first things parents teach children (especially when they have siblings) is to say “Sorry.” And often within minutes of the apology, the behavior has been corrected and they’re off playing again. If only I was as quick at offering apologies and then not stewing over the situation for a long time afterwards! And because they’re at a stage where they typically mean what they say, when they ask God to forgive their sins and help to do good things, I cannot help but trust they are being completely sincere. If only I was as childlike at examining myself and receiving God’s grace! Again, children can also serve as role models for not being unrepentant.

The catechism further says that those who “trust that their sins are pardoned … by the death of Christ” are welcomed to the Lord’s table. We speak of childlike faith, of childlike trust. When I invite my child to jump into my arms, they do not pause to consider whether I’ll actually catch them or I’m just playing a cruel joke. They just jump, whether it’s into my arms or into accepting the reality that Jesus died for them. So, again, I see children serving us as role models what it means to truly trust in God without fear or second guessing His grace.

Jesus welcomed children and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” I don’t know whether Jesus specifically had the sacraments in mind when He said this, but we nevertheless often quote this when we baptize infants. In the same spirit, I apply Jesus’ posture and words to the Lord’s Supper, too. Not only do children belong at the table, but adults can even learn from children as the children learn from the adults.

Graphic from the cover of A Place at the Table by Thea Leunk.