Monday, November 28, 2016

Advent Week One: Zechariah and Elizabeth

The extraordinary story of redemption happens through ordinary people who believe the promises of God. This is what Luke emphasizes as he begins his account of what was fulfilled through Jesus. Throughout the story Luke tells, Jesus is the quintessential friend of sinners. In fact, more than any other Gospel, Luke describes Jesus as seeking and saving those who have been pushed to the fringe of society (Luke 19.10). What's more, the "all kinds of people," Jesus comes to save, include ordinary religious folk like elderly  Elizabeth and her aged husband, Zechariah. As this first week of Advent gets started, let's consider two appeals from their story.

We should follow faithful routines. 

Just like us, Zechariah and Elizabeth were waiting for the promises of God to be fulfilled. They were waiting for God to act - to do something about the oppressive Romans government. They were praying with the Psalmist, "How long, O LORD? How Long?" Can you relate to Zechariah and Elizabeth's longing? What emptiness leads to longing deep within your soul? What situation is causing the words, "How long?" to form in the back of your throat? The people of God have always been waiting for God to keep his promise. This is why God's people have always allowed their lives to be disciplined by routines that shape them to wait. Disciplines such as regular prayer, corporate worship, Scripture study, and fasting and feasting with God's people are designed to help us patiently wait for God to make good on his ancient promise. Even more, these regular routines are intended by God to help us discern what God is up to, even when it seems like he is doing nothing. Brian Zahnd is helpful when he writes: 
Waiting for God to act is actually waiting for your soul to become quiet enough and contemplative enough to discern what God is doing in the obscure and forgotten corners, far from the corridors of power or wherever you think the action is.
Brothers and sisters, there is never a time when God is not active. However, his action is not always easy to discern. May we learn with Elijah that God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Rather, the voice of God came as a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19.9-18). Zechariah and Elizabeth were disciplined by faithful routines so that when God acted in the "obscure and forgotten corners" they had ears to hear.

We must discern God's promises to the weak. 

The story of the eternal Word of God becoming human on our behalf is full of all kinds of people, the powerful and the weak. Throughout the Christmas story it is the weak and vulnerable who receive the good news of God's promise. In fact, it seems the ones who occupy the position of power are unable to receive the news of the birth of Israel's humble king. Brothers and sisters, we are preoccupied with power (at least I am). Within the past few days, I have spent mental energy contemplating Donald Trump's latest tweet, whether or not Hillary Clinton is calling for a recount of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and whether or not the referees in the Ohio State-Michigan game were biased toward the Buckeyes. On the other hand, the story of the incarnation reveals that the mental energy of heaven is directed toward the weak, the humble, the empty, the downtrodden, the immigrant, the elderly, those regarded by the world as losers. In other words, the good news of Christmas according to Jesus' mother is that God is filling the hungry with good things and the rich are being sent away empty (Luke 1.53). May the same Spirit who brought God's Son into the world through Mary lead us to give our attention to those who occupy the mind of God.

Once again, Brian Zahnd helps us:
We have been seduced by an idolatry that deceives us into thinking that God is mostly found in the big and loud, when in fact, God is almost never found in the big and loud. The ways of God are predominantly small and quiet. The ways of God are about as loud as seed falling on the ground or bread rising in an oven. The ways of God are almost never found in the shouts of the crowd; the ways of God are more often found in trickling tears and whispered prayers. We want God to do a big thing, while God is planning to do a small thing. We are impressed by the big and loud. God is not. We are in a hurry. God is not. We want God to act fast, but Godspeed is almost always slow.
Listen to here our exposition of Luke 1.1-25.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Monday Morning Thoughts about Sunday: Pastoring toward Unity

How can the words of the Psalmist become our words?
I will walk before the LORD                                                                                              in the land of the living (Ps 116.9, ESV). 
In a world overflowing with "the snares of death ... the pangs of Sheol ... distress ... anguish ... death ... tears ... feet that stumble," how can we confidently assert that we will walk before the LORD in the land of the living? The world described by Psalm 116 is not some Pollyannaish vision of a life without struggle. Instead it is Gritty. Difficult. Painful. In the words of Eugene Peterson, the world of Psalm 116 "adds up to a lot of trouble. ... The land of the living is dangerous country. A lot goes wrong. There is a lot of trouble brewing out there and in here. Resurrection takes place in the country of death." This is good news because it is honest. The worldview of Psalm 116 is honest, but at that same time, hopeful. Resurrection will take place in the country of death! The concern of Ephesians 4 is how to walk with the hope of resurrection while we still call the country of death our home.

If our hope is resurrection, humility will be our reputation. 

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1–3, ESV)
Paul has already gone to great lengths to describe the implications of Jesus' resurrection in the first three chapters of Ephesians. Specifically, Paul teaches us that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, is the same power he is working among us who believe (1.19-20). What's more, the God who is rich in mercy and love for helpless and hopeless sinners has "made us alive together with Christ ... and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (2.4-6). Within the context of the risen Christ wielding his power in the country of death, Paul describes the Church as a colony devoted to the risen Christ. Did you catch that? The Church exists to testify in word and deed to the risen Christ. We draw this responsibility from Paul's teaching in Ephesians 4.7ff. Here Paul tells the story of Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Having accomplished his divine work, Jesus sat down at the right hand of the Father and immediately began sharing the rewards of his triumph. As the risen and ascended King, Jesus gave gifts and these gifts are people (Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds, and Teachers) who are empowered to equip the saints for the work of ministry that will lead the Church to unity. For unity to be possible, we must live in humility. And as we express humility and patience by bearing with one another in love, we testify that the power of the risen Christ is enabling us to remain humble, patient, and tolerant. Brothers and sisters, if we truly believe Christ is the risen King, we will humbly draw near for Gospel ministry to all who are in him. This is how we walk before the LORD in the land of the living, in humility with each other.

In what relationship is the risen Christ inviting you to inject humility? Many of us have relationships in need of restoration. Brothers and sisters, the risen Christ is calling and equipping us to seek reconciliation and humility is the indispensable key. By the Spirit of Christ, may the risen Christ gently bring healing and unity to all that sin has torn asunder. In Jesus, may it be so.

Listen to our exposition of Ephesians 4.1-16, Pastoring toward Unity.

I'm reading, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ, by Timothy Keller .

Monday, November 14, 2016

Monday Morning Thoughts about Sunday: The Resurrection and the Gospel

As Gospel Christians we must see the world through the lenses of reality and hope. The tension between reality and hope is something the Gospel of Jesus helps us maintain.

The Lens of Reality

Without apology the Bible teaches that we are going to die. Because of the trespass of Adam and all who are in him, death spread to all men (see Romans 5.12). So if the Lord tarries, death is a reality each of us must face. Scriptures teaches us that this reality must shape they way we live. The wisdom of the Psalmist is quite clear. 
For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh (Psalm 90.9, ESV).  
So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90.12, ESV). 
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart (Ecclesiastes 7.2, NIV). 
Not only do these words teach us the reality that "death is the destiny of everyone," but these words also exhort us to take this reality to heart, that is, to allow the reality that death is our destiny to shape how we live each day.

Brothers and sisters life is short. We (the younger) can sometimes be tricked into living like we, or others are immortal. If we remember that life "is a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes" (James 4.14, ESV), we won't take ourselves too seriously, nor will we be enslaved to the fear of others. When we are tempted by pride, we must repeat to ourselves: "I am a mist that appears for a little time then vanishes." When we are overwhelmed by fear of our real or imagined enemies, we must repeat to ourselves: "They are a mist that appears for a little time then vanishes."

Brothers and sisters, in over 15 years of ministry in the local church, I have been present at the end of life for approximately 40 individuals. While death should always be considered an enemy (1 Corinthians 15.25-26Revelation 20.13), it seems that death is always surrounded by a mixture of regret and gifts. What's more, how the dying have loved always determines whether or not their death is more characterized by gift or regret. Beloved, if we are to take to heart that death is the destiny of everyone we will devote our lives to love.

The Lens of Hope

The false teachers Paul is calling Timothy to confront have been handing out heavy doses of reality. They believe strongly in the reality of death, but they are missing the Gospel necessity that death will not have the last word. The Apostle Paul describes them this way.
Their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some (2 Timothy 2.17-18, ESV).
These false teachers and those who followed them have swerved away from the Gospel by denying that death will one day be overthrown through resurrection to eternal life on an earth made new (1 Corinthians 15.20-23) We have fallen into the same false teaching when salvation is reduced to "going to heaven after we die." As Jesus reminds us when he teaches us to pray, our desire is for the Kingdom of God to come to earth.

Brothers and sisters, the lens of hope frees us to be honest about death. It is bad. It needs to go and one day, death will go to hell (Revelation 20.13)! Thanks be to God!

Listen to our exposition, Pastoring Toward Resurrection.

I'm reading, The Pastor as Minor Poet, by Craig Barnes.  

Monday, November 7, 2016

Monday Morning Thoughts about Sunday: The Gentle Way to Transformation (2 Timothy 2.24-26)

Our approach to 2 Timothy 2.24-26 can be boiled down to two statements and one conclusion. 1) The way we represent Jesus must correspond to what Jesus is like. 2) Jesus is gentle. Therefore, we must be gentle in the way we represent Jesus.

How and why is Jesus gentle?   

Consider the approach Jesus took with the following characters. Zacchaeus was a Jewish man who worked for the enemy. Moreover, he used his friends' money for his own selfish gain (Think Bernie Madoff.) Before this surly character repented of his sin and made restitution, Jesus invited himself into Zacchaeus' home to share a meal. This was Jesus' way of saying to Zacchaeus, "I like you. I want us to be friends." The Roman Centurion would have been a Gentile, the commander of a division of the occupying imperial troops, theoretically one hundred in number" (Craig Blomberg). The Jews of Jesus' day would have considered this man unclean because he was a Gentile. What's more, this man was a powerful symbol of all that the Romans were doing to make life horrible for the Jews. Just like he was with Zacchaeus, Jesus was willing to enter this man's home to help meet a desperate need. This was Jesus' way of saying, "Just because the world tells us we should be enemies, I see your need and I want to help." The Syrophoenician woman was from Jezebel's hometown. Moreover, her daughter was possessed by a demon. Nonetheless, Jesus responds to her faith by miraculously, and from a distance delivering her daughter from the clutches of Satan. This was Jesus' way of saying, "the hospitality of the Kingdom of God will not be limited to a certain type of person from a certain type of place." Beloved, these narratives, and many others like them consistently describe Jesus as gentle toward and transforming of those different from him. In each of these scenarios, the recipients of Jesus' gentle hospitality encountered Jesus in a saving way. This is why Paul exhorts Timothy to correct his opponents "with gentleness," because it is through quarreling and disrespect that Satan accomplishes his goals. But when those who have been captured by the devil encounter the gentleness of Jesus on display through his servants, the enemy does not stand a chance. Do you want to see others transformed? It will not be through power, control, and winning arguments. It it will be through the gentleness of Jesus. 

Listen to Gentle Shepherd our exposition of 2 Timothy 2.24-26.

Here's what I'm reading. 

Death by Living: Life is Meant to Be Spent by N.D. Wilson