Learning to Pray for an Extended Time

I try to take a half-day each month to pray. I go to a place where I can be alone (or relatively so) and spend four to six hours thinking, praying, and worshiping. Sometimes I take my guitar. Most times, I walk for a few miles and talk to God in the quiet beauty of nature.

I usually begin with a walk and, during this first walk, tell God what I admire about him. Sometimes I will go through the alphabet, finding a word or words for each letter that reflects something of God’s character. He is, for example: able; brilliant; compassionate; determined; and so forth.

Q is difficult, as is Z, and especially X. For X, I am forced to rely on the same word again and again: Xenophilic, someone who loves aliens and strangers.

When I have prepared my heart and mind by remembering who God is and what he is like, I pray for the church – the one of which I am a part but also the local churches and pastors I know and love. I usually do so by praying through Scripture passages. Some of my favorites are Colossians 1:9-12, Philippians 1:9-11; Ephesians 1:15-23, and 3:14-19.

After my prayer walk, I return to read the Scriptures. Sometimes I read other books as well. I take a notebook and jot down ideas – ideas that are frequently helpful to me in relationships and in leadership.

For the past few years, I have used the final prayer time of the day to pray for my own family. I begin by writing down prayer requests. Then I go back over the things I’ve written and talk to God about them. I’ve done this for my wife, our three sons, my two daughters-in-law, and my grandchildren.

Today I prayed for my second grandchild, whose nickname is Z. She is four years old, has an older brother and a younger sister. Here are a few of the things I talked to God about on behalf of Z.

Thank you for Z, Lord Creator. She is a work of art and of genius. Thank you for giving her to us to know and love and grandparent.

Help us to love her well by knowing her well. Show us enough of what you have made her to be and to do that we can affirm her true self, guide her when she will benefit, and hope for her throughout our lives here and after.

Please do this for K & B (her parents) as well. Help them rejoice in Z’s uniqueness and value her in a way that assures her that she is precious.

I pray that she and P (her brother) might be best friends throughout their lives. May P respect her and love her and may she respect P and love him. Give them the bond that you always intended for brothers and sisters.

May she and H (younger sister) also love each other and respect each other. May she be a blessing, a protector, and a guide to H and may H look up to Z for her entire life.

Please give Z a friend or friends whom she can know for years and trust completely, friends who will be faithful to her.

Reveal yourself to her while she is still young: your absolute power and your unfathomable, unstoppable love. Give her insights into who you are that shape who she is. Enable her to articulate some of those to other people for their blessing.

Give her worthwhile interests to pursue. Grant her a keen mind and a willing heart. Reveal yourself to her through her interests and then reveal yourself to others through her.

So work in her that she loves your church and comes to understand why it is so important to you. Grace her to serve and bless it.

Give her someday, if it is your will, a husband who will be one with her and who will always be faithful to her. Cause their relationship to develop in a way that it demonstrates Christ’s relationship with his church. If it is what you desire, give her children, godly offspring, to bless the world and honor your name.

Please give her a special relationship with each of her uncles and aunt(s), one that blesses them and her.

If these ideas for an extended prayer time pique your interest, give them a try. Know that you may have to do this a few times before you find what works for you, so don’t give up. It has proved a help to me, a time I now value and do not want to miss.

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Finally, Some Good News … God Reigns!

(If you prefer to watch/listen rather than read, you can watch below. The message begins at 22:06 and lasts for almost 28 minutes.)

We are in a series on the gospel titled Finally, Some Good News. Such series frequently begin in the New Testament, as if Jesus and the Evangelists had invented the word “gospel.” They didn’t. They discovered it in the Old Testament, and what they found there shaped their proclamation.

When Jesus burst onto the scene with the good news – the gospel – that the kingdom of God was at hand, his fellow-Jews knew what he was talking about. They had learned about it in synagogue when Isaiah was read, particularly chapter 52. When they heard Jesus urging them to believe the gospel (the good news), it was Isaiah’s gospel that was in mind.

Isaiah 52 begins with God shouting, “Awake, awake!” An observant reader will know that God is echoing words addressed to him a few verses earlier, when someone told him to wake up: “Awake, awake! Clothe yourself with strength, O arm of the LORD” (Isaiah 51:9). (In the vernacular: “Wake up, God! Roll up your sleeves and get to work.”) But in chapter 52, God answers: “I’m not asleep. You’re the ones who need to wake up. I’ve got good news for you.”

That good news came at a time when a mountain of bad news had piled up around the Jewish people. They had just come through a long and ruinous war. Death was everywhere. The land had been pulverized; the capitol city devastated. Israel’s temple – the sanctuary of their God – had been razed, which indicated to ancient people that the god of that temple had been defeated. The population had been systematically and forcibly deported to a foreign country.

Now fast-forward hundreds of years to Jesus’s announcement of the arrival of Isaiah’s good news (Mark 1:14-15). The Jewish people were once again standing in the shadow of a mountain of bad news. The government had been deposed, the army disbanded, and foreign soldiers patrolled the streets. Taxes were impoverishing people. The foreigners were even meddling in their worship, appointing, and removing high priests at will, corrupting their most sacred institution.

Today, we stand in the shadow of our own mountain of bad news. A pandemic is killing us. Politics is polarizing us. Churches around the country are closed and many will never reopen. Domestic violence is surging. Opioid addiction is devastating. Unemployment is high, the stock market is volatile, and the potential for election violence is looming.

But on this mountain of bad news, a voice is announcing good news – the same news Isaiah and Jesus proclaimed. I think it’s time we had some good news. Listen to this:

Isaiah 52:7-10: How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the LORD returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes. Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.”

That is a mountain of good news, which we’ll explore in just a moment.

Have you ever noticed that when someone tells a good news/bad news joke, the bad news always outweighs the good? A husband tells his wife: “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The wife says, “Better give me the good news first.” He says, “Okay. The dogs are clean.” She says, “What’s the bad news?” He answers: “The washing machine broke.”

But when God tells a good news/bad news story, the good news always outweighs the bad. The good news lasts. When the morning comes (and it will come), the bad news will vanish like mist on a sunny morning. But the good news will remain, as solid as granite.

What is the good news? Isaiah presents it in three parts: God reigns; God returns; God redeems.[1] But Isaiah delivers this good news in story form, not propositional statements. If we read this as if Isaiah were simply stating facts, not telling a story, we’ll miss some of the riches of it.

Take the first line of verse 7: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news…” (or “preach the gospel,” as the Greek translation has it). Now we need to set the stage. Remember the bad news: Israel has been defeated in war, her cities decimated, the temple of her God destroyed.

Her people, after an extended time of famine, have been dragged away, without sufficient clothing or food. They are hungry, cold, diseased. Many die on the way. Those who survive find themselves surrounded by foreigners who despise them. They are treated as slaves.

That is the backdrop to chapter 52. But Isaiah does not follow the exiles to Babylon. He takes us to Jerusalem and its handful of survivors. The city is in ruins, its walls broken down, its remaining residents just waiting for the next tragedy to occur. Suddenly, the watchers on the wall discern something in the distance. It grows larger, which means it is coming closer – running it seems. It is a person.

And it is a person, even though verse 7 in the NIV says, “the feet of those.” A more literal translation would go: “How beautiful on the mountains [that is, coming over the mountains that surround Jerusalem] are the feet of the one who brings good news.” Isaiah is telling a story, not stating a propositional truth. We’re not tracking with him when we take this to be a general principle about sharing the gospel.

One person, not many people, betokens good news. Many people would signify a retreat but there is only one, which indicates a messenger. As he nears, all the watchers on the wall are focused on him. He is winded from running, almost breathless, but he is obviously trying to tell them something.

Finally, he is close enough for those on the walls to hear. He barks out in staccato fashion: “There’s peace. It’s good! We’re saved!” He stops, catches his breath, and then announces to the city the good news: “Your God reigns!”

This is the gospel according to Isaiah: “God reigns.” But what does that mean? The messenger has just told us. It means peace. It means good. It means we’re saved.

The reign of God brings peace. Do we even know what peace is? There is violence outside in the streets and unrest inside in our hearts. But God’s reign means an end to violence. Ruptures will be healed; rifts will be sealed. “No longer,” in the words of Isaiah 60:18, “will violence be heard in your land.”

In Jewish thinking, peace (“shalom:”) was more than the absence of violence. It was the presence of wellness and harmony, inside and out, with God and others. This note sounds again and again in the New Testament, as in Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The people of Jesus are the people of peace.

After announcing peace, Isaiah’s messenger declares: “It’s good.” The reign of God means good for us and for all creation. There was a time, prior to the curse, when everything was good. In Genesis 1, we hear the refrain: “It was good.” It repeats six times and then, on the seventh time, as if in crescendo, “…it was very good.”

When God reigns, the vision of Genesis 1 will be restored. All creation – not just humans – will benefit. Flora, fauna, and ecosystems will flourish. “…the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21). When God’s reign is fully realized, we will look at creation with him and together we will say, “It is good. It is very good.”

The reign of God also means salvation. This certainly includes rescue from a negative judgment and the punishment it entails, but it means more than that. Salvation is deliverance from sin (both in us and around us), from evil, and even from death. The name Jesus actually means, “Yahweh Saves!” That’s what he does: he saves from addictions, frees from oppression, releases from bondage. That is good news.

But that, as they say in the commercials, is not all. For the God who reigns is also the God who returns. After the messenger with the beautiful feet shares his news, the watchmen on the wall begin shouting for joy. Look at verse 8. “Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy. When the LORD returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes.”

But why does God need to return? Where has he gone? This will make no sense unless we understand the fear that haunted Jewish thinking during this period. Many Jews thought they were not the only ones who went into exile in 587 B.C. So did the lord. The Jewish exile was catastrophic, but God’s departure was the ultimate disaster.

That is the vision of Ezekiel, the prophet/priest of the exile. Chapter ten contains his famous vision of the wheel in the sky – or wheels, since there are four of them, all interconnected and piloted (is that the right word) by strange beings referred to as cherubim. In that vision, the unthinkable happens. The sky wheel(s) departs from the temple and the lord goes with it. God has left the building. Now, even if the exiles were somehow to return, what was there to come back to? God was gone.

When the Jews did begin coming back 70 years later, the idea persisted that God had left. One of the reasons we find the Pharisees so angry and critical in the Gospels is that they believed God would only fully return to Israel when everyone started keeping the Mosaic law. The rabble, as they called them, were extending the curse by ignoring God’s law! (John 7:49) They were keeping God away.

The Pharisees were watchmen, waiting for God to fully return and to reign. Unfortunately, when the messenger with the beautiful feet did arrive (John the Baptist), they were too busy scrutinizing and criticizing other people to take note of what he said. And when the day came and God returned in the person of the Messiah Jesus, they failed to recognize him.

They failed in their role as watchmen, but they were right in their desire for God’s presence. To live in the presence of God was the reality of Eden and the promise of the New Covenant. That promise will be fulfilled, as Revelations 21:3 makes clear: “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”

This “return of God” was in people’s minds when they heard Jesus announcing the good news that the kingdom of God was at hand. Biblically speaking, the return of God has happened (in part) on two occasions and is yet to happen once more. First, God came back (though not fully) with the exiles in 538 BC. The city was rebuilt. People slowly returned. The temple was restored.

But God came in an even more significant way when Jesus entered Jerusalem at the beginning of Passover week. On that day he told people they weren’t recognizing the time of God’s coming to them (Luke 19:44). God is set to return once more, fully this time, to live with and among his people, when Jesus comes again.

God reigns. God returns. But there’s still more. The God who reigns and returns also redeems. These is verse 9: “Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.” At this point, even the ruins of Jerusalem sing. God comforts his people by redeeming them.

It is hard for us to grasp what the Bible means when it speaks of redeeming someone. We talk about redeeming value: “The one redeeming value of this horrible film is that it shows a faithful marriage relationship.” We understand “redeeming value” but not “redeeming people.” For first century Christians, it would have been the other way around. They would not have understood “redeeming value,” but they knew all about redeeming people.

Let’s say a pandemic sweeps across the first century Mediterranean, the economy fizzles, and hundreds of thousands of people have no work. I am one of those people. I borrow money to buy food. I sell my house and become homeless. When I don’t know what else to do, I offer myself on the slave block. At least, as a slave, I will get a daily meal.

When you, my brother or sister, return from Asia, you learn of my plight. You hurry to the slave auction and, at great cost to yourself, you buy me and then release me from slavery to be a free man. You share your home, your food, and your work with me. You free me from danger and loss. You have redeemed me.

That is what God has done for us. He has bought us at a great price and set us free. He has given us a home with him, food to eat, work to do.

How does God redeem? Look at verse 10: “The LORD will lay bare his holy arm [that is, he will roll up his sleeves] in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.”

A study of the arm of the Lord in Isaiah is worthwhile. In chapter 40, his strong arm tenderly carries his people the way a shepherd carries an injured lamb. In chapter 51, the arm of the Lord is identified with God himself, the God who freed Israel from slavery in Egypt. In chapter 53, the arm of the Lord is the servant of the Lord, the who is rejected and dies an atoning death, but is vindicated and exalted by God.

In other words, Jesus Christ is God’s strong arm. God rolled up his sleeves in Jesus. He paid the redemption price through him.

I’m glad God does not redeem the way the NFL drafts. He is not pinching pennies so he can afford the biggest and the best. He’s already paid enough for everyone. Unlike the draft, redemption has no 487th pick in the 17th round. Not one of the redeemed is known as “Mr. Irrelevant.” Everyone goes in the first round – everyone who is willing to be freed.

This is good news for us. This is gospel. Our sins and failures landed us on the slave block but God has redeemed us! Even if we have been sold into addiction, bound by greed, and shackled by shame, he will set us free and bring us into his redeemed family.

But how do we get in on it? Jesus launched the revolution of redemption with the good news announcement that the kingdom of God was at hand. It was available. But how could people get in on the reign of God? Where could they go to join up? They could go to Jesus. He was and is (as Christopher Wright put it) “God reigning.”

And he was and is God returning. When Jesus came to Jerusalem and entered the temple, the vision of God’s return was partially realized. When he comes again, God’s return will be complete. Then “the dwelling of God [will be] with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”

And Jesus was and is God redeeming. God rolled up his sleeves in Bethlehem. He stretched out his strong arm on the cross of Calvary, where God redeemed us, as Peter put it, from our empty way of life “with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:18).

When bad news is piled mountain high around us, remember the good news that Jesus Christ is God reigning. On the mountain of hopelessness, shout for joy that Jesus Christ is God returning. And trapped on the mountain of addiction, with nowhere to turn, know that Jesus Christ is God redeeming.

I’ll close with lyrics from a Big Daddy Weave song, which we sang last Sunday night around the bonfire. It’s called I Am Redeemed.

Seems like all I could see was the struggle. Haunted by ghosts that lived in my past. Bound up in shackles of all my failures. Wondering how long is this gonna last. Then You look at this prisoner and say to me “son … Stop fighting a fight that’s already been won.” I am redeemed, You set me free. So I’ll shake off these heavy chains, Wipe away every stain, now I’m not who I used to be – I am redeemed…

God did not redeem us to leave us in our chains. Shake them off – he will help. Though the scars remain, he will wipe away the stains. He has a life for us to live, work for us to do, and good news for us to share. We’ve been redeemed!

[1] I gratefully acknowledge dependence on Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People, especially pp. 182ff

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Artificial Intelligence, Humanity, and the Future

In September, the British news website “The Guardian” published a story written entirely by an AI – an artificial intelligence that “learned” how to write from scanning the Internet. The piece received a lot of press because in it the AI stated it had no plans to destroy humanity. It did, however, admit that it could be programmed in a way that might prove destructive.

The AI is not beyond making mistakes. I noted its erroneous claim that the word “robot” derives from Greek. An AI that is mistaken about where a word comes from might also be mistaken about where humanity is headed. Or it might be lying. Not a pleasant thought.

Artificial Intelligence is based on the idea that computer programs can “learn” and “grow.” No less an authority than Stephen Hawking has warned that AI, unbounded by the slow pace of biological development, might quickly supersede its human developers.

Other scientists are more optimistic, believing that AI may provide solutions to many of humanity’s age-old problems, including disease and famine. Of course, the destruction of biological life would be one solution to disease and famine.

Hawking worried that a “growing” and “learning” computer program might eventually destroy the world. I doubt it ever occurred to Hawking that his fears regarding AI could once have been expressed toward BI – biological intelligence; that is, humans – at their creation.

Did non-human life forms, like those the Bible refers to as “angels,” foresee the dangerous possibilities presented by the human capacity to “grow” and “learn”? Might not the angel Gabriel, like the scientist Hawking, have warned of impending doom?

AI designers are not blazing a trail but following one blazed by God himself. For example, their creations are made, as was God’s, in their own image. And, like God’s creation, theirs is designed to transcend its original specs. There is, however, this difference: AI designers do not know how to introduce a will into their creations.

Photo by visuals on Unsplash

The capacity for growth, designed into humankind from the first, is seldom given the consideration it deserves. For one thing, it implies the Creator’s enormous self-confidence. God, unlike humans, is not threatened by the growth of his creation. In fact, he delights in it. He does not need to worry about protecting himself.

That the Creator wants his creatures to grow is good news, for it means God is a parent. That is what parents are like. They long for their children to become great and good. No wonder Jesus taught his followers to call God “Father.”

Given that God created such beings knowing what could – and if theologians are correct, what would – go wrong, he must have considered the outcome of creation to be so magnificent and good as to merit present pain and suffering. When people fault God for current evil, they do so without comprehending future good.

The present only makes sense in the light of the future, and the future only offers hope if we will become more and better than we currently are. Outside of the context of a magnificent future, present injustices, sorrows, and suffering appear overwhelming.

The hope presented in the Bible is audacious. It is unparalleled and unrivaled. The Marxist hopes for a better world. The Christian hopes for a perfect one: a new heaven and new earth, where everything is right and everyone exists in glory. The hope of the most enthusiastic Marxist fades before this shining hope the way a candle fades before the noonday sun.

This hope is not just that human pains will be forgotten, swallowed up in bliss. It is not just that shame will be buried when we die and left in the grave when we rise. Christian hope is not just that evil and injustice will be destroyed. It is that when God is all and is in all, we will be more than we have ever been.

The long story of weapons and wars, of marriages broken, and innocence stolen turns out to be different than we thought and better than we dreamed. It is the introduction to a story of astounding goodness, displayed in our creation, redemption, and glorious future.

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The Good News in Advance

This message on Galatians 3:8/Genesis 12:1-3 can also be found on YouTube.

It begins at 22:35 and lasts about 28 minutes.

We are in the second week of a series on the gospel titled, …Finally, Some Good News. This week and next, we will explore the biblical context of the gospel. We need context. Truths without context warp into half-truths and untruths. Doctrine without context becomes heresy. Content without context brings confusion.

Let me give you an example. A man was driving along a narrow country road with his German Shepherd in the back seat and his Sheltie in the front. A pickup came speeding around a curve, crossed the yellow line, and forced the man and his dogs into the ditch.

There were injuries and the car was totaled, so the man sued the driver of the pickup. While he was on the stand, the counsel for the defense said to him: “I want you to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the following question: Did you or did you not say at the time of the accident that you were ‘perfectly fine’”?

The man said, “Well, I was driving with my dogs when … ” but the lawyer interrupted him. “Just answer the question ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Did you or did you not say you were ‘perfectly fine’ at the time of the accident?”

“Well, I was driving with my dogs … ” The defense attorney stopped him again. “Your honor,” he said to the judge, “this witness is evading the question. Would you please insist that he answer?” The judge said, “Well, he obviously wants to tell us something. Let him speak.”

So the man said, “Well, I was driving with my dogs when this truck came around the curve, crossed the yellow line, and forced me off the road and into the ditch and the car rolled over. The driver stopped to help and saw my German Shepherd had been thrown from the car and was badly injured. He went to his truck, got a rifle, came back, and put her out of her misery. Then he saw my Sheltie had a broken neck, so he dispatched him too. Then, still holding the gun, he asked me if I was okay. And I said… ‘I’m perfectly fine.’

Context is important. If we don’t get the biblical context for great words like “gospel,” we will invent our own, our ideas will be skewed and our actions will be disproportionate to the truth.

Let me show you how knowing the context helps. I am going to read a statement without giving you any context for it. See if it makes sense to you.

A seashore is a better place than the street because you need lots of room. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. If there are no snags it can be very peaceful. But if it breaks loose, you won’t get another chance.

Now let me give you a three-word interpretive key that will provide us the context we need. The words are: with a kite. Now with that for context, see if that same paragraph doesn’t make sense.

A seashore is a better place than the street because you need lots of room. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. If there are no snags it can be very peaceful. But if it breaks loose, you won’t get another chance.[1]

See what a different context makes? Where can we find context for the meaning of the gospel? The place to start is the Old Testament. Christians sometimes speak disparagingly of the Old Testament. “Well, that’s in the Old Testament,” they say, as if the Old Testament doesn’t matter. But to think that we don’t need the Old Testament because we have the New is like thinking we don’t need the support caissons when the bridge is finished or the roadbed once the asphalt is laid. The New Testament rests on the old and depends on it for its meaning.

The first place to go for context regarding the gospel is Genesis 12. Why there? Because that is where the Apostle Paul went. How do we know that? Because he says so. In Galatians 3:8, Paul says that Genesis 12 proclaims the gospel in advance: “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’”

“Announced the gospel in advance.” Genesis 12 is a pre-announcement, an early release of the gospel. It provides helpful context. So, let’s find out what is happening in Genesis 12.

To do that, we need to take a whirlwind tour of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. In chapters 1 and 2 the Artist God creates the universe. It is a masterpiece, stunningly good, down to the last detail. At the center of his glorious creation is humanity, which was designed to grow and become vastly more than it was at creation. This might seem a risky innovation –even a design flaw – because it gave finite creatures a brush and let them contribute to God’s creation.

And, sure enough, in chapter 3, the canvass falls off the easel: The creatures toss out the Creator’s plan and introduce their own. This marks the beginning of alienation between God and people and between people and people. Fear enters human experience for the first time. Pain and suffering follow on its heels.

That brings us to chapters 4-11 which show us, in one illustration after another, how humanity is defacing God’s creation. It all culminates at the Tower of Babel, with an attempt to reinvent humanity apart from God. None of us has ever known the perfect creation described in Genesis 1 and 2, but we are all familiar with the alienation, fear, and confusion of chapters 4-11.

Those chapters overflow with bad news. In Genesis 6:5 we read, “Every inclination of the human heart was only evil all the time” while (in 6:6) God’s own heart was full of pain over the damage done to his masterpiece and the devolution of his beloved humans.

To recap: Genesis 1 and 2 are brimming with good news. God’s creation is good at every turn (1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, and 31). Everything is good.

But all that changes in chapter 3. Chapters 4-11 are then filled with bad news. People are displaced from God and alienated from each other. Fear and fault-finding have burst on the scene, and violence follows (Genesis 6:11). Chapter by chapter, the situation grows more ominous: there is jealousy, anger, murder, vengeance, corruption, drunkenness, and sexual exploitation.[2] Chapter 11 caps it all off with an attempt to substitute human governance for God’s. That continues to this day.

Yet into this setting of fear, fault-finding, violence, corruption – which is our setting – God speaks good news. He issues an early release of the gospel. Let’s read Genesis 12:1-3.

The LORD had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” 

The future of God’s masterpiece was thrown into doubt in Genesis 3 and defaced in chapters 4-11. But in chapter 12, God counters the bad news with good news. The calling of Abraham is stage one in God’s response to the disfigurement of humanity, the conflict between nations, and the estrangement between God and people.

The good news comes from the Lord (verse 1), who is both its source and its content. On seven occasions, the Bible refers to the gospel as “the good news of God.” The gospel is good news from God that is good news about God. The God we find in the Bible, expressed perfectly in Jesus Christ, is astoundingly good news.

We are seeking biblical context for the gospel. I have often heard people contextualize the gospel by setting it in a frame of bad news – and there is plenty of it, as chapters 3-11 attest. God, however, gives good news before and after the bad news. He sandwiches the bad news between the good news of a magnificent creation (chapters 1 and 2) and the good news of a rescue mission (chapter 12).

In chapter 3, the bad news is summed up in the word curse. Adam’s rebellion has brought a curse on the earth and its inhabitants, a curse that is with us to this day. Work, which had been a joy, became a drudgery. Relations between the sexes, which began with delight, were beset by fear (fallen humanity’s principal emotion) and by attempts to dominate. The curse even affected the earth itself and rendered it less fertile.

But if the bad news is epitomized by the curse of chapter 3, the good news is summed up in the blessing of Genesis 12. The words “bless” and “blessing” occur 5 times in just three verses. This is welcome and unexpected news after the nightmare of the previous chapters.

In the beginning (chapters 1 and 2), God bathed the earth in blessing.[3] In chapter 3, earth fell under the curse, which dominated human relations (witness chapters 4-11). But in chapter 12, the good God begins undoing the curse and announcing blessing.

But what does that mean? What does God’s blessing entail? The word “blessing,” like the word “gospel,” is stretched so thin that it is too flimsy to hold much meaning. So what does God mean by blessing?

If we go back to Scripture for context (as careful Bible students should), we will find encouraging things. God’s initial blessing was directed to the animals and it came with the instruction to be fruitful and multiply. He also blessed humans with fruitfulness and multiplication. Then, on the seventh day, he blessed the earth and her creatures with Sabbath rest and holiness. There is an inherent rhythm to God’s blessing of productivity and peace, of accomplishment and rest.

In Genesis, blessing conveys abundance, multiplication, increase, and flourishing. Blessing enables creation (both human and non-human) to prosper. That was God’s original intention for creation (Genesis 1) and, in spite of human failure (Genesis 3-11), it is still his intention (Genesis 12). That is the good news of the good God.

But how will creation be blessed? How can it possibly flourish in its ongoing rebellion against God? How will God respond? Will he destroy humanity and start over? He came close to doing that in Genesis 6. But no, he instead chooses to renew humanity from the inside. He selects a person, which is God’s modus operandi throughout history, and through that person channels the blessing that can undo the curse.

That person was Abram, also known as Abraham. God’s plan was to bless him – that is, make him flourish, multiply, increase, and experience abundance – so that, through him, he might bless all the peoples on earth. God would (verse 2) make Abraham a great nation, bless him, and make his name great …

The Hebrew of verse 2 (as I understand it) does not say, “and you will be a blessing,” as though this were a promise. Instead, God tells Abraham to be a blessing. It is a command – the same command he gives to Abraham’s children today, to us who belong to Jesus. “Be a blessing. Be a blessing to your neighbor. Be a blessing to the elderly. Be a blessing to the foreigner. Be a blessing to children. Be a blessing to your family.” The God of blessing instructed Abraham to be a blessing and we, as Abraham’s children, are called to do the same. God does not, as Warren Wiersbe pointed out, bless us to make us happy. He blesses us to make us a blessing.

Can you imagine the impact we would have if we fulfilled this calling? What if the boss knew us to be someone who brings fruitfulness and abundance – blessing – into the workplace? What if our neighbor turned to us because he knew we were a source of blessing? What if the schools sought us out to help them prosper? What a difference we would make in our community.

The blessing continues in verse 3. “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

“All peoples on earth” – that’s the phrase Paul describes as “the gospel in advance.” That God is planning to bless all peoples on earth is great good news. African peoples. Asian peoples. Indigenous American peoples. Australian peoples. Black peoples. White peoples. Brown peoples. Arab peoples. Jewish peoples. Berbers and Tuaregs. Hans and Malays. Kazakhs and Brahmins. Rohingyas and Palestinians. All people.

As if to drive the point home, the promise is stated five times in Genesis: 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14. It looks like God will bless anyone who is willing to be blessed. The blessing is out there, waiting for them. The way to enter the sphere of blessing is through what Paul calls “the obedience of faith.”

Obedience is not the way to earn the blessing – there is no way to earn the blessing. How can you earn something that has already been given? No, obedience is not the way to earn God’s blessing but the way to live within it. This is not slavish obedience motivated by fear but grateful obedience motivated by faith – faith in Jesus.

In Genesis 18:19, God lets us in on a secret. He tells us why he chose Abraham. (This is Christopher Wright’s literal translation): “that he [Abraham] should instruct his children and his household after him that they should keep the way of the Lord, by doing righteousness and justice, for the purpose that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what was spoken to him,”[4] which was, of course, the blessing of all the peoples on earth through him. God chose Abraham because from him would descend a people that would keep his way. Then, from his descendants, God would bring someone to save the world. He would bring Abraham’s seed. He would bring the messiah.

The blessing of God for the world comes through the son of God and son of Man: Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, the curse is being taken away (Galatians 3:13). Through Jesus, God’s initial creation purpose is reestablished, blessing reintroduced, and salvation accomplished. All this – the coming of God’s son and Abraham’s seed, his perfect submission, his sacrificial death, his glorious resurrection – was already in God’s mind when he called Abraham. For evidence of that, read Genesis 22.

Remember that God’s M.O. is to choose a person and through that person to extend his blessing. God wants to extend his blessing through you to family, friends, neighbors – even enemies. The people who best channel God’s blessing are those who, like Abraham, live “the obedience of faith.” Through them, God’s Son brings his blessing to the world.

Blessing conveys abundance, fruitfulness, increase, and rest. It expresses God’s love and intention. It comes in the form of actions, attitudes and, sometimes, words.

Bill White was kneeling in prayer in the front room of his house at 6:30 in the morning. He’d just confessed his sins and was asking God for a blessing. (On that particular day, he says, he really needed to feel God’s love.)

As he prayed, he heard his little boy Timothy, who was 22 months old at the time, come into the room. Timothy often got up while his dad was praying, but he was always quiet until his dad finished. But on this morning, he came straight over to his dad, put his little hand on dad’s clasped hands, and said, “Hi, special one. Hi, special one. Hi, special one.”

He’d never called him that before. On that day he repeated it six times. As he kept calling his dad “special one,” it occurred to Bill that God was giving him the blessing he asked for through his son.

He wants to give blessing through us as well. Sometimes that blessing will take the form of words, assuring people of God’s love. Sometimes it will take the form of help, of money, of mercy, or forgiveness. But whatever outward form the blessing takes, its inner substance will always be the same: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the seed of Abraham, the savior of humanity, the embodiment of good news for all the peoples of the world.

Go! Be people of the good news!

[1] Adapted from Christopher West, Fill These Hearts (Image, 2012), pp. 99-101

[2] Christopher J.H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People, p. 65

[3] Wright

[4] Translation by Christopher Wright

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Will God Answer Your Prayers This November?

Tens of millions of people are praying that the Biden/Harris ticket wins the presidential election. Tens of millions of people are praying that the Trump/Pence ticket wins. That means that whoever wins in November, tens of millions of people will be disappointed.

The fact that millions of people can pray for mutually exclusive outcomes is a problem, if not for God, at least for theologians. But it is also a problem for the people doing the praying. They passionately desire a particular result. They genuinely believe their wellbeing, and the wellbeing of others – the nation, even the world – hangs on a positive answer to their request.

Yet tens of millions of people will not receive a positive answer to their request. What are they to think? That God has abandoned them? That God does not care; that he is, as the ancient Greeks believed, apathetic about human needs?

Many of us have prayed desperately for something – in my case, healing for a family member – only to be disappointed. What is a person to think then, when the job that was absolutely perfect (or at least urgently needed) falls through or when a son or daughter sinks deeper into self-destructive behaviors?

This is sometimes referred to as the “problem of unanswered prayer,” but I’ve noticed that unanswered prayer is a much bigger problem on some occasions than on others. If my prayer for nice weather for the church picnic goes unanswered, I can say, “Oh, well, the farmers needed the rain more than we needed the sun.” But if my prayer for my child’s survival goes unanswered, I will not say, “Oh, well…”

The people who wrote the Bible were aware of the problem of unanswered prayer. They complained about it just like we do, if not more vehemently. Psalm 89 provides a good example. After rehearsing God’s goodness, the psalmist laments his apparent absence: How long, LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?” Then, almost pathetically, he adds: “Lord, where is your former great love?”

Not only did the biblical writers complain about unanswered prayer, they questioned it, wrestled with it. How was it possible, they wondered, that God does not act? The lack of divine response made no sense. They were confused.

“Confused” is a fitting description of the great John the Baptist, as he waited, seemingly forgotten, in a prison cell. Not only did he not understand why God did nothing about his own circumstances, he began to doubt his previous convictions. Doubt can be a painful byproduct of unanswered prayer.

The apostle Paul was also familiar with unanswered prayer. He was deeply troubled by what he called a “thorn in the flesh.” The nature of this thorn is uncertain. Many scholars believe it to have been a physical disability, perhaps a condition that affected his vision. He prayed repeatedly for healing, but to no avail. When he finally received an answer, it was an unmistakable no.

Even Jesus experienced unanswered prayer. “He offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death” and, though “he was heard,” he was not spared. If these great people experienced unanswered prayer, perhaps we should not be surprised if our prayers are not always answered as we wish.

God, the Bible teaches, is actively pursuing his own goals, not slavishly serving ours. He has, to put it crudely, bigger fish to fry than our general election results. Free to work outside our temporal limitations, he is confidently and fearlessly pursuing his own goals which, thankfully, include human blessing and plenitude.

They also include the flourishing of the person whose prayer seems to go unanswered. Oddly enough, unanswered prayer can benefit the faithful. Their suffering teaches them to listen for God and obey him. Their endurance shapes them into people of compassion and courage and makes them a source of benefit to others. People who pray for a specific result in the upcoming election may be disappointed but they will not be abandoned or forgotten. God will remember and bless them as he pursues an even better future than they – or Donald Trump or Joe Biden – can imagine.

(First published by Gatehouse Media.)

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Fake News

(You can also listen – or watch – Fake News here. The sermon begins at 22:26 and runs approximately 22 minutes.)

Many of us know that the Greek word translated “gospel” means “good news,” but in what sense is it good? In what sense is it news? And is it news we can trust? In our day, that is a pressing concern.

In 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries people chose the term “post-truth” as their “word of the year.” Questions about truth and even doubts about there being such a thing pervade society. A number of things have brought us to this place, not least of which is the ubiquitous presence in our lives of social and news media.

Our days are saturated with information, whether about people we know on Facebook or about the president of the United States on the evening news. Some of this news (and in certain settings, much of it) is either fake or what I call “enhanced” news. Fake news reports something that is not true and has not happened as though it is true and has happened. Enhanced news presents something that has happened but does so in a way that is intended to move the reader or listener in a certain direction.

When I am in the car, I frequently listen to classical music, which is presented on a platform that includes hourly news updates. The corporation behind that news prides itself on its fair and accurate reporting. But for a couple of years now, I have noticed the extensive use of emotionally ladened words that at best reflect the new staffs’ biases and at worst expose a calculated attempt to shape listener’s views and influence their actions. That is enhanced news.

Can we trust what we hear? Did you know that many of the online sites you visit employ tools to covertly influence your thinking? Some are relatively straightforward (paying people to submit likes or to become followers), while others are more sophisticated, like stuffing online polls, forcing site owners to take down stories, crashing entire sites, and more.

A study from Carnegie Mellon found that something like 45% of tweets on the coronavirus originated from bots – automated computer programs – instead of people. Evidence points to China’s and Russia’s involvement. Furthermore, 80% of the most retweeted posts on Twitter came from bots. The “likes” that boost a post and give it visibility often come from bots created by people who are trying to game the system.

In this environment, who can we trust? I say, “In this environment,” but fake and enhanced news is not news; there is nothing new about it. Fake news has been a thing throughout our lives. What’s more, it was a thing in our great grandparents’ lives and a thing in the lives of the apostles and prophets. Fake news has been around forever. It’s just the form it takes that is new.

The difference between real news and fake (or enhanced) news is that someone tells real news because something has happened. Someone tells fake news because they want something to happen. Keep that difference in mind for a few minutes.

We are starting a series today on the gospel: what it is and what it means. In the weeks to come we will look at the context of the gospel, the content of the gospel, and the consequences of the gospel. What do we do with the gospel? What does it do with us?

I had a friend who loved to use the word “gospel.” The word would come up in conversation a dizzying number of times and I would sometimes get a little lost. It seemed like “the gospel” covered an awful lot of territory. This thing was gospel. That thing was gospel. It seemed like everything was gospel—but if something wasn’t gospel, it wasn’t good.

That is not how the Bible uses the word “gospel.” By trying to make the word mean more than it does, we only succeed in making it mean less. Many good things are not gospel.

Let me give you an example.[1] In First Corinthians 15, Paul summarizes the gospel in five bullet points. (We’ll look at his summary – and it is a summary; it isn’t meant to be comprehensive – in a couple of weeks.) That summary takes only four or five of the letter’s 453 verses. 1 Corinthians also addresses church unity, which is extremely important and has a bearing on the gospel but is not gospel. He takes on marriage. Again, important stuff that has gospel implications, but it is not gospel. He talks about meat sacrificed to idols, the Lord’s Supper, and spiritual gifts, all of which is inspired by God’s Spirit and important for our lives but not all of which is gospel.

Sometimes people will say a person is a “gospel preacher,” when all they really mean is that he invites people to trust in Jesus. Or they say a particular congregation is a “gospel church,” when they only mean they have high regard for the Bible. But that is not what “gospel” means – certainly not what Jesus meant by it, nor Paul, nor any of the apostles.

Why go on about this? Isn’t this just an in-house quarrel over words? What difference does it make to any of us in real life?

A big difference. The gospel, when we really understand it, is life-transforming, mission-initiating, and endurance-inspiring. The gospel is to the Bible what the core is to an apple. It is to the church what the constitution is to the country. The gospel is not fake news; not enhanced news; it is remarkably good news.

That brings us to something we must get straight if we are to benefit from this series. The gospel is news about something that has happened. One scholar suggests translating the word as “newsflash.” Someone else thought “breaking news” might be better. Both have their problems but they do capture something fundamental (and fundamentally important) about the word: it conveys the idea that something has happened.

So when Paul writes in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile,” he means by gospel the news report of something that has happened. When he writes to Timothy, “This is my gospel,” he is talking about the news report he had broadcast around the Mediterranean regarding something that had taken place.

Now the Apostle Paul wasn’t the only person using the word “gospel” in the first century. Jesus used it before him. John the Baptist used it even earlier. When we hear that Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Apostle Paul all used the word, we are liable to conclude that “gospel” is a religious word, but that would be a mistake. It may be a religious word now, but there was nothing religious about it then. The word simply referred to something that had happened or was happening, particularly – and this is important – something that was welcome and good. “Gospel” refers to an announcement of “good news.”

In the first century, the word “gospel” got a lot of use. There were gospels about government projects, military victories, weddings, births—even about the flash sale on anchovies down at the market. (I’m not kidding about that.)[2] They didn’t use phrases like “news release” or “breaking news.” They used the term gospel.

Just a few years before Jesus was born, the proconsul Paullus Fabius Maximus recommended the Roman calendar be retooled so that the new year would begin on Caesar Augustus’ birthday, rather like we reckon time around the birth of Jesus. He sent a letter to the Provincial Assembly with that request, after which this news release was published. Note the use of the word “gospel”:

Augustus has made war to cease and has put everything in peaceful order; and whereas the birthday of our god [Augustus] signaled the beginning of the gospels for the world…Paullus Fabbius Maximus … has discovered a way to honor Augustus that was hitherto unknown among the Greeks, namely to reckon time from the date of his birth.[3]

“The birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the gospels for the world.” How much that sounds like the first verse of the Gospel of Mark: “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” There were many gospel announcements made round the empire when Paul was working, some about Augustus and some about anchovies, some that were fake gospels (as in Galatians 1) and some that were enhanced gospels (as in 2 Corinthians 11).

Paul traveled the empire announcing his gospel, the good news about what had happened through Jesus Christ. We will explore what he said in the weeks to come, but for now I want us to get firmly in our minds the basic truth that the word “gospel” refers to something that has happened – something good.

When we are trying to get up the courage to tell a friend or family member the gospel, do we picture ourselves sharing good news or do we picture ourselves trying to get them to do something? If the latter, it may be a sign that we are not quite understanding the gospel. We have forgotten that the gospel is news about something that has happened in real life, in the real world, with real consequences.

Now you might be thinking, “Okay, okay. We get it. The gospel is about something that has happened or is happening. You can move on now.”

I know it may seem like I am belaboring the point. I don’t think I am. I am trying to firmly root in our minds the idea that “gospel” refers to something that has happened or is happening because many people use the word to refer to something else. They use it in a way that is inconsistent with the Bible and they don’t even know it. Instead of talking about something that has happened, they are talking about something that should happen or could happen.

Let me get specific. People repeatedly use the word “gospel” to refer to the invitation to accept Jesus so that you can go to heaven when you die. That’s the gospel. Jesus died for you so that you can go to heaven. In other words, the gospel is not seen as something that has happened but as advice a person might take or a cure he might swallow or a deal he might strike.

That last one is particularly troubling. When I was a young pastor in a denominational church, the district superintendent sent me off to a week-long conference on evangelism. (He knew I was an introvert and he wanted to give me some tools to use and maybe help me come out of my shell.) So I went off and learned how to sell Jesus. It was a spiritual The Art of the Deal seminar. I don’t say it was all bad – I learned some helpful things – but it changed the gospel from telling the news about something that had happened into selling a deal you can’t afford to miss. And it turned gospel messengers into salespeople.

Those natural born salesmen among us might be fine with that, might even relish the challenge, but we are not all salesman. I am certainly not. I once sold a boat to some people who couldn’t wait to buy it and, by the time I got done, I felt like I needed to pay them to take it off my hands.

After attending that spiritual Art of the Deal conference, I spent a couple of years knocking on every door in our neighborhood – probably 1200 homes – trying to sell Jesus to people. It was a joyless task which I thoroughly disliked. You know, a person ought to pray before knocking on a door when doing that kind of evangelism—and I did. I prayed, “O God, please don’t let anybody be at home.”

If we don’t share the gospel because something has happened (as is the case with real news) but because we want something to happen (which is the case with fake news), people will sense the difference.

C. S. Lewis described the gospel as “Something perfectly new in the history of the universe [that] had happened.”[4] He complained that the great difficulty was keeping before people the question of truth. “You have to keep forcing them back, and again back, to the real point.” The gospel is not an ethical system. It is not a set of religious practices that can be compared to Islam or Buddhism. The gospel is news about something that had happened.

That “Christ died for our sins” is part of the gospel. It is, in fact, the centerpiece of the gospel. But understand that it actually happened. God sent a person we know as Jesus into our world who died by order of the procurator Pontius Pilate. It happened. It is news. It is not advice. It is not a sales contract. This is news, in the same way that the President of the United States contracting the coronavirus is news. It is news as the Lakers winning Game 2 of the NBA finals is news.

If you tell someone that the Lakers won, you will not be giving them advice, though that news may change their behavior – especially if they recorded the game to watch later or if they were planning to bet on the Heat. Similarly, telling someone that Jesus died is not advice. It is news. Now it is news that makes a difference, that can change a person’s life, as we are going to see in this series. But if we think of the gospel as advice to give or a product to sell, we will not handle it the way the apostles did and we will not see the results the apostles saw.

The Apostle Paul crossed Asia and Europe, enduring scorn, mistreatment, and imprisonment because he believed something remarkably important had happened and people needed to know about it. The God who made the world and maintains a relationship with it entered the world through the person of Jesus. He sent him to save the world (John 3:17), but he was misunderstood, opposed, and killed.

God, however, refused to allow Jesus’s death to be the final word. He raised Jesus back to life, which had been the plan from the beginning. Jesus has now returned to heaven but is going to come back to earth and make things right. Things will not always be broken, painful, and sad. They will be right, good, and joyful. That is good news.

Now if we hear that news and believe it, we will want to know what to do about it. We will ask (as people in the Bible did), “What should we do?” Paul had a ready answer for that question, which he summarized as: repentance toward God and faith toward Jesus Christ. That is, rethink your life in the light of what God has done (repentance), entrust yourself to Jesus, and join him and his people (faith). But this only makes a difference if something really happened.

At Lockwood, we try to win people for Jesus. We don’t do this because we believe Christianity is the best religion out there. We don’t do this because we think it will change people’s lives for the better (though we do). We don’t do this because we believe the Christian moral code surpasses those of other faiths. We do it because we believe something has happened: The creator of the universe has sent his Christ to earth on a rescue mission. This happened at a point in earth’s history when Augustus Caesar was Emperor of the Roman Empire and Quirinius was governor of Syria. It happened when Pontius Pilate was procurator in Israel and Annas and Caiaphas were high priests In Jerusalem. It happened and it makes all the difference.

This is news worth telling. God cares, God has come, things have changed. In light of this, we should (in the words of Jesus) “repent [rethink our lives] and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15). It is news—news that ought to be spread.

[1] From Dickson, The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission.

[2] Dickson, p. 112

[3] Dickson, p. 113, taken from Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones 2:458

[4] Letter, May, 1944

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…finally, some Good News

We’re beginning a new series that examines what the biblical writers and the early church meant when it spoke of the gospel. We will look first to the Old Testament, to Genesis, where the gospel is “preached in advance,” according to St. Paul. Then we’ll head to Isaiah, who brought the word into our vocabulary. and on whom many New Testament writers depend.

Once we’ve done that, we will enter the New Testament to listen to John the Baptist and to Jesus as they announced the gospel in the Gospels (and if you’ve ever wondered about the connection between the gospel and the Gospels, we’ll consider that too). We’ll spend a couple of weeks in 1 Corinthians, then move on to Acts, and elsewhere. We are going on an exploration, one I hope will include delightful discoveries into one of the principal glories of the Bible.

The first sermon in the series, like all series introduction sermons, will be tricky. Tricky because we need to cover lots of ground, whereas I much prefer to camp out in one biblical passage. It will also be also tricky because that ground needs to be leveled and cleared of theological debris before a foundation for understanding can be laid.

Tomorrow we will post the first installment in the series …finally, some Good News. It is titled, Fake News.

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Forgiveness Acts as an Identity Marker

Christians are expected to live differently. This has been universally recognized but not universally practiced. When it has, what ought to be different has been hotly debated. The Amish, for example, are different in the simplicity of their dress and their use of technology. Their submission to their leaders differentiates them too. Further, like their Mennonite forebears, they are marked by a commitment to pacifism.

Most of those who follow Jesus are not as easily distinguished from their non-Christian friends and family. However, the difference, though not so readily marked, will inevitably manifest itself.

Some of the key markers that a person is truly following Jesus are generosity, truthfulness, and faithfulness. Add to that humility, regard for enemies, and a readiness to admit wrongdoing. These are not things that immediately catch the eye, but, over time, they cannot help but become apparent.

The characteristic that stands out most strikingly against the backdrop of today’s anger culture is the Christian’s willingness to forgive. Self-righteousness is spreading more rapidly than the coronavirus and causing inestimable harm. The self-righteous can boast about many things, but the one thing they cannot do is forgive.

The telltale sign of this occurred when the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston forgave the white supremacist who killed nine of their members, including their pastor. They did so in obedience to their Lord. Yet their forgiveness sparked almost as much outrage as Dylann Roof’s mass murder.

This kind of thing is everywhere evident in our culture. Americans cannot forgive the failings (almost universal at the time) of their founding fathers nor their current leaders’ adolescent faults. Recently, the Sierra Club disowned its own founder for views he held as a young man and almost certainly came to abandon. People cannot even forgive themselves since they refuse to acknowledge their own sins.

Yet Jesus taught his followers to forgive everyone, brothers and sisters, and even enemies. They forgive as they have been forgiven. They forgive, knowing that they otherwise close the door to their own forgiveness. In today’s climate, forgiveness stands out as clearly as the dark clothes and beard of an Amish man.

In 1925, G. K. Chesterton published a short story titled “The Chief Mourner of Marne” that cleverly portrays forgiveness as a characteristic Christian virtue. The plot goes like this: A good man is forced into a duel with a younger cousin – an accomplished athlete, artist, and actor – whom he has loved like a brother.

Everyone knows, including the duelists, that the one thing the younger cousin cannot do well is shoot, so why he chooses a pistol for the duel is a mystery. The older cousin reluctantly fires and the younger cousin falls. The older cousin rushes to his side, but death is unavoidable. Grief-stricken and burdened by guilt, he flees England to live abroad. Years later, he returns to his English estate but lives like a hermit in complete isolation.

His former friends try to make contact, but he refuses to see them. They insist his crime is understandable and forgivable. It makes no difference.

Then comes the twist. It was not the younger cousin, the actor, who died. He fell a split second before the shot was fired, waited for his cousin to come to his aid – as he knew he would – then killed him in cold blood. He then buried his cousin, assumed his identity, and fled the country.

When the ghastly truth is finally revealed, the old friends demand a hanging. They were quite ready to forgive a sin they considered excusable, but staunchly unwilling to forgive something they considered truly sinful. One character says, “You don’t expect us to … pardon a vile thing like this?”

In reply, Chesterton’s protagonist priest answers: “No, but we [Christians] have to …pardon it. Go on your primrose path pardoning all your favorite vices and being generous to your favorite crimes; and leave us … with the men who commit the mean and revolting and real crimes.”

The point is clear. Christians must stand ready to forgive, though never excuse, sin. (Excusing sin is downright unchristian.) Forgiveness is what marks Jesus’s followers as different. It is their telltale sign.

(First published by Gatehouse Media.)

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Bride of Christ (Revelation 17-22)

(This is part-two of a look at the Church as the Bride of Christ. If you prefer to watch or listen to the sermon, click here. An approximately six-minute explanation of the apocalyptic genre begins at 19:52, while the sermon starts at 25:36 and lasts approximately 23 minutes.)

Today we’ll see something of the pre-wedding jitters the church experiences (chapter 18), we’ll glimpse the great wedding of the king and his bride (chapter 19), and we will see what their life is going to be like in the age to come (chapters 21-22).

First, the pre-wedding jitters. People normally experience pre-wedding jitters because they are conscious of the enormity of the life-long life change that is about to take place. But there can be other reasons for pre-wedding jitters.

In 1942, young American men went off to war in record numbers – something like 4 million of them entered the armed services. Some of them proposed to their girlfriends on the eve of their departure to Europe or the South Pacific.

Girls made wedding plans, composed guest lists, and wrote out invitations, but they left the wedding date off because they didn’t know when it would be. Some got married when their fiancé came home on leave, but others had to wait until the war was over.

They had “war jitters.” So does the church. The marriage of Christ and his church will not take place until the war is over and the King has returned. Are you aware that a war is going on? It is the great war, the war that births, and will finally end, all wars. Revelation uses twin images to represent the combatants in this war – images of cities and of women.

Now, remember the genre. Revelation is more poetry than prose, more song than manual. In apocalyptic literature images sometimes overlap. They can flow into one another. That is especially true in Revelation 17-19, where two women are 2 cities that express one age-old reality.

Chapter 17 introduces us to the woman called the “the great prostitute.” These are verses 3-6:

I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery: Babylon the great, the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth. I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.

Both the woman prostitute and the city Babylon image the same enemy of God’s people. To further complicate matters, Jews and Christians of the time often referred to Rome as “Babylon.” We find this in 2 Esdras, 2 Baruch, and the Sibylline Oracles but, more importantly, in 1 Peter, where “Babylon” is a code name for Rome.

And if that isn’t confusing enough, add apocalyptic symbolism to the mix. In 17:9, we read: “The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman [the prostitute] sits.” Rome was and is known as the City of Seven Hills.

So, on the one hand, we have the woman who is Babylon which is also Rome. But I said there were two women. What about the other one? The other woman (19:7) is the bride of the Lamb, the Church of Christ. She is also a city (21:3): “…the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”

So, this is the Tale of Two Cities,[1] which is also the tale of two women, which is also the one story of the earth’s history. The two cities could not be any less alike. Babylon is (18:2) “a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit” while New Jerusalem is (21:3) “the dwelling place of God [and] men.” Babylon is self-indulgent. New Jerusalem is sacrificially compassionate. Babylon’s sins are piled up to heaven (18:5) but New Jerusalem is clothed in righteous deeds (19:8). Babylon draws its energy from hell while New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven.

So we have two women who are two cities that express one age-old reality. That reality existed before there were cities, when there was only a garden, when there was Eden. It has expressed itself in city after city: magnificent Pi-Ramesses, Egypt; brutal Ninevah, Assyria; beautiful Babylon; intellectual Athens; powerhouse Rome; Enlightenment Paris; Nazi Berlin; Marxist Moscow; and Maoist Beijing. They all have rejected God’s rule and oppressed his people. Age in and age out, in one city after another, this spirit has emerged. Please God that “pursuit-of-happiness America” (as Eugene Peterson once put it) doesn’t follow suit.[2]

Babylon is what takes God’s people away from him. It is seductive, luring people away from God to luxuries and distractions. It is also bloodthirsty, slaughtering the people of God, whenever they get in the way. When this letter was written, that spirit had broken out in Rome. Today, it is has emerged in China. Where will it rage tomorrow? It is ongoing but it is not endless. There will be a last battle.

The war will come to a head someday – perhaps in our day – and when it does, it will not go well with Babylon, or whatever its global expression is at the time. That is why, in 18:4, heaven cries, “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues.” The language is taken from Jeremiah and repeated by Paul in 2 Corinthians. The church of Jesus must not allow itself to be enmeshed in the lifestyle of Babylon. To do so is a betrayal of the king.[3] The time to choose a side is not when war has already broken out. The time is now.

Revelation 18:10 pictures how the age-old war ends: “Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come!” The long torture of the earth, the brutal mistreatment of her poor, the harassment, minimization, and persecution of God’s children will be over. The half-truths, the dirty dealings, the under the table bribes, the hubris of wealth, the misuse of power, will end. Unhealthy working conditions, starvation, lack of water, coercion, loss of dignity will be gone, replaced by peace, kindness, respect, and joy. The war will be over. The kingdom will come. The king will reign.

Not everyone will be happy about this. In fact, those who have succumbed to Babylon’s seductions will be shocked and grieved. The kings (18:9, 10), the national governments that have increased their power through an alliance with the Prostitute, will “weep and mourn” and “be terrified.” Without her seduction and distraction, their power over people will be broken.

The merchants, the economic drivers, the stock marketers, the Davos crowd, the one-percenters and their entourage of 10 and 20-percenters, will “weep and mourn and cry…” (18:15,16a). They “were the world’s great men” (18:23) who cast their magic spell – from places like Silicon Valley – to make themselves rich. But the war doesn’t go their way. They lose everything. They are broken.

Then there are the working people who earn their living by an economy they’ve inherited and on which they depend. These people are us. John points to the logistics guys of his time, the people who shipped goods. In our day, the job that employs the most people in the U. S. is truck driving, delivering the kinds of goods Revelation 18 describes. These people, too, are in shock. What are they going to do now?

But while these people are weeping, the people of God are whooping it up (18:20). “Rejoice saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you.”

It is important to understand this: The welfare of God’s people is not linked to an economic system. Their lives do not rise and fall with the numbers on Wall Street’s big board. They are in the hands of the big God, and he is strong to save. He has long been patient, not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9) but he will not bear with injustice, violence, hatred, and haughtiness forever. He will make an end.

He will make an end. That is powerfully clear in chapter 18, where in one short section (verses 14-23), the words “no more” appear six times. There will come a day when God says, “No more. It is enough.”

A student in an African seminary asked his professor what Jesus is going to say when he returns. He wanted to know because 1 Thessalonians 4:16 says: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a shout …” What, he wanted to know, will he shout? The professor thought for a moment, then said: “I think he’ll shout: “ENOUGH!” Enough deceit. Enough injustice. Enough hostility and coldness. Enough death. ENOUGH!”

He will say, “Enough,” and, before anyone knows what has happened, the world will change. Economies will collapse. Nations will crumble. The long night, with its nightmares and frights, will finally end. And that end will usher in the new beginning.

The jitters will be over, liberation will be accomplished, and the victory of the king will be complete. Heaven will yell “Booyah!” or “Hallelujah” (which is the biblical equivalent). With the war over, nothing stands in the way of the marriage of the King and his bride. This is Revelation 19:5-7:

Then a voice came from the throne, saying: “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, both small and great!” Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.

This is not the event of the season; this is the event of time and eternity. Isaiah wrote about it this way:

“…the Lord will prepare a feast for all peoples, a banquet of aged wines – the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain, he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. In that day they will say, ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation’” (Isaiah 25:6-9).

The weight we have carried throughout our lives – seldom aware of it but always weighed down by it, robbed of joy, sabotaged in our relationships, and deceived in our thoughts; the burden of sin – will be lifted from us, and our hearts will be buoyant as we cannot now imagine. The church will then be joined to her King, and a new life will begin, a life beyond imagination.

Revelation 21:1-6 sketches the outline of that life, which the rest of chapters 21 and 22 fill in.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “Behold: I am make all things new!”

It is a life of presence, where God is with us. (That is outlined in verse 3 and filled in from verses 10-21.) No more doubt, no more separation. No more fear.

It is a life of safety. How can we feel unsafe in the presence of our King? Verses 22-23 fill this in, as does 22:4.

It is a life of happiness. That is outlined in verses 3 and 4, where death has died, and mourning, crying, and pain are gone forever.

It is a life of purity. (Verse 25 fills this in.) The sins that have clung to us, that we have hated but held, renounced but obeyed, will be lifted from us forever. They will bother us no more.

It will be a life of fruitfulness. We will have good, creative, joyful, life-giving things to do. Our work will not destroy the earth but enrich it. Our work will not harm our neighbors but bless them. Our work will stretch us out but never wear us down.

It will be a life of rest that is not idle, of work that is not wearying, of surprises that are not unwelcome. No more boredom, no more fear, no more wishing the day to be over, or dreading the day to come.

If you say, “But this is too good to be true,” I will counter: It is not yet good enough to be true of the One who is faithful and true. He has more – and better – planned for us than we can conceive. For “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor has the human mind imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

If you say we are unworthy, I can only respond: Of course! This is not about our worth but about our King and Savior Jesus Christ. When we look at ourselves, we will worry about this (and everything else). When we look at him, we will forget all about it.

Joni Eareckson Tada (a remarkable saint of our time), was paralyzed in a diving accident as a teen. When she was in her 30s, she fell in love and was engaged. But when the wedding finally arrived, she was filled with anxiety.

She says: “I felt awkward as my girlfriends strained to shift my paralyzed body into a cumbersome wedding gown. No amount of corseting and binding my body gave me a perfect shape. The dress just didn’t fit well. Then, as I was wheeling into the church, I glanced down and noticed that I’d accidentally run over the hem of my dress, leaving a greasy tire mark. My paralyzed hands couldn’t hold the bouquet of daisies that lay off-center on my lap. And my chair, though decorated for the wedding, was still a big, clunky gray machine with belts, gears, and ball bearings. I certainly didn’t feel like the picture-perfect bride in a bridal magazine.

“I inched my chair closer to the last pew to catch a glimpse of Ken in front. There he was, standing tall and stately in his formal attire. I saw him looking for me, craning his neck to look up the aisle. My face flushed, and I suddenly couldn’t wait to be with him. I had seen my beloved. The love in Ken’s face had washed away all my feelings of unworthiness. I was his pure and perfect bride.” [4]

This, I believe, will be the Church’s experience too. Seeing our Lord (the beatific vision) will change us and everything else. We can never make ourselves worthy but we can make ourselves ready. How do we do that? Revelation 21:7: “…the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.” How? Verse 8: “‘Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)”

The church pretties herself, prepares herself for her wedding day by doing the righteous acts God has given her to do (Ephesians 2:10). Her deeds cannot make her worthy but they can make her beautiful. The church, and not just the individuals in it, is directed by our Lord, empowered by his Spirit, and readied for our big day by the good deeds we do, deeds that are contrary to the self-indulgent spirit of the age, with its Babylon mentality. We are not like everybody else. We are different.

We have seen the Church as temple in which people meet God, as royal priesthood bringing God to people and people to him, as family, as Body through which Christ acts, as Kingdom of God colony on earth, and today as Christ’s forever bride. There is nothing like the church, no substitute for it, no alternative to it.

Yes, the church is partially paralyzed. It doesn’t wear its good deeds well. It is awkward and unsightly. But the King has chosen the Church and he will heal it. To remain outside of it is incalculable loss. Love the Church – Christ does. Be a part of the Church. Help her ready herself for her big day.

[1] Larry Helyer

[2] Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Eerdmans, 2005), p. 288.

[3] Helyer, p. 247.

[4] This We Believe: The Good News of Jesus Christ for the World, (Zondervan) p. 222

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Why Is the Book Revelation so Hard to Understand? (Guest post by Kevin Looper)

This past week, I (Shayne) completed a series on The Church in Images – the biblical images used to represent the Church. We concluded with the image of the Church as Bride from The Book of Revelation (a sermon I will post tomorrow). I asked my son Kevin, who is both a great youth pastor and a capable Bible scholar, to help us understand how to approach the Revelation. What follows is what he share with Lockwood Community Church.

Earlier this year, one of our students read the NT all the way through for the first time…that is, he read it all the way until the middle of Revelation and gave up.  It was too hard to comprehend. So what do we need to know about Revelation in order to hear God speak to us through the book today?

There are three main reasons why people do not understand The Book of Revelation:

  1. The genre isn’t one that we are used to. We know how to read biographies and fairy tales, and journalism. Revelation, however, belongs to a class of literature that was popular before and slightly after John’s time which we don’t use anymore.  It is called “Apocalyptic Literature”.  Apocalyptic does not mean “end of days” “zombie apocalypse” “earth destruction.”  The word is Greek and means “revelation” (hence the title of the book).  The point of the literature is to reveal something.  Authors who used this genre wrote to express the spiritual realities that were happening behind physical events.  Ancient people thought that the events of earth were reflections of what was happening in heaven.  If a battle was happening between two armies on earth, it was a reflection of the same battle that was simultaneously going on amongst spiritual forces in heaven. The outcome was decided in heaven and was only reflected on earth. 

            Revelation is a book where John “opens up” heaven and shows us the battle taking place there between God and the forces of evil in order to reveal to us what was happening in his time and, I believe, what will happen in the future.  On earth the church may be persecuted and killed and hurting because Satan is out to destroy it, but in heaven God, as the book of Revelation assures us, is on his throne and set to bring judgment against evil.

2. Another reason why it is difficult to understand the book of Revelation is that almost everything in the book has its origin in the OT. It is filled with language, ideas, and images from the Old Testament in almost every sentence.  The beasts, the locusts, the whore of Babylon, the lampstands, keys, weird numbers, and everything else come from the OT and the meaning of the book of Revelation has its source in the OT.  In fact, I think that is what is being “revealed.”  But we do not know the Old Testament as well as John’s first readers. One of the things Apocalyptic literature does is to say, effectively: “Look, God has had this all planned from the beginning, and you can see the plan in the OT.  Your suffering and turmoil are a part of it. He has not been defeated. He is still in control.”

3. We don’t understand the point of the book.  The point of the book is NOT to give some kind of twisted fortune telling.  I do think that there is prophecy in Revelation that is yet to be fulfilled. But it is not a code that you have to crack to find out what country will attack what other country and when the end of the world will be. The point of Revelation is to give the church hope in the midst of persecution and troubles right

Why was Revelation written? To encourage the church to remain faithful to God and endure suffering, because everything God had planned and promised in the Old Testament was being brought to fulfillment through Christ.

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