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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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ridiculous


Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
(Acts 8:26-31 ESV)

God told Philip to go somewhere ridiculous.   Gaza is a remote place, kind of like taking the Alcan Highway.  After you leave Whitehorse, there’s just not that much there all the way to Fairbanks.   But that’s where the angel told Philip to go.  He never said, “Philip, go to Egypt,” though that’s where he’d have ended up if he had continued down the Gaza road.  And if you’re not a student of geography, I have news for you.  Ethiopia is a long, long, long way down that road.  You have to go all the way down along the Gulf of Suez, across the whole coast of Sudan, before you ever reach Ethiopia. 

God told Philip to speak to someone ridiculous.  Have you ever seen a picture of a Eunuch?  Because of what has been done to them, usually pre-puberty, these people are so androgynous it is hard to tell what they are.  They are very strong, docile, and shapely.  They have the strength of a man and the voice of a woman.  In any culture, they stand out. 

You’ll also notice, by the way, that the Ethiopian’s sexuality is of no import to Philip.  He treats this person exactly the way he treats any other.  Until one day the church gets the message that a person’s sexuality or lifestyle or politics has nothing to do with whether they are acceptable to God, Christians are going to continue missing out on the opportunities God gives them to go and do ridiculous things.

God told Philip to say something ridiculous.  The Ethiopian was reading from Isaiah.   He was reading an enigmatic passage from a Hebrew scroll he had probably picked up while on a diplomatic mission to Jerusalem.  Now he was returning home.  The passage is from Isaiah 53:7-8:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
            and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
            so he opens not his mouth.
            In his humiliation justice was denied him.
            Who can describe his generation?
            For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The man was probably trying to understand Jewish politics, not Jewish religion.  For Philip to simply jump in and tell the man that Jesus’ humiliation was for him is a pretty bold thing to do.  And pretty ridiculous.  This was a man of some authority.  What if he hadn’t liked what Philip had to say?   What if he took out his sword and killed Philip?  What was Philip thinking anyway, hitchhiking like that on the Gaza Road?

Sometimes God will tell you to do something pretty ridiculous.  Your friends and family probably won’t understand why you’re doing it. 

Our son Tim and his wife Alice have gone with their six month old son River to The Rainbow Gathering.  This year it is in a state park somewhere way up in Washington State.  They were told there is still snow on the ground in places.  It is situated in a ring of (mostly dormant) Volcanos.  Mt. St. Helens is there.  Dormant… right.  This is also the place on the planet with the most Big Foot sightings.  When they left to go Alice and River both had colds, and they’re sleeping in tents for ten days out there.

God told Tim and Alice to do something ridiculous.  They’ve gone out there with Inner Change (the mission group they work with) to serve pancakes to homeless hippies in the woods.  They’ve gone out there because when you serve pancakes to homeless hippies, sometimes one of them asks why you’re doing this.  And then you get the chance to say something ridiculous, like, “I’m here because of Jesus.”  Some of those hippies are on drugs.  Some are GLBT or Q.  Some will look and sound pretty ridiculous.  When you think about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, doesn’t it seem that God loves ridiculous things?

When God tells you to do something ridiculous you will know it.  He’ll send you somewhere ridiculous and ask you to speak to ridiculous people and tell them ridiculous things about how Jesus did something ridiculous and loved you.

Jon

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Meddling in Politics


Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”
            When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he belonged to Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate. And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other.
(Luke 23:1-12 ESV)


The “action” of Luke 23 is very much like a movie.  Except in this case it is not like the movie itself.  It is like the abstract off of which the movie was written.  This is merely the shell of the event, and hits the highlights.  But when you examine the event more closely, you’ll see that all the major political players in Israel at the time are present.  It took all of them, working in concert, to condemn Jesus.  This is proof that Jesus was, in his day, the “third rail of Jewish politics,” just as Social Security is the third rail of modern American politics.  Touch it, and you’re likely to get a fatal shock.

On the one hand, Pilate wanted nothing to do with Jesus.  Nor did Herod.  Both had tried to keep their distance.  Actually, the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews, was deeply divided on the issue of who Jesus was.  We know that several prominent members of the Council were secretly disciples of Jesus.  What happened to Jesus really boils down to the jealousy of the Chief Priest, Caiaphas.   It was he who had stirred up others of the priestly class against Jesus.  Here is the classic scenario of a religious leader dabbling in politics and bringing the whole system down around himself and everyone else.

The priests’ accusations at the “trial” sound more than a little whiny.  But notice they aren’t upset in the least about Jesus’ miracles or his attention to the poor, the sick, and even those outside of Israel.  The summary on why the priests want him dead is, “this guy stirs up people with his teaching” (read: his teaching threatens everything we stand for). 

If you have spent your entire career invested in protecting the “faith of your fathers,” when someone comes along with a major new twist, you’re going to resist.  What really happened here is the priests went from resistant to inflexible to adamant, and after that there was no stopping them.

There are several words of warning here for us in the church today.  First, I have come to the conviction that the church has no more business working behind the scenes in politics than the CIA does doing covert regime change in foreign countries. 

Caiaphas engineered the whole event.  If he had simply trusted God and realized that if Jesus was from God no one could stop him and if he wasn’t from God not a thing he did would ultimately stand, he could have avoided the whole mess.  Remember it only took another 40 years after this for the Temple to be completely destroyed, and that put the priests out of business for good.  If that sounds like a long time, remember that we are only now reaping the financial whirlwind set in motion in August of 1935 when President Roosevelt signed the Social Security bill.   Some stews take a long time to cook.

The second word of warning is not to get locked into theological presuppositions.  Don’t ask if I’m suggesting you abandon orthodoxy.  I’m doing nothing of the kind.  If Jesus is who he seems to be (Messiah, the Second Person of the Trinity), then you and I are in a position to trust him completely, and that means that when he does or says something that doesn’t match our theological presuppositions, the person of Jesus trumps our tradition every time.  As the last two stanzas of Come, ye Sinners say,

Lo! The incarnate God ascended,

Pleads the merit of His blood:

Venture on Him, venture wholly,

Let no other trust intrude.

Let not conscience make you linger,

Not of fitness fondly dream;

All the fitness He requireth

Is to feel your need of Him.

The priests may have felt their need of Jesus, but they had become so locked into their theological system that their conscience wouldn’t allow them to embrace him when he came.

When Jesus comes and challenges the way you’ve always done things in your faith, what will you do with him?  Will you test carefully to be sure he is from God and then embrace him as Lord, or will your test be to weigh him against the Law as you know it and find him wanting?

Jon

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Scattered


            And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
            Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.
            But there was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.
(Acts 8:1b-13 ESV)

Have you ever accidentally broken a thermometer and observed what happens?  Okay, okay, now I’m showing my age.  I don’t mean a digital thermometer.  I mean a good old glass thermometer with mercury in it.  I guess they’re probably illegal these days.  But let me tell you what happens anyway.  It is so cool.

When you look at the thermometer whole, the silver-colored liquid in it seems to emanate from the bulb at the bottom.  Wrap your hands tightly around the bulb and the liquid will expand (because of your body heat), and register a higher temperature.  But break the glass, and the liquid pours out on the table or floor.  Now it should be relatively simple to mop it up.  Nope.

What mercury does when it hits the table? It scatters in all directions.  The little bits seem so small as to be almost unnoticeable.  You can push the balls together and they’ll become larger balls.  But the only way to get the stuff off the table is to scoop it up.  You cannot use a paper towel on mercury.  You’ll never be rid of it that way.

So it is with the church.  You would think that if you keep us all in one place we’d do a lot of good with and for each other.  But actually what happens is just like the mercury in the thermometer: heat is applied, and our temperature simply rises.  

Churches that enjoy great fellowship together and wonderful times of worship invariably want to keep what they’ve got just exactly the way it is.  They love what they are feeling and experiencing.  And it feels safe.  And it seems that God is moving in powerful ways.  And the temperature is rising.  But the pressure is from within, and ultimately, because we are sinful, broken beings, the result is that there is no place for the liquid to go.  The church that stays together for any real length of time is putting a pressure on its walls that the structure was never meant to withstand.  The people who live in that situation will ultimately get crabby and out of sorts, and will finally drift away or simply age out, wondering what ever happened to the church they knew.

But what happens if someone comes along and breaks the church?  I don’t mean a troublemaker who comes and stirs things up from the inside.  I mean, what happens when persecution comes upon the church because of Jesus? 

Let’s be clear here.  I’m not talking about the kind of “persecution” so many of our churches love to think they are under because of some political stand they’ve taken.  The church with an agenda is simply the church in the thermometer turning up its own heat.  It’ll burst, but for all the wrong reasons.  The persecution I’m talking about is persecution because you love Jesus and love the people Jesus loved.   A church that starts to take Jesus seriously by loving mercy, doing justice, and walking humbly with God will soon find it is getting shot at from all directions. 

And when persecution comes because the church loves Jesus, they will try to break you up.  And when the walls break and your heart breaks and the fellowship is scattered, do not despair.  The bond of Christ is strongest when we are forced to scatter.  And like the mercury poured out on the floor, we will seek each other out in the corners, in the small places, among the dirty, the needy, the broken.  At first it will look like the church has disappeared.  But a little sweeping will reveal small bits becoming little clusters and little clusters becoming larger groupings again. 

The church was designed to scatter.  That’s when it does its best work.

Jon

Monday, June 27, 2011

Calling for a King


Now Samuel called the people together to the LORD at Mizpah. And he said to the people of Israel, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I brought up Israel out of Egypt, and I delivered you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of all the kingdoms that were oppressing you.’ But today you have rejected your God, who saves you from all your calamities and your distresses, and you have said to him, ‘Set a king over us.’ Now therefore present yourselves before the LORD by your tribes and by your thousands.”
            Then Samuel brought all the tribes of Israel near, and the tribe of Benjamin was taken by lot. He brought the tribe of Benjamin near by its clans, and the clan of the Matrites was taken by lot; and Saul the son of Kish was taken by lot. But when they sought him, he could not be found. So they inquired again of the LORD, “Is there a man still to come?” and the LORD said, “Behold, he has hidden himself among the baggage.” Then they ran and took him from there. And when he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upward. And Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see him whom the LORD has chosen? There is none like him among all the people.” And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!”
            Then Samuel told the people the rights and duties of the kingship, and he wrote them in a book and laid it up before the LORD. Then Samuel sent all the people away, each one to his home. Saul also went to his home at Gibeah, and with him went men of valor whose hearts God had touched. But some worthless fellows said, “How can this man save us?” And they despised him and brought him no present. But he held his peace.
(1 Samuel 10:17-27 ESV)

I was chatting with two of the women from our church yesterday at a picnic we had, and our conversation got onto simpler, better times.   The women talked wistfully about neighbors and neighborhoods, about a time when community life and church life were pretty much the same, about church suppers, the building of the “new” part of Concord after World War II, and about raising large families in small houses.

I do remember a good bit of what passed for Americana.  I remember the church suppers and church fairs. I remember the Fireman’s Carnivals, the penny candy store near the railroad station, a druggist, Good Humor Man, and milkman who all knew me by name.   I remember having free-reign of the three streets that made up our neighborhood, and a time when I could tell you the last names, at least, of every family on our block. 

I hate to snap us all out of our collective reverie, but that’s all gone now because Israel demanded a king. 

God looked at his people as they insisted that they get what other nations had – a king – and he told them, “if you do this, it won’t go well for you.”  But they wouldn’t listen.  So God sighed and granted their request.  As the old adage goes, “Be careful what you pray for, you might get it.”  The word that most comes to mind when I think of this episode in the history of Israel is entitlement. 

I’m no economist but I’m pretty sure the reason we’re in such hot water financially these days has something to do with spending 50 or 60 years trying to give everyone, and I mean everyone, what they want.  The veneer of Americana was very much like a movie set – beautiful, wistful parts were the parts on the surface.  The cost of Americana was that a great many people lived in deep poverty in order that a relatively small number could purchase Americana from them. 

Sometime after World War II, we decided we should all have the dream, and began to purchase it from the public coffers rather than from each other, and the Permanent National Debt was born.  Right now, at 8:35 AM on Monday, June 27, 2011, that debt is a little over $14,255,000,000,000, and is growing at such a pace that calling up the National Debt Clock on my computer caused my internet to crash.
 
We have gone from exacting a high standard of living from the toil of other men’s lives to placing it all on a national charge card.  Take careful stock of the standard of living you enjoy.  If you are reading these words, you own a computer.  If you own a computer you are living in the rarified entitlement sector that has largely forgotten how to make, build, craft, and basically work for most of what you have.  Rather, you believe you are entitled to it all.   Make no mistake, I do not believe it is innately wrong to own property or have a few nice things.  This is a complicated problem, and I won’t resume to offer a simple solution.

Until the day Israel chose Saul to be king, the people lived under a limited anarchical theocracy.  That is, there was no centralized government, no particular governing figure, and the people looked to a God or gods for protection and guidance.  But the people of Israel felt entitled to a king so they could be like the rest of the nations.  And when they chose Saul in what was surely the first example in recorded history of stuffing the ballot box, they got what they asked for. 

They chose Saul out of all the men of Israel quite simply because he was taller and more handsome than anyone else.  They didn’t choose him because he was a better leader than the rest.  They chose him because he looked like a better leader (something we should think about as November, 2012 approaches).

I know Saul had other things on his mind than how to balance Social Security and a vast military budget against the National Debt.  But my guess is that he was smart enough to know that he wasn’t up to the job.  That’s why, when they went looking for him to proclaim him king, they found him cowering in the luggage room.  It is also telling that about two seconds after Saul was found and made king, the sycophants began bringing him gifts.  The political patronage game was on. 

I know you’re probably thinking I have some great conclusion up my sleeve about how to make America great again.  I don’t.  In fact, the lesson of 1 Samuel 10 is the same lesson the prophet Micah learned after watching Israel’s whole house of cards collapse: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) 

Micah says nothing about the pursuit of wealth or a higher standard of living.  No country is great in God’s eyes.  The country that would be truly great, I suppose, would be one that chose the way of Christ – the way of humble service, healing, identification with and charity toward the poor and infirm, love, mercy, and justice.  But then, that would be a return to a limited anarchical theocracy -- a country without a king.

Jon

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Seven Words


And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”
            While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.”
(Luke 22:39-53 ESV)

Luke 22:39-53 is one of four narratives of Jesus and his disciples in the hour or so between the Last Supper and his arrest.  Just as with the crucifixion accounts, no one of the gospels offers the complete narrative.  But if you do a quick “harmony” of the four gospels, the whole of what Jesus said and did is revealed. 

Traditionally, there are seven “words” Jesus spoke as he hung on the cross.  They are phrases, really:
                        1 Father forgive them, for they know not what they do
                        2 Today you will be with me in paradise
                        3 Behold your son: behold your mother
                        4 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me
                        5 I thirst
                        6 It is finished
                        7 Father, into your hands I commit my spirit

Anyone who is into numerology and the meaning of numbers in the Bible will immediately pick up on the fact that 7 is one of God’s “perfect numbers.”  I don’t care much about those things, except that the thought led me to look at the Garden Narratives the same way. 

If you do a “harmony” of the four gospel accounts of the Garden experience, there are again seven phrases or “sayings” that are revealed.  They are really seven categories of things Jesus said in the Garden, and all have to do with temptation:

1 Temptation to prayerlessness
2 Temptation to despair
3 Temptation to control
4 Temptation to slumber
5 Temptation to denial
6 Temptation to violence
7 Temptation to defensiveness

These seven things are temptations every believer faces at times of crisis, testing, or pressure.  Jesus admonished the disciples to watch and pray with him.  I can’t tell you the number of times I have known the right thing to do was to call those with me to prayer even though I myself didn’t feel like praying because of the pressure of the moment. 

At times like this there is also a temptation to throw in the towel.  Jesus said his soul was sorrowful even to death, and yet remarkably he invites the disciples to stick with him and pray.  If the antidote to prayerlessness is obvious (pray!), the antidote to despair is company.  The minute you introduce a friend into your despair, you’ll find yourself freed, at least a little, from the blackness. 

The temptation to control the situation is a big one for me.  I look at tough times and say, “If I were God I could fix this.”  But the antidote for control is surrender.  Nevertheless, Jesus says, not my will, but Thy will be done. 

Wrestling with the Enemy of your Soul is tiring business, and fatigue – real, bone crushing, emotional fatigue – is easy to surrender to.  It is another way of giving up the battle, I suppose.  Just go to sleep.  It is the best way to erase a problem.  The antidote to slumber is watchfulness.  I don’t mean “working on the problem.”  That’s another form of trying to control.  I mean watching like the virgins did who lit their lamps in Jesus’ parable.  At the very point you want to check out and sleep, God may have a blessing waiting if you will watch with him instead of staring at your problem.

When Judas approached the group in the Garden, the easiest thing Jesus could have done to signal that he was “done” was to deny his identity.  Think how differently things would have turned out if Jesus had said, “Whom do you seek?” and when the crowd said, “Jesus of Nazareth,” he had responded, “Haven’t seen him.”  Denial “worked” for Peter a few hours later… for a moment, at least.  But the temptation to get yourself out of a jam by denying your identity in Christ is really foolish.  You are a Christian, after all.   Saying, “I’ll pretend I don’t know him,” just for the moment, doesn’t get you off the hook.  It simply delays the sorrow that will surely follow.   Better to stand boldly and say, “I am he.”  The antidote for denial is truth.

Peter, at least, was ready to start a riot.  Yesterday we looked at the whole question of a violent response to a perceived threat.   That’s just not an option for the people of Jesus.  His way of non-violent response is practical in this world.  It is, in fact, the most practical way to deal with a threat.  Your violent reaction will never bring about the will of God.  The antidote for violence is love.  Notice that when Peter cut off the slave’s ear, Jesus immediately came to the slave’s aid.  This was someone who represented the very person who had come to destroy him (Caiaphas).   The translation of what happens is a little fishy.  Some translators have Jesus saying to Peter, “Enough of this!” and then healing the slave’s ear.  Others translate the greek literally, “Suffer ye thus far,” or in modern English, “At least let me do this.”  Either way, Jesus offers a non-violent response to a violent moment, and it stops the escalation right where it was.

The final temptation is a temptation to defensiveness.  When attacked verbally, most of us will try to justify ourselves.  “I didn’t mean that,” or “Let me explain what I was saying.”  Jesus does none of that.  He simply says some form of “the record stands.  I was with you in broad daylight teaching in the temple.  Why did you wait until now to arrest me?  It was to fulfill the Scriptures.”  There isn’t a hint of defensiveness in his response.  When you present Jesus to people you don’t need to defend who he is.  Let the record speak for itself.  They’re smart enough to figure him out.

Hebrews 2:18 says, “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”  Apply the ways of Jesus to the situations of your life.  If he was able to respond the way he did at the most critical moment of his life, he is able to give you the ability to respond as he did in the critical moments of yours.

Jon

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Sword


            And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”
(Luke 22:35-38 ESV)

This is a very difficult passage to make sense of.  The voices I have been able to access that discuss the meaning of these four verses have quite a range:

At one end of the spectrum, J. Vernon McGee (d. 1988) said this was Jesus telling his disciples they should all have a gun in their house because “if a mad dog comes into my yard, whether of the four legged variety or the two legged variety, and threatens my little grandchildren, I’m surely going to take that gun and use it.”   

At the other end of the spectrum is Peter Ballard (loveyourenemies.org), a Christian pacifist who concludes that these verses may, just possibly provide a basis for fighting in self-defense.  Still, he comments that Jesus and his Apostles never, ever, ever resorted to violence, even though they were attacked.  If Jesus had meant for the Apostle Paul to carry a sword to use in self-defense, my guess is the riot at Ephesus would have ended differently than it did.   At what point do you conclude that all diplomatic efforts are at an end and that God is not going to pull this one out of the flames? 

What are we to make of Jesus’ statement here?  Is Jesus in any way talking about Christians arming for battle?  Is he arguing for self-defense?

As I read this passage, my eye was drawn down a paragraph in Luke’s narrative to the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Peter picks up a sword and lops off the ear of a slave by the name of Malcus.  Clearly, his anger was not at the slave.  He was pissed at the High Priest (Caiaphas), who had done the evil deal with Judas that got them all to this point.  I bring this up because that was one of the two swords the disciples said they had!  In Matthew’s account (Mat. 26:52) Jesus tells him to put his sword back in its sheath, “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”

Now that is confusing.  Hadn’t Jesus just told his disciples to go out and buy a sword?  But, let’s unravel the mystery of the text and see what Jesus actually just said:

Phrase one is what faith looks like.  And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” 

The Mission of the Seventy-Two (Luke 10:1-11, 17-20) is a chance for the growing company of Jesus disciples to flex their faith muscles and see what it feels like to really trust God, albeit in a controlled environment.

Phrase two is what loss of faith looks like.But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.” 

All three things Jesus says to “do” in this passage are examples of trying to provide for yourself as you go on mission (for God, by the way) because you don’t believe God will provide for you.  These are not marching orders for how disciples should live life in the future because he has tied them to the Mission of the Seventy-Two.

You take a moneybag along on mission because you don’t believe God will provide the money you need.  Gosh!  Don’t ever go out on mission unless you’ve already raised all the financial support you could possibly need. 

You take a knapsack along on mission because you don’t believe God will provide hospitality for you along the way.  You’ve got to have a bed-roll with you.  There isn’t a snowball’s chance in Hell you’re going to get invited in out of the cold, and you know it.

You bring a sword along on mission because you don’t believe God will keep you safe.   There are baddies out there, and you’d darned well better have your pop-gun with you because it is going to get bad, and when it does you are going to have to take matters into your own hands. 

Phrase three is why Jesus is here.  Isaiah 53:12 says,
            because he poured out his soul to death
                        and was numbered with the transgressors;
            yet he bore the sin of many,
                        and makes intercession for the transgressors.

In the Garden, Peter and the rest of the disciples were at the critical point all people come to when they decide they have righteousness on their side and that justifies what they are about to do.  Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address said this of the terrifying realization of supposed righteousness in war, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” (March 3, 1865) 

The prophecy that was being fulfilled in Jesus is proved true because the disciples – Peter and the rest – are themselves transgressors whose sin Jesus is about to die for.  This moment is the proof that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)  Remember that just an hour or so before, as they sat at table, Jesus told Peter he was about to deny three times that he ever knew Jesus.   Jesus is here to restore the lost faith of the disciple who goes out and piles up money before he goes out for God, who buys camping gear before he goes out for God, that brings along a sword when he goes out for God.  “And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32) 

Phrase four is the disciples’ confession.  “Look, Lord, here are two swords.”  I think this was actually a horrible moment of self-discovery for the disciples.  By admitting that they actually had kept a couple of swords with them they are admitting their own lack of trust in God. 

Phrase five is Jesus’ agreement.  “It is enough” And so it was.  The presence of the two swords proved that what Jesus had just prophesied was true.  Even his disciples, whom he had entrusted with the secrets of the Kingdom of God, had not trusted Jesus enough to leave their swords behind when they went to Jerusalem on that final journey.   They didn’t need the swords in the Garden of Gethsemane.  They wouldn’t need the swords again for the rest of their lives. 

The mercy of God is that Jesus doesn’t tell them to get rid of the swords.   It isn’t that he had no time for a final lesson.  It is that he knew the moment was the lesson and that the disciples would learn from the moment.  He makes no judgment, though he does tell Peter to put the sword away when he resorts to violence.  Peter clearly took that admonition seriously, because tradition holds that Peter was crucified upside down as a sign of submissive love toward his Lord.   

Jon


Thursday, June 23, 2011

Servants


            A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.
            “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
(Luke 22:24-30 ESV)

            Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him… Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.”
(1 Samuel 8:4-5 ESV)

In the iconic 1954 movie White Christmas, two entertainers meet up with the general who had led their unit ten years before during World War II.  After seeing him, now a Vermont innkeeper about to lose everything because of balmy weather in December, Bob Wallace comments to his friend Phil Davis, “we ate and then he ate.  We slept and then he slept.”  And Phil reminds Bob, “Then he woke up, and nobody slept for the next forty-eight hours.”

What an idyllic view of military command – of army life in general – to portray a general as the chief servant in the outfit.  A comment once made by General George S. Patton gives a more realistic assessment: “I don’t want them to love me.  I want them to fight for me.”

The real problem isn’t the title of “king.”  The real problem is lordship. Patton wasn’t a king.  But he was in a position of lordship over those who worked for him.  And he learned well how to exercise lordship over his troops.   

Churches have “lords” too.  You know… the person whose birthday you’d better not forget to mention from the pulpit?  The lords of churches often don’t have any formal position or title.  But they have managed, over time, to accumulate a great deal of power.  

In Luke 22, Jesus tells us the marks of someone who is “greatest” in the kingdom.  First of all, he does not dispute that there is a kingdom here.  In fact, he puts it right out there: The father assigned a kingdom to Jesus, and now he is assigning one to the Apostles. 

He also wants to make sure they understand there won’t be a king in the next age.  Read 1 Samuel 8 to get a fuller understanding of how Israel ended up with a king.  Samuel was the last in the line of the Judges (Othniel, Ehud, Shagmar, Deborah, Gideon, Abimelech, Tola, Yair, Jeptha, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, Samson, Eli, and Samuel is the complete list, btw).  God warned the people what would happen if they appointed a king.  They would not listen.  And the whole sad history of the Kings of Israel is the result.  Jesus makes it clear that, in the kingdom of God, the way of the Judges will return.  Government will be by people who listen carefully to what God say, and then act by bringing what God commands before the people for their good.

When the people of Israel rejected the warning God laid before them through Samuel and demanded a king, God sort of sighed and said, “Okay… give them what they asked for.”  Even God, who has limitless power and authority, doesn’t “lord it over” his people.

So the first mark of kingdom leadership is: no king.  The second mark is shared leadership and wise judgment.  No one of the Apostles was going to sit on the throne, and they were not going to “rotate” leaders.   Rather, they were going to exercise consular leadership.   That is, they would be acting as agents of a king, as the judges of Israel had.  But the only king would be God himself. 

A consulate has no policy-making authority.  It functions to carry out the orders it has been given.  Period.  The Kingdom of God isn’t even an ambassadorship.  It is led by a counsel that exercises consular authority on behalf of the King.  That is very limited government, indeed, and the Apostles need to understand that.

Way too much preaching goes wrong because the preacher is trying to get his agenda through.   At best, it looks like an agenda for the people’s growth in Christ, a seemingly good goal.  But a pastor who has decided what is best for the people, even based on biblical principles, has usurped authority that is not his.  His mission is to judge – to offer wise counsel – and to bring what God says to the people (preach the Word of God).

Notice that Jesus makes serving a condition of leading.  The third mark of biblical leadership is, if you’re going to take a place at the table, take note that your master and Lord came among you as one who serves, and do the same.  

At the Last Supper Jesus underscored this by getting up from table and putting on a simple slave’s loincloth and washing the disciples’ feet.  This would have been done routinely by a servant in one of the better houses of the day, but for the lord of the house, the host of the party to so humiliate himself?  Unheard of.  He really did mean that the disciples were to be like General Waverly from White Christmas, carrying buckets of ash, and not like General Patton, commanding battalion commanders, pearl-handled revolvers gleaming at his side, medals on his chest, a glint of aristocracy in his eye.

One last thing about biblical leadership:  It has nothing whatever to do with a system of church government.  What Jesus is directing his disciples to do works whether you’re a Presbyterian, and Episcopalian, a Congregationalist, or a Baptist.  But it works only if you remember that there is no king but God, that leadership is by counsel and not unilateral, and the greatest leader is the one who serves the most. 

Jon
  

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On the Rocks


Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
 tune my heart to sing Thy grace;

Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
 call for songs of loudest praise.

Teach me some melodious sonnet,
 sung by flaming tongues above.

Praise the mount, I’m fixed upon it,
 mount of Thy redeeming love.



Here I raise my Ebenezer;
 hither by Thy great help I’ve come;

And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
 safely to arrive at home.


Jesus sought me when a stranger,
 wandering from the fold of God;

He, to rescue me from danger,
 interposed His precious blood;


O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be!

Let Thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to Thee.

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
 seal it for Thy courts above.



O that day when freed from sinning, I shall see Thy lovely face;

Clothed then in blood washed linen how I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace;
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,
take my ransomed soul away;

Send thine angels now to carry
 me to realms of endless day.
--attr. Robert Robinson, 1758

I have always loved the hymn Come, Thou Fount, and especially its reference to the raising of an Ebenezer.  Maybe that’s just because the mating of tune and text is so good.  Even though hardly anyone knows what an Ebenezer is, there is a great deal of energy in the pounding Eh-Ben-Ee-Zer.  It is so confident, so sure.  It kind of reminds me of pounding a stake in the ground. 

Building altars to various gods was a common practice in the Bronze Age and before.   In the region of Sidon and Tyre (the West Coast of modern Israel on the Mediterranean), Alters to Ashteroth were often set up.  Ashteroth is an altered rendering (pardon the pun) of Astarte, the fertility goddess who found her way into Greek mythology as Aphrodite.  In fact, the reason the Jews wrote the word as Ashteroth rather than Astarte is because this goddess was considered indecent by the early Jews, and they preferred not to mention her name. 

Baal worship was also common.  Baal simply means “lord” and can have referred to any of the gods of the Northwest Semitic peoples.  Once El, the god of the Hebrews, asserted himself in the region, the distinction was quickly made, and all other gods were now termed generally as Baals.  They are just “lords.”  Even a minor political official could be called Baal.   Various altars were erected to honor regional Baals.

It was at a place called Mizpah in Benjamin (the area just north of Jerusalem) that the prophet Samuel gathered the people of Israel together after the Ark of the Covenant was lost to the Philistines (Indiana Jones fans beware: the Ark wasn’t lost at this time.  It was simply captured, and was later returned).  This happened around 1080 BC, just before Saul was anointed as the first King of Israel.  
Following the capture of the Ark by the Philistines, Samuel ordered a large stone to be upended and named it Ebenezer, which means “Stone of help.”  At the time, Samuel had said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.”  You will find all of this laid out in 1 Samuel, chapter 7.  It is a good read once you know what you’re reading.  I hope all this background information helps.

The main point of this Morning Watch is not to demonstrate my research skills.  It isn’t even to raise up the idea of an Ebenezer.  It is to say that God’s help is always near.  Israel did not lose the presence of God when the grand, gilded Ark of the Covenant was taken away from them.  Just as in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the holiday came anyway.  The presence of God came to Israel even though all they had as a focal point for worship was a big stone. 

God is ready to help you!  You may be homeless and penniless.  You can still set up an Ebenezer and worship him, for he is good.  You may need to let go of the idols you’ve set up in your life and pursue worshipping the true God.  Set up an Ebenezer and worship him!  You may find yourself at the end of a series of real defeats, at a time in your life when you’ve been publically humiliated because you lost something or didn’t navigate the current at work correctly and ended up dashed upon the rocks.  Set up an Ebenezer and worship him!

God is not a god of circumstance.  He is a god of substance.  That is why he is called the Rock of our Salvation.  No matter what your circumstance, set up an Ebenezer, and worship him!

Jon

    

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Personal Encounter


Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
(Acts 5:41-42 ESV)

Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible (1831) says, “The Name, probably, by this time, distinguished both the author of salvation and the sacred system of doctrine which the apostles preached.”  Clarke goes on to say that some of the most ancient copies of Acts (I won’t bore you with where the sources come from) say “his name” and some say “the name.”  Our modern translators favor “the” precisely because of the presupposition that it wasn’t long after the Resurrection that the Church began to adopt this kind of shorthand to describe a whole lot of stuff – far more than just “Jesus.”

We also need to remember that the early church being commented on in Acts is largely centered on Jerusalem.  We don’t hear a lot about what went on in the churches in Antioch or Ephesus, for instance.  And certainly the Apostles had just appeared before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.  The high priest said to them, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.”  So clearly, “The Name” had a greater dimension than just implying the person of Jesus.

But to give the whole experience a bit of background, the Jewish leaders the Apostles met with that day certainly knew the idea that to teach in a name meant more than teaching about the person himself.  They had The Name of YHWH, the Lord, the name that was so holy you should not even pronounce it aloud.  And they had been teaching in that name for centuries. 

Just before they were beaten, Acts 5 tells us that a leader of the Council named Gamaliel made a very logical defense for not forbidding the Apostles to carry on their evangelistic work.  Gamaliel, by the way, was the grandson of Rabbi Hillel (one of the greatest of the rabbis), and was himself greatly respected as a teacher and logician.  It was he who had trained Saul of Tarsus, among many other bright young men of the day.

Gamaliel’s defense boils down to this: if this work isn’t of God nothing will come of it.  The leader has been taken away, let’s see if the movement survives its leader.  At the end of World War II, there was a great deal of concern that Nazism would flourish in all its most ugly forms after Hitler became a martyr for the cause.  But like most snakes, once the head was cut off, the body wriggled for only a brief moment and then died completely.   Hitler had been such a spellbinder that most Germans woke up sometime in 1945 or ’46, shook themselves and said, “Was that real?”  The presence of the Death Camps was the only dose of reality average Germans needed.

Gamaliel thought, “Jesus is dead.  If the reports of his Resurrection are false, this will all die out quickly.   Still, the Council thought it best to beat them.  To simply release them would be to admit they had no case against them.

But The Name was not just a system of teaching or an ideology.  Something so profound as to be foundation-altering had happened to the lives of the Apostles and the others who were becoming part of The Way.  The Name, The Way.  This was not just a “big idea.” This was personal encounter. 

The extent to which your faith is based on personal encounter with Jesus himself is the extent to which your faith will hold up under pressure.   There are certainly many other kinds of pressure other than persecution to which your faith may cave.  There has been a mass exodus from most churches in the past 25 years, and many people who have left church don’t have a really good reason why.  They simply lost interest.   They lost interest because our churches weren’t preaching The Name.  We were preaching enthusiasm, yes.  But we weren’t giving people an encounter with Jesus himself that would stand up to life.

You who believe in Jesus, go back and review what the early church did.  You’ll be amazed.  Read Acts, chapters 2-4.  Then ask yourself why they did what they did.  The only acceptable answer is found in the Gospels.   The only acceptable answer is that they – and all of the thousands who believed in the early days of the church with them – each believed they had met Jesus personally.

Jon

Monday, June 20, 2011

Foundational Stuff


I will sing of the steadfast love of the LORD, forever;
            with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations.
For I said, “Steadfast love will be built up forever;
            in the heavens you will establish your faithfulness.”
Let the heavens praise your wonders, O LORD,
            your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones!
The north and the south, you have created them;
            Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.
Blessed are the people who know the festal shout,
            who walk, O LORD, in the light of your face,
            who exult in your name all the day
            and in your righteousness are exalted.
He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father,
                        my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’
Blessed be the LORD forever!
            Amen and Amen.
(Excerpts from Psalm 89)

Psalm 89 is actually a longish psalm and much of it is a sort of complaint about how faithless Israel has been and how slow it seems God has been to react.  I chose these highlights from the psalm because they form the foundation, without which the psalmist would simply have been in despair.  Our hope is not in what hasn’t happened yet.  Our hope is in the Lord, and there’s a very great difference there. 

This is easier to see in Psalm 103:2-5.  

“Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.”

Oh yea?  I get (conceptually, at least) that God has forgiven all my iniquity.  Thank God for that.  Though frankly there are plenty of times I don’t feel forgiven.  But the rest of it?  Ask yourself, has God healed all your diseases?  Has he really redeemed your life from the pit – like the last time someone at work threw you under the bus to save their own skin?  Did God make that one come out on top for you?  Where’s the crown he promised you?  Do you really live a life of deep satisfaction, like the bucolic end scene of some Jane Austin novel?  Do you really walk around in the world hoping in those things?  If so, you’re on the wrong track. 

What really caught my eye this morning were all the foundational things, not the conditional things.  Conditions change all the time.  One day you’ll rise above your sin, the next you’ll find yourself mired in dark thoughts.  But Psalm 103 begins with the foundational statement: “Bless the Lord, O my soul.”  The “and…” is what to do once your soul has made a practice of blessing the Lord.  You won’t see the rest of life properly until you have got the foundation.

The foundation in Psalm 89 is highlighted in bold type, and can be strung together into a single sentence: The steadfast love of the LORD is his faithfulness; his wonders he has created joyously praising his name in the light of his face; his name, his righteousness.   ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’  Blessed be the LORD!  That’s the foundational stuff.  That’s the stuff that doesn’t change because of circumstance or condition.  That’s what I should be meditating on all the time. 

If you read the rest of Psalm 89 you will hear the complaint, the whining, the annoyance that God doesn’t seem to be “coming through” for Israel in the midst of all her troubles.  But that’s just as much sandwich filling as the stuff in Psalm 103 was.  God is asking us to focus on the bread of who he is, not the peanut butter and jelly.  It is so easy to spend your days in philosophical angst over whether the glass is half full or half empty and completely miss that God has filled the glass with the unchangeable wine of his Spirit. 

Jon