Good News for the Anxious? Part IV of IV.

The apostle Paul, writing to “all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi”, said the following:

Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (NIV, Philippians 4:4-7)

The rather tired Bible you may sometimes see me carrying around is a Bible I bought from a bookstore in Bryan, TX when I was about 20 years old.  It was a period in my life in which I was, as they say, “lost”. But I must have also, in addition to being “lost”, been “searching” because I found myself in a book store one evening purchasing a brand new (though, now tired) NIV Study Bible.  (I charged the purchase to my parents credit card, sooooo thanks Mom and Dad!)

When God began to really work in me a few years later, it was this Bible that I pulled off of my shelf.

And when I decided to read the Bible from “cover to cover” a few years after that, it was this Bible that I sat with day after day.

It took me a few months but I finally got to Philippians.  Chapter 4, verses 4 through 7, must have jumped out at me because I underlined them.  I can recall at the time being further impacted by the footnotes within my study Bible in relation to these verses.  Today, I see that I underlined these, too.  They read:

4:6anxious.  Self-centered, counterproductive worry, not legitimate cares and concerns for the spread of the gospel (see 2:28 and note; 2Co 11:28; see also Mt 6:25-31; 1Pe 5:7).  in everything, by prayer.  Anxiety and prayer are two great opposing forces in Christian experience.  thanksgiving.  The antidote to worry (along with prayer and petition).

4:7peace of God.  Not merely a psychological state of mind, but an inner tranquility based on peace with God – the peaceful state of those whose sins are forgiven (cf. Jn 14:27; Ro 5:1 and note).  The opposite of anxiety, it is the tranquility that comes when believers commit all their cares to God in prayer and worry about them no more.

Good News for the Anxious? Part III of IV.

The following is an excerpt from a sermon delivered in Germany by Helmut Thielicke.  It was preached sometime during “the extraordinary years of 1942-1951.”  The sermon was titled, “I Am Not Alone with My Anxiety”. Mr. Thielicke concluded his message as follows.  

The surprising thing in the biblical message is that it finds in love the opposite of fear and anxiety. There is no terror – one might equally well say anxiety – in love, we are told in 1 John.

The surprising thing is that anxiety is not opposed by fortitude, courage or heroism, as one might expect. These are simply anxiety suppressed, not conquered.

The positive force which defeats anxiety is love.

What this means can be understood only when we have tackled anxiety in what we have tried to see as its final root. That is to say, anxiety is a broken bond and love is the bond restored.

Once we know in Christ that the world has a fatherly basis and that we are loved, we lose our anxiety. This is not because the powers referred to have gone. But they have lost their strength. To use a simple comparison – and simplicity is needed in ultimate questions – I need have no fear even in the darkest forest when I hold my father’s hand and I am sure of it.

Christ himself faces the constricting riddles of life. According to the oldest record, His final word on the cross is the anxious cry: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” It is characteristic, however, that He does not address this cry of despair into the night of Golgotha. He calls to His Father: “My God, my God.” He holds the Father’s hand firm in His own. He brings the anxiety to His Father. He has brought it once and for all. If I am anxious, and I know Christ, I may rest assured that I am not alone with my anxiety; He has suffered it for me.

The believer can also know that Christ is the goal of history. The primitive community knows that this One has not gone for ever, but will come again. It thus has a new relationship to the future. This is no longer a mist-covered landscape into which I peer anxiously because of the sinister events which will there befall me. Everything is now different. We do not know what will come. But we know who will come. And if the last hour belongs to us, we do not need to fear the next minute.

Good News for the Anxious? Part II of IV.

The question before the house (from the recent post, Good News for the Anxious? Part I of IV) goes something like this: what is the good news of the gospel for those who are anxious. Does Jesus speak a word to the anxiety of our day? If so, what?

I hope you will spend some time, if you haven’t already, thinking about this.

I also hope you will find a way to share your thoughts with me and others. Perhaps in the comment section of this blog?

Either way, in parts II, III & IV of this blog post, I want to share with you three unique responses to our current line of inquiry.

First. My own reflection.

The passage of Scripture I and many others first think of when thinking of anxiety is Chapter 6 of Matthew. It is part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t there more to life than food and more to the body than clothing?

Look at the birds in the sky: They do not sow, or reap, or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you more valuable than they are?

And which of you by worrying can add even one hour to his life?

Why do you worry about clothing? Think about how the flowers of the field grow; they do not work or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these! And if this is how God clothes the wild grass, which is here today and tomorrow is tossed into the fire to heat the oven, won’t he clothe you even more, you people of little faith?

So then, don’t worry saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For the unconverted pursue these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. (NET, Matthew 6:25-32.)

What do you hear Jesus saying?

I hear a few assurances and a command. Life is about more than just staying alive, Jesus is saying. Worrying about the future accomplishes nothing. Plus, God cares even more about you and me than the birds of the sky and the flowers of the field, and look how well the Father provides for them! So, do not worry!

If I’m being honest, at times, these words from Jesus remind me a bit of a comedy sketch with Bob Newhart.

I don’t want to downplay the assurances Christ offers. Truly, it is no small thing for the Son of God to remind us that the God of the universe cares for us. But, when I’m anxious, and I read this passage, I can’t help but feel like I’m sitting across from Bob Newhart being told to just “Stop it!”.

“I would if I could,” I want to yell back.

Fortunately, unlike Mr. Newhart, Jesus says more than this.  He goes on.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (NIV, Matthew 6:33-34)

“Don’t worry,” Jesus says. “But, instead, seek the kingdom of God; seek it and seek it first.

It is this word which has been good news for me recently in the midst of my own anxiety.

Those who seek, they will find, Jesus says only a little while later in Matthew 7:7. Seek the kingdom of God and, indeed, the kingdom of God is what you will find.

But there is more. Not only does kingdom seeking result in kingdom finding (7:7), Jesus also promises (6:33-34) that kingdom seeking will result in (a) the meeting of our most basic needs, (b) the proper ordering of our lives, and (c) the lessening, if not elimination, of our anxieties.

Surely this is good news for the anxious.  I know that is how I have received it.

I was recently reminded of something C.S. Lewis said:

Aim at heaven and you will get the earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither.

Aiming at heaven and getting earth thrown in seems somewhat akin to seeking first the kingdom of God and having all the rest added.

As has always been the case, today, one can choose to live in any number of  kingdoms (put another way: today, one may allow any number of kingdoms to grow within them). There is the professional kingdom ruled by the dollar and/or recognition or promotion, the political kingdom ruled by influence and power, the on-line kingdom ruled by “likes”, “followers”, relevance and immediacy, plus many others.

However, as far as I can tell, the kingdom of God remains the only truly sovereign kingdom.  All others seem to me to be mere vassal states; that is, kingdoms which do not ultimately rule themselves, but rather are subordinate, or submissive, to another, outside kingdom or ruler.  That foreign ruler, today, is often anxiety.

If the choice is mine, I choose citizenship in the kingdom of God… a kingdom which stands as master over instead of mastered by anxiety… the one kingdom in which the king’s yoke is easy, and his burden is light. (Matthew 11:30)

Are we anxious because we find ourselves seeking the wrong thing first (i.e. not the kingdom of God)?

If I am anxious, does this necessarily mean I have been seeking first something other than the kingdom of God?

If you are like me, your typical response to anxiety is to work. Work harder. Work more. Work better. Make a to-do list and start knocking it out. But, again, if you are like me, this only gets you so far, for, it serves to bury anxiety, not eliminate it.

Seeking first the kingdom of God, however, is different… at least, according to Jesus.

According to Jesus, the kingdom of God is effective. “And all these things will be given to you as well.”

What would happen if we took Jesus at his word? What if doing more, i.e., seeking to accomplish, was no longer my response to my anxiety? What if instead of seeking to accomplish, I sought the kingdom of God, and I sought it first?

Good News for the anxious? Part I of IV.

How would you complete the following sentence:

Life is _________.

I would say, “good”, with the immediate qualifier, “But it is also really hard!”

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time with Grace Strohmeier; she is out of the hospital and looking good!  I asked Grace how she might complete the above sentence.  Her response was almost exactly the same as mine, just in reverse.  “I think I would say, ‘hard’”, she began, “But it is also really good!”, she then added immediately.

This captures one of life’s basic realities, does it not?

Life is good.

Life is hard.

In a poll conducted roughly sixty years ago, a group of young adults were asked, “What is your basic reaction to life?”  Sixty percent responded, “Anxiety.”

That’s an epidemic!

I wonder if maybe life today is so hard for us precisely because it incites so much anxiety in us.

Helmut Thielicke called anxiety “the secret wound of modern man”.  Again, this was some sixty years ago.  Are things much different now?

Anxiety lives among us like a plague, widespread and fatal.  Though we may not personally suffer from an anxiety disorder, per se, anxiety is nonetheless a frequent guest in our home, so to speak, if not a permanent resident.

Anxiety can plague a life from within as well as from without.  That is to say, the anxiety present in our life is not always our own.  Often, it is that of others.  We all know how the anxious presence of another can be contagious.  Or, at the very least, wearisome.  We might say things like, “Oh my goodness, so-and-so is so high-strung!  It is absolutely exhausting!”

On the other hand, having an anxious person in your life might also be the very reason you are not anxious.  I have personally found this to be true in marriage.  Jenn and I are hardly ever anxious at the same time.  We seem to take turns.  Someone, after all, has to keep it together!

Ultimately, I believe anxiety effects us all, one way or another.  And so, for all our sakes, I want to name the anxiety I see and hear among us.

Retirement makes us anxious.  Whether because we are being forced into it and are worried we haven’t saved enough money, or because we recently realized we may never get there… either way, retirement makes us anxious.

Health – both our own and that of others – makes us anxious.  Hips have to be replaced, gallbladders removed, and stones blasted.  We have alzheimers, depression, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and cancer.  Either we or the ones we love.

Work makes us anxious.  Whether we currently have a job or not, “employment” causes us a great deal of anxiety.  Many of us feel like we are “drowning” in work.  Many of the rest wish we had just a little bit of work to drown in.  We ask ourselves, “What happens if I lose this source of income?” or “What happens if I don’t find another source of income soon?”  These are serious questions.

Finances make us anxious.  The cost of living seems to be one of the more significant causes of death – at least in Illinois!  We save and invest, but we are not certain our investments are entirely secure.  Cars break down, furnaces need replacing, and the roof needs work.  And so we have to dip into our savings… assuming we have savings!

Being both parents to our children and children to our parents makes us anxious.

The future of Heritage makes us anxious.  We see people move away.  We see ourselves growing older.

Life is anxiety producing, and for that reason, hard.

In the same sermon in which he pronounced anxiety “the secret wound of modern man”, Helmut Thielicke also said the following:

Perhaps it is a fatal onesidedness of Christian churches that they see Christ only in the context of victory over guilt, of forgiveness and justification.  Rightly or wrongly, many men think that this reveals a failure to understand their deepest problems.

One would expect the gospel to have something to say to the wound of modernity, if indeed anxiety is such a wound.  Jesus has won victory for me over sin and judgment, true.  However, has he left me alone with my anxiety?  Or does the gospel have something to say to this, too?

What happens when we as the Christian church seek to see Christ in the context of victory over anxiety?

What does the good news of Jesus Christ have to say to an anxious world?

Again, Jesus stands victorious over sin and death, and this is no small thing! But having defeated such mighty foes, is he now struck dumb in face of anxiety?

What will you proclaim – and proclaim as the word of Jesus – to the next brother or sister you encounter who is suffering from anxiety?

[I have a few thoughts of my own, as you can imagine, however, I think I will share them as three separate posts so that you can think about your own answers before reading what I and/or others have to say.]

Sermon: 3/5/17

[Due to human error the sermon from this previous Sunday was not recorded. At the end of worship I said I would post the sermon in written form here. I said this with the vague sense that someone needed to hear or read these words, either for the very first or a second time. I pray that this vague sense was the Holy Spirit and not my own vain pride; and I pray that all who find their way here will then find God in the words below.]

After this, Jesus went around in Galilee. He did not want to go about in Judea because the Jewish leaders there were looking for a way to kill him. But when the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles was near, Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” For even his own brothers did not believe in him.

Therefore Jesus told them, “My time is not yet here; for you any time will do. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that its works are evil. You go to the festival. I am not going up to this festival, because my time has not yet fully come.” After he had said this, he stayed in Galilee.

However, after his brothers had left for the festival, he went also, not publicly, but in secret. Now at the festival the Jewish leaders were watching for Jesus and asking, “Where is he?”

Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, “He is a good man.”

Others replied, “No, he deceives the people.” But no one would say anything publicly about him for fear of the leaders. Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?”

Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory, but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him. (John 7:1-18)

Everyone seems to have an opinion about Jesus, or, at the very least, be in the process of forming one. Jesus’ brothers don’t believe in him, the people at the festival whisper about him, and those at the temple wonder at him. We might be tempted to feel a bit of concern for Jesus, and for His reputation. Then, Jesus responds to those in the temple who wonder at where He got “such learning”, since no one had taught him – that is, since he was not the disciple of any rabbi as far as they were aware. In essence what they are marvelling at is that all of Jesus’ amazing teachings and brilliant words are his own… they marvel at him the way we might marvel at a self-taught prodigy.

Jesus responds, saying,

My words and my teachings are not my own. If they were, you would have every reason to doubt or distrust them. But I do not speak my own words; I speak the words of another.

One who speaks their own words seeks their own glory, and thus, there is falsehood in what they say. But one who speaks the words of the prince or lord who sent them is one who seeks glory for his lord. Therefore, his words can be trusted.

When the week began, I thought I would be preaching to you this morning a sermon in which I encourage you, encourage us, to, like Jesus, make yourselves, make ourselves, about God’s glory, not our own; that is, I thought I would be encouraging us to concern ourselves with garnering praise for God instead of ourselves. And you’ll still hear a little of that at the very end. But this sermon is really about what lies beneath all of that: the unique relationship of the Son and the Father in the gospel of John. More specifically, the unique ordering of the relationship between the Son and the Father.

 

Somebody in every relationship has to make the first move. If you’re married or have ever been married, if you’ve ever had a boyfriend or girlfriend, if you’ve ever had a friend you talked with or texted or snapchated with, a friend you hung out with, did things with other than simply share a cubicle wall or run into on the golf course or at the library, then you’ve experienced what I am talking about. One of you –you or the other person – at some point took the initiative. One of you proposed something, which amounted to the proposal of a relationship. One of you pursued the other.

Would you go to Prom with me? Would you have dinner or drinks with me? Wanna go see a movie? Wanna see what I can do with my eyeball. [just kidding, that’s not one.] Let’s meet up for coffee and raisins. Would you like to come to church with me?

Someone has to be the first to make such proposals. Someone has to take that initiative.

In the history of all that is, all that has been, and all that ever will be between God and mankind, the initiative has always belonged to God. Not the other way around.

God is always, has always been and will forever remain, the initiator of relationship with us. But not only is God the one to always initiate, God is also always the one to re-initiate, re-establish, or repair the relationship along the way. So not only is God always the one to ask us out, God is also always the one to initiate the repair attempts when relations between us break down.

In a sense what this means is that there is a particular order to life. It means eternal, abundant life, which God has called us to live, which God has given to us to live, is life lived only as it follows a particular order.

I was reading a book this week by Eberhard Busch called Drawn to Freedom: Christian Faith Today in Conversation with the Heidelberg Catechism. [snoring] I know. Believe it or not, of the books I read, that is actually one of the more exciting titles. But I came across this one sentence that is so great that I can’t not share it with you. Now, it’s not a slogan or a tweet. You wouldn’t put it out front on the church sign or on a t-shirt. Its a sentence which if you really want to wrap your head around you probably need to have it written and read over it a few times. But I’m not afraid of thinking, and neither should you be, so here it is.

The two-sided relationship between God and ourselves, which is the aim of God’s action in Jesus Christ, is and remains one-sidedly grounded in the grace of God.

That sentence, if you’ll hold onto it, I guarantee you, it will one day rock your world.

The two-sided relationship between God and ourselves, which is the aim of God’s action in Jesus Christ, is and remains one-sidedly grounded in the grace of God.

Rearranging it a little,

The aim of God’s action in Jesus Christ is the two-sided relationship between God and ourselves, which is and always remains one-sidedly grounded in the grace of God.

A two-sided relationship one-sidedly grounded in the grace of God, the God who is forever and eternally gracious to you and I.

In other words, relationship with God begins with, and never stops beginning with, God. Always. There is an order. God goes first. Then, we ourselves. God initiates. We respond. God gives. We receive.

That is gospel.

God decides to be for us, long before we ever decide to be for God.

God’s deciding comes first. God’s willing comes first. And what God wills in willing first is, first, that He will be our God, and then, thereby, that we will be His people.

God’s willing comes first, and what He wills is, first, to be our God, to Himself belong to us, to define Himself in relation to us, to hitch himself to the wagon of humanity; and then, for us to be His people, for us to belong to Him, for us to be defined in relation to Him, for us to hitch ourselves to the wagon of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

In His single, undivided will, there are two movements, and the whole gospel lies within them; and in their ordering.

The first thing we can know of God is that above all and before all, God has defined God’s own self as our God. God chooses to be ours and thereby chooses us to be His.

Our belonging to God means, necessarily, we do not belong to ourselves., which is where the Heidelberg catechism comes in with its question #1, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”, and then the answer, “That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ”. The true God of the gospel chooses to be our God, and chooses us to belong to God. This means, necessarily, we do not belong to ourselves.

God says Yes to being our God and to His belonging to us. But in that Yes there is both a Yes and a No. It is a true, unconditional Yes; however, in it there is a true, unconditional No spoken to all who believe they are their own, all who believe they belong to themselves, all who hold proudly to, “Its my life to do with as I please.”

Until they meet God, they think the measure of all things is “what do I get out of it” because they put themselves at the center of all things. God speaks an unconditional, unequivocal, clear as day No to this by speaking a Yes to Himself as their God and they as His people.

God says Yes to His being yours, and thereby Yes to you being His, which, in effect, is a No to you being your own – a No to you belonging to yourself, a No to the falsehood that your life is your own. But in saying this No, in denying you your right to your life remaining your own possession, God actually gives you life for the very first time.

Jesus says: “Those who would save their lives will lose them; but those who lose their lives for my sake will keep them” (Mark 8:35). This is my salvation and yours, my comfort and yours, that we do not belong to ourselves, but to Jesus Christ… that we are those who belong to Jesus Christ.

And when this happens, the question, “What do we get out of it?” is transformed into, “What does he get out of it, if we are his?” What advantage does He receive declaring Himself ours and we His? Is He better off? Is He wealthier? Is He in a more advantageous position? Truth is he doesn’t receive, he gives. What he gets is costs upon costs.

Who are we for him? We are lost ones, like that lost son of Luke 15 who is so prodigal, so extravagant, so wasteful with his inheritances, debased and ruined like that son, who “squandered” his gifts in dissolute, wild living. That is us.

He could have said, “No! I do not want to be yours!” and no one would’ve been able to blame him. He would have certainly been well within his rights. But now this is our salvation, this is our “comfort,” that he does not deal with us this way. “He does not deal with us according to our sins” (Ps. 103:10). He deals with us like that father with his lost son. The Father who – and here comes what I’ve taken to calling Eleke’s truth – does not demand improvement or worthiness, nor insist upon seeing what he deems a proper level of guilt or shame before He accepts his son back. Instead, he acts like this: “But while the son was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).

If this is our God, and no other, a God who is so decidedly for us, a God who has elected to never be God without us, who has defined Himself as our God, and thereby defined us as His people, then we are, as such, never without God. Because and only because God decides not to leave us alone, and because God persists in not leaving us alone.

The two-sided relation between God and ourselves, which is the aim of God’s action in Jesus Christ, is and remains one-sidedly grounded in the grace of God.

Our life – true, abundant life – exists in this relation, which is a relation with an order.

The answer to Question #1 of the Heidelberg Catechism, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”, as we’ve already mentioned, begins, “That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ.” It ends: “Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he… makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

Kind of like the Son lives for the Father, doing His will, and seeking His glory.

Let’s think of it like this.

Jesus Christ is Lord and Ruler of all. And we are those who have come under his rule, and who know it. Our coming under the rule of Christ, however, does not mean for us moving from one dictator or oppressor to another, but moving from an oppressing lordship to a freeing one. That He is Lord, and that He is our Lord, means that we are free. It means that freedom is finally ours. But our freedom is not the unfreedom we might dream it to be; our freedom in Him, which is the only true freedom, is the freedom specifically of those who listen to him, who hear his voice and follow it… hear his call and obey it.

And thats what his lordship aims at: our obedience.

He is our Lord, and when he establishes His Lordship in our lives, when we come to an active knowledge of His Lordship, which means an active knowledge of our belonging to Him, and when we give our assent to this… well, one might say, we finally come home. And in coming home, we are set free.

No longer living under the false delusion and fantasy that our lives are our own, but now, finally under God’s good rule, we come to exist in the relationship for which we were created. We come home. And, in coming home, we are finally free because we can now be who we were made, not to mention who we were redeemed, and in that sense re-made, to be.

And when this happens, we are removed from the center of our lives and replaced by another – by God – which means our lives undergo a drastic re-ordering.

When we remained falsely enthroned in the throneroom of our hearts, at the center of our own lives, then our lives, our choices, the things we did, how we did them, it all came out of what was best for us. In short, we were driven by our own willfullness, and thus by our own will. But now, with God at the center of our lives our willfullness is replaced with obedience, and our will comes into line with his.

Like we said, His Lordship aims at our obedience.

And our obedience, my friends, aims at his glory. And all this comes from the reordering of our lives under His Lordship.

No longer on the throne, no longer at the center, we no longer live our lives in search of self-glory. We still work for applause just like before. We still labor for admiration and praise. The difference is that now it is not applause, admiration and praise for us, but for Him and for His glory. For, just as we find our home in God, so too does all applause, all admiration, and all praise. For, everything good, everything worth effusing, everything worth gushing over and rhapsodizing about has its beginning and its end in God. It all belongs to God.

Thus, a rightly ordered life, as Jesus demonstrates so well for us, seeks not only the Father’s will, but also His glory.

Our lives under his lordship, which are thus rightly ordered, serve to herald His glory, not our own. We work and we speak, first for His glory… we worry, we concern ourselves, first with his reputation.

Again, just as with His will being ours, our will being subjected to His, and our willfullness being transformed into obedience, so here, as well, in the seeking of his glory, there is freedom.

In the seeking of his glory first, the concerning ourselves with his reputation first, we are free. The enslavement of our will to His, the prioritizing of His glory above all, is not a hindrance to truly coming alive, but the result of it. Our belonging to Him, our will being His, and our concern being His glory, are not things which we must first overcome in order to be free (& alive), but the very things in which (& of which) our freedom (& our life) consists.

Think about it. Think about all the time you and I spend enslaved to the serving of our own glory, enslaved to the bettering and defending of our reputation, worried about what others think of us, concerned about whether we are receiving the recognition we deserve. There’s no freedom in that! That’s not freedom, and you know it! That’s bondage!

Freedom, true freedom, comes when we are invited to make our lives – all that we say and do – no longer about ourselves, no longer about our own glory, but about that of another, the one we call Lord, Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory forever and ever.

Amen.

 

 

God’s Hope for the Disabled, continued (Post #2 of ?)

In the previous post, regarding God’s hope for the disabled, we said, “when we are resurrected to new life with new bodies, as Christ even now is resurrected, we will no longer know the pain or the impairment of disability. All of that will be gone. Over. Done with. … All in need of healing will be healed; all in need of curing will be cured.”

Though we did not put it in just this way, what we were speaking of was the discontinuity between our bodily life now (pre-resurrection) and our bodily life then (post-resurrection); in this discontinuity we found hope – hope of no more alzheimer’s, no more MS, no more quadriplegia. Hope of no more disabilities.

Recent theological work in the area of disability studies, however, would challenge us to reflect further; it would challenge us to recognize that not everyone would find such a word hopeful –  indeed, that some may even find it distressing. 

With this in mind, I offer the following vignette, or parable.

To God, our Redeemer and Lord, be the glory.

 

Karen began to squirm ever so slightly in the pew. Rick leaned forward, uncomfortably, and rested his chin in his hand.

Rev. Barney was a good man and a loving pastor whose faith was alive and sincere; and every once and a while, he could really preach. This particular Sunday Rev. Barney was in fine form as he brought his sermon home to a rapt congregation.

Rev. Barney had for years been an outspoken proponent of state-wide legislation to help close some of the loop holes in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, thereby further eliminating discrimination against individuals with disabilities. On the previous Thursday, this legislation had passed. .

Rev. Barney had begun his sermon with a celebration of the new state law, while continuing to urge the congregation to remain diligent in combatting the discrimination and unfair treatment of those with disabilities. Rev. Barney emphasized Jesus’s concern for the disabled and the infirm and said that as His followers we should demonstrate the same.

Though Jesus had not healed all illnesses or cured all disabilities while on earth, this, Rev. Barney said, is precisely what we should expect Him to do at the resurrection. “For, in the day of our resurrection” he said, drawing from Revelation 21, “He will wipe every tear from every eye. There will be no more death and no more mourning, no more crying and no more pain. The old order of things will have passed away, and on that day, He will make all things new!” Hearts swelled and eyes grew misty. Rev. Barney paused.

Then, he did something unusual – at least, unusual for him. He began speaking directly to various individuals in the congregation, each of whom was living with a disability themselves, or caring for someone who was. Calling each by name, Rev. Barney declared to them the promise of the resurrection (as he understood it, at least).

To Perry Adams, he said, “Perry! In God’s new heaven and new earth, in your newly resurrected body, you will no longer have ALS.”

Pivoting slightly, Rev. Barney’s gaze next landed on Carla Gerry. To her, he said, “Carla! In God’s new heaven and new earth, in your newly resurrected body, your sight will be restored.”

It was at this point that the waves of anxiety erupted inside Karen and Rick. “He’s not going to include us in this, is he?” they both wondered.

In their early 60’s, Karen and Rick had been married 38 years. During that time God had blessed them with three children, Sara, Kelly and Daniel, but it was Daniel who occupied their minds at present, as it was Daniel who had been born with trisomy-21, i.e., Down syndrome.

Rev. Barney was now looking right at Rick and Karen.

If so many other things hadn’t been running through her head, Karen would have surely been thinking, “This is why I don’t like to sit up front, Rick!”

“Rick and Karen,” Rev. Barney was saying. “In God’s new heaven and new earth, Daniel will receive a newly resurrected body and will no longer have Down syndrome.”

 

There it was.

 

Many left worship that morning wondering if Rev. Barney’s sermon had been his best ever. Karen and Rick left wondering if they would now be looking for a new church. For, the idea that their son would be resurrected by God without Down syndrome was something that both of them found abhorrent.

To Karen, Daniel without Down syndrome would not be Daniel. As far as she was concerned, were God to eliminate Daniel’s Down syndrome, God would eliminate Daniel.

What Rick found most upsetting was the implication that Daniel needed curing. “So God is gonna cure my son at the resurrection,” Rick was thinking. “That’s great. Awesome. But, could someone please tell me what it is exactly that my son needs to be cured of? His amazing spirit? His wonderful sense of humor? Or maybe his tremendous capacity to love? Honestly, it’s not Daniel who needs curing,” Rick thought as he pulled out of the church parking lot, “it’s the rest of the world. It’s all of us. We need to be cured of our oppressive presuppositions about what a person is supposed to be.”

I concluded my previous post with my belief that God’s hope for the disabled is more nuanced, more multi-dimensional, than simply, “God will fix it all in the resurrection.” It is not that this is untrue. Indeed, in the end, God will do just that – i.e., in the end, God will set right everything that has gone wrong. Thus, perhaps the nuance is not to be found in what God will do, but how God will do it, or, what it will look like, exactly, when God does it.

We have found a biblical basis to hope in the discontinuity between our bodily life now and the one we will receive in the resurrection. Is there a biblical basis for hoping in the continuity between our bodily life then and now?

This is essentially what Karen and Rick are looking for.

Does the Bible know of such a hope?

 

 

God’s hope for the disabled…

This post continues our Advent focus of God’s hope for the marginalized by further reflecting upon God’s hope for those with disabilities (i.e., the disabled), whom we will define, along with the American’s with Disabilities Act, as any person with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity.

In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church Bishop N.T. Wright says that we Christians – at least, we in the West – are confused when it comes to heaven and resurrection and what we believe. According to Bishop Wright, the future expectation of “much Western piety… bears far more resemblance to Plato’s vision of souls entering into disembodied bliss than to the biblical picture of new heavens and a new earth.” The New Testament itself is “crystal clear.” For example, when in Romans 8 Paul speaks of “the redemption of our bodies” he leaves “no room for doubt as to what he means: God’s people are promised a new type of bodily existence, the fulfillment and redemption of our present bodily life.” As we confess at the end of the Apostles’ Creed, “we believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”

Again, our hope in Christ is hope in bodily resurrection to new life in God’s new heaven and new earth. This, of course, includes both those with, and those without, disabilities.

But, when it comes to the resurrection, do those with disabilities have a more specific hope?

Think of it like this.

Sue and Jim are both living with Multiple Sclerosis, or MS, a condition that, as I understand it, not only causes pain, but, over time, also impairs one’s physical capabilities. Imagine walking up to both Sue and Jim and saying, as if it were good news, that even after they’ve been resurrected they will MS. How do you see that going for you? Probably not well. I see you having your nose broken – if not by Jim, then certainly by Sue.

Or, imagine walking up to Nick Shargo and saying, “Good news. When Ruth is resurrected she will still have Alzheimer’s.” Nick wouldn’t have to break your nose; I would do it for him. With love, of course.

But you would never do either of these things, would you? No.

And why not? Because you’re not an awful human being; and only an awful human being would tell another human being that they, or the one they love, are going to live with their painful disability for all eternity, i.e., in the resurrection.

But there is also another reason you would never say something like this; it runs counter to the hope which God promises in Scripture – at least, as far as I understand it.

Consider Revelation 21:4-5.

There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. Indeed, behold, I am making all things new.

Pain accompanies every disability – if not physical, then emotional. Those with disabilities know well the pain of being stigmatized. They experience it in how others look at them, how others treat them, as well as how others speak to them and about them.

Those with disabilities also know the pain of physical limitation. Those who are not born with their disability but acquire it later in life, as well as those who are born with a disability which worsens over time, both know the pain of losing the ability to do the things they love – activities, for example, like singing or painting or rock climbing. On the other hand, those who are born with a disability which prevents them from ever doing such things, obviously know the pain of physical limitation, also.

Again, not all disabilities result in physical pain, but they certainly seem to all result in some kind of pain, i.e., emotional. If not for the person with the disability, then for those who love and care for them.

Thus, if, as Revelation 21:4-5 proclaims, in God’s new heaven and new earth there will be no more pain, then it stands to reason that the disabilities of today will be no more.

This is God’s hope – or, part of it, at least – for those with disabilities. In the resurrection, their bodies will no longer suffer from things like Multiple Sclerosis or Alzheimer’s.

But this hope is based on more than Revelation 21. In fact, the real source and foundation of such hope is not Revelation 21, but the gospels themselves, and the life and ministry of Jesus Christ therein. All four gospels are clear – Jesus was a healer of illnesses and a curer of disabilities. In fact, it was a significant part of his earthly ministry. He gave sight to the blind (John 9; Luke 18), He healed the sick (Matthew 8; Luke 8), and He made the lame to walk (Mark 2).

What’s more, he did this as the inaugurator – indeed, the one who is Himself the inauguration – of God’s kingdom come. These weren’t just nice things Jesus was doing, as though he encountered persons who were blind and, merely because it was within his power to do so, he cured their blindness and gave them sight. No. Jesus gave sight to the blind, made the lame to walk, and healed the sick as signs of the life to come in God’s Kingdom. When God is all in all and we, too, like Jesus, are resurrected, the once blind will see, the once lame will walk, and the once sick will be healed. On that future day, the previously disabled will be cured and they will no longer suffer the pain of their impairment; those with disabilities today will on that future day be restored to the fulness of life in God’s new heaven and new earth.

This is why, when Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizer, sent messengers to ask him “are you, or aren’t you, the Messiah,” Jesus replied, quite simply:

The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. (Luke 7)

Jesus offered this as irrefutable evidence that He indeed was the one through whom God was establishing His eternal reign; and, this evidence was irrefutable because the things to which Jesus refers are precisely those things which will happen in God’s new heaven and new earth.

It is on this firm ground that we base our understanding of God’s hope for those with disabilities: God’s promise in and through Jesus Christ that on that future day, when He consummates for us and in us the work already begun in Jesus – i.e., when we are resurrected to new life with new bodies, as Christ even now is resurrected – we will no longer know the pain or the impairment of disability. All that will be gone. Over. Done with.

As those who hope with the disabled, we hope for just such a day; the day when all in need of healing will be healed and all in need of curing will be cured.

This hope in the resurrection of our bodies from the dead is where the hope of all, disabled and abled alike, both begins and ends.

Even still, God’s hope for the disabled is, I believe, a bit more nuanced than this. As such, perhaps further reflection, in the form of an additional post, is in order.

 

 

 

Note: This is the first of four posts which I will be making during Advent. During Advent we as a church will be focusing on God’s hope for the marginalized. Each Sunday, I will preach on God’s promise and hope for a specific group on the margins of society. Later in the week (hopefully prior to early a.m. the following Sunday), I will be posting some further reflections to keep us all engaged.

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Hope for the oppressed…

The needs and hopes of the oppressed are not a mystery. They need freedom; they need liberation. And this is precisely what God promises to give them.

“The Lord your God is with you, the mighty warrior who saves you, [and He says] ‘I will deal with all who oppressed you.” (Zephaniah 3:17, 19)

“In that day,” declares the Lord Almighty, “I will break the yoke off their necks and will tear off their bonds; no longer will foreigners enslave them.” (Jeremiah 30:8)

As in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their opressor. (Isaiah 9:4)

Through prophets like Zephaniah, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, God again and again promises the oppressed that a day is coming when He Himself will serve as their emancipator. This is an amazing promise, which we should not gloss over. I mean, think about it.Instead of promising merely to provide the oppressed with a deliverer, which itself would be amazing, God promises to Himself be their deliverer! You may want to stop reading and give God thanks for this.

Unbelievably, though, the hope God offers the oppressed does not stop there. In fact, divine deliverance (promised in both Jeremiah 30:8 and Isaiah 9:4, above) is only one-half of God’s promise for the oppressed. Isaiah chapter 9 verses 6 and 7, quite naturally, follow Isaiah chapter 9 verse 4, just like Jeremiah 30, verse 9 follows Jeremiah 30, verse 8. With Isaiah 9:4 and Jeremiah 30:8 in mind, read Isaiah 9:6-7 and Jeremiah 30:9, below, and I think you’ll begin to see what I mean. First, Isaiah:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (9:6)

 

Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.

He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,

establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness

from that time on and forever. (9:7)

And, Jeremiah:

“Instead, they will serve the Lord their God

and David their king,

whom I will raise up for them.” (30:9)

These verses reveal a divine promise for the oppressed which is actually two-fold; that is, it consists of two different, though connected, promises, each of which is dependent on the other; the first makes the second possible, and the second gives the first true hope and meaning.

The second of these two promises is more unexpected, because less obvious, than the first – the first promise being, again, that the day is coming when God will shatter the yoke of the oppressed and destroy their oppressors.

In the second promise, God promises that after fulfilling the first half of his promise and liberating the oppressed, He will then establish a ruler – His ruler – to rule over them forever, and that this ruler will be deeply different from any ruler before; He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, and He will rule with justice and righteousness, in perpetuity.

Why is this such a big deal?

Because if after God delivers, God does not rule, then either another tyrant will eventually take over, or, and this is perhaps even worse, the people will be left without a ruler or a form of rule altogether. In other words, it would be, every man and woman for themselves, a.k.a. self-rule.

In 1979, not long after he reportedly accepted Christ while at a friend’s Bible Study, singer/songwriter Bob Dylan recorded the song Gotta Serve Somebody. It was an openly Christian song, released on an openly Christian album, and by Bob Dylan no less! For whatever reason, this rubbed certain people the wrong way, including Beatles’ frontman, John Lennon.

Upon first hearing Dylan’s song, Gotta Serve Somebody, John Lennon called it “embarrassing”.  Lennon then wrote and recorded a song of his own, Serve Yourself, in response to Dylan and his new song.

Dylan sang:

You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed

You’re gonna have to serve somebody,

It may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

Lennon sang:

You got to serve yourself,

Ain’t nobody gonna do it for you.

You got to serve yourself,

Ain’t nobody gonna do it for you.

The truth is, just as Bob Dylan suggests, whether you serve “yourself,” “the Lord,” “the devil,” or the Michelin Man, you’ve gotta serve somebody. John Lennon’s self-rule might sound nice, especially to anyone currently under oppression – anything is better than where they find themselves now, right?! – but it is no solution, and really only leads right back to people oppressing people. Fortunately for us, God knows better.

And deep down so do we. As a matter of fact, self-rule, which stands in direct opposition to God’s rule,  is precisely what got us here in the first place, is it not?

What was it that the serpent offered to Eve which was so enticing that it led both Eve and Adam to reject God’s rule? Was it not the serpent’s promise that their eyes would be opened and that they would be like God, knowing good and evil? Which, when you think about it, amounts to nothing more than an offer of self-rule?

In the end, the Christ child comes – the Word takes on flesh and dwells among us – in order to liberate all humanity from the awful effects of this first choice of self-rule, and every choice like it since.

We know quite well what happens when we rule, whether it be our ruling over ourselves or over others, and this is exactly why the hope of the oppressed must be, absolutely has to be, for more than just divine deliverance, alone, as amazing as that is. For, it is not merely the absence of oppression that the oppressed need, but the active presence of God’s rule.

In this way, we share a common hope with the oppressed. For, the most fundamental and legitimate hope of the oppressed, is also our own most fundamental and legitimate hope; indeed, it is the true hope of all humanity.

Therefore, with the oppressed we look to Bethlehem and we watch.

We watch.

And we wait.

And we hope.

For the one from God who will not only deliver, but also rule.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (9:6)

 

Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.

He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,

establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness

from that time on and forever. (9:7)

 

 

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I have not given up or abandoned this blog. I hope there are at least a handful of you still with me. I remain committed to making this work, and I will remain committed until God says move on.
I hope to be posting far more frequently in the coming weeks and months. Perhaps among other things, each week of Advent, I plan on posting the text of the previous Sunday’s sermon.
My hope and prayer is that this will spur conversation about what you heard God saying to you/us on Sunday, as well as what you might hear now as you read. I also hope and pray that this will aid us in preparing our hearts for the coming of the Christ child. Finally, perhaps in the end there will prove some benefit to viewing our four advent sermons as a whole instead of four disconnected, even isolated, words from the Lord.
This Advent I will be preaching from a different prophetic text each Sunday:
  1. Jeremiah 33:14-16 (11/29)
  2. Malachi 3:1-4 (12/6)
  3. Zephaniah 3:14-20 (12/13)
  4. Micah 5:2-5a
In last Sunday’s sermon, I sought to proclaim that with God, there is always a future. We are never futureless. Two-thousand years ago a branch sprang forth in Bethlehem just as Jeremiah had foretold. Today, we await this same one, and our future with and in Him… a future already secured by him.
Let me and others know what you hear God saying…

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The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to sprout from David’s line; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our Righteous Savior.” – Jeremiah 33:14-16

In 1983, Nicholas Wolterstorff, a professor at Yale and father of 5, got the one phone call every parent dreads, but some – even some here – sadly receive.

“The call came at 3:30 on that Sunday afternoon, a bright sunny day,” Wolterstorff writes. “We had just sent a younger brother off to the plane to be with him for the summer.”

“Mr. Wolterstorff?”

“Yes.”

“Is this Eric’s father?”

“Yes.”

“Mr. Wolterstorff, I must give you some bad news.”

“Yes.”

“Eric has been climbing in the mountains and has had an accident.”

“Yes.”

“Eric has had a serious accident.”

“Yes.”

“Mr. Wolterstorff, I must tell you, Eric is dead. Mr. Wolterstorff, are you there? You must come at once! Mr. Wolterstorff, Eric is dead.”

 

“For three seconds I felt the peace of resignation: arms extended, limp son in hand, peacefully offering him to someone – Someone. Then the pain – cold burning pain.”

Nicholas Wolterstorff’s son Eric, twenty-five years old, had been climbing a mountain in Europe when he had fallen… to his death.

Whether we have lost, or even had, children, we all know the perversity and utter wrongness of the death of a child.

“It’s so wrong,” Wolterstorff writes, “so profoundly wrong, for a child to die before its parents. It’s hard enough to bury our parents. But that we expect. Our parents belong to our past, our children belong to our future. We do not visualize our future without them. How can I bury my son, my future? He was meant to bury me!”

I used to think it was the finality of death that made it so hard. I thought death’s absolute nature was what made it hurt so much.

There is no maybe with death. Only what is and what is not.

Recently, however, I have realized this is only half the story – only half of the sting (1 Cor. 15:55).

I took some time this week to re-read Nicholas Wolterstorff’s little book, Lament for a Son, and I am so glad I did. Though I have read it before, this week for the first time a single word jumped off the pages like a bright red thread running through the whole. That word? Never.

In truth, it is the neverness that makes loss so painful.

The أبدا , or abadaan (ev-eh-don).

Never again will the one who has died be here with us. Never to sit down with us for a meal. Never to call to say hi. Never to stop by. Never to laugh together and never to cry. Never to hug. Never to see son or daughter, brother or sister marry or become a parent. Never to meet their grandson. Never to play with their neice.

“I lament all that might have been and now will never be…”

“There’s a hole in the world now… My son is gone. Only a hole remains, a void, a gap, never to be filled.”

When we grieve over something or someone lost, something or someone taken from us, it is this never, and its absolute finality of such a word, that we grieve. What we lament is all that will never be.

The pain we experience with such a loss comes not from what has happened, but what has not, and now never will, happen.

We mourn not just the loss of a person we loved, but with the loss of that loved one, our future. Our future with them.

 

When David, the shepherd boy who defeated Goliath, was made King of Israel and placed by God on the throne of Judah, God promised David that it would always be so – that a descendant of David would always sit upon the throne.

And for 400 years it was so.

But then, the Babylonians destroyed David’s city, burned Solomon’s temple, and took David’s heirs into exile. This was the end of the Davidic dynasty. The ultimate overthrow and nullification of God’s promise. They were a vanquished and conquered people. Not to mention humiliated and subjugated.

It would be hard to overstate the people’s loss.

They lost property and land, precious temple possessions, the temple itself, as well as their own loved ones – brothers, mothers, fathers, sisters. They also lost nationhood. They lost their home. And they lost their identity. But most of all, they lost the promise of God, and with it, their future with God… their future within the promise of God.

If you are familiar, think of the children’s book by Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree, a book that, even as a child, I always found profoundly sad. Under King David, the people had been a massive, robust tree with firm, deep roots, a more than healthy trunk, and a vast canopy of branches.

Over time, as fewer and fewer kings “did what was right in the sight of the Lord” and more and more rejected YHWH and refused to walk in His ways, the tree slowly – like, 400 years slow – withered or lessened. A good king would come along and the tree would begin to show some life. Just enough to suggest hope remained… that the tree might still recover.

Then came the Babylonian seige. The final swing of the axe. The once mighty tree was felled, and nothing was left but a dead stump. The house of David was cut down.

Make no mistake. This was a death. It was the loss of future. The future promised to them – you will be my people… this city will be yours… a descendant of David will never fail to sit upon the throne – this future was over. Never again…

Never again to rule from the throne.

Never.

 

It is not only the death or loss of loved ones, nor our own death, that robs us of our future. Life is full of such endings. Full of the neverness of loss and death. It meets us in simple phrases, both spoken to us and by us. Phrases like,

“We have to sell the house.”

 

“I want a divorce.”

“I’m leaving you.”

 

 “It’s cancer.”

“The official diagnosis is shizophrenia.”

 

 “There has been an attack.”

“Another school shooting.”

“A plane flew into one of the towers.”

“In France.”

“Downtown.”

 

“We’re going to have to let you go.”

“You’re fired.”

 

Even, “I recommend you put her down.”

 

The People of Jerusalem had been through something similar. The armies of Babylon came, encamped outside the city, and laid seige to it for 18 months. With the Babylonians encamped outside the city, the people of Jerusalem firmly entrenched themselves inside the city. But after 18 months, word camed down…

“There is no more food.”

 

“They have broken through the city wall.”

 

“Our army has fled.”

 

 “The king has been captured.”

 

 “The city, the temple!, is burning.”

 

 “So many dead.”

 

 And finally, “Some dude named Gedaliah is king.”

The darkness that the prophet Jeremiah for so long had been proclaiming had finally come, descending fast and heavy like death itself. All was lost. All that they had and were.

“We have to let you go. You’re fired.”

Their future, the future they had taken for granted, was now void.

“I don’t love you anymore. I’m leaving.”

Their time as the people of God, the people of Jerusalem, the people of the temple, was over. A descendant of David no longer sits upon the throne.

“Mr. Wolterstorff, I must tell you, Eric is dead. You must come at once. Eric is dead.”

Like any parent, Nicholas Wolterstorff never visualized a future without his son Eric. When Eric died, he lost not just his son, but the future he would have had, the future he should have had, with him.

Suddenly, he was futureless. With a single phone call, his future as Eric’s father was ripped from his hands… rent from deep within his chest. He still had a future, just not one with Eric. And in this sense, he was futureless.

I have no doubt you can all relate, in one way or another, to a hoped for, or even assumed, future… stolen… dislodged.

This is an ending. Plain and simple.

Fade to black. Roll credits.

 

 

But then comes a voice…

The same voice that proclaimed the loss of future.

Jeremiah’s voice.

But this time it comes proclaiming hope not despair…

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time I will make a righteous branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. He will be called by this name: The Lord Our Righteous Savior.”

‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” (Is. 9:2) Into the heart of darknesses heart, the light is about to break. In the midst of despair, hope promptly erupts. After generations of waiting, a branch is soon to sprout. The total fulfillment of God’s promises is not yet… but soon… soon.

How can this be? We are in Babylon. David’s line is broken. Eric is dead!

“The day is coming when I will fulfill my promise!”

How can you? That future, the promise, they are already nullified. David’s line has been broken. Gedaliah sits upon the throne!

“The day is coming when I will fulfill my promise. I will make a righteous branch shoot forth from David’s line and He will be king.”

How is this possible?

How? Because both the possible and the impossible are possible with God,

And with God there is always a future.

A righteous branch will spring up.

 

Today is the beginning of Advent, a season of waiting. This advent my preaching will have the theme: what on earth are we waiting for?

In a sense, as we move towards Christmas and the birth of Christ, we wait with the people of Israel and Jeremiah for that which, in truth, we know has already come – the birth of a King. One who would come like a branch shooting out from a dead stump. New life out of the neverness of death.

However, where Jeremiah and his contemporaries waited for the coming of, the birth of, a King, we await His coming again.

We wait not for Jeremiah 33, but Revelation 21.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

However, as was the case for Jeremiah and the people of Israel, all the evidence – I mean, tangible, on the surface evidence – seems to suggest that the future for which we are waiting… well, that it’s never gonna happen.

Like that of a failed relationship or a parent burying their child, our Revelation 21 future seems like it’s never gonna happen.

 

But then comes a voice…

“The days are coming…”

And we remember, there is always a future with God. After all, a new branch sprang forth from the dead stump and did so in a stable in the City of David. In Bethlehem.

With God, we are never futureless, and our future is never godless!

And so we wait in hope for the King. The King who came before as the baby born to Mary.

We wait for him to come again. And we hope in the God who in Jesus Christ has already secured our future with Him.

For, again, in a stable in the city of David, a branch sprang forth, and He will do so again.

Amen.

Esto Y Lo Otro: Post #2 From Honduras

We have experienced so very much in such a short period of time. It would be impossible to capture it all. So I won’t even try. But, I will write you a few tidbits, just to let you know how, and what, we have been doing.

I believe I mentioned before that we were expecting to begin building bunk beds (say that 5 times fast) on Monday. We did not. The lumber was not ready. So that project did not begin until yesterday; and even still, it won’t be kicking into high-gear until sometime today. This delay has given us time to visit the homes and neighborhoods of Choluteca where the beds we eventually will make are to go. Homes, for instance, with two twin mattresses on the floor and a single hammock over them for a family of seven.

Today, in addition to constructing beds, we will be heading out into the neighborhoods in order to share the gospel of God and invite people to church this Saturday, even though we gringos will no longer be in country. We will do this in teams, probably of 3 or 4. Our trip coordinator, Ryan, informed us of all this last night; Ryan made clear that those who don’t want to share the gospel, for whatever reason, will not have to and he asked each of us to please let him know how we felt about doing this kind of evangelizing so that those less comfortable could be put on a team with someone more comfortable. Shortly after, when I asked Alicia and Erica how they felt about this, Alicia said, “I am excited to be a part of a group that does this, however, I definitely don’t want to be the person speaking. Maybe by the end of the day. Evangelism just isn’t something we have done much of in our church.” She might as well have been speaking of any Presbyterian church in the U.S., not just Heritage. But maybe this is part of the reason why God has us here – here where we serve a Great Commission church with brothers and sisters in Christ (I speak specifically of the other missionaries here with us) who, for the most part, come from faith backgrounds which today are much more comfortable evangelizing; maybe part of the reason we are here is to be stretched and grown in our proclamation of the gospel to and for all humankind. I myself told Ryan I wanted the opportunity to share the gospel; I also asked him not to put anyone from Heritage in my group. I figure it is far more likely for someone (Alicia, Erica, Vern, Michele, Eleke) to step out and share the gospel if their pastor is not standing right next to them

Yesterday morning, Michele and Alicia went with others to the grocery store to purchase food and hygiene products, which they then assembled into care packages, I guess you would say, which today or tomorrow will be taken into the community and shared with the poor. To make this happen each member of the mission team, including your Honduras 6, chipped in between 5 and 20 dollars. Even still, the grocery team were $200 over budget at the register. People began pulling things from their inventory which would have to be put back on the shelves. But then Michele said, “I got it,” and produced $200 from her purse. When Alicia finished telling me this, Michele rather passionately made the point to me that were it not for her church family she would not have done this because she would not have been able to. But because our church sent us all here at no cost to us, she had $200 to offer. So in a way, according to Michele, it wasn’t her $200 she donated; it was yours. If that’s the case, I’d say “money well spent, Heritage.”

As I write this to you I am watching the sun come over some mountains and listening to what seems to be a great army of roosters cheering it forth. As one who has actually won an award for his theatrical portrayal of a rooster, I must say, their voices are quite impressive.

Last night the church rented a local soccer field – which was really a small stadium – and had the missionaries come and play. Eleke played quite well, of course, however, his sister stole the show. Both with her HILARIOUS and LOVABLE goaltending and her GOAL! Turns out, like her brother, Erica’s skills lie in SCORING goals, not stopping them. Really, Erica, only has one flaw as a goalie. She is slightly afraid of the ball. But she wanted to play goalie, so there she was… screaming in high-pitched bursts anytime the ball came her way or went by. I’d swear, a few times the ball avoided the goal simply because Erica had terrified it. Later in the night, she went in at forward. The ball was sent down to her team’s offensive end and she ran to receive it. So too did the opposing team’s goalie, our friend, Oscar. Erica stepped in front of Oscar, fielded the ball, and then kicked it in a high arc directly over both her and Oscar’s heads. GOAAAAAAAAAAL!!!! The crowd went nuts. Some more than others (i.e. me, Vern and Alicia).

Last night we (the Heritage 6) gathered with a few others and studied Acts 16:16-34. Paul and Silas are in jail singing hymns and praying to God. The earth shakes, their chains bust apart, and the door of their cell explode open. Yet Paul and Silas remain right where they are. What kind of person remains a captive when offered freedom? One who is already free. One who knows and believes the gospel.

Finally, one last thing before I go and start my day.

The church invited us to sit in on their small group meetings. We, of course, accepted. The groups consist of and are led by young people. They gather, sing some songs, play a game or two, and then study the Bible. The group I was with studied Romans 12. Towards the end of our time together, a young man, Edgar, who is 18 and one Pastor Giovanni’s sons, said this:

Love is easy if you practice it.

Wow, I thought, I need to write that down.

Now I have.

Keep praying for us and we will do likewise.

Much love en Cristo from Honduras,

Victor

p.s. Eleke now insists on being called ‘El Jefe Guapo’, the Handsome Boss. When I asked him who he was the boss of, he said, quite simply, “everyone.”

Ti me rindo, and other things from Choluteca, Honduras

The Honduras 6 are now the Chicago, or, Illinois, 6, which is a good thing because it means we are in Honduras. What distinguishes us now is where we are from, not where we are going!

We arrived around noon local time on Saturday. The airport is surrounded by mountains and the runway is a short one. This made for an interesting landing, for sure. Apparently a pilot must go through special training before an airline, such as United, will allow them to land a plane in Tegucigalpa. Fortunately for us, our captain seemed to have had this training. Or, he just got lucky.

From Tegucigalpa we made a 3 hour trek through the mountains to the more coastal town of Choluteca, our final destination. We were driven by a man named Mario, who told us he was introduced to Jesus and the gospel of God and became a Christian only a few weeks ago. Mario’s new Bible sat right next to him in the van, where seat space was precious, almost as though t he Word of God had the seat of honor.

The ride to Choluteca was not fun, but it was good. Eleke slept almost the entire way. Just as he did through both of our flights. However, in the van he did much of his sleeping on Vern’s shoulder. Time in-transit gave us an opportunity to get to know the other missionaries in our team. From Columbus, Ohio, there is Grant, Carlo, Justin, and Nick. They come from a church about our size but much younger – it is maybe 10 years old. Justin is the volunteer youth pastor. Carlo is the volunteer children’s minister. Grant and Nick are soon to be high school seniors, so in-between Erica and Eleke. From Loveland, Colorado, we have Preston and JC, a young married couple. Then Lois, also from Colorado, Chris from Springfield, Sara from Grand Rapids, Sylvester from Connecticut, and Rhonda from Atlanta.

Last night we gathered together as a group and reflected on our first full day; we marveled at how quickly God could, and had, made a group of people (us), who 36 hours prior were largely strangers, into a tight group. “I feel like I’ve know you people my entire life,” Chris shared.

Iglesia de Gran Commision (“Grand Commission Church” or “Church of the Grand Commission”, referring to Matthew 28:18-20, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”) is the church in Choluteca who we are here serving and serving alongside, and who are so graciously serving as our hosts this week.

If you need to reach us by mail, you can write to us at, “Iglesia de Gran Commision, 2 Blocks West of the Pizza Hut, Choluteca, Choluteca, Honduras.” Not joking. That is the church’s actual address.

The Grand Commission Church has a mission house a few minutes from the church (and the Pizza Hut, I guess). This mission house is where we will be staying while we are here. It is incredibly nice. Nicer than I would have ever imagined.

Worship in Honduras is Saturday night. Sunday is observed as Sabbath. Having been in Choluteca less than two hours, and having had only 3 minutes in the hotel rooms where we would sleep Saturday night (last night was our first night here at the mission house), we rushed off to the church’s 6:30pm worship service.

Worship was awesome, even as exhausted as we were. The church is not liturgical, per se. So worship consisted of a bunch of ABSOLUTELY BREATHTAKING music, a few prayers, and a short message from Pastor Giovanni. The abundance of musical giftedness within this congregation is borderline absurd. Honestly. When it was over, we sang for about an hour, probably a little more. All music was in Spanish; the lyrics were projected on the wall behind the worship leaders so all could sing along, including those who don’t speak Spanish. We all sang as best we could and found it was a lot easier than you would think.

I found myself recognizing or identifying the Spanish words for such English words as God, Jesus, heart, King, Lord, sin, salvation, will, perfection, love, life, peace, adore, and maybe a few others. So for example, one lyric was as follows: Amamos todo de ti, Cielo y Tierra te adoran. I think I recognized “todo” as “all” and “adoran” as adore, but certainly nothing else. The lyric translates, “we love everything about you, heaven and earth adore you,” though I of course did not know this at the time.

Then there were also verses in which I knew NONE of the words. The one that comes to mind first is, “Ti me rindo.” It was not until this morning that I learned we were singing, “I surrender.”

The amazing and awesome thing is that regardless of all this – whether I knew one, two or none of the words I was singing – I found myself singing my heart out to God unlike I have in quite some time. I belted out “Ti me rindo” again and again not knowing that AS I SANG THESE WORDS, and indeed BY SINGING THEM, I was in fact doing them… that is, I was surrendering to God.

Yesterday we spent the day seeing the different things the church is doing. We played basketball and volleyball and soccer. We heard from Pastor Giovanni, too. And as he spoke, I heard God saying, “Victor, you need to talk with this man.” Through a translator I asked for and Pastor Giovanni agreed to an interview later this week. I will record it on video; so as long as it actually happens, you will at some point be hearing from Giovanni – somehow, someway – I’m sure.

Today we will be building beds for the church’s orphanage, along with a few other things.

I have to go now but I asked each person from our group to share a message.

“What would you say to the church if they were standing in front of you right now?” was my actual question.

Here is what we all said.

Eleke: I have been surprised how welcoming the people have been to us and to me. I wasn’t expecting it. And the food is good too (said with surprise).
Erica: Hi. It’s my first mission trip and I met the children and it’s so fun. It was really cool seeing the orphanage. Even though they don’t have much, they have painted the inside of their rooms beautiful colors that suggests they have a lot.
Alicia: God is at work.
Michele: Thank you for giving all of us this opportunity.
Vern: God has brought us all together.
Victor: I miss you.

In Christ from Choluteca,

Victor