Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Lord's Day Message: A New Name


Message, December 26, 2010

Over the past several weeks, during the time we call Advent, we have looked at the coming of Christ through the lens of time.  We looked at a Day that seems to last forever, an hour that instructs for a lifetime, a minute that teaches patience, and a moment that changes everything.  But these are broad statements.  In fact, you have to really fill in a whole lot of blanks in the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke before you’ll begin to mine anything like an emotional response.  That’s the funny thing about our celebration of Christmas.  All the carols, the candles, the symbols; all the meta-text – the text that explains the Biblical text – nearly all the emotional content of Christmas is stuff Christians added centuries later. 

Not that the meta-text of Christmas is inaccurate or that the symbols don’t point us in the right direction.  Even a paper star on top of a gaily-decorated evergreen has its roots in the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem to see the Christ.  But these are embellishments; glosses on what is really a very bare-bones narrative.  In fact, with the exception of the one conversation between Mary and Elizabeth, which prompted one reader of my daily blog to write, “Did people back then really talk like that?” the most intimate moment in the birth narrative of the gospels is when the angel told Joseph that “his name shall be called Immanuel – God with us.” 

The really odd thing about the whole birth narrative is that if you were to construct your Christian experience solely on the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke, it would be very easy to believe that God is quite formal and distant, and that if he ever spoke to humankind, it was mostly through angels, and all of it happened very long ago indeed.  And judging from the difference in the number of people who show up in churches world-wide on Christmas, that is exactly what most Christians today are basing their experience of God upon.

What the lectionary has given us as a follow-up text this day after Christmas fills in the blanks for anyone still here to listen.  We are not getting rid of the symbols of Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, of shepherds and wise men.  We are going to look deeply into what moved their hearts and what moves us who are here this morning.  That is not to say that church attendance one day after most of us had a huge party is any indication of the condition of a person’s soul.  In fact, church involvement is only a distant result – an outpouring of the affection the text we’re looking at this morning speaks of.

If you are with me then, turn in your Bible to Isaiah 61, beginning at verse 10, and let’s listen to what this great prophet has to say about his relationship with God.  Isaiah writes:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD;
                        my soul shall exult in my God,
            for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
                        he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
            as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
                        and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
            For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
                        and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
            so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
                        to sprout up before all the nations.

 
            For Zion's sake I will not keep silent,
                        and for Jerusalem's sake I will not be quiet,
            until her righteousness goes forth as brightness,
                        and her salvation as a burning torch.
            The nations shall see your righteousness,
                        and all the kings your glory,
            and you shall be called by a new name
                        that the mouth of the LORD will give.
            You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,
                        and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
            You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
                        and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,
            but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
                        and your land Married;
            for the LORD delights in you,
                        and your land shall be married.
            For as a young man marries a young woman,
                        so shall your sons marry you,
            and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
                        so shall your God rejoice over you.
 (Isaiah 61:10-62:5 ESV)

There is a key question I always ask when I’m mentoring someone.  I really ought to ask this question more often than I do.  When I greet the check-out clerk in the supermarket, they nearly always ask me how I’m doing.   And as you know, they’re not really interested in an answer.  It is just an automatic question – small-talk while your groceries go by on a conveyer belt.  It breaks up an awkward human moment.  We have met someone, but they are simply fulfilling a function.  Their job is to get our groceries into a bag.  But rather than asking how you are doing, the more important question; one that will immediately take the conversation somewhere far deeper, is “how is your soul?” 

When Isaiah writes here at verse 10, it almost seems that someone has asked him that mentoring question.  “How is your soul, Isaiah?”   And Isaiah’s response is from the heart, and is full and immediate.  He doesn’t have to think about this one.  He says, “OH!  I’m so glad you asked…”

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD;
                        my soul shall exult in my God,

What good mentor could pass up a moment like that one.  If I were to ask one of you after church this morning how your soul is and you gave me a response like that, we would definitely be sitting at a table in a diner with a cup of coffee about 30 seconds later.   Diners are where all the best mentoring conversations happen. 

The next question Isaiah’s mentor asks is, “Why?  Why is your soul exulting and rejoicing like that?  What has God done for you that is making you feel that way?”

And Isaiah says back to his mentor, “Oh, it isn’t just one thing God has done.  It is five things.  There are five almost embarrassingly intimate things God has done for me.”  And here they are.

First, He clothed me.  You know, until I met Jesus, my soul was a mess.  I was dressed in rags of shame and pride and self-interest.  Spiritually speaking they didn’t even cover the raw nakedness of my soul.  I was completely exposed to the elements – a person no one would have wanted.  My soul was sick – as sick as death – and ugly.  But he came to me, just the way I was and…
he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
                        he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
            as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
                        and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

It is like coming in from digging ditches all day and finding there is someone waiting at the door with the most beautiful, and yet most comfortable clothes you could imagine, and then having that person tell you they are taking you in to the most sumptuous feast you could imagine.  “don’t worry, they say.  I’ve taken care of everything.  I’ve invited all your friends, and we’re going to have a grand time.” 

Have you ever had someone dress you?  I can tell you, it is one of the most intimate experiences you can have with another.   Remember that first they have to undress you.  And in salvation God comes to us and he tenderly removes the filthy rags we are wearing, and he lays them aside and, like Jesus did at the Last Supper, he picks up a basin and a towel, and he washes us – not just our feet.  But in salvation, Christ washes our hands and our faces, and then our whole body, and then he reaches in and washes our soul as well.  And then he dresses us in these amazingly rich garments.  How much more intimate can you get than that?

He tells us.  Not only does he clothe me.  But, more intimate and more completely connected than that… He grows me.  For, Isaiah writes,
            as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
                        and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
            so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise
                        to sprout up before all the nations.

This is more than simply a shoot growing out of the stump of Jesse, as an earlier prophecy of Isaiah testified.  God is the earth, the very ground the seed of my soul is wrapped in.  And he is supplying all the nutrients my soul needs so that, when it sprouts up, it is not merely a flower that has its season and then wilts.  For earlier in Isaiah 61, he says that God is growing my soul to be an oak of righteousness, a planting of the Lord that he may display his beauty. 

So it isn’t just that he dressed me.  He grew me, and has paid me the intolerable compliment of placing me like an oak tree in the middle of a garden, so that all the nations, all the principalities, all the powers in heavenly places will look at me and say, “O the beauty of God!”

Now there is an uncomfortable silence in the mentoring conversation.  This mentor really did want to know how Isaiah’s soul was.  But he never imagined he’d get such a gushing reply, and he’s not entirely sure he wants to hear any more.   The mentor fidgets with the silverware on the table… takes a sip of coffee… and half looks up into Isaiah’s face, wondering what might come next. 

Isaiah knows how awkward and yet how intimate even this moment of explanation has been.  But he can’t help himself.  He plows on and hits the table with his fist for emphasis. 
            For Zion's sake I will not keep silent,
                        and for Jerusalem's sake I will not be quiet,

You see, not only does God dress me; not only does he grow me.  But he makes me burn! 
            until her righteousness goes forth as brightness,
                        and her salvation as a burning torch.
            The nations shall see your righteousness,
                        and all the kings your glory,

And believe me.  Now every eye in the diner is on this man who just pounded the table.  The passion that is in his heart is palpable and is infecting not just the mentor sitting across the table, but the rest of the crowd quietly having their coffee and sandwiches. 

When Isaiah talks about righteousness going forth brightly and salvation shining as a burning torch realize that the only way God can get the attention of the nations is for those oaks of righteousness that he planted to burn.   The miracle of the burning bush that Moses saw was that the bush was on fire and yet was not consumed.  If we will trust him, God will set you and me ablaze as surely as the sacrifice on the altar was burned.  Imagine the light that would be created if not just one oak burned, but if a hundred hundred thousand oaks burned simultaneously.  All kings would see a blaze like that.  The thing that stops most of us from burning for the Lord is that we believe we will be consumed in the flames.  Will it hurt?  Of course it will hurt.  You have been set on fire.  But if you will trust him as savior enough to burn for him, you will not be consumed.

Not only has he clothed me and grown me and set me ablaze.  He named me. 

In the ancient world, the give someone a name was to have power and authority over them.  It was essentially a mark of ownership.  Someone who owned a slave in those days had the right to name and rename them over time if he wished.  They were a possession.  But look at the names by which God calls those whom he clothes, those whom he grows.  Look at the names by which God calls those willing to be set ablaze in him: He calls us “Crown of Beauty.”  He calls us “Royal Diadem.” 

            and you shall be called by a new name
                        that the mouth of the LORD will give.
            You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,
                        and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
            You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
                        and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,

And finally, in the greatest demonstration of intimacy the world knows anything about, He marries me.  Can you imagine taking a slave and marrying him or her? 
But that’s what God has done.  And the name he gives his bride is even more intimate.

            you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
                        and your land (shall be called) Married;
            for the LORD delights in you,
                        and your land shall be married.
            For as a young man marries a young woman,
                        so shall your sons marry you,
            and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
                        so shall your God rejoice over you.

You wanted to know why Isaiah’s soul is rejoicing so?   Now a great smile comes over the mentor’s face, for he knows this is not just true of Isaiah.  God wants this to be true of every believer. 

Beloved in Christ, God wants to dress you and grow you.  He wants to make you burn and not be consumed.  He wants to give you a new name and he wants to marry you.   As the calendar turns to a new year, don’t make a resolution.  You’ll break it in a day.  Turn your heart over and tell God you want to be his bride, that you want him to give you a new name.  And then revel with squeals of delight as you burn and shine forth brightly for all to see. 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Blessings


In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
(Luke 1:39-45 ESV)

If there is an advantage to living two thousand years after the birth of Christ, I don’t know what it is.  The inner cynic in me reads this passage and wants to attribute Elizabeth’s greeting to a later gloss by the Catholic Church.   But if we accept that the Bible is the Word of God, that possibility fades.

Still, there are problems with this account.  Mary has just become pregnant.   The story begins with, “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country…”  I think the vision of angels she had and the visitation of the Holy Spirit would account for that.  But where is this honorable man Joseph when Mary decides to pick up and run away from home?  The text is incomplete on this point.  Did Mary just up and decide to take a walk?  The hill country is some distance from Nazareth.  Even if Zechariah and Elizabeth lived up in Northern Judah, we’re still talking a walk of some 80 miles as the crow flies from Nazareth to Jerusalem.   Did Joseph go with her? 

Babies do summersaults in wombs.  Anyone who has become a parent knows that.  The natural explanation is that the baby was merely kicking.  But anyone who has become a parent knows what kicking feels like, and that’s not what’s been reported here.   There is an implicit joy in the statement.  This baby and his mother experienced something out of the ordinary at that moment. 

And then there is Elizabeth’s shriek that accompanies the baby’s leap.   Again, we could chalk this up to a mother’s reaction to a particularly strong kick, but it is way more than that.  It is a blessing.

Actually it is five blessings.   A blessing is an approval.  It is stamping a person or an event not just as being good, but as being approved.   Maybe the simplest way to explain a blessing is to say it is something that makes the heart of the one offering the blessing glad because they know it will result in good.

Mary is blessed because she’s been chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus.  The “fruit of her womb” (Jesus) is blessed because he has been chosen by God to be Messiah.  Elizabeth is blessed because she has been visited by “the mother of my Lord.”  The baby in her womb (John the Baptist) is blessed because he has received a gift from the Holy Spirit – joy, even in the womb.  And the fifth blessing is one that Mary and Elizabeth share, for they are both women who have believed there would be a fulfillment of what God had spoken.

It is when we look at the blessings and bypass the difficulties with this story that we become blessed.  And that’s reveals a something really important about how we look at Scripture.  If we try to force into the stories of the Bible the completeness we would look for in modern-day literature, we’re sunk.  The little details you might find in a novel aren’t there.  No one reports what color Mary’s dress was, or what time of day it was when she arrived, or what Elizabeth’s house looked like, or even what route Mary took to get there.  That’s because the Bible isn’t history.  The Bible is the God who is there revealing himself for blessing.   If we want to receive the blessing, we have to join the circle that began with Mary and Elizabeth and believe with them that God will fulfill what he has spoken.

Jon

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Is God Late?


Most sermons I’ve heard on the story of the birth of John the Baptist, recorded in Luke 1, focus on the role John would have as forerunner of Jesus.  But there is a fascinating light to be shed on God’s purposes if we look for a second at John’s parents. 

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
(Luke 1:5-7 ESV)

After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”
(Luke 1:24-25 ESV)

Zechariah’s name means “God has remembered.”  Read commentary on the role Zechariah played as a priest and Pharisee, and you will discover that though this was a man who worked hard to achieve ceremonial righteousness, the fact that his wife had never produced children was a great blot on his record.  This may sound strange to us today, but in the First Century the inability to bear children indicated that you had sinned in some way.  Add to this the fact that Zechariah had grown to be an old man.  Since there were so many priests who could be tapped, and the family rotation made it so that no one man would have the honor fall on him more than once in his life it is probable that Zechariah had not yet been chosen to burn incense at the daily offering.  So here was a man who was probably pretty depressed; his name a kind of cruel joke.

Meanwhile there is Elizabeth.  There is no more fertile name to be had than “House of God.”  But here she is, an old woman with no hope of producing an heir for her husband.  If the house of God cannot produce, what then?  To be noted as especially righteous is no honor when everyone you know whispers behind your back, “Of course, she can’t have children.”

The most important thing that is said in the whole story (some of which I have edited out because of space – read all of Luke 1) is what Elizabeth says after John has been conceived and after Zechariah has lost his ability to speak.   Since he can’t talk, she says, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” 

Both of their names now come into play!  “Thus the Lord has done for me” is like saying, “God has remembered me.”  And “to take away my reproach” testifies that God has put his stamp of approval on this “house of God.” 

Do you ever feel barren or like God has forgotten you?  Don’t wonder about it.  God has not forgotten you.  He will come… he has come to take away your reproach.  It may seem like he’s late.  It certainly must have seemed that way to Zechariah and Elizabeth.  But pray it through.  God is not late and he will reveal his plan in time.

Jon 

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Beatitudes


Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

“Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.”  This is such a loaded entr’acte, and we generally pass right over it because we want to get to the good stuff. 

There are two groups of people here on this hillside.  The first is the crowds.  Matthew 4 and Luke 6 tell us where these people came from: Syria, a part of the old Selucid Empire, is now under Roman rule and has a non-Jewish population.  Galilee is the whole northeastern part of First Century Israel.  Galilee is the area around Capernaum, where Jesus has been working.  It includes many non-Jews, especially east of the Jordan and in the north.  The Decapolis is a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in Judea and Syria, west of Galilee.  The Decapolis cities are centers of Greek and Roman culture in a region otherwise Semitic.  Jerusalem is just into the southern third of the nation and is the capital of Judea.  It is almost exclusively Jewish.  Judea is the whole of the southern kingdom, and is also Jewish.  The area “beyond the Jordan” is called Peraea, and is largely non-Jewish.  Tyre, and Sidon, on the border of Syria, are cosmopolitan melting pots.  The only region in the area not mentioned specifically is, notably, Samaria.  Is this audience primarily a group of card-carrying Jews?  No.  In most cases, they have traveled a very long way, mostly in search of healing for various diseases. 

Here, then, is the context of the scene: Thousands of people, many of them poor, sick, and probably on the brink of starvation, have left the little security they had to seek what healing this Jewish rabbi might possibly offer them.  Many probably died along the way trying to get there.  Many more would not live to see home again because they came.  And most were tolerated at best and hated at worst by the locals because they were of the goyim – the nations.  Their crime is that they are “everybody else.” All of them have climbed a small hill, where Jesus is to speak.  

The other group at the top of the hill full of pilgrims is a cluster of between 12 and 60 men and women, some of whom Jesus recently invited to be his disciples.  It is a great honor for a young Jewish male to be called to be the disciple of a rabbi.  It means a lengthy time of teaching beyond of the study of Torah and the rest of Holy Scripture these crème-of-the-crop types have already mastered.  But Peter, Andrew, James, and John, Philip, Matthew and a few of the others didn’t master the teaching.  They are already adults working at trades in the area with no further hope of being tapped by a rabbi.  They are too old.  They are not good enough.

At the top of the hill sits an unremarkable man.  He is unremarkable because he is not rich, he is not powerful, and he has no political connections to speak of.  But miracles seem to follow him everywhere he goes.  And this is the first time he is going to give a major address.  That’s why he sat down here on this hillside.

The last thing in setting the scene is a bit of placement.  Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples.  In order to speak to the crowds, he has to get passed the disciples, so to speak.  So while the message is addressed to the general audience, it seems clear that the people he wants to impact most are sitting closest to him.  Jesus is issuing a challenge to them in this message.  If in the scene they are facing him on the hillside, then the challenge is just behind them.  If they are facing the other way, the challenge is right before their eyes.

There.  That’s the scene the way my mind’s eye has it.  I think it is historically accurate.  God forgive me if it isn’t.  That is Matthew 5, verse 1 in time and space.  Now that we know where we are and who is here, listen carefully, you would-be disciple, because “he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:”

(vs. 3) Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  In Luke’s version, in Luke 6, it simply says, “Blessed are you poor.”  I don’t know which one Jesus said that day or whether the two reports are from two different messages.   But don’t think for a moment that the poor are of little concern to Jesus, and don’t think for a moment that Jesus is not telling you, would-be disciple, that they are not to be of practical concern to you.  The context of the scene leaves no other possibility.

(vs. 4) “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.  What are you going to do, would-be disciple, for those who have lost loved-ones along the way to hear this message?  Don’t think for a moment they are not your responsibility.  They are here.  You cannot wish them well and send them away.  You must comfort them.  The context of the scene leaves you no recourse. 

(vs. 5) “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  This gathering could so easily have become a riot.  The disciples could so easily have become a police barricade struggling to save their Master’s life against a well meaning, but insistent mob.  But the people sat down on the hillside that day and listened patiently. And patience like these people display: a meekness that obeys the Master’s voice like a sheep does his shepherd is how Jesus intends to build his kingdom.  It isn’t that they have no ambition.   They will simply submit their ambition to sit and listen to the Master.  Do you have the ambition to lead?  Those in this kingdom must follow.  The context of the scene demonstrates that to you.

(vs. 6) “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.  Again, Luke’s version leaves out “for righteousness.”  On other days in other places Jesus will ask his disciples to feed crowds of this size with a few fish and some scant loaves of bread.  And they will do it.  But today there are hungry people right here.  And today Jesus is not going to perform that particular miracle because this is a lesson in practical ethics.  Would-be disciple, when Jesus is finished preaching today, who is going home to enjoy your meal?  This will cost you, Peter, Andrew, James, John.  You have a catch of fish back in town.  No time to sell them.  This is your whole income today.  Matthew, do you still have money from your tax collections?  You give them something to eat, would-be disciple.  The context of the scene demands it of you.
 
(vs. 7) “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.  The person who is in a position to withhold mercy is a person who is in a position to exercise judgment.   There is something that tends to happen when people gain a title.  It separates them from the “everyone else” and so often gives them the idea they are in a position to judge.  And, would-be disciple, you are not going to be able to do all the rest of what Jesus has challenged you to do as long as you hold onto your title of disciple or Pharisee or chosen, or pastor or elder or deacon.  This is a lesson in practical ethics.   There are people on this hillside who need to see hearts that have been forgiven of their hardness.  There are people on this hillside who need to see hearts of stone that have become hearts of flesh.  When you stand up after the message and turn around, don’t think for a moment that you can walk back through the crowd and do nothing.  The context of the scene won’t allow you to.

(vs. 8) “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.  This one is the hardest to come in touch with.  You don’t understand what it really means to have a pure heart.  But this crowd didn’t come to make a statement or to picket for a cause or even to be religious.  They came for healing.  Their motive was absolutely pure on that point.  Before Jesus began to teach, he met their need.   He didn’t say, “blessed are those who see God, for it will make them pure in heart.”  There is no pretense here on this hillside.  All that has been stripped away.  The context of the scene leaves you suddenly naked, your pockets empty, your heart broken, completely in need before God.

(vs. 9) “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.  Just over your shoulder are people who, until today, you would have gladly had an argument with, and they with you.  Sitting here on this hillside are not just Jews like you, would-be disciple.  They are pagans, half-breeds, Greeks, Romans, and Jews.  The politics of the Middle East is on this hillside. Until today, a gathering like this would have been cause enough for you to start a war.   But there is no reason to start a war or to fight in a war or to support a war ever, anywhere from this day forward. You remember the prophecy from Isaiah, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.”  No, you are not your Master.  But he is asking you to meet life as he does.  And you will never be able to forget today, with so many of your “enemies” gathered on this hillside.  And you will never be able to forget the Lord’s mercy and kindness toward you.  The context of the scene has taken that possibility away from you. 

(vs. 10) “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Gathered just down this hillside from you are people who have each been persecuted at some point for the sake of political gain.  Here are people who have been persecuted because they didn’t fit into someone’s plans.  Here are people who have been persecuted because of those who had “the law” on their side.  Your Jewish leaders called it ceremonial righteousness.  But, would-be disciple, when you do all the things Jesus just talked about, you will be persecuted because of your life of righteousness toward God.  Just take a look down the hill from where you sit.  The context of the scene confirms this to you.

(vs. 11-12) “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.   Now your eye turns.  You were looking down the hill as The Master spoke.   With this last line you suddenly look up the hill again.  It isn’t enough that you do what is right.  The Pharisees have made stock-and-trade out of that for years.  Doing the right thing – even being persecuted for doing the right thing – isn’t enough, and always ends in cold legalism.   Just up the hill from you sits the one whom your soul loves.  He is not just rabbi to you.  He has the words of eternal life.  You are ready now to give everything, even your life, to know what he knows and do what he does.   Your relationship with him gives you the reason to do all that he has talked about here on this hillside.  Your relationship with him will give you the ability to bless when others revile you, to bless when others persecute you, to respond kindly when others speak evil of you, to speak truth when other speak lies about you. 

You look around you one more time and realize that in all of them: the Poor, the Mourning, the Meek, the Hungry, the Thirty, the Merciful, the Pure, the Peacemakers – in all of these around you, he is the context of the scene.   

For Tim, Alice, and River.

Jon



Friday, December 17, 2010

An Invitation to Publish


We live in the midst of a people who have a hard time saying anything positive.  Did you know there have only been two presidents in the past 75 years who campaigned on a positive platform?  The first was Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 (“Happy days are here again”), and the second was Ronald Reagan, running for reelection in 1984 (“It’s morning in America”).    All the rest have run against something.  Think of Bill Clinton’s famous slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid,” and you’ll pretty much get what I’m talking about.

I think part of the reason the church isn’t seeing revival here in America these days is that our message turned almost wholly negative.   We spent much of the past 75 years focusing our evangelism on convincing people they are sinners in the hands of an angry God.  And when that didn’t work, we abandoned the message of Christ altogether in favor of a “gospel” of social reform or else, some kind of high-tech “gospel” that we called “seeker sensitive”.

I remember as a young Christian in college in the 1970s, all the campus fellowships did door-to-door evangelism.  We were told all we had to do was convince people they were sinners and they’d turn to Christ in droves.  It didn’t work.  In fact, it convinced most of us that opening our mouth to witness for Christ was a scary, invasive proposition. 

What about trying a different tactic?   Psalm 40:9-10 says,

I have told the glad news of deliverance
                        in the great congregation;
            behold, I have not restrained my lips,
                        as you know, O LORD.
            I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart;
                        I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
            I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
                        from the great congregation.

In Matthew 11:4-6 we read, “And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Jesus’ conclusion is that someone is blessed who is not offended.   Both his and Isaiah’s first impulse was to testify to the wonderful things God had done for them.  So maybe an opening for the gospel is there if God’s people begin to share the amazing things he is doing today.  When Isaiah saw the glory of God manifested (Isaiah 6:1-7), he immediately acknowledged that he was a sinful man.  His second response was to go and tell what he had seen and heard.

So here’s an invitation (and also a crafty way of discovering how many readers this blog has).  Take Jesus’ words seriously.  Go and tell Jon what you hear and see.   Do the blind receive their sight?  Do the lame walk?  Are lepers being cleansed?   Do the deaf hear?  Are the dead are raised up?  And have you seen the poor have good news preached to them?   If so, I want you to send me brief stories of what you, personally have seen the Lord do.   Please don’t send third-hand stories, and please don’t forward stuff you found on the web.  If the God who raised Jesus from the dead has revealed himself to you, then you have a story to tell.  I’m going to collect whatever comes in before Christmas and publish them all as The Morning Watch on the 25th.  If you wish to remain anonymous, please note that in your email and I will respect your privacy.

Publish glad tidings;
Tidings of peace;
Tidings of Jesus,
Redemption and release.

Jon 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Beginning of the Gospel


The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
            As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

            “Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
                        who will prepare your way,
            the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
                        ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
                        make his paths straight,’”

            John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
(Mark 1:1-8 ESV)

Where does the “good news” – the gospel – begin? 

It begins with Prophecy.   Isaiah wrote some 750 years before Christ appeared.  Had Mark wanted to, he could have filled a book with the specifically messianic prophecies of the Old Testament canon.  His choices of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 as examples make total sense, but they are only fractions of the total Old Testament witness.  Mark knows this and so does his late First Century audience.

The gospel also begins with Proclamation.  None of the Old Testament writers believed they were living in the days of Messiah.   They knew they were writing and speaking things that were to be accomplished in the future.  What makes John the Baptist unique is not that he was speaking prophetically.  Many had done that over the past 2000 years of Israel’s history.  What makes John the Baptist unique is that he believed he was preaching about a present reality, not a future coming.   So his preached prophecy comes in the form of Proclamation.  His is a broadside approach.  He is the newspaper issuing today’s events.

The third element of the beginning of the gospel is Penitence.   The text says that “all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” 

It is about 20 miles from Jerusalem to the Jordan.  That doesn’t seem very far today, but at 3 miles per hour (average walking speed), you’re talking about a six hour walk each way.  It was kind of like traveling from Boston to New York on US 1.  You had to go through all the little downtowns along the way.   The scene of all those people coming down to the boat landing with the express purpose of repenting of their sins is what I expect revival would look like.   Add to this, Jesus was probably coming down the Jordan from Capernaum and John had come in from the east,  beyond the Jordan and the most likely place for the baptism is the area where all the north-south commerce changed from boat to land: a pretty busy intersection.  Considering that the Temple was back in Jerusalem, it is also a pretty unlikely place for large groups of people to go to confess their sins, though there’s probably a scholar out there who knows a reason for it that escapes me.

The final, and most important piece critical to the beginning of the gospel is the presence of the Paraclete.   Without the specific action and intervention of the Holy Spirit, there would have been no gospel.  Both of the birth narratives (Matthew and Luke) emphasize the work of the Holy Spirit in advent of Christ, right down to how Mary conceived.   This gospel of the Kingdom is, from beginning to end, a testimony to the power of a triune God.  The Father spoke through the prophets.  The Son came into the world through the action of the Holy Spirit. 

Has the gospel of Jesus Christ begun in you?  Have you heard the ancient prophecies and heeded those who are proclaiming Christ to you today?  Has the effect been to give you a penitent heart before God?  Is the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) speaking to you today?   If so, don’t delay.   This is the day of your salvation.   “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  (Romans 10:9)

Jon


Monday, December 13, 2010

Unto us a child is born


             The people who walked in darkness
                        have seen a great light;
            those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
                        on them has light shined.
            You have multiplied the nation;
                        you have increased its joy;
            they rejoice before you
                        as with joy at the harvest,
                        as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
            For the yoke of his burden,
                        and the staff for his shoulder,
                        the rod of his oppressor,
                        you have broken as on the day of Midian.
            For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
                        and every garment rolled in blood
                        will be burned as fuel for the fire.
            For to us a child is born,
                        to us a son is given;
            and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
                        and his name shall be called
            Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
                        Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
            Of the increase of his government and of peace
                        there will be no end,
            on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
                        to establish it and to uphold it
            with justice and with righteousness
                        from this time forth and forevermore.
            The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
 (Isaiah 9:2-7 ESV)

It takes a little research to understand the absolutely radical thing that is being said here.  It all centers on a story written in Judges 7 and 8.   God told Gideon to prepare for battle, because an army of about 135,000 men was coming from Midian to stand against Israel.  God was very explicit in his instructions about who Gideon should choose for his army.  When he had finally whittled the number down to 300 he was ready to go to battle against Midian. 

The night before the main event, Gideon snuck down to the edge of the Midianite encampment, and overheard two soldiers talking about a dream one of them had had.  The dream clearly identified that the next day Gideon and his army were going to defeat Midian.  The text says that upon hearing it, Gideon worshipped God. 

The really crazy thing that happens next is that Gideon’s army each carried those plastic vuvuzelas, a thermos, and a glow-stick.  They looked more like spectators at a Patriots game than an army.   Okay, they carried trumpets, clay pots, and torches.  Same difference.  The point is that here were 300 madmen about to do the most embarrassingly non-violent thing possible in front of an army of 135,000. 

At the appointed moment, the 300 men went racing into the camp, broke the pots, held up the torches and blew the trumpets like fools.  The result was that the opposing army all sprung into battle—against each other.  Not one of Gideon’s men was injured, and 120,000 of the enemy died that day by their own hand.  In the resulting rout, the only people Gideon’s men killed were the four kings (think of middle-eastern mullahs). 

This is the model Isaiah uses to talk about the establishment of the kingdom of God.   We all love the words of Isaiah 9:6, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” But they are nearly always disconnected from the equally affecting words of Isaiah 9:5,  “Every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.”  That is to say, the child Isaiah is about to speak of is going to put war out of business.

The reason for the disconnect is clear: we today want the same thing the Jews of Jesus’ day wanted – conquest.  We want our king to come and fight for us.  And we want to be found fighting on the “right” side in the war.  Christians have been told by their preachers for over 100 years here in America that somehow the armies of democracy are always going to be the good guys, and that a vague equation can be made between our armies and the army of God. 

But Christians cannot be American-Christians or British-Christians or Any-other-Nation-Christians either.  “The government shall be upon his shoulder… Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.”  If we are to be called by The Name, we are to be called “Christian” only.  No other banner, no other allegiance.  Yes, nations are instituted by God as he works out his purposes on earth, and in general God tells us to submit to the state as it works out God’s purposes.  But men live as brothers only in the Kingdom of God.  Only under the banner of the Kingdom of God will the lion ever lie down with the lamb. 

In the light of the Kingdom’s shining call for peace, for any Christian to endorse or vote on behalf of spending $700,000,000,000 per year on defense by any government is, quite simply, sin.   But let us be clear.  Those of you who read this must understand that I believe the average soldier, sailor, or airman is behaving honorably.   Those whose conscience before God allows them to serve in the military are doing nothing wrong and many believe they are responding to the call of God in their service.  

Still, I would challenge the governments that send them into harms way to justify what they are doing before God.   “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.”  A larger defense budget does not make for a good or godly defense.  It seems to me that a bunch of guys armed with vuvuzelas, thermoses, and glow sticks might win the battle more quickly than the current tactics being used on all sides of conflicts world-wide.   If nothing else, such a display would certainly get everyone to take themselves and their national interests a little less seriously.

Jon