Sunday, December 30, 2012

Remembering (and) Retelling

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” Isaiah 43:18-19

“Remember the days of long ago; think about the generations past. Ask your father, and he will inform you. Inquire of your elders, and they will tell you.” Deuteronomy 32:7
        Forgetting sounds amazing when we think of abuse or sin in our history.  Remembering sounds great when we think of beauty and peace.  So how do we honor both these commands?  How do we "forget what lies behind" while remembering the wisdom of generations and the presence of God in our past? Is there a way God wants us to think about our past?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

An Unexpected Peace

“Glory to God in the Highest; and on earth, peace, and goodwill to those on whom His favor rests.”       
    After being told that peace had arrived in the form of a child in a local manger, the Jewish shepherds who received this message would have likely gone to the Migdal Eder, or 'watchtower of the flock,' a lookout and a place of refuge for their flocks in case of attack.  They were probably overseeing a temple flock destined for sacrifice.
     Shepherds brought ewes there to give birth. The priests maintained ceremonially clean stalls and carefully oversaw the birth of each lamb. This special birthing place has been suggested as teh location where Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) was born.  As the prophet Micah had noted years before, “As for you, O watchtower of the flock,(Migdal Eder)… kingship will come to the Daughter of Jerusalem” (Micah 4:8)

       But their watchtower was overshadowed by another tower.

       Herod’s mountain fortress overlooking the town of Bethlehem was more than 200 feet in diameter.  It loomed seven stories high, with an eastern tower that stood more than 40 feet higher.  It contained a garden, reception hall, Roman baths, and countless apartments. The lower palace included an enormous pool, a colonnaded garden, a 600-foot-long terrace, and a building more than 400 feet long.  Its buildings covered forty-five acres of land and were surrounded by nearly two hundred acres of palace grounds.  The Herodion’s circular upper palace literally overshadowed the surrounding villages for miles.
       The Herodian was built on top of an artificial mountain that Herod had created specifically for him.  According to Josephus, there were originally two hills standing next to each other. Herod paid thousands of workers (not slaves, yes he was that rich) for many years to demolish one of the hills and level off the other.  He built his massive and grandiose palace-fortress on top of the remaining hill.
    The shadow case over the land was not just physical; Herod darkened the moral climate of the land as well. Herod made his name when he broke the resistance of the rebels hiding in caves on the side of a cliff near the Sea of Galilee. Herod commanded his troops to make platforms with fires to be let down with ropes to the openings of the caves. The smoked-out refugees were pulled out with long, hooked poles and dropped down the sheer cliff.
     At one  point, Herod laid siege to Jerusalem. The soldiers raped and slaughtered the women and children, and the Jewish soldiers were tortured and chopped to pieces.  Herod executed 45 of the 70 Sanhedrin members who resisted him.
      Herod also executed his brother-in-law; his old friend Hyrcanus, who had given him his start; his wife; then his mother-in-law.  Hundreds of friends and family members, along with supporters of these last of the Hasmonaeans, were slaughtered on the slightest of accusations.  Countless members of his family and court were tortured, as were his two sons.
     Herod went to Jericho to die in agony, hated even by his family. Truly mad and fearing that no one would mourn his death, he commanded his troops to arrest important people from across the land, lock them in the hippodrome, and execute them after he died; if people would not mourn him, at least they would mourn.
     Into this web of hatred and suspicion, "Magi from the east came... and asked (the Roman appointed King of the Jews), 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?’” (Matthew 2:2). 
     According to prophecy, the Messiah must come from Jacob (Israel) and must rule over Esau (Edom, or Idumaea). Herod was a Gentile, an Idumaean (called Edomite in the Old Testament). To the follower of God's Word, Herod could not be Messiah or God's king. No wonder that, when King Herod heard this news, he was “disturbed,” and he had the Israelite babies under two years old slaughtered. 
    The expected Messiah was supposed to free the Israelites from this type of bondage.  Peace?  That meant peace after a revolution, right?  I’m sure they were encouraged when Jesus said, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).  That sounded more promising. And yet….he didn’t bring the kind of sword they were expecting.  Jesus’ spiritual sword of truth didn’t displace the Romans;  he didn’t come to bring that kind of peace. His message actually brought division between those who believed He was the Messiah and those who did not.
     When peace entered the world in the person of Christ, it did not mean that all the sources of strife were suddenly neutralized. Herod was still there; the taxation was still going to happen; the Jewish community was still divided along political lines; even families would be divided as some believed the message of Christ and some did not.  

     The Prince of Peace showed up to change the world, but not in a way people expected.

      When we talk about peace, we usually mean the absence of strife; the absence of the shadows that cover our land. Certainly that is part of peace; one of the greatest promises of Scripture is that one day the wolf will lie down with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6). There will be no more predators and prey, no more users and used. Meanwhile, Jesus entered a world full of strife to help us through it, not necessarily to take us out of it.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

He, Too, Saved Israel

The beginning of Judges notes that “whenever the LORD raised up a judge for them [Israel], he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the LORD had compassion on them as they groaned under those who oppressed and afflicted them.”

Sounds good, right?  God chose particular people and empowered them. That's really all they needed on their judgeship resume.  But in spite of this stellar recommendation, the Bible dedicates a disproportionate amount of space to some but not to others:
  • Judges 4-5 – Deborah gets two chapters and a song
  • Judges 6-8 - Gideon gets three chapters
  • Judges 9: Abimelech gets a chapter (in spite of killing his own brothers)
  • Judges 11 and 12 – Jepthah gets two chapters (in spite of sacrificing his daughter)
  • Judges 13-16 – Samson gets four chapters, and he was hardly a role model.
  • And then... Shamgar: "After Ehud came Shamgar son of Anath, who struck down six hundred Philistines with an ox goad. He too saved Israel." (Judges 3:31)
Shamgar saved the nation by killing 600 enemy warriors using a big stick with a pointy end, and he basically got an “atta boy!” That’s like giving a history of the NBA and saying, “And Michael Jordan also played basketball.” Or discussing a history of music and saying of Beethoven, “He too wrote music.”

Today, when people are treated like this, they go on TV and give the inevitable whine: “I’m being disrespected!” We are a culture that increasingly seems to think that we all deserve our fifteen minutes of fame, and if it doesn’t happen naturally, well, there are always reality shows or YouTube. Ashleigh Brilliant once wrote, “All I ask of life is a constant and exaggerated sense of my own importance.” To whatever degree that’s funny, it’s probably because it is an accurate reflection of the natural human condition.

I think Biblical characters like Shamgar point us toward a hard reality in the Christian walk: Sometimes, God will raise us up and use us mightily, and we will never get the credit we think we deserve.

Of course, what we think is not always the best way to gauge life. If you do good things for a reward or praise from other people who notice, you will get your reward. It just won’t be that great. Someone once said, “None are so empty as those who are full of themselves.”

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Tougher Kind of Thankful

We are blessed here in America in tremendous ways. If I forget to be thankful here in beautiful Northern Michigan, it’s because I get distracted by and used to good things I shouldn’t take for granted. In other places and in other times, this easy thankfulness is challenged because there are circumstances that make the good in things hard to find.

Recent events remind us that this world is in need of repair. We don't have to watch TV to know this is true. Our own communities, our own homes, our own souls remind us this is true. While God will one day wrap up human history and create a new heaven and new earth,  the course of human history has always been and will continue to be pretty grim.

Paul once wrote to the persecuted church in Thessalonica: “Whatever happens, give thanks, because it is God’s will in Christ Jesus that you do this." (I Thessalonians 5:18)  I don't particularly like that verse. It's hard. The “whatever happens” part of that verse means, literally, “in every condition, or in every matter,” give thanks.  It's worth noting that Paul does not say, “Feel happy.” He says to give thanks because it is God’s will.

When we talk about thanksgiving, or giving thanks, we are not just talking about an emotion or feeling (though it can be that). I wonder if more often than not thanksgiving is a decision, a perspective, a commitment to finding God in our story, a search for God in every memory.

A very short poem caught my eye a while ago.  After his barn burned down, Japanese poet Masahide wrote, "My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon." That's brilliant. I’ve read other similar perspectives that also go along with Paul's:
“I thank Thee first because I was never robbed before; second, because although they took my purse they did not take my life; third, although they took my all, it was not much; and fourth, because it was I who was robbed and not I who robbed.” - Matthew Henry, on the night he was robbed.  
“Oh, what a happy soul am I although I cannot see, I am resolved that in this world contented I shall be. How many blessings I enjoy that other people don't. To weep and sigh, because I'm blind? I cannot and I won't.” - blind hymn writer Fanny Crosby
On Thanksgiving at least, I want to take Paul seriously. I want to look back over my life and find God in all my memories, good or bad; to find Him in the story of my life, to revisit the places where some kind of barn burned down. I wanted to know if,  after the smoke cleared, the moon (or perhaps the Son) would bring even a little light to that dark corner of the world. I just want to be a tougher kind of thankful this year, a thankful that is determined to find God at work in the chapters of my life that I don't want to re-read.  He's there; I just have to find Him.
  • I’m thankful that when a rabid rat chased me across my yard and tried to crawl up my pant leg when I was five years old, my dog killed it. 
  • I’m thankful that when that dog got rabies, my dad put her down, because not every child has a dad who is there to protect them.
  • I’m thankful that I love my extended family enough to miss them.
  • I’m thankful that when we moved to Oregon when I was eight, I had at least one good friend who stayed close beside me when many of my peers were mean.
  • I’m thankful that those two difficult years in Oregon also included sea lions, Mt. Hood, and a pizza place called the Organ Grinder in Portland, Oregon, that showed old black and white silent comedies while my family and I made good memories.
  • I am thankful that, because we moved 8 times in 3 states by the time I was 15, I learned how important it is to be kind to strangers in strange lands.
  • I’m thankful that God used the time I was ridiculed for being fat to create in me an empathy for those who are ridiculed and overlooked.
  • I’m thankful we raised chickens, because that was one thing to cross off my bucket list early on.
  • I’m thankful that, when I cut off my toes in a lawn mower, I did not have to learn how to find my balance all over again.
  • I’m thankful that, because of a very hard church conflict, our roots were already pulled up in Ohio when God asked us to put our roots down in Traverse City.
  • I’m thankful that same conflict taught me how difficult and freeing forgiveness is.
  • I’m thankful that the pain of leaving my Mennonite heritage reminded me that many good things were present in the midst of problems.
  • I’m thankful that when Dad died, he was present with the Lord.
  • I’m thankful that grief makes hope that much sweeter.
  • I’m thankful that overwhelming grief is temporary.
  • I’m thankful that lingering, bittersweet memories remain.
  • I’m thankful that, 25 years and two weeks ago, a shy 18-year-old name Sheila and a blustering 20-year-old named Anthony were naive and bold enough to make a covenant.
  • I’m thankful that, when Sheila and I disagree about my schedule, it means she loves me enough to covet my time. 
  • I’m thankful that our times of deepest conflict are also our times of deepest honesty.
  • I’m thankful that hard times in marriage give me the opportunity to fight for some of the things that matter most in this life - my wife and my kids.
  • I’m thankful that those hard times have helped us to understand, grace, mercy, forgiveness, hope, sacrifice, and love more deeply than we imagined we would.
  • I’m thankful that my boys’ completely opposite personalities keep me on my toes.
  • I’m thankful that AJ is the kind of young man who is content to call a closet with a curtain a bedroom.
  • I’m thankful that Braden understands the power of words more than most, and that he managed to combine the best of all our musical genes.
  • I’m thankful that the part of Vincent’s personality that turns my hair gray is the same part that makes me marvel at the limitless wonder of a child.
  • I’m thankful that my knee, foot and shoulder surgeries forced me to find an identity apart from sports and remind me daily that this body is only temporary.
  • I’m thankful that my ADD gives me days of brilliance to offset weeks of confusion.
  • I’m thankful that I live in Grawn, because now I know how to shoot squirrels from my roof.
  • I’m thankful that deer are graceful, because at least they are beautiful to watch while I hit them with my van.
  • I’m thankful that politics reminds me that God’s Kingdom is not of this world.
I’m thankful that as the world burns down, 
I can still see the Son.

Monday, November 12, 2012

In Need of a Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15)

     In Chapter 15 of the first letter to the church in Corinth,  Paul brings his readers back to the heart of their commitment to Christ. If there if one core truth that ought to provide the foundation for their lives, this is it:
 “Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken a firm stand.  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.  For what I received I passed on to you as of primary importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.  (15:1-8)
    The city of Corinth offered a lot of ideas about what should guide someone's life. It was a city of temptations, pleasure, and distractions of all kinds, full of popular slogans that were easy to say and dreadful to live:
“Everything is permissible” (6:12; 10:23)
“The Food for the Stomach and the Stomach for Food” (6:13)
“Let us Eat and Drink, for Tomorrow We Die!”  (15:32)
     People in the Corinthian church were not immune to the influence of their city.  Even as followers of Christ, they used the first slogan to justify flaunting their freedom in Christ, the second as an excuse for sexual immorality, and the third to live like there was no tomorrow.  Somewhere, I suspect there is Greek version of YOLO carved in temple stone.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Gifted: 1 Corinthians 14 in Context

    I have become convinced that confusing sections of the Bible become far more accessible and meaningful when 1st century Greek culture, language, and context are clearly understood.
     In order to do this, I consult multiple commentaries and translations of the passages in question, as well as study a range of writings by Christian theologians and historians.  The website has been particularly helpful in studying both the language and context of 1st century writings. In my current sermon series, I am using this principle to take a new look at issues in 1 Corinthians such as the head coveringthe Lord's supperthe food offered to idolsPaul's teaching about sex, the rambling topics in chapters  5 and 6 and the unusual analogies in chapter 3.  Even popular images such as the potter and the clay take on new life when contextualized.
     So, how would Paul write 1 Corinthians 14 if he were using 21st century English instead of 1st century Greek?  It may have sounded something like this:

Monday, October 15, 2012

Something Bigger Than Ourselves (1 Corinthians 11-12)

     Question: what do these four things have in common?
  • Android: ”In September 2012, there were more than 675,000 apps available for Android, and the estimated number of applications downloaded from Google Play was 25 billion.”
  • Apache: “Since April 1996 Apache has been the most popular HTTP server software in use. As of September 2012 Apache was estimated to serve 54.98% of all active websites and 58.49% of the top servers across all domains.”
  • Linux: “Linux has been ported to more computer hardware platforms than any other operating system. More than 90% of today's 500 fastest supercomputers run some variant of Linux. 60% of web-servers run Linux versus 40% that run Windows Server.”
  • Wikipedia: “23 million articles…100,000 active contributors… editions of Wikipedia in 285 languages…365 million readers worldwide… 2.7 billion monthly page views from the United States alone.” 
     Answer: they were all open sourced (or group sourced). In other words, the people creating them did not directly profit from them. They did it because they wanted to contribute to something in a meaningful way. The reward was not money or fame; it was being a part of something bigger than themselves.

    Paul beats this drum over and over: Being part of a church means we belong to something bigger than ourselves . Unfortunately, the church in Corinth  was floundering in their understanding of how this looks in ordinary church life. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Leveling the Playing Field - 1 Corinthians 11

"I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you.  But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head.  But every woman (or wife) who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.  For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off; but if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, then she should cover her head.
 A man ought not to cover his head,  since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.  For man did not come from woman, but woman from man;  neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. It is for this reason that a woman ought to have a symbol of authority to cover her own head, because of the angels.  Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.  For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God."  (1 Corinthians 11: 2-11)

And all God's people scratched their heads and said, "What?"
There are plenty of topics to discuss in 1 Corinthians 11, but for the sake of brevity I will discuss only one.  The other questions are not unimportant; they are simply a topic for another time.

The Corinthian church contained a mix of Greek, Roman, and Jewish people.  As in all people groups, social status was really important. In this case the status was very visual, from shoes to togas to hats and hair. It was a way of saying very clearly, “I am somebody. I matter. And I am better than you.”  Those less fortunate showed the opposite very clearly.  In this particular passage there a particular visible issue – the status and symbol connected with hair and head coverings.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

All Things to All People (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

The Apostle Paul often used figures of speech from arena competition.  In Corinth, the people were most familiar with the Isthmian Games.  Since Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 9 in that context, it’s worth learning a bit more about the games before looking at the passage.
      Athletes had to have the right credentials. They could not compete if they did not pass a background check that had to do with social class (they could not be slaves or criminals) and personal character (they could not be liars and cheats). They trained with intensity for ten months before even being allowed in the games. They ate a particular diet; they exercised a lot; they sacrificed many comforts for the sake of the games.
      During the games, a herald (which we translate “preacher”) had quite a few roles:
  • display the prizes
  • encourage the contestants
  • convince the audience they should emulate the contestants
  • explains the rules of each contest
  • announce the victors and crown them
     In fact, when the athletes entered the venue, the herald would loudly announce: “Who can accuse this man?” If no one did, he would say that since the contestant was not a slave, thief, or person of corrupt morals, he could enter the games. After the competition, the judges declared one winner, who received a crown of some type of vegetation.
     It’s in this context that Paul writes to the Corinthian church:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the 

prize.”  (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Food, Freedom, and Knowledge without Love (1 Corinthians 8)

The Apostle Paul often used real-life situations to highlight the unchanging truths hidden beneath the surface.  In 1 Corinthians 8, he addresses an issue that, while not sinful on the surface, was still causing harm to members of this fledgling church.
“Now let’s talk about food that has been sacrificed to idols. You think that everyone should agree with your perfect knowledge. While knowledge may make us feel important, it is love that really builds up the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much.  But the person who loves God is the one God knows and cares for.” 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 (NLT) 
Corinth was filled with pagan temples. It was common for worshipers to offer animals to the god as a sacrifice. After a tiny part was burned on the altar, the remainder would be given to the temple priest, servants or local magistrates who then sold the surplus to the town butchers. If you lived in Corinth, there were several ways that you might come in contact with meat that had been sacrificed to idols:

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Things Foolish and Powerful (1 Corinthians 1)

"Best Buy's massive losses: Can new CEO Hubert Joly save the company?" - "Struggling electronics giant Best Buy sank deeper into the mud on Tuesday, when it reported that its second-quarter profit had fallen by 90 percent compared to last year. The company announced that Hubert Joly would take over as CEO.  Critics wonder if Joly is the right man for the job!”

"New CEO Marissa Mayer Could Save Yahoo from Self-destruction"  - “There’s been plenty of buzz around Yahoo’s decision to appoint Google luminary, Marissa Mayer, as their new CEO.  Mayer’s appointment marks the umpteenth time that Yahoo has appointed a new CEO over the past decade in hopes of saving the beleaguered technology company.”

 "Sony: Can a New CEO Save the Struggling Technology Giant?" “Sir Howard Stringer has stepped down as Sony's chief executive. Can his replacement help the company recover from a $2 billion loss?”
In the world of big business, it’s not at all uncommon to see abrupt leadership changes. Each time, the wording of the announcement is similar: “Will this change of CEO bring the necessary skills, experience and wisdom to save our company from total collapse?” It’s a great question!  History books are full of stories of companies that have failed for lack of finding the right solution!

This is exactly what Paul is talking about in chapter one of his first letter to the church in Corinth.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Skin and Soul (1 Corinthians 6)

In an attempt to incorporate historical, literary, cultural and biblical context into Paul's writing in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, I offer the following paraphrase for the modern Corinthian church of America. I have found that writing like this enables me to better grasp how Paul's readers would have heard the message of the Kingdom of Heaven conveyed to them. To accomplish this, I have drawn from numerous translations, commentaries, and articles. I hope and pray that I have discerned wisely and written well.
       "When I was with you, I talked about my freedom in Christ, which meant that the power of sin no longer controls me, the penalty of sin has been paid by Christ, and I am not in bondage to my inability to keep the Old Testament law.  Apparently, you though I was saying the same thing the Corinthians do:  “I have the right to do anything I want.” 
 That's not what I meant at all.  
I am free from the curse of sin and the law so I am free to live in the grace and peace of God.  There are plenty of things that I can do (free from the law) that I don’t do.  Sometimes these things just aren’t beneficial – they are a waste of my time, or a distraction, or they confuse other people about my commitments (more on this later).  There are other things that will control me  at some point if I’m not careful, and I don’t want to be consumed by or addicted to anything.

 I don’t do those things, even though I “can.”  Because my sinful urges no longer control me, I am free to live well. That’s very different from free to do what I want. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Remind Me Who I Am (1 Corinthians 5 and 6)

While in Ephesus, Paul wrote a letter to the fledgling church in Corinth. He had to tackle a couple of serious issues that were not only dividing the church, but also harming their witness in the city of Corinth. Though Paul dealt with specific moral issues, his goal was far more encompassing. He wanted to say something important about life in the Kingdom of God.

Imagine (if you will) Paul taking a break after writing the first couple of chapters. He decides to meet a friend for breakfast to talk throughs some of the issues as he prepares for what is now referred to as 1 Corinthians 5 and 6. ( I should note that all the cultural details I give in this conversation are taken from some very detailed history of the Greeks and Romans culture of that time. Sarah Ruden's "Paul Among The People" provides an excellent historical background for this imagined conversation).
“So Paul, how’s the letter going?”

“Well, I took a little time to talk about humility and pride, and how God has a way of using the unnoticed and overlooked to build his kingdom. I told them they were like a field that God farms – the dirt, specifically, that just nourishes what it’s been given. That was to bring them all to the same level. Then I told them they were like God's building – they are all still chosen and placed in the structure by God, but He’s building a presence in Corinth that provides safety and stability. I finished with the claim that they were like a temple. God’s presence and spirit inhabits them, which makes them holy. “

“I like it. Dirt’s humble, but temples are holy. Good combination. There's both a humility and honor that comes with committing to the service of Christ.”

“That's true. I hope those analogies connect.”

“So what’s the next topic?”

“Well, I told them in my last letter not to tolerate sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:9-11). They took that to mean that they couldn’t hang out with anybody who was immoral, which meant pretty much everybody in Corinth. That wasn’t my point.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Saints and Temples (1 Corinthians 1)

 A United Airlines agent was rebooking a long line of weary and frustrated travelers. One angry  passenger pushed his way to the front of the line, slapped his ticket down and said, “I have to be on this flight, and I have to be in first class.”
 The agent said, “I would be happy to help you, but I need to help some other first.”
 The passenger responded angrily, “Do you know who I am?”
 The agent promptly got on the public address system:  “May I have your attention! We have a passenger here who does not know who he is!  If anyone can help him find his identity please come to the gate!”
     Paul addresses who we are in Christ in 1 Corinthians. He begins, To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” If we are followers of Christ, we are sanctified and called to be holy.  Ware saints.
      Paul goes on to give three analogies to help these saints further establish their identity in Christ.  After using fields and buildings to paint apicture of life in the Kingdom of God, he closes with this analogy: “Don't you know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16)
    We are the temple of God. Saints and temples - that sounds like a really good identity.
     It’s important to know who we are, but it may be equally important to believe it.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Buildings and Fields (1 Corinthians 3)

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.  I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.  The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor.  For we are co-workers in God’s service. 
“You are God’s field; God’s building. 
 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care.  For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.  If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw,  their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. 
 (1 Corinthians 3:5-12)
After Paul greets the church in Corinth, he begins to address the issues that are robbing them of God's grace and peace.  He uses three analogies to describe the church: a field, a building, and a temple. 

Paul wrote this letter from Ephesus at a time when agriculture flourished.  I imagine him walking through the countryside as he ponders how to explain to the church in Corinth what their role was in the Kingdom of God.  Hmmm.... "The church at Corinth is a field on which God has labored so the church would yield a harvest."  The word Paul uses for field” occurs nowhere else in the New Testament.  It refers specifically to a "tilled" or "cultivated" field.  It refers to the dirt.

Its a very down-to-earth analogy, but what does it actually tell us? What is the role of a field?
  •         Allow the farmer to get rid of weeds.
  •         Allow the farmer to add compost/mulsh/fertilizer.
  •         Let the farmer plant what he wants.
  •         Nourish what is planted.
What  can the field do to bring about a harvest? Nothing - other than nourish what it’s been given.  If someone else is not involved,  the field is just dirt and weeds. The church is God's field, God's cultivated dirt.  The dirt is important and necessary, but it’s the most humble part of the field.  People wax eloquently about "amber waves of grain"; nobody writes songs about “dirty waves of dirt.” 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Tearing and Mending (1 Corinthians 1)

There were at least ten temples to ten different gods in Corinth at the time the New Testament was written. If people had a particular need (money, harvest, fertility, power, hunting, wisdom) they went to a particular god. That temple had a particular group of people, a particular kind of feast, and a particular kind of worship ritual. If that god answered their supplication, they made sure everyone knew that they had the ability to earn that god's favor.

That was how they rose to the top - they earned the grace and favor a a god. That's how they knew they were somebody. That's what made them matter.

Perhaps this dynamic from the old way of life was the reason Paul had to address the issue in chapter 1 of letter to the Corinthians:

     "I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.  My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.  What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas (Peter)”; still another, “I follow Christ.”  Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?" 
It’s obviously true that Christ is the one we as Christians are to ultimately follow.  Paul’s not disputing that. Paul's main point is that one can follow Christ and follow a representative, spokesperson, or ambassador for Christ too. They were all on the same team.

The people in the Corinthian church had too narrow a vision of the Kingdom of God.

Christianity was not like the pagan religions, whose gods were in competition with each other. God is One, and those who serve Him are on the same team. This claiming of allegiance to one person was not a sign of serious discipleship. It was a a lingering effect of the Corinthian search for power, reputation, and control.

Perhaps you've experienced something similar. You've been in a conversation about a passage of Scripture, and you hear, “Well, Mark Driscoll says this… Beth Moore says this….Billy Graham said…Ravi Zacharias…John Piper...James Dobson…Kay Arthur…Bill Hybels...” Finally someone says, I don’t listen to other people’s opinions, I just read the Bible.”   

Or you've been in a conversation where one person focuses on Israel, another on politics, another on end times prophecy, another on baptism, another on apologetics, another on the gifts of the Spirit, another on church models, another on marketplace ministry.... And they all think that the others are missing the boat because they don't have the same passion for this particular part of the Kingdom of God as they do.

Those kind of conversations can end badly. The problem is not the people or topics who are cited; there are many solid ambassadors for Christ who preach, teach, and live in a way that should be admired and emulated. The problem is that we can begin to build our personal worth and identity by the people or causes we follow – and question the worth (and wisdom) of others by the people they don't. If we are not careful, we will judge the character and content of another person’s heart because they don’t build their knowledge of and relationship with God and His Kingdom in the same way we do.

Paul says that mindset is divisive - schismata in Greek, which means “tear, or rend. ” This is what happens when someone tears a calf muscle or an ACL. I have done that twice playing softball (which is kind of sad, really), and let me tell you, it was no fun at all. It felt like someone hit me in the back of the leg as hard as they could with a bat. I could actually run my fingers through a ditch in my calf muscle.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “That’s what’s happening in your church when you divided your unity in Christ. That's what's happening when pride and sectarianism fragment the Kingdom of God.”

Instead, the church was to be united. The Greek word carries the idea of “joined together,” a medical word used to describe the mending of bones or joints that have been fractured. The variety of people, gifts, and skills in the body of Christ are meant to join us together, not tear us apart. The church may be full of broken people, but the grace of God enables us to find unity, peace and wholeness in the midst of our diversity.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Letter to a Corinthianized Church

About 2,000 years ago, Corinth was a financial, religious, and cultural mecca.
  • It was a major commercial hub located on a four-and-one-half mile wide isthmus of land. Sailors wanted to avoid the danger of sailing around Malea, so they would move their ship across the isthmus on a series of log rollers. If the ship was too large, the cargo was unloaded and loaded onto another ship on the other side of the isthmus.
  • “Corinthian brass” (a mixture of gold, sliver and copper) was widely renowned. 
  • Athletic contests known as the Isthmian Games - second only to the Olympian Games - were held at the temple of Poseidon in Corinth every two years. 
  • Athena, Apollo, Poseidon, Hermes, Isis, Serapis, and Asclepius, among others, had temples to their honor in Corinth. It was common to have feasts in those temples – they were very much a center of community.
  • Aphrodite had more than 1,000 hierodouloi (female prostitutes and priestesses) in her service. The present museum in Corinth boasts a large number of clay emblems offered to Aphrodite for healing of a particulular part of the body ravaged by sexually transmitted disease. 
  • The name “Corinthian" had become synonymous with sexual immorality and drunkenness. Aelian, a Greek writer, noted that Corinthians in Greek plays were always drunk.
     Gordon Fee summarized it well: "All of this evidence together suggests that Paul’s Corinth was at once the New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas of the ancient world: Intellectually alert, materially prosperous, but morally corrupt.”
     They had money, business, athletic prowess, temple worship involving sex and free food – it was just one big party in Corinth.
   The book of I Corinthians was written to a church living in a culture similar to ours. When the Apostle Paul wrote to them, their primary problem was not persecution. They were a church in lap of luxury, full of people who had been Corinthianized from birth, but who were now trying to begin a new life in Christ.
     Why am I not surprised that, only five years after he left, the Corinthians wrote Paul a letter asking for advice.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Potter and the Clay (Part 2)

In the previous post, we looked at how the Potter pulls the clay from the ground and prepares it for His use. He "wedges" it to get rid of air holes, then throws it into the center of the wheel. After that, of course,  the shaping begins.

“Opening the form” happens after centering.  The potter puts his finger into the very center of the clay to create a well. As He pulls the clay towards him, the clay begins to respond.  Re-centering happens throughout this entire process. We are constantly in need of aligning ourselves with God and his ways. There is an interesting incident in Jeremiah18:

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.”  So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me.  He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.”

      We all get marred by others:  cruel words, physical abuse; emotional manipulation.  We call them scars.  But sometimes we mar ourselves – we make choices that catch up with us.  And it’s not that the Potter has to throw us away, but there is a re-centering, and maybe a new well, a new direction in the plan.  The Potter is not stumped, but the pot may take on a different shape on the way to fulfilling the Potter’s purpose.
    Sometimes our lives take a path we don’t expect.  We had this plan – we were going to do THIS with our life – but we got marred, and something about that marring changed the shape of our lives.  And we still have the same purpose we always did, but now we might get there a different way.  

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Potter and the Clay

Several months ago, I preached a sermon about the imagery of the Potter and Clay in the Bible. Lately, I have been talking with Amy Gilmore, a friend who actually makes pottery (I offer that in sharp contrast to my complete inability to do anything artistic).   Amy has been explaining to me how the Biblical imagery has come alive for her because of her experience.  What follows is the well-rounded perspective from one who both both potter (as an artist) and clay (as a follower of Christ).

When searching for clay, the Potter has to reach into the ground (unless he or she is fortunate enough to have a ready-made bucket) and pull the clay loose.  In the same way, Christ reaches down into the dirt of our life and pulls us out. This as our salvation. David wrote in Psalm 40:2, "He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand."

God forms what was once a lump of earth into an object of design and purpose. 

It isn't about God making us into something we think is great; it is about letting God make us into something He loves and uses. When God offered encouragement to Jeremiah, he noted, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." (Jeremiah 1:5) Most of us want to know what God is going to make us into before we allow him to begin his crafting.  This is not submission, or faith. 

 At this point in our life we are helpless, in need of a Savior, someone who can pull us out of all the dirt that traps us.  And when we surrender to His salvation, we also surrender our purposes, plans, hopes and dreams.  As the Apostle Paul noted,  “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (Romans 9:21)

Next, the clay is "wedged" in preparation for throwing.  Air bubbles are removed: pride, greed, lust, envy, gossip, meanness, unforgiveness. It’s pockets of our life we want to keep to ourselves - our checkbook; or our sex life; or our entertainment; our resentments that we nourish; our self-justification;  friends that we know are bringing us down.  Air bubbles are the secret sins from which we need to be delivered. 

After the wedging, the potter "throws" the clay onto the wheel head with a force that makes it stick.  Ever had a time in life when you just crashed into something?  Job loss? Marriage failure? Sickness?  Depression?  Sometimes, that’s just life; sometimes, it's Satan trying to tear us down.  In those cases, the crash we feel is us “hitting the wall.” When that happens, God can redirect our momentum so the crash happens on his wheel instead of Satan’s wall.

When God is involved, the moments in our lives when we feel like we’ve hit a wall are times we are actually hitting the wheel. The wheel is the foundation of the faith, the core truths at the center of God’s will is the place to be.  The Potter will make sure you are centered, because an unsteady center brings about a lack of symmetry. 

Now the Potter begins to work on the clay -  our heart, our attitude, our emotions, our willingness to be molded for His purpose.   Water is applied to reduce friction between the hands of the potter and the clay. Now, our purpose, our design, our beauty begin to emerge as we allow the Potter to achieve His purpose. Think of how Ephesians describes Christ's work in our lives: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word…” (Ephesians 5: 25ff)

We were pulled out,  we were de-air bubbled (?) and centered – and none of this has been easy.  But now the Potter is ready to begin work – His Word is watering us, refreshing us, baptizing us into new life and truth, making us a workable element in the Potter’s hand.

 As the clay spins in the hands of the potter, the particles come into alignment as well.  This alignment - think "submission" -  happens through repentance and belief.  It takes both. We cannot only repent, nor can we only believe.  Only the two together will produce fruit in our life.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Finding Stability in a Turbulent World

     The time: 52 AD, twenty years after Christ died and rose again to life.  Paul, writing under the direction of the Holy Spirit,  writes this second book to his dear friends at the church in Thessalonica --- a church he had helped to start (ref. Acts 17:1-10).  Paul has received a report about how they were currently doing. 
     The truth is, this community of believers is being hammered --- subjected to persecution from outsiders because of their newfound faith, and frightened by insiders who brought misleading messages (false teachings) about the Lord’s return.  And as is common to mankind, the believers in this young church moved toward a couple of different extremes.  I still see these extremes exhibited today when confusion sets in.
     Here are the two extremes:
  • Lethargy (or adjective: lethargic) ~ Definition: state of sluggishness, inactivity, and apathy. These folks carry on life as usual with no recognition of the turbulent situation around them, nor the things that God has said about this life that they are living. The lethargic person has no driving purpose and is content to simply let things happen.  Paul will address this in his letter.
  •  Panic  (or adjective: panic-stricken)  ~  Definition: afraid / anxious / fearful / petrified / immobilized / terrified.This group of people exhibited irrational responses to the troubling circumstances all around them.  They overreact…and in so doing, ignore God’s promises and guidance. 

     Both kinds of extremes are being exhibited in the Thessalonian church…so Paul begins his letter by approbating them for their faith….but then he also addresses the false beliefs that they are listening to --- false beliefs about the Lord’s second coming --- and as the letter goes on he gives them reminders to calm their fears. Let’s look at the scripture text.  We’ll see in Paul’s letter, a three-fold purpose:   

1) To encourage them in their steadfastness under persecution
2) To correct their misunderstanding about the imminence of the Lord's return. 
3) To instruct the congregation on what disciplinary action to take toward those who became idle.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Faith, Hope, and Love

You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. .. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” 1 Thessalonians 5:4-10

"…remembering without ceasing your work of faith, your labor of love, and patience of hope in the Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Thessalonians 1:3 

 “ Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…And we boast in the hope of the glory of God…. we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit...” Romans 5:1-5

“ let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith... Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works…" Hebrews 10:22-24  

”“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.   1 Corinthians 13:13

     If the Apostle Paul thought these three theological virtues were worth discussing together, it's probably worth looking at how God intertwines the three of them in our lives today.

   A Greek mathematician who wrote during Paul's time gave this explanation for Paul's chosen word for faith: “"A demonstration of the certainly of a thing by sure arguments and indubitable reasons." In other words, faith is what we get when God has so convinced us He is right that we reorder our lives to follow him.  Paul writes in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.”
     Faith comes by hearing the word of Christ. Faith is a response to truth that we absorb and embrace. I  hear language about faith as if it is a process in which we bring our emotions together and really focus ourselves so we feel strongly that we believe something.  If we feel strongly enough we will be people of faith. Faith and feelings will intersect, but faith – the foundation of truth that we absorbed and embraced - should inform and steady our feelings, not be driven by our feelings.
    The Bible does not present faith as a feeling.  Faith is obedience in response to God’s persuasion. “Faith is not belief without proof, but trust without reservation.” - Elton Trueblood
    The Holman Bible Dictionary defines it this way: “the confidence that what God has done for us in the past guarantees our participation in what God will do in the future.”
  • (Romans 15:4)
 - “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
  • (Colossians 1:5) - 
”For the hope that is laid up for you in heaven, which you have heard in the word of the truth of the gospel.”
  • (Galatians 5:5)
 - For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.
    So hopes builds on the firm foundation of faith. Hebrews 6:18-19 says,  “The hope set before us…as the anchor of the soul.”  It is meant to keep us stable through the storms of life. As Billy Graham said, "I've read the last page of the Bible.  It's all going to turn out all right."

  • Romans 5:5
 “For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.” 
  • Ephesians 5:2
”…and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us.” 
  • Galatians 5:14
 - "For all the law is fulfilled in one command: "You should love your neighbor as yourself."

     While agapao has multiple meanings, in the plainest sense, it involves choosing, embracing, and doing the will of God.  In other words, it is “doing what the Lord prefers.” Sir Charles Villiers Stanford once noted, "To love as Christ loves is to let our love be a practical thing and not a sentimental thing." The grounding of this kind of love is not the emotion; the grounding of agapao love is commitment and action.
    If you have trust and obedience in response to God's persuasion, you have faith; if you have true faith, you will have a confident expectation based on your foundation of truth (hope). If you have true faith and hope, you cannot resist doing what God prefers (love).