Christian living, World Religions

Mahatma Gandhi’s Sage Advice to Make America More Christian

What, you ask? Didn’t Gandhi die in 1948. How could he possibly have any insight into America for Christians living in 2021 (over 70 years later)? I too was surprised when I pulled E. Stanley Jones’s The Christ of the Indian Road off of my shelf the other day. In it, I read that Jones one day asked Gandhi the following question: “Mahatma Gandhi, I am very anxious to see Christianity naturalized in India, so that it shall be no longer a foreign thing identified with a foreign people and a foreign government, but a part of the national life of India and contributing its power to India’s uplift and redemption. What would you suggest that we do to make that possible?”

Gandhi’s response not only had insight and value for colonialized India in the twentieth century, but the same four observations would be beneficial for Christians to adopt in post-Christian America. I agree with the sentiment of the Chief Justice of the High Court of North India when he heard Gandhi’s recommendations: “He could not have put his finger on four more important issues. It took spiritual genius and insight to do that.”

So how do we “naturalize” Christianity for the United States, a country that is no longer majority Christian?

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Live Like Jesus

Gandhi’s thoughtful response began, “I would suggest, first, that all of you Christians, missionaries and all, must begin to live more like Jesus Christ.” Isn’t this the calling all Christians have? Certainly, we all say we want to do this. Saying is one thing; doing is the hard part. In fact, Gandhi purportedly said Christians not living like Christ is why he never could convert to the Christian faith, though he loved Jesus and sought to practice his teachings.

Unfortunately, too many Christians are anything but Christ-like. In post-Christian America, there too often has been a tendency to fight and argue. Some claim this is following Jesus. After all, didn’t he take up a whip in the temple and overturn tables? But we see the act and not the motive. Jesus was not seeking power for himself or for his tribe. Jesus was angry the Court of the Gentiles was not a place of solace and prayer for the non-Jews but a noisy place of commerce for the Jewish people. He was angry with his own tribe–not those outside his tribe. Jesus did speak out against the powerful of his day, but again it was for the sake of the poor and dispossessed. Not for himself or for his own. When on trial, Jesus was “oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isa 53:7; cf. Mt 26:62-63).

Too many Christians today are more like James Madison than Jesus Christ. American Christians demand their rights and fight against those they perceive to hinder their rights, but Paul told the Corinthians that they should not demand rights even thought in Christ they are free. Paul noted all the “rights” he could claim, then declared, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Cor 9:19). Paul understood what it meant to truly live like Jesus, and so he later encouraged the Corinthians to “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).

Instead of fighting our enemies, Jesus called us to “love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us” (Mt 5:45). Do we serve our fellow humans or dictate to them what we think they should do to deserve our service? Do we love them despite their sins or lecture them about their failings? Do we pray for those who persecute us or do we seek to fight fire with fire? The reason so many Americans today are turning away from Christianity is not because of Jesus. They are compelled by the life and teaching of Jesus . . . but they unfortunately are often repelled by those who claim his name but do not live by his calling to deny ourselves by taking up our crosses so we can live for others.

Don’t Compromise

Yes, you read this correctly. Second, Gandhi said, “I would suggest that you must practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down.” Is there anything more notable about American Christianity in recent decades than the frequent attempts to “blend in” or “make attractive” Christian worship and practice? This began with the “seeker-friendly” approach that sought to cater to what was assumed to be the need of non-Christians. It can be seen in some forms of worship music or platforms that feel more like a rock concert than a worship celebration. (I am not against contemporary elements in worship, but sadly some lyrics have no theological weightiness to them. Songs used to be the primary method of proclaiming–as well as teaching–Christian beliefs.) Another recent trend has been the removal of denominational labels on church promotional materials and signage, even though the church itself maintains its denominational connections.

Paul is sometimes pointed to as the reason for toning down the Christian faith. Some will point to his statement in 1 Corinthians, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (9:22). Yet Paul makes this comment in the very letter where he also talks about the importance of “boasting in the Lord” as specifically emphasizing nothing other than Jesus Christ as the crucified one (1:26-2:5; cf. Jer 9:23-24, on which Paul is elaborating). He sought to emphasize only the crucified and risen Jesus, knowing that it was a “stumbling block” to Jews and “foolishness” to Greeks (1 Cor 1:23).

This is neither a call to some fundamentalist approach to the Christian faith nor is it a call to liberating the gospel from its historic roots. It is a calling to faithful words and actions based on the life of Christ. It is a call to proclaim his Lordship over all areas of our life as rightful king. Liberalism frequently waters down the gospel to fit societal expectations or contemporary trends. In reaction to this, fundamentalism often seeks power through arrogant claims of higher knowledge and coercive demands for uniformity of beliefs and practice. Gandhi asked Christians to be unwavering in the practice of their faith, but as we shall see, he also points us toward a demonstration of love and humility, once again demonstrating his astute insight into the character and teachings of Jesus. As Peter puts it, we should always be ready to give an explanation for the hope we have in Jesus as our Lord, but we should always do it “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15). Too frequently, I do not see any gentleness or respect on social media from American Christians.

Demonstrate Love

Gandhi’s third recommendation was, “I would suggest that you must put your emphasis upon love, for love is the center and soul of Christianity.” Here, Gandhi saw the key feature of the Christian faith that sometimes eludes even some Christian leaders. Paul certainly had concerns for proper doctrine (right beliefs), but the overarching emphasis in his letters was on love and Christian unity. This is why he was so against the Jewish Christians who treated Gentile believers as if they were second-class for not following the Jewish rituals and dietary rules. He saw the Judaizers’ requirement for uniformity not as a “salvation by works” but as a detrimental impediment to the Christian vision of a new people rising up from the many nations (the meaning of the word “Gentile”) while still maintaining their “many-ness” (Eph 2:16). Yes, Paul later speaks of “one faith,” but that statement is not intended to be a weapon to batter down those who do not fully share your own doctrinal beliefs. It is part of a larger call to unity (seven times repeating the word “one” for emphasis), one of seven ways of explaining why we are to “be completely humble and gentle; [to] be patient, bearing with one another in love . . . [and to] make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-6). Paul’s vision of loving unity extended also to male and female, free and slave (Gal 3:28).

This call to unity and, in love, bearing with one another’s differences was the very desire of Jesus himself. Hours before his death, Jesus prayed to his Father in heaven, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (Jn 17:22-23). Does the world know us by our love for one another or for our infighting on regular and social media? Are we known for loving our enemies or for always talking bad about certain groups and what is wrong with some movements? Using the language of Paul, are we known as people who follow the Christ who “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14) or as advocates for the status quo of homogeneous church communities or for building a wall to keep “those people” in their place? Christ paid all debts for us except one, “the continuing debt to love one another,” for all of God’s law is summed up in the saying, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom 13:8-10).

Celebrate the Good

Finally, Gandhi concluded, “Fourth, I would suggest that you study the non-Christian religions and culture more sympathetically in order to find the good that is in them, so that you might have a more sympathetic approach to the people.” For many, this may be the most controversial of the four statements by Gandhi. Some think truth is only found in Christianity. This creates an arrogance that is off-putting to most if not all non-Christians, whether they live in India as part of another faith or in America as part of the “religious nones.” Yet if we truly live more like Jesus, seeking the needs of others rather than demanding our rights or enhancing personal power; if we hold fast to our faith and do not water it down; and if we genuinely learn to love one another and love our neighbors as well as our enemies; . . . then these things naturally will enable us to learn to be more sympathetic to others and open to listening first to their desires, hopes, and beliefs before we declare to them what we ourselves believe.

In Gandhi’s day, Christianity was identified with British colonial rule.  There unfortunately was an arrogance and preference for all things British that permeated the actions and attitudes of many Christians, including many converts.  In post-Christian America, there are many Christians who engage in unnecessary culture wars to bring back “the good old days.”  Rightly or wrongly, this comes across as arrogant posturing to reclaim power over those who feel Christianity’s days are past.  Instead, we need to demonstrate sympathy, which includes acknowledging uncomfortable truths that not everything in the old days was “good” as we claim.

If Jesus is the Truth (Jn 14:6) as well as the Light enlightening all humans (Jn 1:9), then wherever we find truth, we can celebrate it and reclaim it for Christ.  (Augustine preferred the image of the Israelites, who received gold from the Egyptians in the Passover, using it to build the Ark and Tabernacle later on.)  The good in non-Christian cultures is not only seen in Paul’s refusal for Jewish Christians to force their own culture upon the Gentiles, but in the gospels themselves.  Matthew emphasizes the magi over the biblical scholars (Mt 2:1-11), the Roman centurion over the disciples (Mt 8:10, 26), and the Canaanite woman over both Peter and the Pharisees (Mt 15:7, 14, 16, 28).

God’s love for all people includes their diverse cultures and backgrounds, which comes “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev 5:9; 7:9). We should learn about these cultures and ideas before immediately throwing them out as wrong or incorrect.  The redemption of the Lord Jesus Christ includes the redemption of the good and the truth from each and every culture, so we should approach these with humility first. This is not to say that we should accept all cultural practices as equal. Paul quoted Greek philosophers at times (e.g., Tit 1:12; Acts 17:28), but he knows does not simply accept a culture whole cloth. After affirming Gentiles for not having to adopt all Jewish practices, he admonishes them not to continue in “darkened” or “ignorant” ways (Eph 4:17).

Too often in America, we allow politicians, media commentators, and even some ministers to prey on our fears in order to manipulate our actions.  There is a reason that the admonition not to be afraid is one of the most repeated in the Bible! We should live a life of reasonable, thoughtful worship (Rom 12:1) and not one guided by reactionary fear.  Christians should be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry” (Jas 1:19).  Why are many American Evangelical Christians so quick to angry speech?  If we are not willing to listen first to why someone has concerns about Christianity or supports a movement we don’t agree with, why should we expect them to listen to the Good News of Christ Jesus? We need to find the good within cultures and movements and celebrate those things even as we lovingly point out the issues or concerns with the movement as a whole.


If we want to reach a post-Christian America, we need to stop the culture wars (which does not sympathize with the good). We need to stop living in fear (which is not the way of Jesus). We need to not make pompous pronouncements on social media (which does not demonstrate love). Gandhi’s observations for naturalizing Christianity in British-colonial India are just as relevant to naturalizing Christianity in post-Christian America. Live more like Jesus (by not living in fear but praying to the Father and being led by the Spirit). Do not water down the distinctives of Christian faith (but be willing to discuss why others don’t share these with you). Emphasize love (through acts of compassion and seeking unity rather than division). Seek the truth and the good wherever it can be found (by listening first and being slow to speech and anger).

Quotations from E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road (New York: Abingdon Press, 1925; 1953), 118-20.

Bible, Christian living

What about Phoebe? When Scripture “Contradicts” Scripture

Rick Warren has done it now, if you listen to some of the current leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention. While I appreciate much of what current president J.D. Greear has tried to do to guide the SBC through the pandemic and the many politically tumultuous issues that have occurred in the past year, I do not support Greear’s view that Saddleback Church’s ordination of three women pastors is “disappointing,” because Scripture “clearly reserves the office of pastor . . . for qualified men.” Al Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and candidate for SBC President in 2021, sees this action as going against the “codified . . . convictional issues” of the Baptist Faith and Message of 2000, which he calls a “clear” statement several times in his blog. I do not doubt he considers it clear, since he was its primary architect (according to a 2000 letter I received from Adrian Rogers, the BFM chair, directing me to Mohler when I asked why the criterion of faith statement had been removed). Another presidential candidate, Mike Stone, says SBC churches do not have to adhere to every point of the BFM (2000), but he does support removing the SBC’s second largest congregation from the convention because of this issue. It appears Stone views the ordination of women as a doctrine of the first order, on par with denial of the triunity of God or the deity of Jesus.

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These men appeal to the Bible for the view that men only may hold the title of pastor, primarily 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Mohler connects this issue to 1) liberal theology, 2) liberation theology, 3) “second wave” feminism, and 4) LGBTQ issues, assuming that one or more of these underlies the motives of any Baptist who, though holding a high view of Scripture, comes away with a different reading of the text. While Mohler is clearly driven by a cultural war mentality prevalent in many sectors of American Evangelical Christianity, Greear seems more open to engagement with contemporary culture in his blog and position paper. Yet both Mohler and Greear come to similar views, making a distinction between “minister” (which both men and women can hold as a title) and “pastor” (which may only apply to men). They do not mean only the “senior pastor,” as Mohler articulates in his blog (saying that is an unbiblical term). They mean that a woman may be called a “youth minister” but not a “youth pastor.” The latter implies “authority” while the former indicates you are “under” some elder or pastor’s direction. In Greear’s position paper, he creates non-biblical categories of “general teaching” and “special teaching” (which he also calls “elder teaching”). Women can do the first with both men and women present, but they cannot do the latter. For instance, the position paper says women cannot preach the “weekend sermon” because that implies the woman’s speech “functionally acts with the authority of an elder.” (Interestingly, the paper cites Lottie Moon’s work in China to men and women positively but assumes it was not “preaching” or “elder teaching.” This is strange when Kevin Howard on SBC Voices stands against Moon’s teaching men as part of her mission work in China.) Mohler completely dismisses any Christian who wrestles with the whole of Scripture when he thinks his selected proof-texts settle the issue. “Simply put, the only way to affirm women serving in the pastoral role is to reject the authority and sufficiency of biblical texts such as 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2.”

This is disingenuous. Its black and white approach ignores the multicolored world of Baptist life. The Baptist Standard noted that some Southern Baptist churches clearly had a different perspective on women preaching from the pulpit. It noted Anne Graham Lotz spoke at Second Baptist, Houston, the SBC’s largest congregation. (Billy Graham called his daughter “the best preacher I’ve ever heard,” not son Franklin.) Beth Moore and Kay Warren preached at other SBC churches on Mother’s Day.

Baptist scholar E. Earle Ellis, deceased professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and renowned in his day as a premier New Testament scholar, argued 1 Corinthians 14 was not about all women but was narrowly focused on the wife of a husband when both were prophets within the congregation (The Making of the New Testament Documents). Ellis, a complementarian like Mohler and Greear, noted the injunction for women to be silent is in a chapter on the proper use of gifts within orderly worship and immediately follows instructions to prophets to speak one at a time while the other prophets weigh the prophecy being uttered. Ellis said Paul’s emphasis was that the spirits giving rise to prophecy were “under the control” of the prophets (so they could speak or not speak as appropriate to the situation), and this applied to a wife “weighing in” on the prophetic speech of her husband. If the husband stood to prophesy, the wife should not speak in public regarding her husband’s prophecy, whether for or against its authenticity, as part of her official ministry to test the spirits (a role she was expected to play with any other member of the community and which sounds surprisingly like “elder teaching” which Greear says women should not do). In other words, she shouldn’t create a public spectacle by disagreeing (perhaps out of an emotional flareup about a pre-service disagreement on some other matter, according to Ellis’s in-class commentary) nor should she attest to the truth of his prophecy (when it could be planned collusion somewhat akin to the Ananias and Sapphira story, again based on Ellis’s in-class commentary). Ellis viewed 1 Timothy 2 as a pre-formed tradition based on the 1 Corinthians 14 passage and so applying in the same limited scope. (I personally find the 1 Timothy 2 passage the more problematic one, as there doesn’t seem to be a clear context that provides explanation for his injunction.)

Ellis’s reading of the text is but one of several ways to understand the context for 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 as a temporal prohibition on women’s speech that might not be an eternal mandate or prohibition from the role of pastor. (For example, some see the prohibition as referencing the general lack of educational opportunities for women in the first century. They shouldn’t ask questions during the service but wait and ask in private afterwards. If that were the case, then universal education in twenty-first century America should not create the same barrier for pastoral leadership.)

Now, to the point of this blog’s title. There is the curious status of Phoebe in the letter to the Romans. She is mentioned at the start of the final chapter. Without mentioning her by name, Greear’s position paper takes account of Phoebe’s role as a deacon of Cenchreae in its allowance that women might serve in Summit Church as deacons. But Phoebe is only standing before the Roman church as the letter is first read (and thus in need of introduction to the church within the letter) because she was the letter’s carrier. As Baptist scholar E. Randolph Richards notes in his chapter on Paul’s use of letter carriers (Paul and First-Century Letter Writing), Paul did not consider the role of letter carrier lightly. Whether it was Timothy, Titus, Tychicus–or Phoebe!–the letter carrier was Paul’s envoy to the church. The letter carrier was trained before going in how to perform the letter before the community. (Many scholars prefer the term “perform” to “read” because there would have been rhetorical flourishes intended as one read the text in public.) Once the letter was read, Paul expected the letter carrier to be able to answer any questions about Paul’s meaning within the letter. Do you see the issue that results if Phoebe was the letter carrier? She read the Scripture to the whole congregation–both men and women. She stood in the place of Paul as his representative. She likely did this on the Lord’s Day (during what Greear calls the “weekend sermon” from which women are prohibited in his church). When she answered questions about the letter, she spoke with the authority of Paul himself (using what Greear refers to as “special teaching” or “elder teaching”–speaking with the authority of the elder Paul, one of the four primary leaders of the early Christian movement). She authoritatively taught men and women the truth of the gospel.

So what do you do when one Scripture (Rom 16:1-2) seems to contradict another Scripture (1 Tim 2:12-14)? Many scholars and pastors would say that you have to listen to the arc of the entire biblical narrative. What is the trajectory of the biblical witness? What is the direction toward which it is pointing that would allow continued movement beyond the written text of any specific passage? As Baptist E.Y. Mullins used to say, the Bible didn’t create the community. The Bible came into being within the community (The Christian Religion in Its Doctrinal Expression) and the community continues to grow and develop beyond the writings of the Bible but always under its direction. Phoebe (and Priscilla and others) seem to indicate that, while there certainly is a prohibitive statement about wives being quiet in church, there were exceptions to this rule that were setting us on the trajectory that “you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

It appears Mohler rejects this Biblical trajectory approach to the Bible, that there can be a hermeneutical arc that points in the direction of a specific position that lies beyond what is literally stated in the text. Mohler asserts, “the Holy Scriptures have not changed and cannot change.” Yet this concept is found within the biblical community itself. (For example, the Jerusalem Council tells Gentiles to avoid meat offered to idols yet Paul later gives some caveats to this prohibition when they do not fall within religious contexts.) Without this arc of biblical narrative premise, how could Baptists develop a doctrine of the sanctity of the unborn? There is not a specific text about abortion. Instead, the sanctity of the unborn is argued as the logical conclusion to a biblical arc of passages affirming the sanctity of life of the born and the sacred mystery of God’s work in the womb.

Mohler labels any attempt to interpret statements like 1 Cor 14 or 1 Tim 2 on the basis of textual or historical contexts “revisionist arguments” and “biblical subversion.” Certainly such condemnations were made of Martin Luther when he re-read the doctrine of justification in a new way and launched the Reformation movement. He also appeals to the long history within the Christian tradition as evidence that ordination of women as pastors is wrong. The same thing was said about the Anabaptists and Baptists when they rejected infant baptism after a millennium of such practice. Baptist and Protestant theology is based on the belief that we are unable to read the text from an omniscient or untainted vantage point, knowing we cannot read without error. This is why the churches of the Reformation are the churches which are always reforming, though our basis of faith must always be the God-breathed Scriptures as we read within the Body of Christ through the empowering work of the Sprit.

To look at the issue from another perspective, why do Greear and Mohler take Paul literally to say that women can never at any time teach or have authority over a man yet they do not take the next injunction literally, that women are only and ever saved through childbearing? Certainly they do not assert such a position (as it would mean single and barren women could not be saved). The point is that we all pick and choose what is “literal” and what is to be interpreted, what to foreground and what to recede into the background. In reality, all Scripture must be interpreted.

It is certainly understandable for Greear, Mohler, and Stone to come to a position that the biblical witness is against women holding the role of pastor. There is a case to be made from the Scripture for that view and history backs it up. It is not acceptable, however, for Mohler or Stone to assert that those who come to a different position automatically do so because they are not committed to the authority of the Bible. This is a complicated issue without as clear a statement within the Bible as some might wish to claim. One thing the New Testament is not ambiguous about, however, is the importance of seeking unity within the Body of Christ. Therefore, we should all be very careful about a desire to incite division between two groups that both seek to honor Christ and to be led by his Spirit simply because each arrives at a different understanding of the same Scripture they both affirm as divinely inspired.

Bible, Jesus, sermon

Beloved Daughter

Happiness comes and goes. Sorrow and suffering can be with us for years or can come upon us suddenly. Yet we can find hope in the midst of sorrow. We can trust in the Trustworthy One in the depths of our despair. Mark 5:21-43 tells the story of a man and a woman from two very different lives, though both know sorrow and suffering. The story tells us of a father who fears losing his daughter and a woman who long ago lost the hope of being called daughter. Throughout the story, we see Jesus acting intentionally to take on our uncleanness in order to make us clean, to make us whole, and to give us hope.

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An Outcast Woman; a Beloved Daughter

We first meet a man who seems to have it all. He has a family. As a synagogue ruler, he has prestige in his community. Most likely, he is middle to upper income to have the time to serve as ruler. Yet at the moment we meet him, none of this matters to him. He is losing his daughter. He is desperate to save her.

The woman we meet partway through the story has likely lost everything. We are told she has an issue of blood that has not ceased for twelve years. That is, something about her body does not allow her menstrual cycle to ever fully stop. According to Jewish Law, women were ritually unclean during the days of their period. She has been unclean for twelve years. Like a leper, she would have to call out to those who came near her, “unclean!” to warn them not to come into contact with her. If they did, Jewish Law said they also became unclean until they performed a ritual cleansing. So this woman has probably has lost her family during the years. At the least, she has become a source of public shame for them because everyone in the town knows she is theirs. She is isolated from her community and the touch of others. All dignity is gone. She is an object of scorn to be avoided. She has been stripped of her personhood.

For twelve years, the woman had been unclean, suffering from humiliation and struggling with pain. We’re told she spent all she had on doctors but her condition only got worse. The man’s daughter was twelve years old. What a different life she had lived. Twelve years of love, joy, the benefits of wealth, and the loving touch of family. Twelve years ago, her mother had life come from her womb. But for the past twelve years, the woman had only death coming from her own womb.

Years of Grueling Anguish; Days of Sudden Sorrow

The woman for twelve years suffered physically and psychologically. She also lost all of her money, unlike the ruler who probably was middle to upper income. Yet in the story, she appears to still have hope for recovery. She is willing to try to touch Jesus’ garment to see if he might have healing power to help end her suffering. Despite her loss of family, community, and money, she still had hope. Where she had been suffering for years, the man had only suffered a few days (maybe a few weeks). His daughter was ill. He was in despair. His hope, his faith, was in tatters. His money, his power, his family and community connections–none of it could solve the problem he faced of his daughter’s grave illness. While Mark uses describes the girl as his “little daughter,” Luke tells us she was his monogenes, his “one and only” daughter. She was his life and her life was ebbing away.

We have no idea how the woman handled her illness when it first appeared, but we do know how she handled it now, twelve years later. Although she suffered greatly and had lost everything, we never hear her complain or cry out. Later, when Jesus gets to the man’s home, the family and friends of the girl are wailing and causing a commotion. Yes, the girl was dead, and likely some who were there were professional mourners. But the sudden illness and loss of this young life created sharp emotions and led many to cry out loudly in their grief.

Public Restoration

The man clearly was seeking to find Jesus in his despair. We are told that “when he saw” Jesus, he fell at Jesus’ feet. Though he had prestige in his community, he humiliated himself in public with this act. He knew the crowds could see him and hear his pleas that Jesus would heal his daughter. He literally says, “My little daughter is at the end.” This is a final act of desperation. She is about to die. He went to seek the healer. Perhaps, like his colleagues, he had mocked Jesus before. Now, however, he was pleading for Jesus to help him. He wanted Jesus to save his daughter from death and give her life. The word sozein can mean healing, but it can also mean salvation. Jesus intentionally acts in the moment. He departs to go with the man.

We then encounter the woman in the story. She doesn’t seek out Jesus as the man had. We are told that she “hears about” Jesus. We’re told crowds are around Jesus and Jairus as they travel. No doubt some were talking about the healer and how he was on the move to do it again! The woman also wanted to be saved from her infirmity. She wanted to be healed. Unlike the man’s public actions, however, she hoped to be healed privately without anyone knowing. She thought she could just sneak up behind Jesus and touch his robe. That would be enough to heal her. She didn’t want to be a bother to anyone. She didn’t want to cause a fuss.

Immediately, she knew she was healed. Mark says she could feel the “fountain” of flowing blood “dry up.” She was freed from the affliction. Literally, it says she was freed from the whip, the common belief of people that God was actively punishing those who suffer for something they must have done wrong. At the same time, Jesus immediately knew power had gone out from him. We then see his second intentional act. He does a 180 to look behind him. He asks who touched him and looks from person to person in the crowd. The disciples are incredulous. “Jesus,” they reply, “how can you ask that! This crowd is constantly pushing up against you.” But Jesus looked into the eyes of each person until eventually the woman couldn’t stand it.

Jesus forced this private act to become public. Unlike the bold though desperate synagogue ruler, the woman fell to Jesus feet trembling in fear. She told him the whole story. She had hoped for a private healing to avoid what was now occurring. Jesus would know that this unclean woman had touched him. She had made him ritually unclean. Would he be upset with her? He had been on important business and she now had interrupted him. What’s more, if the disciples are telling us the truth, she must have bumped into many others in her attempt to touch Jesus. How many did she make unclean just now? How would they respond, since she didn’t cry out “unclean” to warn them? Would they be angry and stone her for her transgression of the Law? For twelve years, she had been alone and unnoticed. She was nothing to these people except as an object to be feared and avoided. Why, she wondered, did Jesus make her visible?

Jesus doesn’t reply with anger or rebuke. Instead, he called her “daughter” and told her that it was “her faith” that healed her. Jesus made this public so she could be welcomed back into community, into his kingdom. More than that, we welcomed this woman who had probably not had family connections for twelve years into his own family. Moreover, he honored her by saying it was her faith, not his power, that had healed her. Jesus made himself a servant to her needs and showed his love through inviting her into relationship and restoring her to community. She wanted healing, but he told her to go with “peace” for she was no longer unclean but cleansed (the Greek word hygiēs from which we get “hygiene”) from the whip.

Private Reunion

Part of the reason Jesus honored the woman was to welcome her back to her community. Another reason was for Jairus. He probably saw this woman as a distraction who was wasting precious minutes that his little girl couldn’t afford to lose. Indeed, while Jesus was speaking the good news to the woman, members of Jairus’ community came with the worst news imaginable. His daughter was dead. “Why bother the teacher any longer?” they asked. If they shared the skepticism of many Jewish leaders, this might have been said sarcastically. Why bother with “the teacher” any longer?” Not the healer, notice. The woman had feared public exposure and was forced to face it. Now, the man faced something even worse: the fear that all hope is lost. His little girl was dead.

For the third time, Jesus does something very intentional. He first went with the man. He then looked and found the woman. Now, he intentionally ignores the words of these messengers. He tells the father, “Don’t fear. Just trust!” Perhaps Jesus pointed toward the woman nearby who, despite her fears, showed great faith and now stood there healed. Again, Jesus seems to honor the woman as he encourages the man.

Jesus and the father go with three of Jesus’ disciples to the man’s house. We are not told that they stopped at a mikvah for a ritual cleansing to purify themselves from the woman’s unclean touch. So Jesus apparently entered Jairus’ home unclean. This made Jairus’ home unclean and all within it–including Jairus himself–unclean. What we see is that Jairus cared less about rituals than about relationship. He was willing that he and his whole family become unclean like this man if Jesus could give him back his daughter. In this way, he also identified himself with the woman and her faith.

Jesus was possibly mocked by his disciples (or the crowds) when he asked who touched him. He may have been mocked by the messengers who said the girl was dead. Certainly, he is laughed at and ridiculed for saying the girl wasn’t dead but just asleep. Jesus then ran everyone except the parents and his disciples out of the house. Doing this forced Jairus, a man who had been in the public eye as a leading member of the community, to learn the importance of privacy and intimacy.

Then, for the second time that day, Jesus was made unclean. The first time, it happened to him when the woman touched him. This time, he intentionally took the hand of the dead girl. Then, where power unconsciously went out from Jesus to the woman, Jesus consciously touched the girl and gave a verbal command to rise up. He calls her “little girl,” not “daughter” because the girl already had a family. She had a father who loved her and believed she would live again. Immediately, she stood up and walked around. Maybe she was walking to each of her parents to hug them. As the woman was freed from her affliction, the girl was freed from the power of death.

Not only was this a private healing and reunion for the family, but Jesus made sure the privacy continued for several minutes. He told the parents not to share what had happened, that is, don’t shout out to the crowd outside. He then told them to get the girl something to eat. As the family shared table fellowship, Jesus and the disciples exited the house. Not only did Jesus still bear the “uncleanness” of the woman and the girl, but he had to endure the mocking of the crowd as he passed them by. No doubt they continued to laugh at his ignorance, not knowing the difference between death and sleep! How could he be a great teacher if he was so unaware? But Jesus bore the mocking to allow community and restored relationship to thrive inside the home.

Final Thoughts

What do we learn from this story? First, we see that Jesus doesn’t truly become “unclean” from his contact with the women. Instead, his life-giving power flowed out to these women and made them whole, healing and restoring life to them. He also restored the woman to community and the girl to her family. Believers in Jesus are called to the same engagement with others. We are to enter into the messiness of life and seek to heal and restore community. We even have to bear mocking or misunderstanding to do the work of the kingdom.

Second, we see that it is not physical contact with Jesus that saves or makes one whole. It was the woman’s faith. It was the father’s faith. Trusting in Jesus to save and heal is something we can do the same as the woman. Though Jesus is no longer on earth, he now sits at his Father’s right hand and can bear our uncleanness and make us how.

Third, both women teach us about the Kingdom of God. The woman gives us hope that in the kingdom, whatever troubles we encounter in this life, they are not the end of the story. We will be freed and healed to experience peace and wholeness. The girl helps us see that our greatest need is to be raised to new life in Christ. This life is not something we can bring about apart from Jesus any more than the dead girl could raise herself. There is also the hope of reunion with those we love in the kingdom. Also, the verbs used of the girl, “rising up” and “standing up” are both used of the resurrection in other parts of the New Testament. Her rising to new life came after only a short period of death. Though we die, it is but a twinkling of an eye and then we will be raised to new life in the new heavens and new earth.

Today, your life might be full of struggles or it may be filled with joy. You may be in the midst of years of suffering a debilitating disease or enduring a long, lingering death. You may be experiencing a rapid loss of a loved one or a sudden change in fortune. In all situations, we are called to trust in Jesus. He is the source of our healing, life, and wholeness. He welcomes us all into community as he saves and heals us. He calls you beloved son. He calls you beloved daughter.

Beloved Daughter (Mark 5:21-43)

Bible, sermon, Stories That Shape Our Life

Crossing the Jordan

(Taken from a sermon at the end of an interim pastorate a few weeks before the new pastor would arrive on the field.) These are some of the memes the week after the winter 2021 storms that wreaked havoc on Texas:

  • 2021? Feels more like 2020 and a half
  • 2020: the year from hell / 2021: the year hell froze over
  • 2020: learn to stay home / 2021: same, but now let’s test your survival skills
  • Shame on all of you who made fun of Bernie Sanders. Now look at you sitting on your couch in the same outfit!

Like many of you, my wife and I conserved electricity and wore extra layers of clothes to help keep the power grid up in our area. I think Lucy stayed in the living room by the fire most of the week! Friends and family went without power or had water damage from frozen pipes or leaking roofs. And many had to conserve or boil water as a by-product.

It may have felt like a winter wilderness, but it only lasted for a week. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years. Their daily lives were a marginal existence for an entire generation. Finally, however, it was time for them to cross over into the land promised by God to their ancestors, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That is the focus of the biblical passage in Deuteronomy 31:1-8. The story of the Israelites crossing the Jordan is one of the stories that shapes our lives.

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It Is Time to Leave the Wilderness

The interim period between pastors is like a wilderness experience. It is a time when you have left the familiarity of the old pastorate and you walk by faith with the interim minister in anticipation of the new minister who will soon come to the field. Many times at the beginning or in the middle of the interim, you are not sure what lies in the future. Frequently, it is a marginal existence, like the wilderness, with the interim minister only on the field on weekends or certain ministries suspended for a season. Even churches not in an interim situation felt this margin living In 2020, as the pandemic forced worship online or delayed or canceled a number of “normal” ministry opportunities.

But as an interim ends (or for us in 2021, as we may be nearing a turning point with the pandemic in the U.S.), a new day dawns. Like Moses, the interim minister cannot follow the congregation into the new pastorate but he can provide some words of wisdom. With the end of the interim, the journey ends for the minister but it is just the start for the congregation. It is for this reason that Moses says repeatedly in this passage, “Be strong and courageous” and “do not fear.

As rough as the wilderness was, some had become comfortable in it. For some, it was all they had ever known. Often, Christians are comfortable with the way church has been done (sometimes for decades). Some might become familiar with the leadership or worship style of the interim pastor or liked the reduced meeting times of the interim period or pandemic restrictions. In the wilderness, there were times the people wanted to return to Egypt. So as they crossed into the new land promised by God, some would continue to look backward toward the wilderness or beyond.

Moses tells the people not to be terrified because of “them.” Whether with the start of a new pastorate or the end of a pandemic, there are new problems coming and new issues to address. Perhaps new ministries need to be started. Other ministries need to be revived or restarted. This can be just as scary as conquering a land. Don’t be terrified by the unknown or the new, for God will be with you.

God Crosses the Jordan Ahead of You

The blessed news is that we are not alone. We do not have to go it alone. God is with us. He says in the passage that he will never leave us nor forsake us. This is a blessed hope and comfort. What is more, God crosses before us and enters the new land, the new phase of ministry, the new situation we cannot fully understand, ahead of us. He will fight the battles for us, if we will only trust in him. We are called to be obedient, but he himself is our strength and our shield.

Whether in the interim period or through the pandemic, we have seen God at work even in the wilderness. He helps those who trust in him to grow closer to one another as they grow closer to him. He uses the wilderness time to resolve and heal various issues lingering since we have left Egypt as he prepares us to enter the new land of Canaan. He has helped us learn to adapt to new situations and to seek his guidance when times seem dark. As we have trusted him through the wilderness, we find over and again that he proves himself faithful. God knows the future to which he is calling us. We can trust him and rest in him.

Follow Your Leader Into the Promised Land

Before Moses died in the wilderness, God called Joshua to be the new leader. This leader would go with them into the promised land. Like God, Moses says Joshua will go ahead of the people into the new land and will lead the people. Yet he was just as scared and unaware of the future as the Israelites. Moses gives Joshua the same words of comfort to be strong and courageous and not to be afraid. For churches beginning a new pastorate, the new pastor enters into the unknown with the congregation. He will lead and the congregation will follow, but he and the congregation both truly follow God who promises to go before them. On the other side of the Jordan is the promised land. It is a land of new opportunities and new ministries. It is the place of hope and new life.

For all the hope that lies beyond, however, the promised land is scary. Change is scary! For the Israelites, they were moving from the barren wilderness to beautiful farmland. They knew how to be nomads. That was comfortable. What did they know about farming? What did they know about living in settled villages and permanent homes? So church life now or even in the past may not be what it will be in the future. We always need to be ready for change, but especially in times of transition.

An interesting feature of the wilderness story is Joshua himself. He was one of the twelve spies originally sent into the land for forty days just a few months after the people left Mount Sinai. Ten spies returned saying there was no way they could enter the land. Joshua and Caleb said, there is a way–with God! The Israelites listened to the ten, however, and so they were condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years because they refused to face change. They refused to trust God for fear of the unknown. Yet during those forty years in the wilderness, as the current generation gave way to a new generation, the legend of Joshua–the man who trusted God–grew. Joshua trusted God so we can trust him to guide us.

During the interim period, the congregation has prayed for a new leader and prepared themselves for the next phase of life together. They have trusted God that he would guide them to the right person to take them into the next years of ministry. When that man is called, you must trust God and trust him.

Notice one key difference in Moses’ encouragement to Joshua than to the Israelites. Moses adds to his admonition to Joshua, “do not be discouraged.” For forty years, Moses bore the brunt of complaints about the wilderness and the struggles and needs ever wore down on him. Moses understood that ministry could have periods of discouragement. The new pastor will make mistakes. Joshua made mistakes. The role of the congregation is to encourage the minister, pray for him, trust him to lead, and forgive the mistakes that are made. Certainly, this doesn’t mean to forgive moral lapses or ignore ungodly actions, but we are called to trust in the leader as he trusts in God. He will lead the congregation into the promised land.

Soon after this, God let Moses ascend to Mount Nebo. Moses was able to look over and see the promised land even though he wasn’t able to enter in with the people. And then Moses died. In some ways, the role of the interim minister is similar. He has the opportunity to see the potential within the congregation as he helps the congregation believe in that possibility as well. So be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid. Trust God who is going on before you. Trust your new leader and give him grace to fail. Help him conquer giants as you enter into the land of promise.

Crossing the Jordan (Deut 31:1-8)

sermon, Stories That Shape Our Life

Saved to Serve

Christians observe a sacred meal commemorating Jesus’ death. Depending on your tradition, it is called the Lord’s Supper, communion, or the eucharist. On his final evening, Jesus instituted this meal using two elements from the Jewish Passover meal–bread and wine. The Jewish Passover is a remembrance of God’s liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Specifically, it refers to the last of the ten plagues God sent against Egypt, when the Angel of Death passed over the homes that had the blood of a lamb on their doorframes but killed all the firstborn sons in homes not protected by the lamb’s blood. Jesus connected his coming death to this Passover story, that those covered in his blood would not know eternal death. After the stories of the plagues and the exodus, the description of the Passover festival, and the crossing of the sea, Exodus 19 tells of the Hebrews’ arrival at Mount Sinai as the end of this rescue operation and the start of a covenantal relationship between God and Israel.

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God Saved the People from Bondage (Ex 19:4)

God begins by emphasizing his liberation of the people, that he rescued them on eagle’s wings and carried them to himself. They had been enslaved in Egypt. God appeared to Moses and told him that he heard the Israelites’ cries and groans, so God was sending Moses to liberate them. The ten plagues of the exodus were an undoing of the creation story in Genesis 1. At creation, God took the dark, chaotic waters and brought life and order out of them. In the exodus, however, when Pharaoh refused to release the people, God unleased a series of plagues that took the ordered life of the great empire and brought it crumbling down into chaos and disorder. Like Genesis 1, the plague stories begin with chaotic waters (the Nile turning red and killing fish). While Genesis 1 ends with the creation of human life as the culminating act of order out of the chaos, the end of the exodus plagues is not life but death, the death of the firstborns.

With this, Pharaoh lets the people leave, then changes his mind and chases after them. The chaotic waters return once again in the form of a sea of water separating the people from any hope of escape as Pharaoh’s chariots bear down upon them. Yet God saves his people by simultaneously bringing order and salvation to them while bringing chaos and destruction to Pharaoh’s army. First, God separated the darkness from the light (with Egypt in one and Israel in the other), just as in the first day of creation. Then, the wind/Spirit of God hovered over the waters until land appeared (like day three). God created a way for his people to find life through the midst of the chaos, as he protected them. When the Egyptian army pursued through the waters, God removes his protective presence, and the waters returned to the chaos they had been before. The army lay dead and God’s people stood liberated and free. This is what God reminds them of as they stand at the mountain of God, the very place where Moses first received his calling to rescue the people. Now, however, God extends this call to all the people assembled before him, to those he had redeemed.

God Invited the People to Serve (Ex 19:5-8)

Now God invites them into a relationship with him. After reminding them how he redeemed them, he makes a covenant with them. If they fully keep the instructions he will give to them, then God offers them a unique relational status. Notice they are rescued first, then they are invited into covenant. This is a pointer to the fact that salvation is not based on our works but rather it is a free gift of God. God liberated the people. Now he invites them to show their thankfulness to him for that liberation by keeping his covenantal instructions. If they fully obey this covenant, then out of all the nations they will be his treasured possession. If they fully keep these commandments, then out of the whole earth they will be a nation set apart as a kingdom of priests. When the people hear this offer, they reply, “we will.” We will keep this covenant fully and fully obey these instructions. Unfortunately, the history of the nation demonstrates they do not.

God Called the People to Consecration (Ex 19:9-25)

To prepare for this covenant, God told the people to consecrate themselves for two days. They were to wash their clothes and avoid sexual relations. That is, they were to cleanse themselves and disrupt the daily routines of life in preparation and expectation of something new and marvelous. They were also asked to treat the mountain as holy (that is, to treat it as set apart). Anyone setting foot on the mountain was to be put to death. They were to respect God and not think they were on equal footing with the divine. This was his mountain at the moment. He was about to set foot upon it so they should respect it.

On the third day, the Lord would descend from heaven upon the mountain and pronounce the covenant. God promises Moses that God’s actions would result in the people realizing that Moses was indeed God’s chosen leader so that they would place their trust in him. Anytime Christians sense God’s call to a new venture–whether the calling of a new minister, the start of a new ministry, or a new pursuit within one’s family or one’s personal life–we should prepare ourselves through prayer and consecration. We should ready ourselves to listen for the voice of God and to accept his call.

God Pointed Toward His Ultimate Plan (Rev 5:9-14)

As we observed above, the people were called to fully obey the covenant yet none of them over the centuries was able to do so, save one. Jesus kept the covenant fully and he did so for all of us, whether Israelite or not. Jesus was the firstborn over all creation (Col 1:15) who voluntarily became Egypt’s firstborn to die in our place. He was the Lamb whose blood covered us and so allowed death to pass over those who accept his sacrifice. In the Revelation, the Song of the Lamb picks up this imagery from Exodus 19 alongside the imagery of Jesus as the Passover lamb. Jesus’ blood purchased us and so now we have become his treasured possession. No longer is this treasured possession one people “out of all the nations.” Rather, in Christ, we who are “out of every nation” are now one people, the people of the Lamb. We are called to serve him as kings and queens and priests. We are to serve God by serving our fellow human beings even as we represent him to the world. We are not saved for our own benefit. We are saved to serve.

Each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we should recall the words of Jesus. He said the bread was his body broken for us. As we partake of the bread, we should dedicate ourselves to acts of service that will honor Jesus by restoring his body and making it whole. What person do you know who needs to become part of Jesus’ body today? Will you consecrate yourself to service for that person, to witness to your Lord and Savior who died for them? Jesus also took the cup and said it was his blood poured out for us. As Jesus gave his life for us, we are called to pour out our lives in service to him and to others. Who in your sphere of influence needs your service today? How will you be Jesus’ priest to that person? Jesus set us free to serve. May we serve one another because he first served us.

Saved to Serve (Exodus 19)

Bible, psalms

Flourishing like a Palm and a Cedar

As we think about creation care, I want you to consider two biblical trees: the palm and the cedar.  Recent changes in climate are threatening the cedars of Lebanon, a symbol of pride for that nation (just look at their flag!).  The forests on the mountains of Lebanon are starting to die, however, as the climate warms and dries.  The forests are shifting upwards on the mountains, seeking cold winters, yet they can only go so high.  Soon the southern trees won’t have elevation left to pursue.  If trends continue, some estimates indicate the only trees remaining at century’s end will be at the northern edge of the country.

On the other hand, the palm stands at the forefront of the battle against climate change.  UAE scientists are exploring ways to harvest palm “waste”—leaves, stems, and empty branches—and convert these into biofuel and biochar, which would have less impact than fossil fuels on carbon dioxide emissions.

The Psalmist compares the righteous to these two trees in Ps 92:12-15:

The righteous will flourish like a palm tree,
    they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon;
planted in the house of the Lord,
    they will flourish in the courts of our God.
They will still bear fruit in old age,
    they will stay fresh and green,
proclaiming, “The Lord is upright;
    he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in him.”

Ps 92:12-15, NIV

Both trees were connected to Solomon’s temple, so they were “planted in the house of the Lord.”  Palms were carved onto wood inside and outside the temple as decorations.  Palms were symbolized by the two pillars on each side of the temple entrance.  The cedars of Lebanon were used in construction as beam supports and paneling.

One reason the psalmist focused on these trees is that they are evergreens.  They are consistent through the different seasons of life, not changing depending on circumstance.  Our righteousness should not come and go but should constantly and consistently flow out of our lives.  Both trees thrive in their environment.  The palm grows in the desert, where there is little water and the temperatures are high.  The cedar grows in the mountains, drawing on the mists from the Mediterranean Sea and thriving in the cold climate.  Their two extreme climates are apt reminders that we are called to thrive wherever we find ourselves.  Whether our spiritual life is on fire or stone cold at the moment, we should trust in the Rock of our salvation and honor him in those periods of life.  Whether our life is pleasant and peaceful as the misted cedar or life’s struggles bear down on us like the desert palm, our Father sustains us.

We are called to “bear fruit,” that is, honor God through acts of justice and righteousness.  Throughout our lives, we are called to service (“in old age staying fresh and green”).  Our lives should be a blessing to others.  Like the Lord, the palm is “upright” and straight.  Its height is an aid to the nomad searching for food, water, and respite from the sun in a dry, barren land.  The maturing cedar’s trunk grows ever sturdier, allowing it to spread out its branches in order to provide shade, shelter, protection, and help to those creatures who live in and under its canopy.  Like the Lord, its fragrant wood brings delight and joy.

Father, help us to flourish like the palm and the cedar.  May our lives produce fruit and bless others around us.  May we honor you consistently throughout our lives.  You are our Rock in whom we rest.  We know you are faithful in every way.  May our roots drive deep into you, the eternal Source of Life.

sermon, Stories That Shape Our Life

Called to a Journey of Faith and Blessing

The Bible talks about the calling of Abraham and the subsequent people of God as “called” or “chosen.” Sometimes we see the Israelites and later Jews misunderstand this idea of “chosenness” and Christians sometimes struggle with the same misunderstanding. Being chosen does not mean that you are better than another. It doesn’t mean that you are God’s child and that God doesn’t care about those who are not called by the same name as you. To be called is to follow after God and to trust in him even when the way seems dark or obscure. To be chosen is to be a servant to live your life to bless God and to bless others. God sometimes calls us to a new occupation, a new city in which to live and minister. Genesis 12:1-8 tells us about the calling of Abraham. Much like Abraham, we must must decide if we will accept the call. Will we live the journey God choses for us or chose our own way and reject his call.

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Called to Journey with God

Abraham was invited by God to go into the unknown, learning only later that the land of Canaan is the land promised to him by God. Through the Abraham narrative, we travel to the Western Highlands of Canaan, the Negev of Southern Canaan, down to Egypt, back to the Negev and Western Highlands, throughout the region in a war narrative before settling back into the Negev. Along the way, Abraham built altars to God and prayed to God, he dug wells and planted trees, he worked with his neighbors, and he even fled from famine and set out in war. When he returned to the region after his journey into Egypt, God again told him that Canaan would be his home (Ge 13:14-17). All the way through the story, we see that Abraham was not alone. God was always with him on the journey, through the good decisions and the bad one.

We are journeying through an unknown time right now. It is a time of pandemic and a time of economic uncertainty, a time of political unrest and social upheaval. In your own journey, there may be a path through unplanned cancer or the death of a family member. You may be called to a new job or blessed with a new child. Through whatever situation you face, you are called to journey with God and to trust him along the way, no matter how dark the path or foggy and unclear the future.

Called to Walk by Faith

Abraham had to trust God in order to leave his home land and his family. Because of Abraham’s belief in God, he is considered righteous by God (Ge 15:1-6). The story makes clear that belief is not some sort of checklist of ideas to understand. Abraham is told he will have a son. We read soon after that he and Sarah totally misunderstand this and he has a son through her maid-servant Hagar. We also see that Abraham’s righteousness is not based on any action on his part at the time he is called righteous. If Abraham did anything, he walked out of his tent when instructed and looked up at the stars when instructed. The emphasis of the text is that he saw the stars, heard God’s promise that his descendants would be as numerous, and he put his faith in God that God was trustworthy to keep such a promise. We do find that such faith is later demonstrated by action, but Abraham’s righteousness is not based on action.

When the child of promise is finally born to he and his wife Sarah, Abraham must make a painful decision. He must sacrifice his son and through away the promises that were to flow through this child or he must disobey God’s call to sacrifice his son and thereby break covenant with the one who would provide the covenant promises through this son (Ge 22). He was between the proverbial rock and hard place. Abraham chooses allegiance to God over the hope of the promise, but God stays his hand and his son is spared. God then swears by himself that the promises made to Abraham through Isaac would certainly come to be (Ge 22:16-18).

In the New Testament, we are told that we are children of Abraham if we live by faith (Ga 3:7) and so are part of the stars and sand too numerous to count (He 11:12). The journey we are called to is the same type of journey as Abraham. We are called to journey by faith through this land. We are not to be loyal to our land for it is not our own. We, like Abraham, remain exiles longing for a heavenly city (He 11:13-16). Like Abraham living as a nomad in the land promised to him, we live in this fallen world awaiting the day God will resurrect it along with our bodies into the Kingdom of God. It is this but not now. It is here but not yet. We are foreigners and strangers living by faith in the one who calls us. When God calls us to a new city, a new profession, a new marriage, our allegiance is first to God over any personal preferences we might have. Abraham, when told that God’s way was a child of promise to be born of barren Sarah and not the “natural” child born of Sarah’s maid-servant, Abraham questions this and asks, why cannot Ishmael live under the covenant blessings (Ge 17:17-18)? What we want is not necessarily what we need. God is the one we trust.

Called to Be a Blessing

God’s calling to Abraham included a promise that all peoples on earth would be blessed through him (Ge 12:2-3). Throughout his life, we find him blessing others. He was a blessing to Lot, giving him his choice of the land (Ge 13:8-11), rescuing him from captivity (Ge 14:12-16), rescuing him in his prayers for Sodom and Gomorrah (Ge 19:29). He was a blessing to the cities who lost loved ones as war captives (Ge 14:16). He sought to be a blessing to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, asking if God would destroy the city if righteous remained in their walls (Ge 18:23-33). He was a blessing to the Philistines at Beersheba, creating peace between his people and them (Ge 21:22-34).

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, says the promise to Abraham that his offspring would bless all nations (Ge 22:18) was fulfilled in Jesus. If we belong to Christ, we are Abraham’s seed and heirs of the promise alongside Jesus, whether we are Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free (Ga 3:8-9, 14, 28-29). Today, Paul would have added “Democrat or Republican,” for we need to be more committed to King Jesus than to the USA or to any party that seeks to divide the body of Christ. (As Hebrews said above, we seek a better country and should have no ultimate allegiance to our current land.)

We see the promise of Abraham’s seed blessing others lived out in the story of Zacchaeus. When he announces that he will give half his wealth to the poor and repay fourfold anyone he has cheated, Jesus replies, “This man also is a son of Abraham” (Lk 19:9). That is, he is a blessing to others. We are called to bless others by being a servant to them. We have lots of opportunities that present themselves each and every day to be a son or a daughter of Abraham. Just a little thing we can do in the pandemic is to wear a mask in order to protect those more vulnerable than ourselves.

Have you ever pulled up to a drive-thru window and found out that the car in front of you paid for your food? Did you feel blessed? Did it make you want to pay for the person behind you so that they could share in the blessing you had experienced? Recently, a man ate at a Colorado restaurant for breakfast. His bill was $20.04. He asked his waitress how many employees were working that day. Seven, she replied. He asked her to make sure that every employee received the same amount of his tip. He wrote on the receipt, “COVID sucks! $200.00 for each employee today!” and tipped $1,400.00. That man was on a journey when he stopped by the restaurant. He saw others struggling through their own journeys. He chose to be a blessing that day. He trusted in something other than his personal resources that day. He trusted in community and enacted Jesus’ teaching that it is better to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).

Called to a Journey of Faith and Blessing (Ge 12:1-8)

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sermon, Stories That Shape Our Life

Judged Yet Given Hope

In the 2000s, Colorado judge Paul Sacco noticed a number of people who appeared in his court because they played loud, blaring music were repeat offenders. Simply paying a fine was not a sufficient deterrent to change their minds about respecting their neighbors. So Sacco came up with a unique method of punishment. He would make the offenders sit in a room for an hour listening to very loud music from Barry Manilow, Mozart, opera, the Barney theme song, and even Boy George. The offenders would leave the room wondering, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” and Sacco saw a dramatic drop in repeat offenders! Those who like classical music or soft rock would think the judgment held hope. We find that God provides hope in the midst of judgment as we consider the story of Noah (Ge 6-9).

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God’s Judgment Is Not out of Anger but from Regret

The story of Noah tells us God saw the wickedness of humans and how unjust they were to each other. Because of this, God would destroy all life on earth. Noah, however, was found to be righteous in his generation and so he, his family, and representative animals would be saved through this destruction in the ark Noah would build. In a podcast series looking at the anger of God in the Bible, Tim Mackie of the Bible Project noted the flood narrative never once mentions God being angry. The text only says God regretted making humans (6:6-7). God felt sorrow for what humanity was like and the role he played in creating humans, but he is not angry at them or demonstrating his wrath through the flood. As the Old Testament repeats often, God is slow to anger (e.g., Ex 34:6).

So when does God get angry in the Bible? When his people deny his call. Moses gave multiple excuses why he was not the right person to lead the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt. Eventually, God became angry (Ex 4:14-17). God also gets angry when his people improperly challenge the leader he selected. Aaron and Miriam didn’t like Moses’ marriage to a Cushite woman. Instead of talking to Moses about this issue, they began to raise doubts among the Israelites about Moses’ calling as leader. They don’t question a legitimate leadership issue. They questioned his choice of a woman from an ethnicity of which they did not approve (Nu 12:6-10). His anger manifests when people misuse the gifts he gives them. Balaam has the gift of prophecy and attempts to use this gift against the Israelites to curse them (Nu 22:21-23). God is angry when people practice injustice against one another. His anger destroys the Egyptian army attacking the fleeing Israelites (Ex 15:7-11). Some of the first commands to Israel describe God’s anger at those who mistreat foreigners, widows, and orphans (Ex 22:21-24). God gets angry when his people misrepresent him to the world. God’s response to the Israelites’ golden calf was anger and to wipe them out, like in the flood story (Ex 32:7-10). God gets angry when his people don’t trust him to provide for their needs. The people refuse to enter the land because they fear they will be defeated (Dt 1:29-36). Cursed to wander in the wilderness, they complain about their hardships despite God’s provisions for them (Nu 11:1-3). God is also angry when his people consistently reject him and break his covenant (Dt 31:15-18).

So we see two broad categories that evoke the anger of God. First, God becomes angry when his people are not faithful representatives. God created humans to bear his image. God called Israel to faithfully bear his image after humans refused collectively do do so. When Israel doesn’t do this, God becomes angry with his own people whom he has called. Today, Christians are called to be image bearers of Christ, so God’s anger would be against us. Second, God becomes angry with any person who preys on the disadvantaged or is consistently unjust in their dealings with other humans. In the story of the flood, God could have been angry, as we are told that the world is filled with violence because humans are inclined to evil and their acts were wicked. But more so, God is sorry that he had made humans. So, God withdraws his hand and the order established in Genesis 1 devolves back to the initial chaos (Ps 104:29-30). All humans die because of the flood, save Noah and his family (Ge 7:22-23).

Even in Judgment, God Remembers, God Gives Hope

At the height of the chaotic destruction comes these words of hope, “But God remembered Noah” (Ge 8:1). God remembered he made a promise to Noah and those with him in the ark to rescue and redeem them. So the creative Spirit of Gen 1 begins once again to blow upon the waters as they begin to recede and order returns. Over and over, we see God not give up on his creation. God rescues them not because of who they are but because God remembers the promises he made to them. As God begins to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he remembers his promise to Abraham and rescues Lot and Lot’s family (Ge 19:29). When Rachel cries out in her barrenness, God remembers Rachel (Ge 30:22). Not only does he give her a son, that son becomes the salvation of his people and many others. When God hears the groaning and cries of the Israelites, he remembered his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex 2:24). So he called Moses to deliver them.

Even before the flood began, God provided hope within the judgment. We are told that “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Ge 6:8). Among his generation, Noah was found to be righteous (Ge 6:9). That might not have been saying much, so we must always remember that God gives hope in judgment not because of who we are but because of who he is. Still, God makes a covenant with Noah to rescue him and those with him in the ark. God doesn’t base this on anything Noah has done or will do in the future. God promises to save him simply because of who God is (Ge 6:18). God did not only save Noah and his family. God did not only save the animals he identified as ritually clean. God saved some of every unclean animal as well! God saved more clean (seven pair) than unclean (one pair), but God saved some from every species nonetheless (Ge 7:1-2). This gives us hope for the nations that God is a gracious and compassionate God who does exceedingly more than we ask or imagine.

At the end of the story, there is hope. God also made a second covenant with Noah for all humans and all creatures. No matter how bad it gets, God promised he would never again remove the order that he had created to allow the world to return to the chaotic waters before creation (Ge 9:11). God promised to keep order in the cosmos, the regular rhythms of life that allow stability for growth and for planning (Ge 8:22). Throughout the latter part of the story, there is a lot of creation (Ge 1-2) language: creative wind/spirit (same Hebrew word) over the waters; command to be fruitful and multiply; humans as the image of God. The author is calling to mind the story as a renewal of creation, a second start.

God gave hope through a sign. God placed a rainbow in the sky as a sign of the covenant (Ge 9:12-17). Whenever it appeared during a rainstorm, it would be a reminder to God not to flood the world. It would be a promise to humans that there is hope that the rain will end. The rainbow reminds us that God can be trusted. Often in the stories of the Bible, God provides a sign of hope in the midst of judgment. When Eve is cursed, she is also promised that her offspring would crush the head of the serpent’s offspring (Ge 3:13). God tells Abraham he was wrong to jump ahead of God’s plans by having a child with Hagar, yet God gives both the sign of circumcision as witness to the covenant God made with Abraham (Ge 17:9-14). Though the child of David and Bathsheba dies because of David’s sins of rape and murder, out of that same union is born Solomon who becomes the bearer of the earlier covenant God made with David (2 Sam 12:24-25). In the midst of judgment, God offers us hope and calls us to trust him.

God’s Image Bearers Serve as Signs to Bring Hope

Christians are called to pray for the salvation of others and to serve God by bringing hope to the world by the way we live our lives as image bearers. We see the hope within judgment that God’s people can bring in the story of Abraham. God told him about the coming judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham begins to question God about his righteousness, asking if God would surely “sweep away” (flood language) the righteous with the unrighteous. Would God spare the cities for 50 righteous people? God said he would. Would God spare them for 45? yes. For 40? yes. Abraham negotiates God down to 10 righteous people. Each time God says for the sake of the few, he would not destroy the many. Abraham appears satisfied with the answer and ends at ten. What if Abraham had continued the query down to five or even one? Would the cities not have been destroyed (Ge 18:23-33)? As believers, we are called to pray for the people around us. We must not pray the destruction of the wicked but for the life of the righteous remnant. Jesus, after all, told us to love our enemies and prayed for the forgiveness of those who crucified him. Even though Abraham stopped at ten and the cities were destroyed, we are told that God “remembered” Abraham–the call to not destroy the righteous with the unrighteous–as so he saved Lot and family (Ge 19:29).

In a similar story, Moses talks God out of destroying the Israelites. Because of their sin at the Golden Calf, God wanted to wipe them all out and start over with Moses. God wanted Moses to be the new Noah. Moses, however, called to God to remember his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God promised them that their descendants would inherit the land. God could not go back on his promises. God also needed to think about what the Egyptians would say if he destroyed Israel. If God’s purpose was for Israel to bear witness to the nations of the love of God, how would destroying them advance that cause (Ex 32:11-14)? The next day, Moses returns to God (with blood on his hands for killing some of the Israelites once he actually saw their wickedness!) and tells God that, if anyone has to die, take his life but spare Israel. He offers his life as atonement for the people’s sins, though God rejects the offer (Ex 32:30-34). Christians need to offer their own lives for the lives of others, as Paul did through his many afflictions to advance the gospel (2 Tim 2:8-10). Paul prayed that he would gladly accept God’s judgment if only the Jews would come to faith in Christ (Rom 9:1-5). May we be symbols of hope in a world destined for judgment.

Martin Luther King Jr., in a jail in Birmingham, wrote a letter to the white Christian pastors who published a letter to the editor about him. In the midst of a stirring judgment against their inaction and lack of support (even to the point of questioning his tactics or condemning his motives), King held out hope that some would see their error and even join in his cause for justice.

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a week, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

As the body of Christ, we must pray for the salvation and protection of our communities. We are a sign of hope but we also must speak judgment about the injustice around us. We are the community saved within the ark of Christ’s sacrifice, but unlike Noah, we are able to captain lifeboats that seek out and save the lost from among our family, our neighbors, and even our enemies. When we speak judgment, it must be the work of the Spirit guiding us and not our own spirits and thoughts judging others. But far more often and far more importantly, we are called to bear the image of Christ, to be signs of hope that bring healing and forgiveness to our communities, our nation, and our world.

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Judged Yet Given Hope (Ge 6-9)

sermon, Stories That Shape Our Life

Exiled but Not Forgotten

2020 is in the rearview mirror, but she won’t let go. Civil unrest, political divisions, and COVID restrictions–many people feel as if they are exiles even if they are living and working in their own homes. Others wonder if God has forgotten about them, about us. The violence we’ve seen in the news, the anger and frustration that we see on social media, these are all issues rooted in the story of the Garden of Eden (Ge 2:5-3:24).

In Hebrew, the author’s description of the garden tells us “the tree of life [was] in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (2:9). This descriptive imagery symbolizes both God’s ideal plan for humanity as well as our present reality, the result of choosing our way over God’s plan. The tree of life’s central location in the garden represents God’s paramount goal for humanity was life in all its wonder and fulness. That was the heart of the divine project. The other tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree from which God warned humans not to eat, was nearby the tree of life, but it was off-center. And so, just as the tree was not centered in the garden, we read that as soon as the humans eat its fruit (3:6), every area of their lives becomes askew and off-balance. They are no longer comfortable with who they are (e.g., they realize they are naked, 3:7). Their relationship with one another is fractured (e.g., the male blames the female, 3:12, and their intimacy is so estranged that they can no longer share a single name, 3:20). They now struggle with the creation itself (e.g., the woman’s pains in childbirth increase, 3:16, and the man’s work becomes toilsome due to thorns and thistles, 3:17-19) and even their relationship with God is impacted (e.g., they hide from God, 3:8).

Because their lives are now out of harmony with heaven and earth, God no longer wants the humans to eat from the tree of life. God’s will for them–life–has not changed. Rather, it is the circumstances of the moment that have changed. If the humans now eat from the tree of life, in their present condition, they will live forever in discord with God, other humans, creation, and even their own selves. So God exiles them from the garden (3:23-24) as an act of judgment, but even more as an act of love and compassion. Though humans had rejected God’s plan for their own way, the story emphasizes God’s continued care for his human creatures. We see his concern prior to their judgment and exile, when God calls out and asks them where they are, knowing that they are hiding. He asks them how they know they are naked, have they eaten from the tree, what have they done, all the while knowing exactly what had occurred. In this way God offered them opportunities to confess their sin and reconcile their relationship with him (opportunities they unfortunately do not fully embrace). After pronouncing judgment but before exiling them, God sees they are uncomfortable with their nakedness. God could have reprimanded them for not accepting themselves as he had created them. Instead, in an accommodating act of service, he lovingly removes their tattered fig-leafs and provides them with more suitable attire (3:21). Even after they are sent into exile, God does not forget them nor does he give up on his plan for them–life. The remainder of the Bible is the story of God’s reclamation project for his lost creation, his effort to redeem them from their exile. Humans, however, in the midst of our exile often miss the beauty of the Biblical story and misunderstand God’s plan to restore his creation to life everlasting.

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First, we misunderstand the story of exile when we don’t realize it is a story about forgiveness. After the garden story, we read about the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain kills his younger brother Abel, so God punishes him. Cain will be exiled to a nomadic life of wandering in the East. Cain protests that this curse is too much to bear, that without the protection of his family clan others will surely kill him. To show God’s continued concern, that exile does not mean we are forgotten, God places his mark of protection on Cain and promises that anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over (Ge 4:11-16). Within four generations, however, God’s offer of grace to Cain is misunderstood. The compassionate protection of God becomes the privileged right of humans. God’s mercy is now a man’s threat. Lamech boasts to his wives that he had killed a man. If Cain was avenged seven times then Lamech would be avenged seventy-seven times (Ge 4:23-24)!

In stark contrast, Jesus taught his disciples a radically different way. His followers should be like God, dispensing undeserved mercy and demonstrating unconditional love. When Peter asked Jesus how many times we should forgive someone when they wrong us, Peter thought a reasonable number would be seven times. Jesus, however, rejected this. Not seven times, Jesus said, but seventy-seven times. And so Jesus inverted the Cain and Lamech story. The story of increasing violence and vengeance was to be replaced with a new story of unlimited forgiveness despite wrongs incurred (Mt 18:21-22). As Christians, we bear the mark of Christ, a mark that challenges us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mt 5:44).

Second, we misunderstand the story of exile when we don’t understand it is a story about inclusion. Later in the Old Testament story, the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian Empire, who exiled conquered people groups by scattering them throughout their empire. Even later still, the southern kingdom of Judah was also conquered, this time by the Babylonian Empire, who sent the Jews into exiled communities throughout Babylon. Yet God did not forget the Jews in exile. The opening vision of Ezekiel (Eze 1:4-28) describes a mobile throne on which God comes from Jerusalem to be with his people in their exile. And Isaiah prophesied that God would go through his people’s trials with them and proclaimed the hope that God would ultimately bring them back from the east, west, north and south (Is 43:2-7).

The Jews did return from their exile in Babylon, but the “lost tribes” of Israel scattered among the nations did not return. Over the centuries, hope developed among the Jews that the the tribes would return when Messiah came. Jesus took this nationalistic hope and re-centered it back onto God’s inclusive purposes. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus spoke of people from east, west, north, and south (an allusion to Isaiah’s vision) coming to sit alongside Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets at a feast in the Kingdom of God (Lk 13:28-29). Since Jesus proclaimed right before this that the entrance to the kingdom is narrow (Lk 13:23-24), one might think the returning ones were the lost tribes of Israel. But Jesus tells his Jewish audience that many of them would weep because they would find themselves thrown out of the kingdom. Matthew clarifies the identity of these new arrivals from east and west by placing this statement by Jesus immediately after the story of a Roman Centurion whom Jesus said had faith greater than anyone he had encountered in all Israel (Mt 8:8-13). That is, the Roman would be at the feast. So the promise of people returning to the kingdom feast was not a statement about the lost tribes of Israel, or not just them. It was the return of the lost tribes of Adam; that is, a return from exile open to all nations and people. This hope was embedded in God’s covenant with Abraham. His seed would bless all nations (Ge 22:18). It was also the fuller understanding of Isaiah’s own prophecy.

Even in the narratives of the Old Testament we see God’s unfolding plan has an inclusive strand even as its primary focus was momentarily on Abraham and his descendants. As the story of Abraham’s family unfolds, we see family lines break off along the way, yet occasionally descendants from these other lines wander back into the grand narrative. Lot separates from his uncle Abraham. His descendants become the Moabites. Generations later, a Moabite named Ruth re-enters the story and becomes the ancestor of both King David and Jesus the Messiah (Mt 1:5). When twins are born to Abraham’s son Isaac, the covenant continues through the younger, Jacob, and not the older, Esau. Yet Esau’s descendants, the Edomites, apparently produce the early form of the Old Testament book of Job. The setting of Job is the land of Uz, which Lamentations 4:21 identifies with the land of Edom. Job, the righteous man who suffered greatly, was an Edomite. After Sarah’s death, Abraham marries a second time and one of his second wife’s sons is Midian. Generations later, we meet a priest of Midian named Jethro, who becomes Moses’ father-in-law and serves as a wise counselor to Moses (Ex 18). Even the accursed Canaanites, the people to be driven from the land by Joshua and the Israelites, were not completely exiled from the story. Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute, helped Israel conquer Jericho and became an ancestor of both David and Jesus (Mt 1:5). These are just a few of the side stories in the Bible that hint to us the plan of God was not exclusive to the Jews but included all the nations.

Finally, we misunderstand the story of exile when we don’t recognize it is a story about reconciliation. Jacob, the one through whom the promises of Abraham were to pass, stole his older brother’s birthright and blessing. Because of his actions, Jacob ended up in exile, sent away by his parents to live with his mother’s family in order to avoid his brother’s wrath. Yet God did not forget Jacob in exile. He promised to bless him and Jacob was blessed. Eventually, Jacob began the journey out of exile back to his homeland. Soon he received a report that his brother Esau was coming to meet him with a contingent of men. The reader wonders if we are about to experience another Cain and Abel story. Will the older brother again kill the younger? Instead, we read that as Jacob repeatedly bows down in submission as he approaches his brother, Esau runs to cover the remaining ground between them. Esau then throws his arms around Jacob’s neck, not in anger but in joy, and he kisses him. Then they both weep (Ge 33:4). Esau tells Jacob he had also been blessed by God. He had long since put aside his anger at his brother for his deceptive actions and Esau longed to be reconciled to his estranged brother. Now, God had truly blessed him for Jacob was home (Ge 33:9).

The story of Jacob and Esau is likely the basis for Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32), though the father takes the place of Esau in the parable. Like Esau, the father runs to meet the returning exile, throws his arms around him, and kisses him (Lk 15:20). It is easy to see that the story emphasizes the importance for exiles to desire reconciliation with God, our Father. But Jesus also wanted us to seek reconciliation with other humans. There is an older brother in Jesus’ parable that we sometimes overlook. “But his older brother was in the field” Jesus continues the story (Lk15:25). How will this brother respond? Will he respond like Cain, who killed his brother “in the field” (Ge 3:8)? Or will he respond in reconciliation like Esau (and like the father in the parable)? The older brother’s response was somewhere in between, though closer to Cain’s response than Esau’s. He was angry his younger brother had left while he remained behind (in his words) to “slave” for his father (Lk 15:29). He was also angry that his father threw a party for this wanderer but never showed such honor to him for his continued work in his father’s home and fields.

Jesus’ message to the Jews hearing this parable was that they shouldn’t be like the older brother. Though they were God’s servants longer, as Abraham’s descendants, they should welcome these new members of God’s family, the Gentiles and other “sinners” they currently looked down on. Instead of rejection and anger, they should be like Esau, who welcomed back his younger brother Israel/Jacob. Today, Christians stand in the place of Jesus’ Jewish audience then. Will we be like the prodigal’s older brother, demanding God do things our way and angry when God blesses others we don’t think deserve his grace? Or will we be like Jacob’s older brother, happy with what God has given us and rejoicing to accept the returning lost members of our family?

We are all exiles in this world but we are called to be God’s witnesses through the empowering Spirit of Christ. Peter tells us that, though we are exiles, we should live such good lives that even those who falsely accuse us cannot help but glorify God because of what they see. We are also called as exiles to respect the government God places over us (1Pe 2:11-15). The war we fight is against sinful desires and spiritual powers, not against flesh and blood (Eph 6:12). While we are free, we are told we must not abuse this freedom by using it as an excuse to do evil. Instead, we are slaves to God and so servants to those made in God’s image (1Pe 2:16).

During the height of the Civil War, when many Northerners grew weary of the conflict and were ready to cede the Southern states, Edward Everett Hale wrote a short story to rekindle the imagination as to why a Union of States was so important. His short story was called The Man without a Country. The main character in the fictional story joined Aaron Burr’s insurrection in the West and was subsequently captured and court-martialed. During his trial, the young man foolishly asserted, “D—-m the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” The judge’s response was that he would indeed never hear again the name of the United States nor would he see her. The young man was reprimanded to the custody of the Navy and until his death (over five decades later) the man with no country was transferred from ship to ship while remaining at sea. Crews were given orders never to speak about the United States in his presence and he was never allowed to come within sight of the American shore. On the occasion his ship put to shore, it was always a distant one. Through the years he earned the respect of the officers and sailors with whom he sailed. At the end of his life, he was graced by a single final conversation about the nation from which he was exiled, during which he asked numerous questions about its growth and condition. The love he expressed to his companion was so strong that the friend could not bring himself to tell the man about the division and decimation brought upon the States through the then-current Civil War. At the man’s death, a slip of paper was found marking a verse in the Bible, “They desire a country, even a heavenly: where God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (He 11:16, KJV). He asked to be buried at sea but requested a stone be set up either at the site of his rebellion or his trial which read, “In memory of Philip Nolan, Lieutenant in the Army of the United States. He loved his country as no other man has loved her; but no man deserved less at her hands.” Though an exile, he developed a deep respect and love for the country he never heard of or saw again and he truly learned the meaning of forgiveness, inclusion, and reconciliation.

We are called to trust God in exile. This world in its present fallen condition is not our home. As exiles, we are to join in God’s inclusive plan for forgiveness and reconciliation centered in the life and reign of Jesus Christ our Lord. We may be in exile, but we are not forgotten. God is with us, and he will lead us home.

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Exiled but Not Forgotten (Gen 3:1-24)


Why Some Christians Could Support the Assault on the Capitol

Most Christians were horrified by the events that took place in the Capitol building this week, especially seeing images of “Jesus Saves” posters and “Jesus” flags among the crowd.  What could lead certain Christians to mix religion and politics in ways Jesus frankly condemned?

  1. Great Awakenings led many to over-individualize “the gospel.”  “Pray a prayer” and you’re accepted by Christ, regardless of how you live.  But the gospel is about reconciling heaven and earth, loving your enemies, and forgiving those who wrong you seventy times seven times.
  2. The mockery some Christians face due to fidelity to the Bible has led some to understand “faith” as believing in spite of evidence.  Over time, this opens them to various conspiracy theories.  But biblical faith is trusting allegiance in Jesus as King and has its evidences.
  3. Some Christians argue America was founded as a Christian nation, leading at times to an unhealthy blend of cross and flag.  While many founders were Christian, others were deist, atheist, Jew-even Muslim.  In reality, America was a refuge for all religiously persecuted.
  4. In post-Christian America, many Christians feel the loss of status.  Some believe political “culture wars” are necessary though Christianity initially emerged and thrived as a minority movement.  Lasting cultural change comes by small groups, like a little yeast added to flour.
  5. Premillennialism is popular in many circles with emphases that the world will become more evil, Christians will be persecuted, and a “one-world government” will rise.  As America become post-Christian, it is “fulfilled prophecy” so some accept “deep state” theories.
  6. In society, postmodernism has given up on objective truth.  There is my truth and your truth.  Power determines which prevails.  Unfortunately, many Christians have adopted this perspective, despite the one who said, “I am the truth,” demonstrating his power through sacrifice.
  7. With the decline of Christian power, many see any inconvenience as “persecution.”  Interestingly, they accuse others of “playing the victimization card” when they do the same.  Sadly, they insult the term persecution as millions of Christians face genuine persecution today.
  8. White evangelicals vote on one issue-abortion.  Democrats are “non-Christians,” they argue, despite support from a majority of black evangelicals.  Sanctity of life is biblical but social justice is more so.  In addition, black Christians don’t view the world “getting worse.”
  9. Many white evangelicals have increasingly hyperbolized Reagan’s emphasis on limited government into a distrust of all government.  “Not by might . . .but by my Spirit” they might quote, often not seeing their own power-plays as Zechariah’s chief concern.
  10. With the rise of talk radio, 24/7 news, and the Internet, ministers cannot compete with pundits for influence of their congregations.  Talking heads and pundits get multiple hours to shape thoughts while a minister, at best, gets 30 minutes.  Thus many conform to this world.
  11. Many Christians allow one segment of the media to tell them to “distrust the media” without realizing that all media must be consumed with discrimination and critical reflection.  To keep you “tuned in,” like click-bait, they often say what your itching ears want to hear.
  12. Search engines and social media algorithms predict what users want.  Searches can reinforce assumptions, creating an echo-chamber of ideas where any outside voice is deemed “heresy.”  Churches must reclaim their role as moderators of discourse-one body with diverse opinions.

Christians should pray for healing in our nation.  Christians on both sides of the aisle should be agents of reconciliation.  Faithful engagement of society as humble servants of Christ is needed now more than ever.  Your enemy is not flesh and blood.  Put aside the Old Man.

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