Saturday, December 19, 2015

Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All?

It was the prophet Micah who prophesied that the Messiah would come from the small village of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2-5).  In Micah’s day there was no “peace on earth, goodwill to all.”  It helps to have some historical context in order to understand and appreciate the promise of God.

            Ever since the time of Solomon the kingdom was divided between north and south:  the northern kingdom of Israel with Samaria as its capital; and, the southern kingdom of Judah with Jerusalem as its capital.  In the 8th century B.C. the powerful Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel.  They deported many of the Israelites and re-populated the cities with their own people.  This is why the Jews in Jesus’ day looked down on Samaritans.  They pejoratively viewed them as “half-breeds” who were a mix of Jewish and Assyrian descent.

            The Assyrian takeover of Israel not only left the northern kingdom in shambles but had a large impact on the southern kingdom of Judah.  All of Judah and Jerusalem were in extreme duress.  Even though Judah had not been conquered and was intact, they were still forced to pay tribute to the Assyrians in order to keep them at bay.  The problem became even more exacerbated because the leadership of Judah wanted to maintain their power and lifestyle.  They expected the poor to shoulder the burden of the tribute to the Assyrians.

            In addition, thousands of refugees from Israel were flooding into Judah and Jerusalem.  They had lost their homes, their land, and had nothing but their lives.  So, the already scant resources in Judah were pushed to the brink.  Judah was a mess.  Those in authority and power, the ones with the resources that could make something of a difference, ended up taking advantage of the situation by buying fields and land at a fraction of its worth because people were just trying to survive.  In some cases the leadership leveraged their power by pushing people off their land and taking it over.  It was anything but a time of security, peace, and actions of goodwill.

            Into this terrible situation of hardship and survival Micah’s message was that a new kind of leader will come.  He will have humble origins, just like the common oppressed people of Judah.  The refugees, the displaced farmers, and the poor will have a champion.  He will feed them and shepherd them, leading them to green pastures.  This leader will serve the people instead of the people serving the leader.

            As Christians, we understand this prophecy to speak of our Messiah Jesus.  This is why we look at Scriptures like this one during the season of Advent.  Just as the ancient Jews needed hope and the promise of a different ruler, so today we, too, need hope and the anticipation of the leader who will come again with an agenda using power for security, peace, and goodwill.

            Jesus is the promised one to come.  His exercise of leadership and power is different than earthly politicians and officials.  Israel and Judah had been so filled with bad kings and self-serving leadership over the centuries that Christ’s disciples could barely conceive of a different kind of rule.  This is why Jesus called his disciples together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-43).

            The greatest Christmas gift we can give this season is the gift of our lives to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah.  When we see that God always keeps his promises; when we gain the understanding that Jesus is the fulfillment of all those good promises; and, when we receive the gift of the Spirit, it is not a duty but a delight to give ourselves to the triune God who has orchestrated salvation for us.  Since Jesus loves and serves us, it is a small thing for us to give ourselves to him in return.  May this be the reason for your joy, peace, and goodwill this season, to the glory of God.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Grace Is the Word

Whether we are aware of it or not, the world spins on the axis of grace; without God’s mercy life as we know it would cease to exist.  Judgment and death are never the final say over the earth – grace is the word that changes everything and transforms the impossible into the realm of reality.

The large Old Testament book of Isaiah is thick with the message of judgment for both Israel and the nations that surrounded her.  The sins of Israel were many.  The primary offenses were injustice toward the needy with the have’s taking manipulative advantage of the have-not’s; and, empty worship rituals toward God.  Social and spiritual corruption was rampant.  God pleaded with the people through his prophets to stop doing wrong and start doing justice, encouraging the oppressed, and defending the causes of people who do not have the power to defend themselves (Isaiah 1:10-17).

            Although God’s judgment was imminent through the powerful Assyrian Empire, God would not annihilate his people.  God promised that a Righteous Branch would grow up from the seemingly dead stump of Israel.  A child would be born.  A Messiah would be given.  There would be hope in Israel.  Heartfelt authentic praise will again fill the air.  Proclamation of God’s great name will again be on the lips of Israel.

            What is remarkable about all this is God’s grace.  God made promises to Israel not based upon what they would or would not do; God made promises to his people by his own radically free love.  It was not a situation of making a deal – “if, Israel, you get your act together then I, God, will be good to you.”  No!  Before Israel even had a chance to return to the Lord, God was already choosing to be gracious and merciful.

            If we miss the message of God’s grace in the Holy Scriptures, we have missed salvation because only grace can save us.  What we have in common with the Israelites of old is that we both are totally dependent upon God’s amazing grace.  Without grace, we are lost.  There is praise because it is a response to the incredible grace God gives which is completely undeserved (Isaiah 12:1-6). 

            Grace is the thing that is distinctive about Christianity – no other religion, no other place will you find grace amidst the awful muck of the world.  Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return.  Grace is recklessly generous.  Grace does not use carrot sticks, scorecards, or power politics.  Grace does not demand – it only gives.  Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver.  That is what God did for Israel.  That is what God has done for us.  And when we get a hold of this truth, even a little bit, there is a cascade of praise that comes rolling out of our hearts and onto our lips.

            The prophecy of Isaiah is an adventure of God’s reckless love toward unlovable people, which is why it is one of the most quoted books of the Old Testament by Jesus.  Jesus came because of grace.  Jesus came to release us from our obsessive need to be right, our compulsion to be rewarded, and all our anglings to be respected.  Because Jesus came to set sinful captives free, life does not have to be a joyless effort to justify and validate ourselves before others.  The grace of God in Christ is a game-changer.  And when we get a glimpse of it we are forever altered and undone by its mercy.  Grace brings praise.

            When grace takes hold of a congregation there is no mumbling of songs – there is a shouting aloud and singing for joy because God is great!  Grace brings such joy and gladness that we do not care what we look like to other people; we are going to shout and sing and express our joy!  Yes, there is an important place for contemplative, reverent, reflective worship… and, there is a place for completely letting go, becoming unhinged, and dancing before Jesus!

The season of Advent is all about God’s relentless pursuit of wayward people – the anticipation of grace coming in the form of an infant – and the bringing of grace to a people living in darkness. Let us return to the Lord.  Let us be captivated by grace.  Let us renew our love for Jesus.  Let us lose ourselves in praise and adoration of the One who gave everything for us.  Let us worship Christ the King.  Let us proclaim his name as exalted over everything.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Take the High Road

            When I was younger I thought my Dad was too wishy-washy when it came to political allegiances.  He was always fiercely independent, never declaring a political party or a particular platform.  His two favorite presidents of all-time were Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, two men that could not be more different and opposite.  Now that I have a few years under my belt (not to mention a few pounds) I am beginning to see the approach and wisdom of my late Dad.  Dad was no stranger to politics and dealing with people.  He served for many years on the local school board and presided as its president through some mucky issues of the school system.  Through it all he was able to maintain his convictions without estranging others.

            Within my local congregation there may be very little ethnic and racial diversity, but it is more than made up for in political diversity.  Right-wing conservatives and left-leaning liberals populate the church, with everything in-between.  Within my sphere of social media friends the differences and diversity is even more pronounced.  Just a quick glance at Facebook, I would never know that it is the holiday season where we celebrate peace and goodwill toward our fellow humanity.  Heated polemics and sarcastic rhetoric seem to be everywhere.  It is one thing for the world to act in such a way, it is quite another for people who profess the name of Jesus Christ to act with hate-filled speech.  When unthinking Christians splash their spiritual immaturity in public for all to see, it is time for us to take the high road to Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.  Lately, I’ve been thinking that maybe my Dad was onto something after all – remaining calm and carefully engaging in political talk in ways that are helpful, not hurtful.

            It was our Lord Jesus Christ who clearly taught us that it is the peacemakers who are blessed and are called children of God (Matthew 5:9).  Jesus had some strong words for those who would stoop to name-calling (Matthew 5:22).  What is more, Christ our teacher clearly instructed us his followers to love and pray for our enemies, to forgive those who have wronged us, and not to judge them (Matthew 5:43-48; 6:14-15; 7:1-5).  The gospel that Jesus and Paul proclaimed was one of peace, not wrath.  Our Lord did not go to the cross in order to give us ammunition to blast others who disagree with us; Jesus died to bring peace and to completely eradicate any us-versus-them mentalities.  The warped compulsion we have to divide the entire human population into good and bad misses the mid-point of history where Jesus stands to bring peace, having abolished our predilections for separating others (Ephesians 2:11-18).

            It is time to take the high road.  It is not wishy-washy to pray and work toward peace.  I have come to see that my Dad showed more courage in not taking sides than aligning himself with a certain group of people.  Our focus is more out-of-whack than we probably know.  It is high time we get our heads and our hearts back on the One who will ultimately come and consummate God’s benevolent and peaceful reign upon all creation.  By adopting Christ’s kingdom values we are being faithful subjects in a rule that is meant to transform the world, not through fear and hostility, but by the grace of King Jesus.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Christian Soulcraft

           The word “soulcraft” might conjure different images in your mind.  I am not talking about a boat or a bike.  I am neither making reference about a video game nor a corporation.  I am not referring to any avant garde religious expression.  Rather, I put the two words “soul” and “craft” together to highlight the importance of what a solid pastoral ministry does for Christians.  Sometimes the metrics we use in the church to determine its effectiveness and impact has more to do with budgets, attendance, and building maintenance than it does with the careful crafting of souls into the image of Jesus.  We must become adept in the church at patiently and tediously constructing souls.  Caring for the spiritual needs of people ought to be high on the list of priorities for every church ministry.  It is a constant work in progress.

            Just as the term implies, caring for souls is a special craft that one tries to constantly improve.  Pastors and church leaders never come to the point of ceasing to need continuous training, education, and experience in the business of crafting souls that are bent toward Christ’s kingdom values.  Throughout the history of the church much attention has been given to the care of souls.  Early church fathers such as Gregory the Great took great pains to describe the pastor’s work as offering moral and spiritual guidance to both churched and unchurched persons.  The Reformation teaching of the priesthood of all believers is a special emphasis upon every Christian’s privilege and responsibility to intercede and help others toward spiritual growth and health. 

            In 1656, Puritan preacher Richard Baxter wrote a book, The Reformed Pastor, which set the standard of pastoral care for generations.  In his work, Baxter elaborated on seven functions of dealing with the souls of people:  converting the unconverted; giving advice to inquirers; building up the believers; shepherding the families in the parish community; visiting the sick and dying; reproving the impenitent; and, exercising church discipline.  All these functions are designed to do the pedantic work of crafting and forming souls.  It is often not glamorous high impact work; it is humble nitty-gritty ministry which typically goes unnoticed by many because it is a slow process over time.

            The many references to “one another” in the New Testament point toward the spiritual dynamic that needs to take place for souls to thrive.  Encouragement, mutual edification, love, forgiveness, and hospitality are just some of the tools of the trade in a careful crafting of souls.  As we look at the example of Jesus, such practices as healing, teaching, guiding, and mending souls were all a part of his mission to bring God’s benevolent kingdom to earth.  As we learn to help people toward peace, sustain them in difficult times, reconcile broken relationships, and guide them in making wise choices, we are doing good spiritual work and fortifying souls.

            We ourselves need to continually feed our souls if we want to do the work of soulcraft.  Engaging in the spiritual disciplines such as daily Scripture reading and prayer, practicing Sabbath rests, silence and solitude, fasting, and other spiritual tools can enable us to be built up in Christ so that we might shepherd others toward the ways of Jesus.

            The Apostle Peter encouraged his fellow leaders:  “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).  In difficult times, there is no greater need than the presence of God.  That divine presence is often mediated through loving shepherds and believers who take special care to bring grace to hurting people.  May it be so, to the glory of Jesus.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Pursue Peace

Over the past several years I have developed the notorious “pastor paunch.”  But, in the past three weeks I have lost fifteen pounds.  It didn’t just happen.  It has been intentional.  If I were to only focus on the negative of what I can’t eat, I would never make it.  After all, if I keep thinking about the anchovy pizza that I’m not supposed to have, eventually my willpower breaks down.  But if I focus on the positive, of becoming healthy and incorporating positive practices of health into my life on a daily consistent basis, then I am setting myself up for holistic well-being.

            Peace does not just happen.  Peace was bought at a price – the blood of Jesus (Colossians 1:20).  And it must be pursued (Ephesians 4:3).  Practices of peace must be engrafted into our lives if we are going to experience it on the daily practical level (Romans 14:13-15:7).  Is it hard?  Yes, absolutely.  Is it worth it?  I’ll let you be the judge.  I think your conscience already knows the answer.

            How bad do we want to be spiritually healthy?  How bad do we desire the peace of God:  Enough to stop being negative? Enough to reconcile and make things right? Enough to pursue Jesus?  It is high time we begin redefining our situations from a negative focus on only problem solving to the positive vision of peace, wholeness, integrity, and spiritual growth and health.

            Zechariah’s song of praise anticipating the birth of Jesus gives us a vision of a future full of peace, joy, and thriving (Luke 1:68-79).  The name “Zechariah” means in Hebrew “God remembered.”  God has not forgotten his promises.  The time has come to take hold of the vision God had from the very beginning to walk with humanity in continual fellowship and happiness in the garden, a place of abundant growth, beauty, and health.

            The World Health Organization did a study which has found that 10% of Americans suffer from some form of depression.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has taken notice of the rising figures of suicide in this country, which has been growing steadily for the past thirty years.  Last year nearly 42,000 people took their own lives in the United States.  That’s approximately 13 suicides per 100,000 people.  Large numbers of people lack peace in their lives.

            This year a study came out from a task force put together by professionals across a wide spectrum of disciplines known as the World Happiness Report.  Every country in the world was ranked according to criteria such as the gross domestic product, social support, healthy lifestyles, freedom to make choices, lack of corruption, and both negative and positive outlooks on life.  The U.S. did not even make the top ten.  Even with all of our vast resources Americans are, collectively speaking, a very unhappy people.  I believe the most interesting finding from the World Happiness Report was their conclusion as to what makes one country happier than another.  The Report concluded that citizens of the happiest nations on earth continually find a steady stream of joy in three sources:  their families, their rituals/traditions, and their religion.

            If we are not finding joy in our lives through our Christianity and/or our church involvement, then it is reasonable to conclude that we are not experiencing the peace of Jesus Christ.  Perhaps we need to find newfound hope and joy through celebrating the Table of the Lord together.  It is a religious ritual that we experience together which reminds us that we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

            Forgiveness of sins, spiritual peace, and human well-being is ultimately found in Jesus.  We both remember Christ’s accomplishment of peace through the cross, and participate in that peace through the common elements of Bread and Cup.  As we eat and drink, let us ingest the peace of Christ into our lives.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Longing for Justice and Righteousness

Some words make us squeamish.  Justice often gets a bad rap by some in the church, as if it were some code word for “liberal.”  Righteousness seems more like the “right” word, but gets thrown around like an old familiar blanket, as if we already know all that stuff.  So, what’s the big deal about justice and righteousness?  Other than being very biblical terms which get used a lot in Scripture, being just and right is what the Messiah is all about (Jeremiah 33:14-16).

            Justice and righteousness are most often paired together in the Old Testament.  They are really two sides of the same coin.  We often think of justice in punitive terms of giving lawbreakers what they deserve.  But biblical justice has much more to do with giving someone what they need and deserve in order to live and thrive as human beings.  To act justly means to provide things like clean drinking water, a safe environment, fair and equitable business practices, food to eat, a place to sleep, etc.  Righteousness is the relational element to justice.  To be righteous means to have right relationships, to connect with people, to move toward them and provide them with all the relational things that people need like respect, dignity, friendship, hospitality, fellowship, etc.

            Justice and righteousness are always to go together.  Justice without righteousness is at best, impersonal, and, at worst, condescending.  Righteousness without justice is only a dead faith that wishes well but never delivers.  But together, justice and righteousness brings love, peace, harmony, well-being, and human flourishing because all the basic necessities of life, physical and relational, are met in abundance.  This is what is meant in the Old Testament when Israel is referred to as “a land of milk and honey.”

            The time of abundance is here for us in the person of Jesus Christ.  Yet, it is not here in its fullness.  We anticipate, wait, and hope for the Second Coming of our Savior and King.  While we exercise patience, we long for better days.  A true Advent spirit is a deep longing for justice and righteousness because King Jesus is just and right!

            What do you long for today?  I long for things which are broken to be made right.  I long for biblical justice.  I long for the day when my grandson will have no more seizures.  I long for the day when individuals and families will not have to fight cancer anymore.  I long for the day when there will be no more depression, mental illness, or dementia.  I long for the day when people will be completely free of addictions.  I long for the day when there will be no more sex trafficking, death from malnutrition, grinding poverty, corrupt governments, whole families and communities torn by the ravages of HIV and AIDS, refugees with no place to call home, and devastating natural disasters.
I long for righteousness.  I long for the day when women and girls all across the world will not be abused and become the victims of disordered power.  I long for the day when Israelis and Palestinians, Iranians and Iraqis, Japanese and Koreans, Russians and everybody else will no more hate each other.  I long for all believers everywhere to experience the exhilaration of new life in Christ.  I long for my community to repent and believe the gospel.  I long for men and women of God to embrace Jesus and forsake all other gods.

            I long for the kingdom of God to come in all its fullness, in all its freedom, joy, prosperity, peace, and happiness.  God’s kingdom will not be ushered in through continued worship of things and the constant practice of accumulating more and more.  God’s kingdom will not come through worshiping a particular nation or country.  God’s kingdom will not be ushered in because of self-effort, savvy marketing, and full schedules.  God’s kingdom is not the same as our personal agendas for life. 

The kingdom of God will come when God decides it is going to come because Jesus is Lord and no one or nothing else is king!  I want to be doing justice and righteousness when he arrives.  The church of Jesus is a gathering of people who are to be just and right in their thinking and practice.  Holding those two important words together is vital to every congregation.