Bow and arrow

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,Rainbow and arrow graphic from 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.

Prodigals (part 4)

In the famous story Jesus tells, both sons disappoint their father. The younger son geographically separates himself from his loving father; the older brother is emotionally and relationally distant. When the younger son finally comes to his senses and returns home, the older son is not ready to embrace him like their father does.

It has been suggested that perhaps the reason why the younger son does not return home sooner is because he knows his critical, unwelcoming older brother awaits him there. It has been further suggested that many runaway prodigals do not return to their biological or church homes today because of their experience with older brothers – whether biological siblings or brothers (or sisters) in Christ. They would rather remain lost than encounter condemnation back at home.

The older son is such a flawed character in Jesus’ story – and it ought to hurt when we see characteristics of him in us that push other people away.

There is one good thing about the flaws in the older brother, though: He puts a desire within us to have and know a better sort of older brother.

A better sort of older brother who we find in Jesus.

As I’ve said before, knowing Jesus as an older brother offers me profound hope: He is a brother who is strong yet gentle, brilliant yet patient, always present and caring. But more than that, he is the brother who restores my relationship with my heavenly Father. For me he was willing to die to ensure that could happen.

Older brother graphic found with Google.jpg

It’s thanks to Jesus that lost sons and daughters (like me and you) are found for now and for eternity.

My series this month on prodigals is indebted
to the profound writing and preaching ministries
of Timothy Keller, who wrote
The Prodigal God, and
Darrell W. Johnson, whose sermons on “The Prodigal Father”
can be downloaded as part of his series entitled
“The God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I also deeply appreciate the “Prodigal Son Collection” at
the Calvin College Center Art Gallery.

Prodigals (part 3)

We’re used to calling it the parable of the prodigal son(s). It would be more accurate to refer to Jesus’ story as the parable of the prodigal father.

The word prodigal literally means to be recklessly extravagant. And it’s true that the younger son is recklessly extravagant with his inheritance until it is all gone and he finds himself friendless and broke. But if we look at the sons’ father, we see that he’s even more recklessly extravagant – He is recklessly extravagant with his grace.

Instead of disowning his younger son or demanding him to repay the debt (something the younger son would never have been able to do), the father hugs and kisses him, throws a banquet for him and invites the whole town to celebrate the homecoming. Instead of sending a servant to demand his older son to co-host the celebration with him (as the original listeners likely expected), the father excuses himself from the party and goes out to the older son to plead with him to join the festivities. In short, the father goes out to find his lost sons. In fact, he keeps constant alert to their return: When the younger son is still a long ways off, the father sees him coming and runs out to embrace him.

In Jesus’ day, it was quite disgraceful for a distinguished gentleman to hike up his robes and run. By running, the father expresses his joy at his son’s return. But it’s quite likely that he also has to run in order to get to his son on time to protect him: Maybe some of the townsfolk feeling like giving the younger son a piece of their mind about how he treated his father; maybe some of the townsfolk want to give the younger son a piece of their fist to teach the younger son a lesson for dishonoring his father. However, by running out to embrace his younger son, the father says to the townsfolk, Whatever you want to do to my son, you first have to do to me. You have to get through me before you can get to my beloved.

Edward Riojas, 'The Prodigal Son,' downloaded from

I read somewhere that sin looks pretty puny and boring compared to God’s grace. Like the grace shown by the father of the two sons, God’s grace for his lost sons and daughters is beyond measurement.  It is recklessly extravagant. In this season of Thanksgiving, I wonder, “How can I ever sufficiently thank my prodigal God?”

”The Prodigal Son” by Edward Riojas.
From the “Prodigal Son Collection” at the Calvin College
Center Art Gallery. For further reading,
check out
The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller.

Prodigals (part 2)

In Jesus’ famous story, both sons are lost. The younger son is lost geographically; we can trace his lost-ness with GPS. The older son is relationally lost; we can trace his lost-ness on the cold and hardened dimensions of his heart.

Despite close proximity, the older son is emotionally distant from his father. When he hears a celebration on the homestead, he is not filled with joy, eager to join the festivities; instead he is immediately suspicious about what his father might be up to. What’s more, he refuses to enter the house – an insult to his father, the host. The younger son upon his return from the far country at least has the decency to address his father respectfully; the older son begins his tirade with “Look here!” The older son sees his work on the farm not as a partnership with his father but as slavery. And when he complains that he’s never been able to throw a party for his friends, the older son betrays his feelings against the people currently celebrating – the friends of the family apparently are not his friends.

It’s ironic. By external appearances, the older son is doing everything right: He’s at home with his father (unlike his younger brother); he’s responsible (unlike his younger brother); he respects the family property and reputation (unlike his younger brother).

Yet this isn’t the relationship the father desires. When the older son says, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you…” I feel the father’s heart break again. I hear him thinking, I don’t want a slave. I want a son.

Older brother graphic found with Google

This parable reminds me that there are different kinds of lost-ness. Some are obvious, others not so much.

And this parable reminds me of how Jesus comes to save the sinful and the righteous. Apart from Him, both kinds of sons and daughters are lost.

For many of the insights in this series of blog posts,
I am indebted to sermons preached by my
Regent College professor, Darrell W. Johnson.

Prodigals (part 1)

On Sunday I spoke about the “lost and found” stories Jesus tells in Luke 15, including the story of the lost sons. One of my professors at Regent College, Prof. Darrell W. Johnson, calls this familiar story the “Gospel in the Gospel.” He sees within this text a distillation of the entire Gospel story – the story of heartbroken father longing for the return of his children and running out to meet them.

I grew up in the church and have held on to the faith all through life. I’m quick to think of myself as the older brother (who’s just as lost as his younger brother, by the way, but more about that later): I’m like the son who’s stayed with the father, close to home. I’m like the “good” older brother.

But I must also humbly identify with the younger brother. Regardless of how good I’ve been (or how good I’ve convinced others I am), my sin nevertheless is rebellion against God. Because I am fallen, even my best, purest thoughts and deeds are tainted with sin. And any sin – no matter how slight – is repugnant to God and puts me at a great distance from him.

Robert Barnun, 'The Prodigal Son,' downloaded from

I need to beware of thinking of myself as a “good Christian.” (Just recently I heard someone warn against saying you’re a “good Christian,” that, on this side of the new heaven and new earth, it’s a self-righteous oxymoron!) I’m easily tempted to think that I’m a little better than that no-good, runaway younger brother.

But I need the Father’s grace just as much as he does.

“The Prodigal Son” by Robert Barnum; watercolor, 1998.
From the “Prodigal Son Collection”
at the Calvin College Center
Art Gallery. The younger son looks to be in pretty rough shape!
This 4-part series appeared on my blog before
but I feel it’s worth dusting off if for no other reason
to remind me of the beautiful truth of the Gospel.

Grace and mercy

Mercy and grace graphic found via GoogleIf you spend any amount of time around a church, I hope you regularly hear the words grace and mercy. These are two words I often use interchangeably and I sometimes mix up which one means what exactly. Singer Wayne Watson has cleared it up for me in his song simply titled “Grace” from his CD Living Room:

Grace keeps giving me things I don’t deserve.
Mercy keeps withholding things I do.

Grace is free and unmerited favor. It is a gift. I cannot earn it. I do not deserve it.

Some people say they want what they deserve. I know my heart too well to demand that. What I deserve is God’s wrath. The holy God doesn’t have the time of day for the slightest trace of sin, yet I have soiled myself in it. Nothing imperfect or unholy can exist in God’s presence, but through Jesus, God welcomes me into his presence, into his family as his child. God’s mercy withholds what I should have coming to me.

Back in the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther discovered this truth afresh. He grew up believing that he had to earn God’s mercy and grace through acts of love for God and neighbor. As one of my seminary professors, Lyle Bierma, explains it, Luther perceived divine favor “not so much a gift as a reward” for good behavior.

I feel you and I need this history lesson. We might be able to define grace and mercy, but I don’t think we consistently live as though we truly understand them. Our is a “performance-oriented society, dominated by a can-do spirit,” observes Prof. Bierma, and I agree. “We work for good grades in school, earn victories on the football field, compete for awards, receive merit pay at work, and get demerits if we misbehave. In the middle of all this striving and achievement, it is not easy to admit that when it comes to meeting the deepest need of our existence, our restlessness for God, we can do absolutely nothing ourselves. We are totally reliant on outside help.”

Enter mercy and grace: I deserve for God to ignore me, to even punish me because of my sin. Instead, in Christ, I am forgiven and restored. I rest assured in him for today and eternity.

Discovering this does not leave me unchanged. Impacted by God’s mercy and grace, I want my life to overflow with that same mercy and grace. With God’s Spirit encouraging and equipping me, I want my life to be filled with acts of love for God and neighbor – the same thing for which Luther strived. But instead of doing these things to get God’s attention and favor, I do these things in profound gratitude for his mercy and grace. I want to be thankful for his gift.

If you see any gifts from God in your life – a loved one, a job, a skill, even grace itself! – let’s team up and find ways to show him and others how thankful we are for them.

I wrote this article for last week’s Rock Valley Bee
to commemorate Reformation Day today.

The ridiculous part of the worship service

I’m not sure how well known this is, but as God’s people, we don’t actually confess our sins in a worship service so that we might be forgiven. As Arlo D. Duba writes in Reformed Worship:

We confess our sins because we know and have the assurance that our God is a gracious and forgiving God who, while we were yet sinners, sent Christ to die for us, received us in baptism, and for Jesus’ sake forgives our sins. So we dare to approach the throne of grace with confidence, not with fear. (RW June 1999, p. 16)

Although it is rightly a solemn, introspective moment in the service, it is also a moment of celebration: Even as we confess our sins to God and one another – honestly owning up to our failures – we are assured that in Christ we are forgiven. Not “maybe forgiven” or “possibly forgiven if we’re lucky.” We are “assured” that God’s amazing, boundless, cleansing grace is for me and you. As The Worship Sourcebook puts it: “We confess sin in the context of the covenant Lord’s love shown to us through Jesus Christ” (p. 81).

Forgiveness graphic found via Google

Need I point out that this is the Lord who knows every single thing about you and me? He knows every nasty, secret thing I’ve ever thought. He knows every unethical scheme I’ve concocted. He knows every rotten thing I think I’ve gotten away with. He knows every ignorant, hurtful word I’ve uttered. This is the Lord who shows love and mercy to me in Christ!

It’s almost ridiculous that the great and perfect ruler of the universe chooses to call me one of His children. Yet that is the truth I claim every time a worship service includes an assurance of pardon following the confession of sins. Somewhere along the way, every genuine worship service and every true act of worship echoes with this Gospel, this Good News.

The best part of the worship service

It’s certainly not the longest and maybe seldom the most memorable part, but giving and receiving God’s greeting has got to be one of the best parts of a worship service, imho. It’s near the beginning. People stand. I raise my arms. “Grace and peace to you…” I say.

Grace and Peace graphic found via Google

These are not my words. And these are not words from Trinity CRC’s leadership or from church history. These are Biblical words from God Himself. As a pastor, there’s a simultaneously awesome and humbling thought right there! Think about it: Using my voice, God is welcoming you, expressing His pleasure that people have responded to His call to corporate (that is, group) worship.

The Worship Sourcebook says that these words of greeting “establish the lines of communication in worship. God always comes to us before we come to God. So it is fitting for worship to begin with Scriptural words that convey God’s greeting to us” (p. 56).

As we gather for worship, one of the first things that’s affirmed is that God has graciously brought us together, and that He is mysteriously yet wondrously present whether we come in joy or sorrow, praise or doubt. I certainly cannot think of a better way for the worship experience to begin each Sunday morning!

My colleague, Leon Johnston, has also been reflecting on
God’s greeting
at the start of the worship service.

A gracious welcome

In Psalm 87, it’s nothing short of astonishing to read who will all be welcome in Zion, God’s holy city. The psalmist looks forward to the day when the people of Egypt (referred to as Rahab), Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Cush will all be counted as part of God’s people. Throughout the Bible these nations are regularly antagonistic toward Israel – distrusting and fighting one another. Yet Psalm 87 promises that it will not always be that way.

If you were to update that list of surprising people entering God’s presence with 21st century language, I suspect you might come up with the welcome statement Monica & I read at Custer Lutheran Fellowship when we worshiped there during our Black Hills getaway a few months ago. Some of the individuals or groups listed may raise an Graphic found via Googleeyebrow or two – but probably not any more so than the Egyptians or Babylonians of the psalmist’s day.

This welcome statement with its specificity reminds me that the Holy Spirit seeks out and is at work in way more individuals and groups than I often give Him credit for. I’m sometimes quick to think that the problems and sins of other people are worse than my own. And so this welcome statement challenges me to reconsider whether there are people I’ve labeled as beyond God’s reach and therefore not truly welcome to worship at Trinity CRC

We want it to be of public record that those of different colored skin and heritage are welcome here.
We want it to be known that those who suffer from addiction to drugs and alcohol (whether recovering or not), and their families are welcome here.
We want it to be known that women and children are welcome here and that they will not be harassed or abused here.
We want it to be public record that in this congregation you can bring children to worship and even if they cry during the entire service, they are welcome.
We want it to be known that those who are single by choice, by divorce, or through death of a spouse, are welcome here.
We want it to be known that if you are promiscuous, have had an abortion, or have fathered children and taken no responsibility for them, you are welcome here.
We want it to be known that gossips, cheats, liars, and their families are welcome here.
We want it to be known that those who are disobedient to their parents and who have family problems are welcome here.
We want it to be of public record that gays and lesbians and members of their families are welcome here.
The young and old, the rich the poor, all of the broken are welcome here.
Let it be public knowledge that we at Custer Lutheran Fellowship take seriously that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
We want it to be public knowledge that we are justified by the grace of God, which is a gift through the redemption, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We offer welcome here because we believe that while we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly.  That’s us.  Christ did not die for us after we showed signs of “getting it all together.”  Christ loved and still shows love to us while we are yet sinners.
Sinners are welcome here – sinners like you and me, and like our neighbors.  Let us not condemn the world, but let us proclaim to a broken and hurting world, God’s forgiveness and grace.
We want it to be of public record that since we are a sinful people that we will not always be as quick to welcome as we should.  Let us be quick to admit our sin and seek forgiveness.
May God give us the grace to welcome and forgive one another as Christ has welcomed and forgiven us.

(Custer Lutheran Fellowship’s welcome statement
was written by their former pastor, Chuck Hazlett.
I reflected on Psalm 87 back in 2013, too.)

Encounter at a well

In John’s Gospel you find a story about Jesus discussing theology near a well with a Samaritan woman. This is shocking on a number of levels: 1. The Jews of Jesus’ day despised Samaritans and did everything they could to avoid them. 2. Jewish men in that culture did not address women in public. 3. Women in that culture were not deemed fit to learn theology. Despite all this, Woman at the Well by Wayne ForteJesus, a Jewish male, has a deep theological conversation with a Samaritan woman – in fact, it’s the longest section of dialogue in John’s Gospel.

Things get even more scandalous: It turns out that the woman’s marital history is unusual at best: She has been married five times and seems to currently be living common-law with a sixth man. Traditionally scholars assumed she has been living in adultery, thoughtlessly jumping from one marriage to another. But other research suggests that she may have been the victim of a combination of husbands passing away and/or husbands issuing her a certificate of divorce if they were dissatisfied with her (perhaps she is unable to bear children). We don’t know for sure, but, whatever her past, she seems to currently be in a sad, less-than-ideal situation.

We’re told Jesus knows all this ahead of time. Maybe a local had been chatting with Jesus when they both saw the woman approach and he warned Jesus not to become the woman’s sixth husband! I personally think Jesus in His divinity simply recognizes this woman as she approaches the well.

Regardless, Jesus knows this woman’s sad story of multiple marriages and non-ideal circumstances. I see grace in how Jesus still offers her the gift of living water despite her background and dubious past. As Prof. Darrell W. Johnson pointed out in the course I took last spring at Regent College on the Gospel of John, this story proves how my problems are neither a surprise nor an obstacle for Jesus. He invites me to own up to them and find healing in Him.

Jesus speaks of people worshiping in the Spirit and truth. I can be truthful with myself and with Jesus about what’s wrong and what’s hurting in my life. There’s no point in hiding it – He already knows. The amazing thing is that He also cares and is powerful enough to address my problems. His living water – the gift of His Holy Spirit – is still for me.

It makes me want to worship Him.

My adoption

A couple weeks ago the Nelson family spoke at Trinity CRC about the journey Cody & Breanna have been on to adopt Bongani and bring him home to the US from South Africa. Cody & Breanna have a great story and it was touching to hear Bongani pray at the end of their presentation.

Photo of the Nelson family is from their Facebook page

I’ve always resonated with the adoption language found throughout the Bible (examples here, here, and here). I contrast it with having biological children: When Monica and I welcomed our children into our home, we had no choice on gender, ethnicity, eye and hair color, health, temperament, and so on. But if we had adopted children, we may have had some say in those matters.

Knowing that God adopted me means knowing God specifically chose me. What makes that astonishing is that apart from Christ I wasn’t that great of a find! It’s not because I was particularly worthy but because of grace through Jesus that I find myself part of God’s family.

The Nelson’s presentation reminded me again of this prayer in Seeking God’s Face:

Adopting God, thank You for being not only the all-knowing architect of space and history, but also my loving Father. You have made space in Your heart for me, and I am embraced as Your child. I praise You for the wonder that You have chosen me, that I have been brought in from the outside – acceptable, accepted, and loved in Christ. In Jesus’ name, Amen. Philip F. Reinders

Alluring letdowns

Our trip to British Columbia last month involved catching a few flights there and back. One of the flights began with the usual offer of in-flight entertainment: For $7.99 I’d have access to more than 100 TV channels and new-Picture of airplane cabin with seat-back screens found via Googlerelease movies on the little screen embedded in the seat ahead of mine. I saved my money and brought along something to read.

I found it interesting that the offer continued to appear on everyone’s screens the cabin during the entire flight. In fact, even as we were preparing to deplane, screens were still showing happy people inserting their credit card and watching TV. Apparently it’s never too late to purchase inflight entertainment – even if you’re only a couple minutes away from stepping into the airport terminal!

Seeing the invitation to purchase inflight entertainment after the flight was over reminded me a bit of sin. Sin is enticing: It promises quick happiness and pleasure outside of God’s will and design for the good life.

But succumbing to sin is like paying $7.99 to watch inflight TV after the plane has landed. I might get a minute or two of fun, but ultimately it’s a letdown. It always turns out that sin never comes through with what it promises. As attractive as the devil tries to make them look, immoral shortcuts to happiness, pleasure, cash, or status will ultimately prove to be empty. They’ll likely even be harmful to myself and my relationships with others.

Trusting God and pursuing His will, on the other hand, bring fulfillment. I pray that by focusing on God’s free gift of grace, I can see that the things sin offers – alluring as they may seem at first – are actually empty and about as worthless as purchasing inflight entertainment after the plane has landed.