Thursday, December 28, 2017

Can Hate Ever Be a Good Thing? (Proverbs 6:16-19)

At this time of year, we often review the major news stories of the year. Some good, some bad, some horrific. It is a season where the message of love, peace, and joy should leave us wondering how we can help to make this world a better place in the year to come for we are barraged with news stories of tragic acts of hate perpetrated against humanity. When we see attitudes and acts of hate, in the lives of others, we innately recoil in horror and condemn such as uncivilized and unacceptable. In America, we have gone so far as to establish special laws against hate crimes.

So how could we ever suggest that there is a time when hate could be good? Certainly not the kind of hate that harms or diminishes others, but what about a hate that is motivated by great love and untainted wisdom?  I know it sounds strange. Yet, because God is love (1 John 4:8), and his love is steadfast and endures forever (e.g., Psalm 118:29), there are some things that the Lord hates.

King Solomon, using a uniquely Hebraic poetic style, expresses it this way…
There are six things that the Lord hates,

    seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
    and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
    feet that make haste to run to evil,
a false witness who breathes out lies,
    and one who sows discord among brothers.
(Proverbs 6:16-19)

Why does the Lord hate these attitudes and actions?
Because they hurt everyone involved. God, in his love, desires what is best and right for all his creatures.

As a result, he fiercely opposes the work of the enemy—who comes only to steal, kill and destroy—wherever it is found.

It is the Holy Spirit, manifesting the love of God, who brings conviction—the knowledge of our own failures—so that we might turn again to the healing love of God in Christ.

At Christmas, we hear the story again, how God came to earth… not with haughty eyes, lying tongue, or justified acts of revolution, to accomplish a greater “good”. He did not feel compelled to resort to the devil’s tactics, but instead manifested the love of God.

Do you ever wonder why we can spot hate in others so much better than we can spot it in ourselves? I have. Sometimes I think we point out the failures in others because it is safer than looking at, and dealing with, our own.
  • Do we look down on others, or feel entitled to something better than them?
  • Are we quick confessors, ready to authentically admit our shortcomings, or is it more natural for us lie to cover up our indiscretions? What’s worse, do we lie to God thinking that he falls for our deceptive reasoning? He doesn’t lie and doesn’t fall for our mind tricks either.
  • Do we objectify others for the sake of our own needs? Not many of us would want to literally kill someone else, but when we waste their lives for our own pleasure and comfort we are in some way “shedding innocent blood.”
  • How quick are we to do what we can get away with, to profit personally at the expense of others? Is our focus on defending our “right” to do what we want even when it is evil?
  • Do we inflate our own qualifications and minimize those of others? Do we curate information to produce the results we desire without regard to accuracy?
  • Do we in advancing our own causes stir up an unhealthy distrust among the brothers and sisters? Do we delight in plant fake news, erect strawman arguments, curate conspiracies, cultivate cynicism, and harvest division? We hate those “mean girls” and “jealous guys” who make the lives of others miserable. Let us not be like them. God’s purposes are not advanced by tearing down others to exalt ourselves, but by trusting God himself to make our name great.
Thankfully, God doesn’t ask us to do what he won’t do himself. Jesus Christ was the perfect manifestation of the invisible God—in that he revealed the heart, character, and mission of God to mankind. He came humbly not choosing to draw attention to himself. He always spoke honestly never placating people for his own advantage, and he went about healing and undoing the works of death—both physically and spiritually.

His new command was that his followers might “love one another” and thus prove he had been in their midst. While truth divides, Jesus never sowed discord, but instead advocated for forgiveness and reconciliation (e.g., Matt. 5:23-24; Mark 11:25). However, for that to take place perhaps we need a bit more heavenly hate for the attitudes and acts of pride and selfishness that sprout up like weeds in the gardens of our own heart.

What do you think?

Thursday, August 17, 2017

All Creatures, All Cultures

This post was originally published on a blog focusing on a devotional approach to the Psalms Honest2God

However, in light of recent ongoing racial tensions it is appropriate to be reminded that the symphony of God's people includes and embraces all creatures and all cultures.

(Image painted by Hope G Smith

Psalm 150:1-6

1 Praise the Lord!
   Praise God in his sanctuary;
    praise him in his mighty heavens!

2 Praise him for his mighty deeds;
    praise him according to his excellent greatness!

3 Praise him with trumpet sound;
    praise him with lute and harp!
4 Praise him with tambourine and dance;
    praise him with strings and pipe!
5 Praise him with sounding cymbals;
    praise him with loud clashing cymbals!

6 Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!
   Praise the Lord!

Wang Xi on Unsplash
Hallelujah! This is the final psalm of praise (doxology) in a string of praise psalms! More than that, this final psalm is a doxology for the entire book as well. This psalm starts with a “Hallelujah “ and ends with a “Hallelujah!” It is a very ancient Hebrew word expressing worship to Yahweh, the covenant-keeping God of Israel who is revealed in the Bible. It has been transliterated into most languages on the earth, it is a word that now transcends language and culture to express praise to the one true God, our Creator and Redeemer!

Within this inclusio (of just six verses) there are eleven more exhortations to praise the Lord.

The phrase in verse 2, "praise him according to his excellent greatness" always makes me think. What kind of praise could ever live up to that? Could our worship ever actually be "according to his excellent greatness"? Maybe one day in heaven when we can see him as he really is and have eternity to express it...but probably not till then. 

However, one way that we can begin to praise more in accord with his greatness is to allow each culture to express true praise to God from within their God-given culture, and in their God-given language. "Praise in accordance with God’s greatness" cannot be contained or monopolized by one race, within one language, one culture, or one musical style! 

This psalm subtly makes this clear through the lists of instruments that sound like those of different cultures and generations, from the fanfare of royalty and priest (3a), to the quiet and contemplative of tones of lute and harp (3b), from the rollicking Hebraic tambourine and dance (4a) to the Celtic or Bluegrass sounding strings and pipes (4b); or even the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) head-flipping rock opera or college marching band sound of sounding cymbals and crashing cymbals (4b). Music is universal…just not the same music. So is praise. 

When we gather in heaven, we may not all be singing Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, Phil Wickham, or Hillsong, like I do, but we will join together nonetheless in that great hymn-dance of praise perfectly fitted to the greatness of our Savior. 

Could the new song that we raise be the choral tapestry of all languages, cultures, and styles singing their praise to our Triune God, blended together into one great multi-layered anthem by the love and wisdom of God? Very likely, for such is consistent with biblical teaching about the nature of the church!

I contend that these six verses also show us that, praise "according to his excellent greatness" would need to be praise that is offered everywhere, for all he is and does, on every instrument, with every living voice, from every culture and nation, with all that is in all of us! May it begin to be increasingly so in the church today and in the days to come!

This interracial and multicultural theme is echoed in the final book of the Bible, which in many ways serves as a doxology for the entire Bible and plan of God in time and history. I will quote a couple of passages from the Book of Revelation that contain the praises of the church, that great multitude of redeemed humanity, to conclude this journey through the psalms. Amazing how familiar the language is and yet how unfamiliar the experience is to many!

Revelation 7:9-12  Hosanna!”
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”  

Revelation 19:1-2, 6-8 “Hallelujah!
After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out,
Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
    for his judgments are true and just;
for he has judged the great prostitute
    who corrupted the earth with her immorality,
and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”

...Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,
For the Lord our God
    the Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
    and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
    and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
    with fine linen, bright and pure”—
for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.

Hallelujah! Amen.

[See also Revelation 14:1-3 “A New Song”, and 15:2-4 “Song of Moses” for other great choruses in the Kingdom]


Monday, November 7, 2016

Voting for Nebuchadnezzar

This article was originally posted on my Our Long View Blog if you want to see other messages like this.

In last week’s message, we continued a study about glory. People were created to share in the glory of God but that all changed when man rebelled against God and sought his own glory instead. The true glory of God has been substituted, replaced with a cheap, knock-off pirated type of glory. In previous weeks, we had considered the limitations of both human and national glory. Here is a summary.

1) Human Glory Is Momentary (Psa. 39:5; 103:14; 144:4; Eccl. 3:20; Isa. 40:6-8; 1 Peter 1:24; 1 Thess. 2:6). Man’s exile from the achingly beautiful presence of true glory has too often been dealt with not through seeking reconciliation with God, but by pursuing the lesser glory that comes from other people. Man’s residual glory, having been created in the Imago Dei, has been clouded and even at his best is momentary (Psa. 39:5; 103:14; 144:4; Eccl. 3:20; 1 Peter 1:24) and not something that should be sought (1 Thessalonians 2:6). We would do well to remember that our society tends to cannibalize its celebrities.  We build people up only so that we can tear them down. The true glory of humanity is as Irenaeus said, to “remain permanently in God’s service.”[1] Why is this the true glory of humanity? Because being in relationship with the triune God is where we find our long sought peace, our irreducible value, and our ultimate purpose as we are invited to participate in the inter-Trinitarian life of God through the Son by the Spirit.

2) National Glory Is Temporary (Genesis 11, Isaiah 37, 2 Kings 19). The Bible tells of many nations and empires rising and falling—Babel, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, etc. They might have been impressive from a human perspective, but their power and glory were not permanent. The Bible teaches that any nation raised up by God for a purpose, which fails to give God glory by functioning in justice for all may serve a temporary purpose, but is soon judged and passes from the scene of history. It is a hard truth all “superpowers” must face. We should pray Daniel’s prayer of national repentance (Daniel 9).

Then last week we considered the dangerous distinctives of self-glory.

3) Self-Glory Is Deceptive (v.23, Rev. 18:7-8) Self-glory is not only momentary, but highly deceptive, promising better than it delivers and woefully understating the cost (e.g., Acts 12:23; Revelation 16:9; 18:7), straight from the father of lies himself. A powerful example of this concept is found in the life of Nebuchadnezzar recorded in Daniel 4.

In Daniel 4, Nebuchadnezzar tells, in his own words, what he has learned about God through the various signs and wonders which God worked in and around his life. Daniel 3 tells the story of Nebuchadnezzar (or “Mr. Nezzar” as he is called in the VeggieTales version) throwing Daniel’s three friends into the fiery furnace for refusing to bow down and worship the huge golden stature of the king. At the end of that narrative, the king declared, 
“Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants, who trusted in him, and set aside the king's command, and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue in this way.” (Dan. 3:28-29)

Then in Chapter 4 the king received a dream from the Lord which he was unable to understand. Daniel had interpreted the first one for him and in this case, was again enabled by the Lord to interpret the dream. This time the dream functioned as a dire pronouncement of a coming humiliation for his great pride. Nebuchadnezzar was given a slim glimmer of hope, from Daniel, if he would “break off” his iniquities through...
  1. By practicing righteousness, establishing justice for all the people in the realm. It is especially contingent upon a leader to realize that the law of the land applies to them as ruler as well as to the people.
  2. By showing mercy to the oppressed. He was “to show a new sensitivity to the plight of the poor in his empire, protecting them instead of allowing the rich to exploit and oppress them.” [EBC]

If he did this, then Daniel suggested that “there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity.” It might have already been too late for Mr. Nezzar. However, he seemed to have complied for a year before looking at his capital and all the hanging gardens it contained and taking all the credit for himself…as politicians are wont to do. At that very moment the justice and mercy of God were declared from heaven. 
Nebuchadnezzar, by William Blake 1794
Daniel 4:28-33 tells the story of Nebuchadnezzar went on a “crazy trip” that lasted perhaps if seven years (There is a period in his reign that contains a gap in activity from 581 and 573 BC except siege of Tyre which might easily have been continued in his absence) before his reason returned and he blessed God instead of himself. Not only that, but he writes of his own failures and sin of pride in his own words in Daniel 4. Just one chapter earlier he would have been the very least likely candidate to give glory to the God of Israel in the eyes of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But now he declares the praise of God for all the world!

I contend that every politician is a Nebuchadnezzar, who has power that can be used for good or for ill; who is also subject to take credit for successes while deflecting blame for failures. 

I am amazed that a man who was basically the ruler of the world was humbled by the justice of God and restored by the mercy of God and could testify,

At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, 
and my reason returned to me, 
and I blessed the Most High, 
and    praised and honored him who lives forever,
                      for his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
                    and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
   all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
    and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
    and among the inhabitants of the earth;
    and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”
…Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, 
praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, 
for all his works are right and his ways are just;
 and those who walk in pride he is able to humble. (Daniel 4:34-37)

Don't you wish our leaders could say the same thing?

Nebuchadnezzar had learned his lesson, for the common good, and became a leader for whom I could vote. I am praying that our leaders today experience their own Nebuchadnezzar moment, humble themselves giving glory to God so that they might rule well.

[1] Joel C. Elowsky, ed. John 11-21 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture). Vol. IVb (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2007), 176

Friday, October 21, 2016

"Choosy Moms Choose Jesus"?

I saw a church reader-board sign recently on my commute. This is not uncommon as I like the “Dad-humor” mixed with a spiritual perspective so often expressed in such places. However, this one had me choking rather than chuckling. It simply read, "Choosy Moms Choose Jesus." OK... kind of catchy but also kind of wrong. Marketing Jesus by appealing to pride, exclusivity, consumerism, insecurities, and peanut butter? Well, I think he's OK with the peanut butter.

If I were to write a blog post engaging this idea, which I am not likely to do… I would say that this well-intended reader-board wisdom is deficient on so many levels. In fact I could probably list three or four ways right off the top of my hot head.

First, we don't choose Jesus, he chooses us. The Bible is pretty clear about this, and he didn’t choose us because we were “all that,” but because he is the kind of God that is outward-focused in love. We were not in a place to help ourselves or with a ton of options, in fact we were poor, sick, and weak. Here are a couple of passages that speak to this.

  • Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:5)
  • For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
  • (See Romans 11:5-6; 16:13; Col. 3:12;1 Thess. 1:4; 1 Peter 2:9-10; John 6:43-44).  

Second, even by bumper-sticker standards this statement seems very impersonal and not
very creative. Is Jesus merely a product to be bought, sold, selected or rejected? Is such objectification a sign of spiritual maturity? No. He is a person to whom we must relate. He pours out his love on us—while we were yet sinners—and we must respond to that love one way or the other. However, our "choosiness" is not an advantage here. Honestly there is much in the life of discipleship that is not easy and also much that is not held in high esteem by the court of public opinion. Having said all that, what does it say about "choosy Moms" by blatantly ripping off the Jif™ Peanut butter marketing campaign? Perhaps choosy moms should choose more original tag lines, lest their children learn to plagiarize. Jesus is the creator of all so perhaps instead of copying the ideas of the dominant culture we would do well to be more creative and less given to accommodate the voice of another.
Third, the saying intends to play on the pride of a "choosy mom" and get her to choose Jesus in order to maintain her own sense of competence and bolster her self-image as a good mother. It markets the programs of the church by appealing to a part of our person from which we must repent in order to fully experience the grace of God. It would seem to me, that the church’s reader board shoots its gospel mission in the foot with such a proclamation.
Fourth, the consumerism that is the great weakness of the church is in evidence here. People are often in a church for what they can get for their marriage, their family, and their own self-fulfillment instead of embracing and being embraced by God's family the church as they share life together. That is a tragedy of a non-Trinitarian view of God being manifested in the church. We too often follow the "monad in our mind" that spins everything as revolving around us instead of realizing that we are only who we are in relationship with others. Church is a place to “one another” because they need it and God is just that way.
“The concrete means by which the church becomes an echo of the life of the Godhead are all such as to direct the church away from self-glorification to the source of its life in the creative and recreative presence of God to the world.”[1]

Well those are some of the seed-thoughts I might try to communicate if I were to write a short blog about something as trivial as a reader board sign.
I think I’ll make a peanut butter sandwich instead.

[1] Colin E. Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (New York: T & T Clark, 1997), 81.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Taking the Plunge: Baptism In Acts (Acts 2, 8, 10, 16)

[This article was also posted on my pastoral blog Our Long View.]

Last Sunday, we celebrated the baptism of eight souls. However, in response to a number of tragic shootings in our country in the last couple of weeks, we took extended time to seek God in prayer for justice and reconciliation in our nation. The president of our denomination, Glenn Burris Jr., had sent a letter to all our churches entitled, Call to Prayer and Action from which we took our prayer focus. This is not a new topic to us as recent sermons have touched on issues such as civil disobedience, and passive racism from the text of Acts. Our congregational readings included 2 Corinthians 5:4 "we groan"; and  verse 16, "From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh" (e.g., our family line, wealth, height, race, education, religious affiliation, etc.). We also read 1 John 4:10-11, and 19-21,
“If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

Then since we were doing baptism I did a short message on Baptism in Acts showing the road of reconciliation the church should take in matters such as we are facing today. We had the joy of baptizing 8 souls!

Our culture may emphasize our divisions (see list above), but the Book of Acts shows how we all come into the church the same way—through repentance and baptism. It also demonstrates that all who follow Jesus in faith may come, no matter how counter-cultural it may be.

Acts 2:37-38 The Apostle Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost was spoken to Jews gathered from many different cultures and languages the message of the resurrected Christ. In response to their question about how they should respond, Peter said, “Repent and be baptized.” 3000 souls we added to the church that day. Notice that the number was not broken down according to our popular demographic dividers (men, women, adults, children, race, education, income, etc.). The message was for all audiences, not in a color-blind way of cultural conformity.

Acts 8 Including the Excluded
After persecution of the church broke out in Jerusalem and Judea, Philip the Evangelist expanded the Mission in partial fulfillment of Jesus’ command in Acts 1:8. In the name of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit, he preached, healed, and baptized...
  • v.12 Even the hated Samaritans (a racially and religiously mixed people) responded to the gospel, believed and were baptized, both men and women!
  • v. 35-38 An Ethiopian Eunuch, treasurer to the queen of what would be modern-day Sudan, was eager to be baptized after learning about Jesus Christ. It is important to note that he was a non-Jew black man who had come to worship God in Jerusalem, but he did so as one who had a physical exclusion as a eunuch that would have kept him from full inclusion in Judaism (Deut. 23:1). However, the one who could not come close in the past was now in Christ included. Ironically, when Philip struck up a conversation with him, the man was puzzled as he read Isaiah 53 about the suffering Messiah, just a bit farther in Isaiah the text speaks about the inclusion of foreigners and eunuchs when the righteousness of the Lord comes (56:3-5).
Acts 9 "Before Breakfast"
Once Saul (Paul), the great persecutor of the church’s sight was restored (physically & spiritually) the first thing he did was get baptized even before breaking his three day fast (v.18-19). By doing so he declared a change of allegiance, joining those he had formerly persecuted. The church has as it heritage the thankful inclusion of its repentant former oppressors. We truly are to be ministers of reconciliation.

Acts 10 Withholding Nothing
Here we find the story of Peter being supernaturally sent to the home/headquarters of the Roman “Cop” Cornelius (the Roman Centurion). Cornellius summoned all his friends and relatives to hear the message. While Peter was still speaking, all who heard received the Holy Spirit and praised God (v. 47-48). Peter responded rhetorically, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. It was this event that convinced the Jerusalem church that Gentiles were to be equal recipients of the gospel.

Acts 16 Two Families in Philippi “And all their household were baptized.” If we read the text of Acts 16 carefully, we will see the Gospel transforming two families from different socio-economic strata. Is it any coincidence that they are presented in tandem?
  • Lydia the wealthy merchant woman (she sold “purple” which only the wealthiest people could afford) was baptized with "her entire household." One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us. (v.14-15)
  • The lowly Philippian jailer who worked in a dungeon (inflicting and suffering many of the same conditions as the prisoners) was baptized "with his entire family." Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. (v.30-33)
Acts 21:16 “Why do you wait?” Finally let’s consider Paul’s speech to those in Jerusalem who were stuck in their ways, “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”

Without going into an exhaustive theological treatment of Christian baptism, let me say that baptism is…
  • A death to ourselves and a resurrection to Christ. In this transformation we find new life and a new purpose for living.
  • A public declaration of our change of loyalty. We are now citizens of the Kingdom of heaven, loyal to Jesus Christ above all.
  • Recognizes our new identity. Historically converts received their Christian name at this time, hence the term, “Christening.” While we are not accustomed to changing our name, we get a new identity—one not based on our past failures, or present poverty, but one based on the finished work of Christ. Once we were unloved, didn’t belong, and were scattered before the nations. Now we know that we are loved, adopted into the family of God, and planted in the world for the purposes of Christ and the common good.

I presented this brief list in a survey format and with a minimum of explanation. Hopefully you can see the racial, gender, and economic reconciliation modeled in Christian baptism as demonstrated in Acts and seek the same in the church today.

In conclusion, I leave you with a personalized form of Paul’s appeal, “Why do we wait?”