Tag Archives: Jesus

Advent: Peace

This past Sunday was the second Sunday of Advent, focusing on the peace that is revealed and received in the coming of Christ. With the peace of God in mind, we have the Old Testament reading from Malachi 3:1-4…

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Malachi prophesied at a time when life in Israel was full of covenant malpractice. Everything from profane sacrifices offered by the priests in the temple to matters like sorcery, adultery, and oppression of the poor were rampant. But Malachi speaks of a day when the Lord will come and his people will once again be a pleasing offering. So I’m not sure if the words of the prophet were heard as good news or not but they do raise the question of who can endure.

Advent invites us to anticipate the coming of the Lord and with his coming,  the shalōm that is the Lord’s to give. Such peace isn’t just the absence of violence, though we certainly welcome a world in which violence is no more. Peace is a life of wholeness which is concerned with the well-being of our lives so that life, in its totality, is made complete. From a Christian perspective, peace is the reception of God’s new creation in Christ. The peace of Christ that is born in Advent with the coming of the Lord has to do with an entirely new community, a refined and purified community in whom God’s righteousness is the way of life.

Advent reminds us that God’s new creation, a righteous life of peace that comes through the refinement and cleansing of the Holy Spirit, is revealed in the coming of Jesus Christ, our Lord. The question for us is how do we participate in this new creation? How do we participate in the coming kingdom of God?

Well, well by faith, of course. But wait… 

Malachi mentions both a “governor” in the first chapter and then the “temple” in our text this morning. All that is to say that Malachi likely prophesied in what we refer to as Israel’s postexilic period of history. That means that Malachi prophesied sometime after the rebuilding and dedication of the Temple in 516 A.D. So this prophecy regarding the day of the coming of the Lord meant another four-hundred to five-hundred years of waiting. That’s a long time to wait for the day when the promises of God finally come true. Such waiting calls for endurance. But let’s push this endurance further because we know the advent story. 

God sent John the Baptist as the messenger to prepare the way of the Lord. Yet his life ended with his head being chopped off. Then we also have the coming of the Lord too: Jesus, born in the town of Bethlehem. The birth of Jesus was such a joyous occasion that King Herod had every baby boy in Bethlehem murdered in an attempt to kill Jesus, who was a threat to Herod’s kingdom and fragile little ego. However, the story of Advent doesn’t end with the slaughter of baby boys in Bethlehem. Jesus grows up to be a man and after his baptism, he begins proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom. So the promises of God proclaimed by Malachi, as well as the other prophets of Israel, are coming true but they are not as we anticipated. Instead, the kingdom of God for which the Lord’s people have hoped for and now are invited to participate comes by Jesus enduring death on a Roman cross—Crucifixion! This is the coming of the Lord.

The life that Advent calls us into is a faith measured by our endurance to wait for the coming of the Lord! Jesus comes but the fullness of his kingdom is still to come and so we, who believe, must continue waiting with endurance. Yet this can be a difficult aspect of having such faith.

There are some things in life that force us to either endure with patience or to give up our faith. I’m thinking of the different struggles we face, the grief and pain that life brings. Struggles with mental and emotional health just don’t go away because we say a prayer. Prayer matters but sometimes prayer is met with a long silence or even a resounding “No” just as Jesus experienced in the garden. We have other struggles too . . . struggles with sin, problems in our marriages or with our children, people we love who have died that we would like to just hug one more time. And the only thing we can do is wait with the patient endurance of faith, holding on to the hope that one day the peace of Christ will have delivered us from all these struggles.

Our faith is to not only say we believe but to wait, enduring the frustrations and disappointments and even suffering that comes from living between the coming of Christ. Such faith may seem naive and even blasé today but the righteousness of God will not fail. His peace, revealed in a baby named Jesus born to die on that old rugged cross but raised from death and exalted as Lord and Messiah, will one day come because this same Jesus is coming again. That’s the promise I’m holding on to and the promise I hope you hang on to as well.

 

Advent: Hope

“Unto Thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul. O my God, I trust in thee; let me not be ashamed, let not my enemies triumph over me.” – Psalms 25:1-2 (KJV)

I was a nine-year-old child at church camp when I first heard those words, which we sang. The song has a catchy melody, responsive harmonies, but most importantly, the song was about trusting God. That I could understand. Or at least I understood as much as any nine-year-old kid can understand such a concept, which was more than I could say for some of the songs we sang at church (Beulah Land, Bringing in the Sheaves, etc.). 

As children, it’s easy to talk about trusting God because, for the most part, little happens that will ever test that trust. But we can’t remain children forever and somewhere along the line we have to answer the question of faith for ourselves. Can we really say, “O my God, in you I trust…”?

When I think of trust, I think about getting on an airplane to fly somewhere. I board the airplane with a trust that the pilots will fly me safely to my destination because I know they’ve gone to school, received certified training, passed all their required certifications, and have safely flown many flights before. But with God, trust is different. We don’t get to send God to any school or make him acquire any board certification. So it takes a different kind of faith to really live a life that says, “O my God, in you I trust…”

We’re taught to trust God because God loves us. The Psalm says, “Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.”But there isn’t any test for us to see if God is capable of or willing to love, there’s just the memory of God’s past — his deeds that have “been from of old.” The Psalm invites us to ask what has God done to show that he can be trusted.

That’s a question worth pondering because the memory of God’s past isn’t the only memory on the mind of David as he writes this Psalm. Like many of us, David’s memory can neither forget the sins of his youth nor his transgressions. For David, these transgressions involved adultery as well as sexual abuse (the power differential that he as the King had over Bathseba makes his affair a form of sexual abuse) and murder. For us, hopefully, our transgressions are not that horrendous but nevertheless, whatever they are, they are just as offensive because of the harm they did. 

David, however, knows of God’s “steadfast love,” which is mentioned three times in this Psalm. It’s my favorite Hebrew word ḥeseḏ because it describes the fundamental character of who God is. It describes God as being full of “steadfast love” or we could say “abounding love,” “never-ending love”, and even “faithful love.” Such steadfast love is what moves God to send his Son, Jesus Christ into this world, born in the weakness of a baby because God wants to share in our weakness. And it’s this love of God that is threaded right through the crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus. It is an act that promises nothing, which includes our sins and transgressions, that can separate us from the love of God (cf. Rom 8:38-39).

So this past Sunday was the beginning of Advent, a season of anticipation as we rehearse the story of Advent — the coming of Christ. The theme for this past Sunday was hope, which we cannot see. It is the current of hope that runs through Psalm 25 when we read as Christians during this season of Advent. We anticipate seeing the goodness of God in the coming of Christ, a baby who is “Born that man no more may die; Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth” as we sing in the hymn Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

There are a lot of questions to life that I either don’t have an answer for or that I have answered with a question mark to follow. Just for starters, why do children die? I’ve been asking that question for twenty years and don’t have any idea. And as most of you know, I was reminded of this question earlier this year as I presided over the memorial service for a thirteen-year-old boy who took his own life. So my question isn’t just a philosophical issue disembodied from real life. And there are other questions that I still wrestle with, questions about salvation, gender issues, and other questions that I know I’m not the only one asking. 

But this I do believe: God sent his Son, Jesus Christ into this world… That Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Hope!

Restoration Christianity and Christian Unity

In a recent meeting with other pastors, I was asked about the strengths and weaknesses of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. As I considered the question, it became clear to me that our strengths and our weaknesses are the same: our commitment to Jesus and to the Bible, or our attitude toward Jesus and the Bible.*
    
Historically, Restoration Movement Churches are very committed both to following Jesus and taking the Bible seriously. This commitment brings a desire for restoring New Testament Christianity and the vision of Christian unity as depicted in the New Testament. This vision causes us to seek truth in the Scripture so that we are faithful to King Jesus. Although we’ve never done this perfectly, our intent has always been faithfulness to Jesus and revering the Bible as the inspired word of God.
    
At the same time, we have presumably subordinated faithfulness to Jesus to getting the Bible right. Restoring New Testament Christianity requires “rightly dividing the word” (cf. 2 Tim 2:15, KJV). Failure to do so is tantamount to being in error and rejecting the apostolic teaching of Jesus in Scripture. This approach also means that unity requires uniformity, a pursuit that comes at the expense of relationships. Condemnation and disfellowshipping the “errant brother” are used to control others and keep churches within the party lines of sound doctrine, or our unwritten creed.
    
However, loving others is what lies at the heart of Christian living. Jesus himself said, “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other” (John 13:34 CEB). Jesus gave this command after he washed the feet of his disciples, including one disciple who would betray him and another who would deny him. If Jesus had only known how to disfellowship them… Or maybe we still need to learn from Jesus what it means to love each other.
    
Lest I am misunderstood, I do believe we should always seek to follow Jesus, and we should do so by taking Scripture seriously. But as we do so, we must also learn how to love each other, even when we disagree. We will never agree with each other on every matter. 
    
The desire to follow Jesus and take the Bible seriously is honorable. I hope we never lose that desire, but we also need to value loving each other and embodying the oneness (unity) that we already have in Christ. Therefore, our desire for unity must include openness to differing views. In fact, discussing differing views can even sharpen our minds and bring us closer together. Ultimately, very few differences are worth losing family over.
    
Grace is especially necessary on social media where many of us find it easy to respond in an unnecessary, even hurtful, manner. I know from personal experience how social media can be a helpful medium for building connections and friendships; I also know how easy it is to eviscerate someone with one unwise comment, whether we intend to do so or not. 
    
Unity in Christ is not something we can manufacture on our own. Rather, it is a gift of grace from God that we must embrace. Doing so requires love to be fleshed out in the practices of humility, patience, forgiveness and yes, even tolerance of each other even when we disagree.
    
May we all remember that even in our disagreements we must love one another as Jesus loves us!


*This article was originally written for Common Grounds Unity, published on Saturday, April 3, 2021.

The Coming of the Lord

With a few slight changes, this is the message I shared with the Newark Church this past Sunday. The message is called The Coming of the Lord and it’s based on Mark 11:1-11, the New Testament lectionary reading for Palm Sunday. Here is the text:

When Jesus and his followers approached Jerusalem, they came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus gave two disciples a task, saying to them, “Go into the village over there. As soon as you enter it, you will find tied up there a colt that no one has ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘Its master needs it, and he will send it back right away.’” They went and found a colt tied to a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some people standing around said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them just what Jesus said, and they left them alone. They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. After he looked around at everything, because it was already late in the evening, he returned to Bethany with the Twelve.

I’m sure I’ve said this before and I’m sure I’ll say it again but I love preaching about Jesus and particularly from Mark’s Gospel. Perhaps it’s because out of the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — I’m most familiar with the Gospel of Mark, which isn’t saying much. But I do enjoy preaching from Mark’s Gospel and almost always find writing a sermon from this Gospel to be a breeze. That was until I came to this text, Mark 11:1-11, which we just read.

I don’t know what it is. Preaching is, in one aspect, a form of art, which makes the preacher, in some sense an artist. Not necessarily a good artist but an artist nonetheless and sometimes the creativity involved in artistry hits a wall and that’s what this week has felt like as I have sat with this text. I’ve read and reread over the text, and I’ve read what some other scholars have said about the text. I can tell you some details, factoids you might call it, about Jesus entering into Jerusalem. 

That is what this text is about. Jesus enters into Jerusalem riding on a colt with many people blessing him. That is, I believe, a good one sentence summary of this story that we read in Mark 11. So I ask… What is the message? What is the word from God in this text for us, who follow Jesus? How do we live into the life that this text envisions? These are the kind of questions I ask when I’m writing a message. But as I think about these questions, I remember that today is called Palm Sunday. It is always the Sunday before Easter Sunday, the Sunday that segues into Holy Week. 

In some churches that means the worshipers are given palm branches to hold during the singing of hymns before sharing in the Eucharist of Lord’s Supper. There’s nothing wrong with that nor is there anything wrong for those churches that don’t. But in reading the text of Mark 11, we see where the idea of palm branches comes from. The people in the story have branches. But why? What do the branches mean? Well, for Jewish people, such a gesture was done when welcoming the arrival of a king (cf. 2 Kgs 9:13). That makes sense considering that Jesus has commandeered a colt like the king who comes to save riding on a colt that the prophet Zechariah mentioned (cf. Zech 9:9).

It’s subtle but the people see the messianic signs here. Their response is a blessing. Mark tells us “Those in front of him and those following were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’” That’s a blessing from Psalm 118. The word Hosanna is simply the Hebrew word that means “to save, deliver, or liberate.” That’s what Jesus comes to do… to save, to liberate us. That’s salvation. But before we get ahead of ourselves, there’s the other half of the blessing which isn’t found in any Psalm or anywhere else that anyone knows about. Maybe there’s a reason. Here’s the rest of the blessing: “Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” Only nowhere in Mark’s Gospel has Jesus ever talked about “the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.” Jesus has talked a lot about the coming kingdom of God but not a kingdom of David.

That might seem like a subtle difference reveals the confusion that exists regarding the mission of Jesus. More specifically, misunderstanding about the kingdom of God and the nationalistic aspirations that so many of the Jewish people had attached to their messianic hope that one day God would restore the kingdom. They’re expecting the militaristic revolutionary that’s going to ride into Jerusalem and kick some… Well, we shouldn’t talk like that but that’s what they wanted. And if we’re honest, it’s what we may want as well. We see the evil all around us. As I heard someone recently say, the pagan worship of Mars, Aphrodites, and Mammon is everywhere. People don’t seem as interested in the gospel anymore. They sure don’t care about offending our Christian sensibilities anymore. So what can we do? 

Let’s call a boycott. If they won’t listen to reason, then perhaps a little coercive power will get their attention. Only Jesus won’t have anything to do with that. According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has made it clear three different times that he’s going to Jerusalem but not to conquer with the sword or any other kind of coercive power. He’s going to Jerusalem to die on a Roman cross (cf.8:31; 9:32; 10:33).

Talk about a real buzz-kill. Except it wasn’t. Jesus commandeered a colt so that he could ride into Jerusalem as a king because he actually believed the gospel. That is, Jesus believed the good news of the kingdom of God. So he trusts. He has faith in what his Heavenly Father has sent him to do. Jesus believes the cross is the victory, that the world is reclaimed for God, that is, the kingdom of God is restored not through might makes right but through self-sacrificial love. That in suffering death on the cross, the world will begin will begin to see where true life begins and will come not only to receive that true life but learn how to live it too. 

So as we begin Holy Week on this Palm Sunday, we remember how Jesus entered into Jerusalem. But more than just another Palm Sunday, we are invited to follow Jesus into Jerusalem and witness him redefine what salvation means through “his obedient death on the cross and in the exaltation to God’s right hand that will follow his rising from the dead” (Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom, p. 177).

Now if God would be so gracious as to open our eyes and ears, to see and hear, we’ll understand what the kingdom of God really means. We’ll learn what it means for Jesus to truly be God’s promise of salvation. And we’ll know what it means to faithfully follow King Jesus. After all, as N.T. Wright puts it, “The point of trying to understand the cross better is not so that we can congratulate ourselves for having solved an intellectual crossword puzzle, but so that God’s power and wisdom may work in us, through us, and out into the world that still regards Jesus’s crucifixion as weakness and folly. …Jesus died for our sins not so that we could sort out abstract ideas, but so that we, having been put right, could become part of God’s plan to put his whole world right” (The Day the Revolution Began, p. 22).

Americans and the Wisdom of God

Years ago, I went on a college mission trip where we went from house to house, knocking on doors, trying to begin evangelistic Bible studies. One of the questions we were told to ask as an “ice-breaker” was the question of who do you think God is? I can’t remember how anyone ever answered that question and to be quite honest, I’m not sure how I would have answered that question either. Today, is different. Ask me who God is and I will unequivocally tell mention Jesus.

Yes, that’s a very simple answer in needs of further explanation but one of the foundational claims of Christianity is that when we see Jesus, we see God in the flesh. We call this doctrine the Incarnation. The Gospel of John speaks of Jesus as the eternal Word of God who not only was with God in the beginning but was God and who became flesh, making his dwelling place among us (Jn 1:1, 14). Elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul recites an early Christian hymn that speaks of Jesus as the very icon or image of God and in whom the fullness of God lives (Col 1:15, 19). Likewise, the writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as “the imprint of God’s being” (Heb 1:3). Of course, when we consider the many miraculous acts Jesus did, they all point to his divine identity.

So, I am now able to answer the question of who God is. In fact, as I like to tell people, it’s not that Jesus is like God but that God is like Jesus because he is Jesus. That is, God is like Jesus because he has become flesh in the person of Jesus.

This matters much during this season of Lent as we approach Holy Week, during which, many years ago, Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross. Yes, God the Father raises Jesus from death and exalts him as the Lord and Messiah but now our answer to the question of who is God must include the image of Christ, God in the flesh, crucified. As Jürgen Moltmann reminds us, the image of Christ crucified means that God is like this (The Crucified God, 205). God is the one who has become flesh in the person of Jesus, choosing to work through suffering death himself on a Roman Cross.

Yet this just might be our stumbling block. We want to think of God as all-powerful, and he is, but he chooses to exercise his power through the humility of Jesus hanging on the cross. As believers, we’re called to participate in the mission of God by following Jesus and that seems fine until we have to choose between the power and wisdom of God manifested in the crucifixion of Jesus or the power and wisdom of the society we live among.

Remember, how the apostle Paul said, “Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified…” (1 Cor 1:22-23). Well, we might ask ourselves a question: If Jews look for signs and Greeks for wisdom, what do Americans look for? Who knows exactly what the answer is but perhaps science, politics, money, guns, education, and even conspiracy theories. Every day we are then faced with a choice of whether we will choose to live by the power and wisdom of Christ Crucified or will we choose some other power?

That’s a question that needs to be answered by everyone of us, both as individuals and as local churches. How we answer that question will reflect how we embody the gospel and whether our witness will tell the story of Jesus Christ crucified upon the cross or some other story we just slap some religious language upon. What will our answer be?

 

 

Are We Listening?

Per the Western Christian Calendar, this past Sunday was Transfiguration Sunday. The gospel reading, according to the Revised Common Lectionary, was Mark 9:2-9, which is the story of Jesus’s transfiguration. 

Within Mark’s Gospel, this story comes on the heels of Jesus telling his disciples how he will suffer death upon the cross in Jerusalem. This doesn’t sit well with the disciples, so much so that Peter rebukes Jesus. In response, Jesus tells his disciples that any who wish to follow him must first deny themselves, pick up their own cross, and then follow him. That’s the only route to the kingdom of God. So knowing that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, and therefore the true Messiah sent by God to restore the kingdom, matters. This is why God insists that we listen to Jesus but are we listening?

We live in a day and time when more information than we can imagine is available to us through books, podcasts, etc… all at the click of a mouse. Those who know me understand that I don’t have any issues with people listening to a variety of different voices on any given issue. Knowledge, truth, and wisdom are revealed by God in a variety of sources. So while there is nothing wrong with listening to what others might say, our embodiment of the gospel hinges on whether we continue listening to Jesus.

A quote often attributed to Edmund Burke says, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I often hear this quote cited to justify the Allies waging war against Germany in WWII. Whatever we think about the necessity of war, evil did not rise up in Germany because good men did nothing. Rather, evil rose up because the majority of Christians living in Germany stopped listening to Jesus. Their eye site wasn’t set on the kingdom of God and so a charismatic voice by name now infamous name of Adolph Hitler came along saying exactly what their itching ears wanted to hear. In doing so,  they joined him in leading much of Europe into hell on earth.

If we don’t want history to repeat itself, then we must learn from our history. Such learning should teach us to keep our ears tuned into Jesus and our eyes set on the kingdom of God. The voice of heaven has spoken and he says about Jesus, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” (Mk 9:7, CEB).

A lot could be said about how we listen to Jesus today. I’m suspicious of those who claim that Jesus somehow speaks to them directly. I’m not saying that’s impossible but I am highly suspicious. Too many self-proclaimed prophets have attempted to speak for the Lord but have shown themselves to be false prophets, with the latest being those who prophesied this past November 3rd. So how shall we listen to Jesus?

Read the Bible. That might sound cliché but in short, it’s the right answer and I cannot emphasize that enough. So, read the Bible and read it regularly.

However, as we read the Bible, we must also learn how to read the Bible rightly too. We commit to reading the Bible because God has given us these scriptures to tell us about the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. The Bible is telling a story that centers in on Jesus, whom were called to follow, and is oriented to the coming of God’s kingdom, which we are called to embody. Our reading of the Bible is meant to teach how to live as followers of Jesus bearing witness to the kingdom of God. That’s how we keep listening to Jesus.

Baptism, Temptation, and Mission

I’ve been a Christian for twenty-five years and serving as a minister of the gospel for the last twenty years. I’m ever thankful for the life that God has allowed me to live. Serving as a pastor with a local church is a fulfilling vocation but doing so can be difficult. While some days are filled amazing stories, other days our tragic moments because that is what life really is. One day the sun shines bright while another day the sun is obscured by dark clouds and this is the life that God calls us, as followers of Jesus, to embody the gospel among.

With that in mind, let’s consider the baptism and temptation of Jesus according to the Gospel of Mark. We read in Mark 1:9-13,

About that time Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.

Unlike the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t have any interest in telling us why Jesus was baptized or any of the details regarding his temptations. Instead, Mark’s interests is that we know that Jesus is not just a Jewish man from Galilee but that he is the Son of God on whom the Spirit descends and whom the Spirit now leads into the wilderness.

What we see in Jesus is the work of God. This is who God is and what God is doing. If we really want to know what God is about, Mark tells us about Jesus, the Son of God. This is what God is and is about. As Jürgen Moltmann says, “When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God,’ the meaning is that this is God, and  God is like this” (The Crucified God, p. 295). God is revealed to us in the baptized Jesus who, led by the Spirit, did not retreat into the heavenly realms but was led into the wilderness and beyond into realms of darkness that will take him all the way to Jerusalem where he, the Son of God, will be crucified.

This is this same Jesus whom calls us to follow him (Mk 1:17) and in whose name we are to be baptized.

So what Mark is telling us about the baptism and temptation of Jesus also matters for us who claim to follow Jesus. After all, Mark isn’t telling us about Jesus so that we’ll just have a better Christology. He’s telling us so that we’ll follow Jesus, the Son of God, because where he goes is where we encounter redemption and participate in the redemptive mission of God. That is, after all, what we signed up for when we were baptized into Jesus Christ and received the Holy Spirit.

As a church, this is not a choice we have. The Spirit, which we have received, will always lead us in the way of Jesus, the Son of God, to the glory of the Father. So either we follow Jesus into the realms of darkness or we don’t follow him. Participating in the mission of God isn’t limited the heavenly realm of worship in a place we might call a sanctuary. Rather, joining in the work of God means following Jesus out among places where darkness persists with people whose struggles evoke grief and pain. That’s where the Spirit led Jesus and that where’s the Spirit leads the church. 

This is what living as faithful followers of Jesus involves and it is how the church embodies the gospel in a meaningful manner to those we encounter. The gospel that we call the good news of Jesus Christ isn’t a slogan. It’s a storied message about Jesus Christ but it takes a community of people faithfully committed to that storied message as followers of Jesus living among people for it to mean anything more than a slogan in some ancient sacred text we call the Bible.

May we remember our baptism and let the Spirit lead us as followers of Jesus among places with people where God seeks to extend his love and grace!

Believe: An Message for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

It’s the Fourth Sunday of Advent and the message is called Believe.* Let’s read from the Gospel of Luke and I want to read two passages today, Luke 1:26-38 and then Luke 2:13-14.

As I mentioned, today is the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday before Christmas. Or perhaps better said Christ Mass. We join in the heavenly chorus of praise for the good news that God is fulfilling in the coming of his Son, Jesus Christ.

But far from the setting of some grand cathedral with shining lights and the ringing of bells echoing throughout, the story unfolds in Nazareth. It’s a city but more like a small village in the Galilean region of northern Israel, far from Jerusalem — the center of Jewish social-culture and political power.

That’s where God sends this angel known as Gabriel. He’s sent to visit Mary. Except before Luke ever identifies her as Mary, he identifies her as “a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph.”

Now the story is getting good. Although Mary is a virgin, which will be even more clear as the story gets told, the word virgin also implies a young woman who is of a marriageable age. It seems like a small but important detail because now, the story not only takes place in a setting of no significance but we also have a woman of no social significance.

Think about it for a moment. Before this story, Luke tells us about the foretelling of Elizabeth giving birth to John the Baptist. Elizabeth is said to be “righteous” and “blameless” before God and in regards to the Law (1:6), but Luke doesn’t offer such commending words for Mary. She’s just a young woman and in a strong patriarchal society that values age, is ruled by men in a stratified economy, she’s a powerless poor young woman for a little town that anyone would miss with the blink of an eye. 

So it’s understandable why Mary is confused. The angel comes to her saying, [v. 28] “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” But then immediately Luke tells us that Mary was “confused” or as the NRSV reads, “perplexed.” The greeting of the angel may sound fairly emotionless but the greeting is literally one that speaks of grace, of bestowing a favor upon someone. Yet the angel is speaking to her, a young virgin woman without any social-standing among her society.

Sensing her confusion, the angel says to Mary, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you.” It’s almost humorous because in the same breath that he tells Mary not to be afraid, the angel continues says that she is going to conceive and give birth to a son she is to name Jesus. He then says to Mary that her son will be the “Son of the Most High” and will receive the throne of David, ruling over the house of Jacob forever without any end to his kingdom.

That’s messianic language right there. Such language invokes the message of Israel’s prophets and the promise of messianic hope that the prophets proclaimed to exiled Israel. Essentially, the angel is announcing the fulfillment of this messianic promise that God is going to send a Messiah to restore the kingdom. It’s a message that says God is making good on his promise of salvation.

But I’m not sure Mary heard a single word after the Angel told her she was going to conceive a child. After all, Mary’s only response is, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”

It’s a good question. After all, she’s a virgin. 

When my brothers and sisters and I when we were young, my mother would always say keep those pants zipped up and you won’t have to worry about having a child. She was right. Biologically, it’s impossible to be a virgin and conceive a child. Which begs the question of how is this even possible?

It’s a fair question to ask. In fact, it’s fair to ask the other important question too. How is a child born to Mary going to restore the kingdom of God and make good on the promise of salvation? That might seem like a simple question to us but in Mary’s day such a question was legit because the powerful Romans were in charge and they ruled with brute force. Even King Herod was in bed with the Romans and only had power because of the Romans. Added to this is the fact that other Jewish leaders, some even claiming to be the Messiah, attempted to lead revolts, only to be crushed by the brute force of Rome. So to hear the angel say what he’s saying raises the question of how is this even possible.

But  listen again to how the angel responds. He says to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant.” 

That’s how. It’s the work of God through the Holy Spirit, not the work of humans. God’s work. And there’s one more thing the angel said to Mary, “Nothing is impossible for God.”

With those words, Mary believed. Her response to the angels words are, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”

But how about us? Do we believe? As I ask that knowing how sometimes people want rational arguments for the credibility of faith and I get that, to a point. But if we’re not careful, such a demand can actually be a way fo resisting faith.

Mary didn’t get the luxury of having all the scientific and philosophical arguments for how God could restore the kingdom through the birth of Jesus through her virgin body. The angel simply told her that God was at work just as he was with Elizabeth becoming pregnant and that was enough. Mary believed. That is, she trusted God enough to say “Let it be…” even though everything about this story is beyond all possibilities to the human mind.

But isn’t that what it means to believe? Isn’t that the kind of faith we’re called to have? To believe God can accomplish what is impossible for us to even fully understand?

The season of Advent is to remind us that the Lord, Jesus Christ is coming to restore the kingdom, so that there will be “on earth peace among those whom he favors.” But it’s easy to wonder sometimes if that’s really so. We’re twenty years removed from the most violent, war-waging, century in world history. We live in a nation that has been at war for about 225 years of its 244 year existence, where a hymn, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, sang “Glory!Glory! Hallelujah!” were first sang as a song of victory during the American Civil War. 

That’s why, at least sometimes, it’s really tempting to wonder if this is at all possible. To wonder if God can really bring about his peaceable kingdom through the birth of a baby to a virgin woman of no social-political significance at all. And sometimes in the wondering, God, in his grace to us, reminds us that nothing is impossible with God, that God is restoring his kingdom through Jesus. Perhaps such a reminder is this song, Your Peace Will Make Us One, by Audrey Assad.

Believe! In the form of a helpless baby, Christ has come. His name is Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. Born to Joseph and Mary but born so that God and sinners may be reconciled; born so that man may no more die, to raise the sons of earth, to give them second birth. Through crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation, this is more than possible because it is the work of God. So believe and let this bread and wine that we are about to share in together remind us all that this salvation is possible because it is the work of God and nothing is impossible for God.


* This message was originally preached for the Newark Church whom I serve with as Lead Minister/Pastor.

The Problems with Church Leadership?

With the news of yet another well-known evangelical pastor falling into moral failure, I’ve seen a lot of chatter about what is wrong churches and leadership. In particular, the conversation seems to be about so-called “celebrity pastors” and the megachurches they serve with, churches that function more like a business enterprise. You can read two such critiques here and here but if there are plenty of other social-media posts too. Though there are obviously some leadership issues that need to be addressed, we need to make sure were addressing the right issues and not making more out of them than they actually are.

To begin with, let me be clear and say it is without any doubt that the failings of pastor’s like Carl Lentz (or Billy Hybels, Perry Noble, etc…) is terrible and reveals some troubling leadership issues in some churches. I say “some churches” because it is just some, not all and likely not even the majority of churches. Most pastors are honorably serving as men and women of good character and integrity as they follow Jesus. 

We should also be careful about the way we critique church leadership. I’m not a fan of churches organizing like business enterprise with their pastors functioning more like CEO’s rather than ministers of the gospel but I doubt this is the norm. Far from being big business enterprises with celebrity pastors building their brand, most churches are just local people serving in local communities with a pastor or two who serve as humble leaders with their church.

The problem of moral failures and abusive leadership can happen in any organization regardless of what kind of leadership model exists. So although some models undoubtedly are more conducive for problems to appear, it seems short-sighted to think that simply by changing leadership models will resolve the problems. Also, while it is true that some churches have a toxic hierarchal leadership derived from a business model, this is not the case with many churches in whom their leadership model differs based on denominational polity and traditions. So such broad sweeping criticisms not only seems unwarranted but also of shifts the blame, removing the responsibility of the moral failings from where they belong which is the particular pastors and churches in question.

One of the articles I linked above goes so far as to critique what the author describes as a “pastor-centric” model derived from the Pastoral Epistles. This model is contrasted with what the author believers as a better model, the APEPT model (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) derived from Ephesians 4:11-12. In my opinion, the author misrepresents the function of Timothy and Titus played as leaders sent to the churches in Ephesus and Crete. While it is true that Timothy and Titus were referred to as “pastors”, if we look at the functional tasks they were given then their work is what we typically understand as the work of a pastor. Of course, one of those tasks was to appointing of overseers and deacons (1 Tim 3:1, 8) and elders and overseers (Tit 1:6-7), so they were never to remain the only leader. Also, I don’t believe there is any hierarchy implied in the Pastoral Epistles that would place any particular leader (pastors, elders, etc…) over one another. Rather, they should serve in mutual submission to each other as they submit to Christ (more on that below).

I’m not opposed to the so-called APEPT model but I also find that many who are pushing this model make a lot of assumptions about the text of Ephesians. We don’t know if the “apostolic” referred any number of Christians with an apostolic gifting as people sent or was this in reference to the Apostles appointed by Christ. Also the grammar of the text leaves open the question of whether  “pastors and teachers” is one role or two separate? So maybe we ought to be a little more cautious about constructing a leadership model off of one passage of scripture. As best as I can tell, there isn’t any one specific model of leadership found in the New Testament, so perhaps we should resist imposing one model over others. Besides, I not sure the point of the New Testament is to offer a particular form when it comes to leadership models. So if we are to address the issue of leadership failure, particularly the abusive leadership and the lack of accountability, then we have to address that issue which takes us back to the leaders themselves.

Regardless of what leadership model exists, every leader if first and foremost a servant. My point of departure for Christian leadership is Jesus and the conversation he has with his disciples about greatness in the kingdom of God. Jesus says to his disciples in Luke 22:25-26, “The kings of the Gentiles rule over their subjects, and those in authority over them are called ‘friends of the people.’ But that’s not the way it will be with you. Instead, the greatest among you must become like a person of lower status and the leader like a servant.” This humble servant mindset of Jesus would result in his crucifixion, so Christian leadership is to serve and do so from the logic and wisdom of the cross that Jesus embraced rather than a top-down position of coercive power. That’s true whether the leader is functioning as a pastor, elder, or even an apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher.

Because every leader is a servant following Jesus, mutual submission and accountability is required of every leader. Rather than elevating one leader above others, all leaders within a church should be able to question and challenge each other. Further more, all leaders should listen to each other and submit to the discernment of the entire leadership. That’s how mutual submission and accountability work. When any leader seems to be acting or involved in activity that could bring harm to the gospel and call into question the integrity of the leadership, other leaders must have the moral courage to address these matters (how to do this is a whole other matter). The failure to do so is what allows toxic cultures to grow until they implode in a big scandal.

Perhaps the best thing we could do as church leaders right now is reflect on how we are serving. One thing is for sure. People are not fooled. They know the difference between a servant and an authoritarian, between someone who submits to others and someone who submits to nobody, between someone who is accountable to others and someone who thinks they are exempt from the rules others must live by.

Fellowship in Christ: Grace Received, Grace Extended

A common practice among all congregations within the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement is weekly participation in the Lord’s Supper.* Although once viewed simply as a doctrine that must be obeyed based upon one example of breaking bread on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7), many of our churches have rightfully moved beyond the legalistic approach.  

    
That said, we still see the value in coming together to share in this Lord’s Supper or Eucharist meal. Accompanied by songs, prayers, and time spent in the Word through readings of Scripture and preaching, we still accept this invitation to gather together around the table of our Lord, Jesus Christ. 
    
If we read through the gospels, particularly the Gospel of Luke, we see how Jesus created space for people at the table. From the religious authorities to his disciples and even the “sinners and tax-collectors,” Jesus welcomed all these people to fellowship with him. This hospitality was a way in which Jesus extended the grace of God to both Jews and Gentiles, which pointed to his own death and resurrection so that all might indeed share in this fellowship. 
    
Two-thousand years later, some are still asking who gets to come to the Lord’s table?  Behind the question is an awareness that not everyone shares the same beliefs on any number of different issues, some having to do with matters of Christian doctrine and others having to do with politics, social-cultural challenges, etc… It’s easy to start drawing lines of inclusion and exclusion. Interestingly, we tend to draw these lines so as to always include ourselves. As a result, we see division and wonder how we can build unity. It’s as if we believe that reconciliation is our work rather than what God has accomplished in Christ. 
    
This is where we seem to miss what is happening at the Lord’s Table. When we receive the bread and wine that represents the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we are receiving the same bread and wine that Jesus served to his disciples. Jesus served Peter, who would deny knowing Jesus; and, Judas, who would betray Him. He served the other disciples also, who would all desert Him. Jesus extended his grace to all of his disciples without drawing any lines. What they did with his grace was in their hands, just as it is in ours too. Although Judas turned away from grace he received, the others didn’t and we know what they did with it because we are all beneficiaries of the way they extended the grace they received from Jesus. 
    
So, when we receive the bread and wine, we are receiving the grace of God extended to us even though we too are sinners and are undeserving of such fellowship. Because of that, rather than drawing lines, we can and must extend that grace to others regardless. Such fellowship, and the unity it expresses, is the gracious hospitality of welcoming others without distinction. But this oneness is not something we do as though we are manufacturing reconciliation and unity ourselves. As it was when Jesus first invited his disciples to receive the bread and wine, this is the grace of God that we receive and therefore that which we extend — fellowship in Christ. 


* This blog post originally appeared as a small article on the Common Grounds Unity website, published on November 28, 2020.