Turning the world upside down

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; Your Church Is Too Safe by Mark Buchananperhaps 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.

::– –::– –::

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.

Joseph 5: “The Substitute”

I know our series at Trinity CRC is supposed to be about Joseph, but on Good Friday we spent a good chunk of time considering his half-brother Judah. He makes a speech biblical scholar Terence Fretheim in his commentary on Genesis calls “a literary masterpiece” in which he pleads to the Egyptian governor (who, unbeknownst to the brothers, is Joseph) on behalf of his younger brother, Benjamin.

Benjamin has been framed for stealing Joseph’s silver cup. All the brothers appear before Joseph and are given the opportunity to walk away from their trouble simply if they leave Benjamin behind in Egypt to live the rest of his life as the governor’s slave. Essentially, they have the opportunity to do to Benjamin the exact same thing they did to Joseph years before: Betray and ditch their little brother and be on their merry way.

I am happily astonished at how much Judah and his brothers have changed (something I started exploring in my last blog entry). Instead of abandoning Benjamin, Judah begs the governor, “Please let your servant [i.e. me] remain here as my lord’s [i.e. your] slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return [home] with his brothers.” In his commentary, Bruce Waltke observes that this is the very “first instance of human substitution in Scripture” – where one person willingly gives up him- or herself in place of another. And Judah’s the same one who years ago said, “Come, let’s sell [our brother] to the Ishmaelites!” It’s hard to believe we’re talking about the same person! That Judah, by the grace of God, has changed is undeniable.

God, in His grace, invites me to change, too. He loves to see me grow in Christ. Sometimes in some areas, the growth will be as dramatic as Judah’s. At other times in other areas and perhaps more often, Growth graphic found via Googleit will be more subtle. But, as the Holy Spirit directs, grow I will. In fact, as I’ve said before, it’s impossible for followers of Jesus not to grow. Anything that’s alive will grow! Without growth, our spiritual muscles will atrophy, our convictions will become fuzzy, our obedience to Jesus increasingly sporadic.

It makes me want to look back over the past week, month, and year to see where God has been making a difference in my life and helping me grow more and more “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (to quote Peter). Maybe you’d like to consider that, too.

::– –::– –::

You can read my Good Friday message here. It touches on growth, but focuses more on how Judah’s willingness to take his brother’s place anticipates the perfect “substitutionary atonement” of Jesus through His death on the cross.

Joseph 4: “Haunted”

“Guilt is like the red warning light on the dashboard of the car.
You can either stop and deal with the trouble,
or break out the light.”
– Source unknown

One of the things that makes the story of Joseph so appealing and memorable is how the people in it change. In my message yesterday, we saw how Joseph’s brothers are confronted with the opportunity to do the same thing to Benjamin as they did to Joseph. Years before, Joseph’s brothers abandoned him when they sold him as a slave and now they have the opportunity to also ditch Benjamin in Egypt. This option is presented to them by the Egyptian governor as a quick and easy way to solve their problems and head back home to Canaan.

However, the guilt that has haunted the brothers has had at least one positive effect: The brothers have changed for the better. Guilt graphic found via GoogleInstead of hightailing it back to Canaan, they choose to meet with the governor and plead for Benjamin’s life.

But they aren’t the only ones who have changed: Joseph has changed, too. When we first meet him, Joseph comes off as a brat as he struts about in his ornate robe, tattles on his brothers, and indiscriminately describes his dreams of ascending to prominence. There’s no excuse for the brothers’ cruelty towards him, but he certainly knew how to make life miserable for them, too. Perhaps he’s haunted with his own sense of guilt.

Like his brothers, Joseph has also changed. As Pharaoh observed, Joseph has become “discerning and wise.” Joseph has been growing in ways that are enabling him to create reconciliation within his family, something that wasn’t even on his radar in his younger years.

The story of Joseph and his brothers inspires me to own up to my guilt, to recognize and confess the stupid things I’ve done that have hurt God, others, and myself. I see guilt as simultaneously a warning and a blessing, a call to stop doing something wrong and an invitation to experience grace. For when guilt prompts me to seek and receive forgiveness, there is healing and liberation. Do you want to join me in thinking about and responding to guilt this way? It’s not an easy process, but it’s one the Holy Spirit uses to slowly but surely make you and me more like Jesus.

Real change

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

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

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

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

Power to change

I found this meditation in Forward Day By Day most encouraging.  The part at the very end is especially profound in how it gives hope for times when it feels like my faith is lacking as well as in how it challenges me to not to place a sort of expectations on others that God doesn’t.

The LORD God says through the prophet Ezekiel: “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you.”

One of the false assumptions operating in the world today, leaving wasted lives in its wake, is that if you can find the key, you can apply it to yourself and change yourself. Many people, captured by this assumption, wander from new thing to new thing, each promising to be the key that will bring some real change in character and behaviour. One such person went through physical fitness, higher education, religion, sensitivity training, radical politics, and escapist novels. None of these effected any real change in his life. It is not true that a person can change himself.

Only God can change a person. Only God has the power to reach inside you and cleanse you of your guilt, heal you of the effects of others’ sins, empower you to desire and obtain a whole new set of priorities and considerations, and behave consistently in an increasingly Christ-like manner. God is not reluctant to exercise this power, but he must be asked and believed, though not as thoroughly as one might think. God only needs the slimmest faith to move in and effortlessly to achieve the changes we have so arduously tried to accomplish.

More than only information

If it used to be that knowledge was power, today information is power.  We are saturated with information, yet we still want more, making it a hot commodity.  And the people at Google thank us for that.

There’s a lot of information in the Bible.  It’s tempting to market the church as the distributer of biblical (or, to generate more interest, spiritual) information.  Anyone want to make a big, enticing sign for along the road by our church building that says “Get your most important information here?”

A book someone loaned me written nearly 40 years ago about the nature of the church entitled Who in the World? has this great paragraph about information that feels like it could have been written today…

The church is not an information agency dispensing facts that will make people smarter than they were.  Its goal as teacher is shaped by the kind of truth it teaches – life-changing, liberating, world-transforming truth.  It is not feelings nor facts but the truth that makes [people] free.  Why?  Because the truth is God.  When God reveals truth, He is revealing Himself.  Jesus said, “I am the way, I am the truth, and I am life.”  God – His love and His will, His mercy and His commands – is the truth we teach.” (p. 48)

Makes information sound kind of puny in comparison, doesn’t it?

Things that affect your judgement

A recent episode of Law & Order (the show, incidentally, got renewed for its 21st season, making it the longest running primetime drama in the history of America TV) has our intrepid detectives on the hunt for the murderer of four police officers.  The captain of the slain officers follows the investigation closely, regularly criticizing how the detectives and attorneys are handling the case.  At one point, S Epatha Merkersonhe makes a dig at Lt. Anita Van Buren.  Now, you have to know that at the beginning of this season, Lt. Van Buren was diagnosed with cancer and, as the season has gone on, we’ve overheard conversations with her doctor, watched her receive chemotherapy, and vicariously felt her boyfriend’s assuring embraces.  It’s been a tough, uncertain road for our by-the-book, no-nonsense police lieutenant.  Well, the captain of the four slain officers knows about this and, at the height of his displeasure of how the case is proceeding, he alleges that Lt. Van Buren’s current illness is affecting her judgement.

Lt. Van Buren has this great reply:  “I certainly hope so.”

The show’s writers were probably hoping we viewers were expecting Lt. Van Buren to defend her decisions, to say that she’s running things exactly as before, that her judgement has not been affected by her diagnosis and treatment of cancer.  However, she not only admits that her cancer is adjusting how she sees things, she is glad about it.

As our lives go on, we are constantly experiencing new things – both good and bad, both mundane and profound.  These new things affect how we think and how we act.  To think that we’re the same person we were 7 years ago or 3 years ago or 6 months ago or even just last week is not all that realistic.  Events and experiences have changed some opinions, ideas, and likely even our judgement.  We can either deny that we’ve changed, or we can embrace those changes as Lt. Van Buren has.

If you look back over the past weeks, months, and years, and you don’t care for the changes you see in yourself, then it’s a little harder to embrace them, isn’t it?  In that case, you may wish to spend some time looking to and praying about the future, considering what sorts of changes you’d like to see with the good Lord’s help beginning with the coming minutes, hours, and days.

As I continue learning and growing and maturing, I hope someone who sees me for the first time in a while will say, “I think you’ve changed a bit since we’ve last been together.”  At that point, I want to quote Lt. Van Buren: “I certainly hope so!”

Photo credit:
NBC publicity photo of S. Epatha Merkerson as Lt. Anita Van Buren.

Fear and change

I spoke about our fears this past Easter Sunday and how Jesus’ victory over death puts our fears in perspective, especially our fear of dying.  The next day, this was the reading in Forward Day by Day based on Matthew 28:9-15

I once conducted a service of worship shortly after Easter for the patients of a mental hospital. I began by asking the congregation, mostly patients, what they thought the first words spoken by Jesus when he returned to the disciples might have been. They answered, “Do not be afraid.”

Those who are ill in the way that those patients were know with a certain instinct what the words of life are. When the struggle for existence has defeated you, you withdraw into fear: fear of enemies in the far distance; fear of “them;” even fear of yourself. Life is lived in terms of suspicion, never of trust.

We all exist on a continuum, I think, with those patients; we are all somewhat ill. Jesus comes and wipes away our fear. For many of us it is the fear of being wrong, the fear that we will be less than we thought we were, the fear that we will fail and our dreams come to nothing. If we will hear his words and trust him, then we can start again, this time on the basis of a sure hope, never again because we are afraid.

Jesus comes and wipes away our fears.  The result: We should expect to be changed.  And that connects with something Neil deKoning writes at the CRC’s Network I just read…

…The [Good Friday and Easter] story we tell was not intended to simply give us a wonderful celebration 2000 years later. Jesus came to bring change. Forgiveness, reconciliation, new life, and the power of resurrection are descriptions of change. The way of the cross is a description of change. We believe that in this way God brings redemption into our lives…

What does this mean for our ministry? What change ought we be praying for – not in general but in the particulars of our members and in our community? If Jesus said the way to transform lives and communities is through the power of the cross and the victory of the resurrection, what impact ought that have on the way we do ministry among the members?

Just asking the questions forces us to consider our ministry. Do we have a vision of change that is born out of our understanding of work of Jesus? Do we believe that confession and forgiveness, that self-sacrificial love, that the Emmaus Bible study (Luke 24), that obedient suffering are in fact transformational practices of the Christian life? Do we believe that communities bound in unity to Christ serving Christ can deeply impact community life?

Change is not easy. I look at the trouble of our communities and the struggles of community development and I see countless obstacles. But I notice that God in his ministry of changing the world went to the cross. It was the only way. If this is what God did, there is wisdom in seeking to follow that path…

Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”  How does that change you?  How will that change the way you interact with your family and neighbours?