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!