A different sort of king

Palm Sunday cross graphic found via Google

Probably to the surprise of some, Jesus does not arrive in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday riding on a stallion with guns blazing as people might have expected a king to do. Rather, as the church remembers this weekend, he enters on a colt. And his eyes are filled with tears, knowing the trial and death that awaits him. Jesus is a different sort of king than the people are expecting.

Jesus had sent his disciples ahead to fetch the colt and bring it to him. If anyone asked what they were doing with the animal, he instructed them to say the Lord needed it and would return it shortly. In those days kings would not have asked to borrow an animal; a powerful ruler would simply have taken it and added it to his stable. But Jesus is a different sort of king.

As Jesus rides the donkey into Jerusalem, a crowd gathers – ordinary citizens with their children waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” It’s a word that means “Save us!” The crowds probably mean to say “Save us from the Romans occupying our land!” Jesus, however, has his eyes on a bigger enemy than Rome: He is entering Jerusalem to battle sin and death itself. Jesus is indeed a different sort of king.

Looking at the pieces of this story, I can’t help but wonder about the owner of the colt. Did they have any idea who the animal’s rider would be when they loaned it to the disciples?

It reminds me of a 19th century Sunday school teacher in Boston named Kimball who introduced a shoe clerk named Dwight L. Moody to Jesus Christ. Dwight L. Moody became a famous evangelist who influenced someone named Frederick B. Meyer to preach on college campuses. Meyer led someone named J. Wilbur Chapman to the Lord. Chapman, while working with the YMCA, arranged for Billy Sunday to come to Charlotte, North Carolina to attend revival meetings. This led to community leaders in Charlotte scheduling a second revival with someone named Mordecai Hamm. Under Hamm’s preaching, a young man named William gave his heart to Jesus Christ. You knew this man as Billy Graham, who preached to more people than anyone in history. I am certain that that 19th century Sunday School teacher in Boston had no idea what would happen from leading a shoe clerk to Christ.

It’s amazing what can happen when you and I welcome the Lord to work through our lives. I might think I’m just letting someone borrow a colt or that you’re just having a nice conversation with a shoe clerk. But don’t underestimate Jesus’ ability to take little things in life and use them for great purposes. He is ruler over all, yet he knows, loves, and guides you and me individually. What’s more, he had you and me in mind that day as he entered Jerusalem to conquer sin and death. Do you know any other rulers who relate to you like that?

As I said, Jesus is a different sort of king. He’s one worth worshiping this Palm Sunday.

I shared these thoughts in this week’s Rock Valley Bee.

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Encountering Jesus at his table more frequently (part 3)

So why are we content with depriving ourselves or our children or new, freshly baptized believers of the nourishment God longs to give us at the Lord’s Supper table by not celebrating the Sacrament more frequently?

Maybe part of the answer is that we don’t fully appreciate how much God indeed longs to nourish us. The late Robert Webber once counseled a troubled student with this advice: “Flee to the Eucharist!” Jesus would begin to care for and heal this student’s heart at his table.

Hearing about this incident between Professor Webber and his student led Howard Vanderwell to pen these reflections: “How different, I thought, than the way we so often understand and present the Lord’s Supper as a rather stern and somber event we participate in only after we have carefully scrutinized ourselves to make sure we are prepared and ready to come. Here, instead, was the Sacrament with a wonderfully warm welcome where wounded and struggling people could find healing and peace, a table where people could find refuge” (Living and Loving Life, p. 70).

It seems to me that God is eager to welcome, care for, heal, and nourish us, and he will use as many means possible to accomplish this. He indeed speaks his grace to us through our senses of sight and hearing as we read and listen to the Word. Through the Word, “God makes himself known to us,” as the Belgic Confession puts it (article 3). But, as I mentioned in part 1, recognizing that we are physical and material beings, God graciously uses physical and material things (namely the water, bread, and juice of baptism and the Lord’s Supper) to also communicate his grace to us.

As Leonard J. Vander Zee explains in his book Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, God knows “we need more than talk, more than words on a page; we [also] need a touch, a smell, a taste – just as lovers need more than the words ‘I love you’ but also a kiss or an embrace… The Lord’s Supper is a physical handle faith grabs hold of, allowing us to grasp God’s promises with our bodies as well as our minds” (pp. 192, 193).

Our gracious God engages all our senses: He invites us to listen attentively to his Word; to feel the cleansing baptism water flow over us; to smell, taste, and see his goodness through the Lord’s Supper. It’s as though he’s eager for us to “get it.” It thus seems counterintuitive to suggest that we should be skimpy with any of these modes of communication, particularly with the Lord’s Supper. What better way for us to “get it,” to better grasp God’s grace than by frequently availing ourselves to the Sacrament?

Writer and pastor Thea Nyhoff Leunk makes this warm observation in A Place at the Table, her book on welcoming children to the Lord’s Supper: “The Lord delights in nourishing His people, and we respond by coming with grateful, but empty hearts to His bountiful table” (p. 18).

I for one would be grateful to experience more often God’s delight in nourishing me at his bountiful table. So I am grateful that the elders of Trinity CRC have decided to increase the frequency we celebrate the Sacrament as 2018 progresses and I look forward to seeing and hearing (and maybe even smelling, tasting, and feeling) how God will bless that decision in our congregation.

Lord's Supper graphic found at thebanner.org

The leadership at Trinity CRC found this article in The Banner
on weekly Communion helpful in our conversation on the subject.
See also my blog post titled
“Physical.”

Encountering Jesus at his table more frequently (part 2)

So what’s stopping us from inviting Jesus to open our eyes by gathering around the Lord’s Supper table more frequently?

Some worry that celebrating the Lord’s Supper more frequently will diminish the preaching of the Word. While it is conceivable that the Lord's Supper graphic found via Googlependulum could swing the other way where the table pushes the pulpit off of center stage, churches I’m aware of in the Reformed tradition that celebrate the Lord’s Supper more frequently still have faithful preaching. I do not see coming to the table more often as a threat to our historic and enduring emphasis on the centrality of Scripture. If anything, I’d suspect that more frequent participation in the Sacrament will actually help the congregation more deeply comprehend and embrace the Word.

A more common fear I encounter is that the Sacrament will become less special if we celebrate it more frequently. I have two responses to that: First, part of me wonders if that actually wouldn’t be such a bad thing. There is, after all, something very ordinary, very common about the Lord’s Supper. As William H. Willimon observes in his book Sunday Dinner, Jesus specializes in “taking the stuff of everyday life … and using them to help us see the presence of God in our midst” (p. 25). Have we made the elements of the Lord’s Supper “too special,” leading us to think we require “special things” in order to encounter God?

Second, it occurs to me that doing something frequently does not automatically make it less meaningful. The late Harry Boonstra expresses this in a memorable way in the winter 1997 issue of Calvin Theological Seminary’s Forum: “It’s strange that we use this argument about the Lord’s Supper [that increased frequency will make it less meaningful] and not about preaching or praying or singing… It certainly is possible to pray or to sing thoughtlessly and carelessly. But the solution is not to sing less frequently … but to sing with conviction and devotion.” Both the Word and the Sacrament are means of grace God uses to bring his Gospel message to us, yet no one argues we should hear less preaching of the Word for fear it’s becoming less meaningful. (Frankly, between hearing a sermon or joining others for a meal, I’d probably tire less quickly of the latter than the former!)

Think about how we need to eat healthy food throughout the day – typically three meals with additional beverages and snacks in between. Sometimes these are memorable occasions; most often they are routine. Regardless, we eat and drink because our physical bodies need the nutrition. It turns out that our spiritual life “needs feeding and nourishment just as much as our physical life,” as Howard Vanderwell observes in Living and Loving Life, and “much of that kind of nourishment comes from the Lord’s table… Speaking of our need of such nourishment, John Calvin said, ‘Our faith is slight and feeble and unless it be propped on all sides and sustained by every means, it trembles, wavers, totters, and at last gives way.’

“And so we come to the table: A 72-year-old woman with all her struggles, a young father trying to find balance in life, an 80-year-old still vibrant and eager to be nourished, a teen whose faith is growing, and an 8-year-old boy who knows for sure that Jesus loves him” (p. 71; the quote from Calvin comes from his Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.14.3). They all come (as do I) needing this very ordinary yet also very good food to sustain our spiritual lives.

The advantages of celebrating the Lord’s Supper more frequently outweigh any disadvantages. Why are we content with depriving ourselves or our children or new, freshly baptized believers of the nourishment God longs to give us?

Encountering Jesus at his table more frequently (part 1)

The story of Jesus’ post-resurrection encounter with the disciples on their way to Emmaus is one of my favorite Gospel stories. It begins with despair and ends with joy. It fills me with hope to see Jesus patiently, graciously walking with people even when they’re going in the wrong direction. It’s a story that speaks directly to my heart.

There’s a part of the story, however, that challenges part of my Reformed convictions. Each time I read it, I wonder, “Why don’t the Graphic found with Googledisciples recognize Jesus until he breaks bread?” Christ walking alongside them, Christ rebuking them, Christ opening Scripture to them… At none of those points does Jesus open their eyes. Rather, it’s the table that becomes the place of recognition. My Reformed heritage emphasizes the supremacy of the Word – and rightly so, in my humble opinion. Our belief in the authority of Scripture is evident in our teaching and even in how the pulpit is front and center in most churches in the Reformed tradition. Yet the eyes of the disciples in Emmaus are not opened by the explanation of the authoritative Word (by the Word made flesh, no less!) but by the breaking of the bread.

Sometimes an unfortunate byproduct of our appropriate emphasis on the Word (which Reformed Christians tend to capitalize) can be the relegation of the Sacraments (which, interestingly, Reformed Christians tend to keep in lowercase) to the sidelines, as though they are something kind of optional, to save for occasional use. I think the story of the disciples in Emmaus challenges that perception. I think this story can form part of the case for recognizing how the Sacraments are as important as the Word. The diploma hanging on my wall, after all, declares I am a minister of “the Word and Sacraments” (and both words are capitalized on my diploma).

If we insist on hearing the Word weekly, why do we not have the same insistence on receiving the Sacrament?

There is certainly precedent for this. In Acts we read how the believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer,” something the church consistently did “on the first day of the week” for many centuries as far as we know. Although people (at least the laity) celebrated the Lord’s Supper much less frequently by the time of the Reformation (sometimes as seldom as once a year), both Martin Luther and John Calvin advocated for weekly Lord’s Supper celebrations. Fast forward to today and it turns out that celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly is the pattern for the majority of Christians around the world and across denominational lines.

One can also make a case for more frequently celebrations of the Lord’s Supper on the basis of Reformed theology. The Belgic Confession has a great line where it speaks of how God uses the Sacraments “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” (article 33). God knows we are physical beings so he uses physical things (the bread and juice of the Lord’s Supper as well as the water of baptism) to communicate his grace to his people. Yes, our ears and eyes need to receive God’s Word – it has the power to make “our hearts burn within us.” But God also desires to communicate his grace to us through our senses of touch, smell, and taste as we feel the water of baptism, handle the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper, catch a whiff of its smells, and taste the elements in our mouths. Countless times since that evening in Emmaus, Jesus uses the breaking of bread to open our eyes and speak to our hearts that we may recognize him with us.

What’s stopping us from inviting Jesus to open our eyes and speak to our hearts by gathering around the Lord’s Supper table more frequently?

Disturb Us

Somebody once asked me as their pastor not to make them uncomfortable in church. They didn’t want any surprises in the worship services or the church’s ministries. They were comfortable with routine and things remaining predictable.

On the one hand, I completely empathized. I don’t like surprises either. I’m not likely to embrace change when it sneaks up on me unexpectedly. When something comes of out left field, I’m more likely to put my guard up and resist it.

On the other hand, I could hardly keep from laughing. I’m very mistaken if I think I can always predict how God is going to work and what he might call me to do next. If I demand things always go the way I prefer, the way that keeps me comfortable, I’ll miss out on opportunities in which God desires to stretch and challenge me so that I can learn and grow.

I suspect there are many things with which God would like to see me be uncomfortable. His Spirit wants me to be uncomfortable with complacency in my walk with Jesus perhaps caused by getting stuck in ruts of routine. His Spirit wants me to be uncomfortable with the selfish things I do that strain my relationships with others. His Spirit wants me to be uncomfortable with the consumerism in our culture that would have me believe that buying more stuff will make me happy. His Spirit wants me to be uncomfortable with the racism in this country’s institutions as well as in my heart.

Comfort Zone quote found with Google

Recently I discovered this prayer attributed by some to Sir Francis Drake, the English sea captain of the 16th century. Through these words the Holy Spirit prompts me to become uncomfortable while he simultaneously reminds me of God’s presence – which is truly comforting.

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little, when we arrive safely because we sailed too close to the shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess we have lost our thirst for the waters of life; having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity; and in our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of the new heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes, and to push us into the future in strength, courage, hope, and love.

I shared this in this week’s Rock Valley Bee.

The adult Jesus

This time of year as we focus on the baby Jesus in the manger, Dale Vander Veen powerfully reminded me in one of his recent e-devotions of what Jesus did as an adult – why He came in the first place and what He is doing today and will still be doing in the new year. Dale did not write this himself but the original author is unknown.

Graphic found with Google

Jesus is the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.
He is the Keeper of creation and the Creator of all.
He is the Architect of the universe and the Manager of all times.
He always was,
he always is,
and he always will be
unmoved,
unchanged,
undefeated,
and never undone.

He was bruised and brought healing.
He was pierced and eased pain.
He was persecuted and brought freedom.
He was dead and brought life.
He is risen and brings power.
He reigns and brings peace.

The world can’t understand him,
armies can’t defeat him,
schools can’t explain him,
leaders can’t ignore him.
Herod couldn’t kill him,
the Pharisees couldn’t confuse him,
and the people couldn’t hold him.
Nero couldn’t crush him,
Hitler couldn’t silence him,
the latest pop psychology can’t replace him.

He is light, love, longevity, and Lord.
He is goodness, kindness, gentleness, and God.
He is holy, righteous, just, and pure.
His ways are right, his word is eternal,
his will is unchanging, and his mind is on me.
He is my Redeemer, my Savior, my guide, and my peace.
He is my joy, my comfort, my Lord, and my ruler.

I serve him because his bond is love,
his burden is light,
and his blessing is peace.
I follow him because
he is the wisdom of the wise,
the power of the powerful,
the ancient of days,
the ruler of rulers,
the leader of leaders,
the overseer of overcomers.
He is sovereign Lord of all that was
and is
and is to come.

He will never leave me, never forsake me,
never mislead me, never forget me, never overlook me.
When I fall, he lifts me up.
When I fail, he forgives.
When I am weak, he is strong.
When I am lost, he is the way.
When I am afraid, he is my courage.
When I stumble, he steadies me.
When I am hurt, he heals me.
When I am broken, he mends me.
When I am hungry, he feeds me.
When I face trials, he is with me.
When I am beside myself, he is beside me.
When I face loneliness, he accompanies me.
When I face loss, he provides for me.
When I face death, he carries me home!

He is God, he is faithful.
I am his, and he is mine!
He is in control,
he is for me, not against me,
and all is well with my soul.

The Infant King

I don’t think I’ve ever associated Psalm 2 with Christmas before. It’s the one where God, enthroned in heaven, scoffs at sinful humanity’s futile attempts to dethrone Him.

This time of year we celebrate the arrival of King Jesus, a King greater than the Herod of His day or any other power or authority back then or since. Countless monarchs and empires have come and gone; things I have enthroned in my heart instead of Jesus have crumbled (or will crumble) into the dust. However, as God’s Son, one with Father, Jesus’ Kingship is secure. He is the ultimate fulfillment of the promise God makes in Psalm 2 to install His King on earth.

King graphic found at rescuehousechurch.org

A poem I read this week in a book of Advent meditations reminds me of all this. Attributed to Daithi Mac Iomaire, it’s simply titled “The Infant King.” It leads me to worship the newborn King – the true King of kings and Lord of lords – this Christmas season.

And in the corridors of power
and in the palaces of hate,
the despot and his lords conspire
this holy threat to liquidate;
yet all the kings that e’re there were
and all the princes of this earth
with all their wealth beyond compare
could not eclipse this infant’s birth.
A million monarchs since have reigned,
but vanquished now their empires vain;
two thousand years, and still we bring
our tributes to the Infant King.