Monday, October 27, 2008

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Trinity: Reformation for the World: Ex. 20:1-2, 8-11

Opening Prayer: Gracious Father, we thank you that You have made us your children and that you love it when we pray to you as our Father. We thank you that you have made us part of your family, and that you feed us and clothe us and care for us and all of our needs. Feed us now, our Father, visit us in our distress, for we pray in the name of the righteous Son, our Lord Jesus, and Amen!

After visiting Strasbourg, Gerard Roussel, the chaplain of the queen of Navarre, reported in 1526 that the way the poor were cared for was one of the most impressive aspects of the Reformation. In the city of Nuremburg, alongside the reformation of the baptismal rite and the translation of the liturgy into German was a new city-wide plan for caring for all of the poor. Homes for the care of the elderly, widowed, and orphaned were run by the deacons of the churches in every protestant city. Calvin taught early on that the office of deacon was primarily an office called to care for the poor, and the Reformation in Geneva included the establishment of hospitals, schools for orphans, homes, and support for refugees. As we commemorate Reformation Day, it is good to remember what it is that we are celebrating. Often we emphasize the doctrinal legacy of the Reformation, but hand in hand with that came an aggressive ministry to the poor, the strangers, and orphans and widows in their midst. What’s really wonderful, is that over the last several years, God has been giving us some of these same opportunities, and the following is in many ways something of a “go, team, go!” This is an important part of what it means to be “Reformed.” But as we celebrate the Reformation, this is a good opportunity to think through this aspect of Reformational living. I want suggest that it was the reform of the Mass that was directly related to caring for the poor. At the center of reformation is worship, and this means gathering around the table of the Lord to feast upon His Word and Sacrament. One of the great blessings that God has bestowed on us is a community of Sabbath celebration and feasting which flows out of our worship, and when the people of God understand this gift, it breaks out in families and cities

The Text: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy…” (Ex. 20:8-11)

Sabbath and Feasting are for the World
The Sabbath command begins with the word “remember.” The Sabbath and all feasts are memorials in time. And this act of remembrance was to include not only taking rest but also giving rest. As the command makes clear, the requirement to rest extended to family, visitors, and even to animals (Ex. 20:10). The Sabbath principle also applied to the land (Ex. 23:10-11, Lev. 25) and debts (Dt. 15:1-2). And the supreme expression of Sabbath was in the 50th year, the year of jubilee (Lev. 25:8-17) which began with the sounding of the trumpet on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 25:9-10). But the Sabbath was not merely a day off; it was one of the high feast days of the Old Covenant (Lev. 23:1-3). What is significant is that these feasts (like the Sabbath) were not merely for the enjoyment of those who threw them and their friends. The Feast of Weeks was for the fatherless, the widows, and the strangers (Dt. 16:10-12). The Feast of Tabernacles was for the fatherless, the strangers, and the widows (16:13-14). And this emphasis was to be a way of life for Israel because they had once been slaves in Egypt (Dt. 24:10-22). The offering of firstfruits and tithes was likewise for the world (Dt. 14:27-29, 26:11-15). The Jewish leaders who established Purim also clearly understood the Sabbath principle (Est. 9:18-22).

Let us Keep the Feast
It is no accident then that as the early church grew and multiplied, at the center of that covenant community was the doctrine of the apostles, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers (Acts 2:42). At the center of the early church was worship, the Sabbath Feast of the New Covenant. And because this Sabbath Feast was the Old Covenant feasts all grown up and glorious, it’s not surprising that there was almost immediately problems distributing the bread to the widows (Acts 6:1). When the gospel breaks out in a city, one of the greatest challenges should be figuring out how to care for all the orphans and widows. This challenge appears to be the origin of the deaconate, and immediately following the close of the canon, we find deacons assisting with the Lord’s Supper and taking the bread and other alms out to the poor of the church and community (e.g. Tertullian). This is the probable connection for why the deacons came to be primarily liturgical assistants in the middle ages rather than leaders of mercy ministry. But in the Reformation this was recovered by all the major reformers. Worship – and the Lord’s Supper in particular – was for the world. The gifts of bread and wine and milk and honey that were placed on the table during the offertory were alms for the poor. When we break the one loaf here, it is meant to be multiplied to feed thousands. As we “remember” here and celebrate the Sabbath feast here, we are immediately called upon to give Sabbath and to remember the strangers, orphans, and widows.

Conclusions & Applications
As we celebrate Reformation Day and All Saints Day, we do so as people who are thankful and grateful all the way down to the ground. This is because we understand the gospel, and when we do, we immediately see our mission. There is a rich legacy of mercy ministry that has been handed down to us in the Protestant Reformation. Hand in hand with the recovery of the gospel and faithful worship was the recovery of mercy ministry.

As we pursue this calling it must be remembered that part of this means not carelessly creating more strangers, fatherless, and widows (1 Tim. 5:8). There is no either/or dichotomy here. The command is still there to love your wife, love your children, and love your neighbor. But the promise is that there will be more oil (2 Kgs. 4). There will be more than enough bread to feed them all.

And we know this because there is still bread for us. Every week God invites strangers, fatherless, and widows to his feast. The Christian Church is the orphanage of God; he has not left us as orphans in the world but has given us His Spirit. We were once strangers, but we have been brought near; God has given us the Church as our Mother and himself as our Father. In this family there is more than enough to go around. As we celebrate Reformation Day, we celebrate the restoration of the gospel to the masses; we celebrate the bread of life for the world.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Closing Prayer: Our Father, you have bestowed on us great mercy, great grace, and you keep giving us good things in spite of ourselves, in spite of our ingratitude, in spite of our squandering. You keep inviting us to your feast, you keep inviting us into your rest, into your Sabbath. Teach us to truly rest in you, to rest such that our sons and daughters and spouses, and friends, and enemies are blessed. Through Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, who taught us to pray singing…


Taking the Feast with You

“Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the LORD your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your hand, which you shall give as the LORD your God blesses you. You shall rejoice before the LORD your God, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant, the Levite who is within your gates, the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are among you, at the place where the LORD your God chooses to make His name abide. And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and you shall be careful to observe these statutes.” (Dt. 16:11-13)

Today is Reformation Sunday. With Protestant Christians throughout the world, we give thanks to God for the 16th century Reformation. One of the central acts of the Reformation was the reform of the Mass, a restoration of the Lord’s Supper to the Lord’s people. What had become a superstitious and elitist cult-like activity was reformed according to Scripture, which centrally meant a recovery of this meal as a feast of thanksgiving for all of the people of God. We are gathered here as heirs of the Reformation to celebrate this High Feast of the New Covenant. This liturgy, this service of worship is a festival gathering every Lord’s Day. We gather here to read and sing the Scriptures, our epic poem of victory over sin and death and evil. We sing our songs of praise and celebration; we raise our hands and sit down together at the table of the Lord to rejoice together in the salvation of our God. This feast is the pinnacle of our Sabbath; here we sit down and eat, drink, and rejoice, resting in the provision of God. This festival, this feast is all of the Old Covenant feasts and Sabbaths all grown up and glorious. As I mentioned in the exhortation this morning, one of the central features of the Reformation was the renewal of a robust mercy ministry. Cities throughout the Reformation became famous for the care of strangers, orphans, and widows. The fact the cities who restored the table of the Lord to the people of the Lord became famous for caring for orphans and widows is not an accident. When this feast is restored to the people of God, and they understand what sort of grace this is, it breaks out into the world. Feasting here means feasting everywhere. And feasting means rejoicing before the Lord not only with our families but with the strangers, the fatherless, and the widows in our midst. This bread and wine of the New Covenant is not only for the remission of your sins, but for the remission of the sins of many. So come and rejoice before the Lord, you and your sons and your daughters, and rejoice in such a way that you preparing your heart to take this feast with you into the world. This is the grace of God for you; go and be grace for the world.


Bread for the World

At Pentecost, when the Spirit was poured out on the Church, and the gospel burst out into the world from Jerusalem, there was almost immediately a problem with figuring out how to take care of all the widows in Jerusalem. As the early Christians feasted at the Lord’s Table and from house to house, they understood that this feasting was for the strangers, the fatherless, and the widows in their midst. Throughout the Old Covenant, there was the repeated refrain that God’s people must care for the strangers, the fatherless, and the widows in their midst. And this calling was renewed in the New Testament: When the leaders of the early Church confirmed Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles, they gave him the right hand of fellowship and only insisted that he remember the poor, the very thing, Paul says that he was eager to do. Likewise, James famously insists that pure and undefiled religion is to visit orphans and widows in their distress. When the Reformation broke in Europe, it should come as no surprise to find that this gospel renewal almost immediately included a renewal in mercy ministry. Cities across the continent became famous for their care of immigrants, orphans, and widows. As we celebrate Reformation Day, the exhortation is to go and do likewise. First, care for the people in your midst such that there are no functional strangers, orphans, or widows. It will not do to talk about how important mercy ministry is and simultaneously neglect your own wife and children. In your zeal to care for the fatherless, the strangers, and widows do not create new ones. Remember what Paul says to Timothy, a man who does not provide for his own household is worse than an unbeliever. And he says that in the context of caring for widows. Secondly, do not believe the lie that says that after your own family there will not be anything left. This lie says that if we extend ourselves beyond our family and close circle of friends we will neglect our children, we will be too strapped financially. There just won’t be enough. This is really just a lack of faith. Jesus fed 5000 with a little boy’s sack lunch, and therefore you have nothing to fear. Yes, love your children, love your wife, love your husband, but there will be more for you. There was more oil for the widow and her son, and there will be enough bread for the world.


Rendered Harmless

In The Contemplative Pastor Eugene Peterson writes: "But if I, even for a moment, accept my culture's definition of me, I am rendered harmless. I can denounce evil and stupidity all I wish and will be tolerated in my denunciations as a court jester is tolerated. I can organize their splendid goodwill and they will let me do it, since it is only for weekends.

The essence of being a pastor begs for redefinition. To that end, I offer three adjectives to clarify the noun: unbusy, subversive, apocalyptic." (16)


Sitting on His Rock

I love the fact that when the angel comes and busts Jesus out of the tomb on Easter Sunday, he rolls the stone away from the door of the tomb and sits on it (Mt. 28:2).

He's just sitting on the stone, all white, all bright like lightening, and the guards are shaking with fear and fainting.

I love that the angel is just sitting on that stone. I think he was probably smiling while he was sitting on that stone, smiling at those trembling guards. He knew it was the beginning of a new world, and he was the lucky angel, the one chosen by God from all eternity to roll the stone away and then to sit on it and watch the Roman guards squirm in their terror.

I wonder if the angel had been practicing his earthquake-stone-moving moves for some time or if he just did it on the fly.

And then the angel tells the women not to be afraid. He knows they came looking for Jesus who was crucified, but he's not here, the angel explains. Again, I can't help hearing a smile in those words. He's not here. But, the angel wants them to see where the Lord lay. The angel is beaming with joy.

Go tell his disciples that He is risen from dead, and He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him.

And the angel adds one more line: See, I have told you. There he is sitting on that gigantic rock that formally hid the Prince of Life. There he is sitting, all beaming, all white, and he points out that he has told them.

See, I've told you. He is risen from the dead. And I'm just sitting here on my rock all bright and shiny. All things are new.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Beginning with Nothing

The story of Ruth opens with death. The beginning of Ruth is the story of a dying family, barren women, and famine. The land is dead. Wombs are dead. And the family is dying and falling apart. The story of Ruth opens in darkness, hopelessness, and emptiness. That is the beginning of the story of Ruth. Naomi returns to Bethlehem at the beginning of the story in this state, at the beginning of the barley harvest. In the beginning there was death. In the beginning there was famine. In the beginning there was emptiness. And of course all of this should remind us of the first beginning, the ‘in the beginning’ that precedes all ‘beginnings.’

In an important sense beginnings always come from brokenness. The first beginning, the beginning of the world there was nothingness, but once God began to speak worlds into existence, all other beginnings come from the reshaping and reforming of what has come previously. God divides light from darkness and begins the cycle of days and nights. God divides waters and creates the sky. God divides a rib from Adam and creates a woman. God divides the sea, and his people walk through on dry ground, a new people, a new nation. God says that sons must leave their father and mother and be joined to their wife and become one with her. The disintegration of the family line of Seth through sin and wickedness made way for Noah and the new world after the flood. The burdens of Pharaoh and his policies of population control made way for Moses and the new world after the Exodus. And even the chaos and instability of the period of the judges made way for the monarcy, the new world under the Kings. Beginnings after the first beginning mimic the original beginning. Just as there was darkness and formlessness and emptiness in the first beginning, there is now some degree of brokenness, darkness, death, and emptiness involved in every new beginning. There is a sort of nothingness that precedes the beginning of something new. And all of this is the glory of God because he delights to do the impossible. He delights to speak light into darkness, to speak worlds from nothings.

And this is true of baptism, and it is particularly evident in infant baptism. When we bring an infant to be baptized we bring a person who has only just begun to be formed. We bring a child who has only recently broken out of their mother’s womb which involves pain and bloodshed. The birth of a child is always a certain kind of death. But even more than that what we say about infant baptism is fairly amazing. We say that these children are about to be formally engrafted into the Lord Jesus. We confess one baptism for the remission of sins, and therefore this baptism is their baptism for the remission of sins. We believe the promise of Peter at Pentecost that the Holy Spirit hovers over these waters and promises to fill these new members of the body of Christ. And so it’s not surprising that Christians have often tried to tame the Scriptures, downplaying what baptism actually means and often simply limiting it to older children or adults who show more signs of being fully formed into Christians. But what this does is get the creation story backwards. These well intentioned brothers and sisters want to have a world first and then the words ‘let there be light.’ They want to see the Red Sea mostly divided and then they’ll permit Moses to declare to Israel, “Stand still! And see the salvation of the Lord, which he will perform for you today.” To insist upon adult baptism is to insist that we must see God perform his work before we will believe his words. But this is not faith.

And so when we bring an infant to be baptized, the objection is, look he/she is really cute and all, but we don’t know if he/she believes, we don’t know what they will become, there’s nothing there yet. She’s formless, she’s only just begun, there’s not enough there to work with, not enough to go on. And our faith-filled answer needs to be: exactly. You are exactly right. There is nothing here but too helpless infants. They cannot do anything for themselves. They cannot speak, their thoughts and actions and desires are still hardly formed. There is hardly anything here, and that is just how our God likes it. He comes to us in our brokenness. He comes to us in our emptiness. He comes to us in our death, in our helplessness, in our inability to do anything. And he says, “Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord.” While there was still darkness, God said, “Let there be light.” While there was still a Red Sea and charging chariots and horsemen, God said, “Watch this.” While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. And therefore, why would it be surprising in the slightest that God would take babies, infants into his arms and bless them and say, I have saved you. I have forgiven you. I have washed you clean. You are mine, and you will do great things in my kingdom. Of course that’s what God does because God delights to begin with nothing. He begins with death. He begins with helplessness. He begins with a widow and her barren daughter in-law in the midst of famine. He begins at the beginning of barley harvest, and he visits his people.

That’s all that matters. If God visits his people then we are saved. We are completely and unalterably dependent on him. If God is far off then we are to be pitied, and we have no reason for hope. But if God is near; if he visits his people, then we have every reason to believe, every reason to hope. We serve the God of beginnings. We serve the Lord Jesus who is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega. He who begins good works in us completes them to the day of Christ Jesus.

Therefore, Aaron and Emily, Nate and Alexis, as you bring your children up, do so in this faith. And particularly as they face the challenges of life, the brokenness of sin and death, the trials and temptations of growing up in the Church, teach them to remember how God began with them. He declared their forgiveness ahead of time, he promised them the world at the beginning, he promised them life and glory even while they were tiny babies in their mothers’ arms. And teach them to believe that God delights to accomplish what he has spoken. Teach them that death and brokenness and emptiness is always the beginning of the story. Teach them to believe that life and resurrection always lie ahead. And live this out with one another. Amen!


Bread in Bethlehem

We noted this morning that Bethlehem literally means “house of bread.” In the story of Ruth, Naomi goes from a married woman with two sons to a childless widow. Like the land with no bread, Naomi has become a woman with no life. She has become barren like the land she inhabits. Naomi returns to Bethlehem because she hears that Yahweh has visited his people by giving them bread (1:6). Of course this is not the last time something significant happens in Bethlehem. Many centuries later, God would also visit his people. In Luke 1, Zacharias’ tongue is finally loosed and he is able to speak, he is filled with the Holy Spirit and sings, “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people.” In the story of Ruth, God sends bread to Bethlehem, and later a son is born to Ruth to give life to the family of Elimelech. In the story of Luke, God again visits his people Israel in the midst of their barrenness, and he gives them a son, the Son, and this Son is also the bread of life, the true manna which comes down from heaven. And the glory of the New Covenant is that God promises to visit us every week. Every Lord’s Day when we gather for worship, we gather in the midst of various forms of death and famine and barrenness. Whether it is literal famine, economic crisis, death and sickness of loved ones, or whether it is the barrenness of sin and evil that plagues us and our families, it is in the midst of that that God declares that he has visited you, and he gives you himself in the form of bread. Your faithful Father visits you with a Son; He visits you and gives you life in the midst of your death, in the midst of your famine, he feeds you. And if he is feeding you, then you must believe that he intends to raise you up, to give you life, to bless and renew you . So come and believe. Come and rejoice. The God who cared for Naomi cares for you. The God who gave bread to hungry, gives bread to you.


Twenty-Third Sunday in Trinity: Ruth 1:1-6

Opening Prayer: Gracious Father, we come now before you because we are hungry. We live in a land that is growing more and more barren. We live in a land of famine, and therefore we ask for you to feed us. You gave bread to your people in the wilderness, and you have given us Jesus who is the bread of life. Feed us now by your Word, through your Spirit, that might know you, love you, and follow you.

Ruth opens with a pretty desperate scene of famine, barrenness, and death.

Days of the Judges
The book opens with chronological information placing the events of Ruth in the period of the Judges. The traditional date of the Exodus is around 1445 B.C., and if we tack on the forty years in the wilderness and the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, that puts us around 1350 B.C. Which makes the period of the judges run from that point until Saul is anointed King around 1050 B.C. It’s likely that the events of Ruth are taking place somewhere between 1150-1100ish. Remember too that this story is written in the time of David (Ruth 4:22).

We’ve Heard This Story Before
Bethlehem is near where Rachel, Jacob’s wife, was buried, on the way to Ephrath (Gen. 35:19). This is where the name Ephrathite comes from: Ephrath or Ephratha is apparently the old name for Bethlehem (cf. Gen. 48:7). One of the striking aspects of the beginning of Ruth are the multiple echoes of other stories that are evident from the start. “A certain man of Bethlehem, Judah…” is reminiscent of two very odd stories that have just concluded the book of Judges. The first has a man leaving Bethlehem (like Elimelech) (Jdgs. 17:7-8), and the other is related by its connection to Bethlehem. These stories seem to be commenting on the degeneration of Israel and the failure of the Levites in particular. Both have a very simple moral that includes the injunction not to leave Bethlehem. So that invites us to be a little suspicious of Elimelech at the first. At the same time, this is not the first time in Scripture we have seen a man moving his family to a new land due to famine. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all did it (Gen. 12:10, 26:1, 42:5). But that was before the conquest. After the conquest, famine was not supposed to plague the land of Canaan unless they were unfaithful, a curse that would fall upon Israel if they were unfaithful to the covenant (Dt. 28:48, 32:24). And proof of the curse of God is the fact that instead of coming up out of the land blessed and prospering as Abraham, Isaac, (and Jacob), Elimelech and his sons die there (Ruth 1:3, 6). It’s reasonable to suggest that the state of the Levites in Bethlehem is directly related to the general state of the city. There is no food because the law of God has ceased to be their food, and the story of Eli and his sons is probably exemplary of this (1 Sam. 2:12-17). There are ironies woven through the text here: there is a famine in “Bethlehem”, the “house of bread.” Elimelech’s name means “my God is king” and yet he’s leaving the promised land of his God. Another allusion is bound up in Elimelech’s destination: Elimelech takes his family to the land of Moab. Moab was the son of the older daughter of Lot by incest (Gen. 19:37). Thus, interestingly, in a matter of verses we have two “daughters” in Moab again, and once again the problem is that there is no man for them (Ruth 1:11). This land was given to Lot, and therefore was not part of the promise land (Dt. 2:9), and Moab was not known for its friendliness (e.g. Num. 22-23, Judg. 3, 11). The story of Lot in Gen. 19 has a number of parallels to the story in Judges 19.

Curse, Death, and Famine
There is death in the land and in the family of Elimelech. There’s a famine of bread and men. Notice that after getting married, they dwelled in the land for 10 years before the two sons died. This means that there was barrenness in the family. Not only is Naomi “barren” through the death of her husband, her sons do not raise up any children, and then Naomi becomes barren through the death of her sons (1:11). This reminds us of Samuel’s mother, another barren woman, who lived in this same general era. All forms of barrenness are related. And this is part of understanding the exhaustive nature of the covenant. The covenant extends to all of life. God wants all of us, and this is ultimately so that he might bless all of it. There is no compartmentalizing of sin, and this also relates to the broader body of Christ. When one member suffers, we all suffer. Remember Achan, but also remember Jesus.
Naomi hears that Yahweh has “visited” his people. This word is not a throwaway. The first time this word shows up in the Old Testament is in Gen. 21:1 where God visits barren Sarah and blesses her with conception. The word is used several times during the story of Joseph to describe Joseph being placed in places of authority, being raised up from humiliation, being blessed. Later, when Joseph is dying, he tells his brothers that God will “visit” Israel and bring them up out of the land of Egypt (Gen. 50:24-25). And it is this same word that describes Yahweh’s activity toward Israel as he comes to deliver Israel out of bondage in Israel (Ex. 3:16, 4:31). Another use of this word is to count/list/enumerate (e.g. Num. 1-4).
Naomi urges her daughter in-laws to return to their mothers’ houses in order that Yahweh might give them “rest” in the house of a husband (1:9). This is the same word used to describe the camps of Israel on their way to the land of Canaan (Num. 10:33), and later the rest that Israel enjoy in the land (1 Kgs. 8:56 cf. Ps. 23:2, 95:11). When Solomon describes the rest, he particularly associates it with Yahweh keeping his “good promise” to Moses. In Psalm 132, it is particularly associated with God’s resting place in the Temple with the ark (Ps. 132:8, 14). Isaiah prophesies of Christ and says that his “resting place” shall be glorious (Is. 11:10). Ruth follows Naomi to find this resting place.

Conclusions & Applications
What are you running away from? All the appearances are that Elimelech was running away from challenges and difficulties he should have stayed to face. If it’s hard now, running is only going to make it worse.

Husbands are called to give their wives rest. They are called to create a Promised Land rest for their wives. Their homes must be places of Sabbath rest.

Finally, remember how God visits his people. He feeds them; he gives them life. He bestows mercy. In the midst of their failure, in the midst of their famine, in the midst of their barrenness, he visits them and gives them bread.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!

Closing Prayer: Gracious Father, we thank you that you have visited us, that you have forgiven us and delivered us, and that you feed us and give us life. Give us strength to follow you. Through Jesus our Lord, who taught us to pray, singing…


God Likes Kids

God has blessed us and continues to bless us here at Trinity in many ways. In particular, we see God’s blessing to us in the many children in our midst. Many of you have several young children, and all the indicators are that this will only continue and increase. But this means that many of you have the challenge of teaching young children how to worship with us, how to join in with us on the Lord’s Day. And this really is a challenge, and I want to suggest several principles for thinking about how we cultivate our families. First, we need to remember our children’s frames. A six month old and a two year old and a five year old will all be at different places, and even among those broad categories it is simply a fact that God has made all of our children differently. There will be amazing two year olds that can sit still for an hour, and there will sometimes be older children that must still work at it. Remember their frame. But this doesn’t mean you just show up every Sunday and just “see what happens.” God does not require of us what he does not also at the same time give to us. When God calls us to obey him, he also always gives us the grace to obey him. This means that if you expect your children to behave in a certain way on Sunday you must give them that grace. You must be blessing them with that training throughout the week. Secondly, remember that God loves your children. Your children belong first of all to Him. He has claimed them in baptism, and he is not embarrassed by them. He is not embarrassed by their cries; He is not annoyed by their childishness and immaturity. He still welcomes them into his arms, snotty noses, crying, and fidgeting. He loves them. He has invited them. He delights in them. And therefore so should you. Of course if your child is being obnoxiously distracting, help them calm down, but we really don’t want to cultivate a community of stuffy pietism. Moms, you in particular need to remember not to worry about what people are thinking about your children. Your job is to love your kids. Love them, delight in them, rejoice over them, serve them, and care for them, but do it all without worry or fear that someone is silently judging your mothering skills. And of course Dads need to be all over this too. Particularly when the kids are very young, Mom is under great demand. Make sure she knows that you appreciate her, you love her, respect her, and admire how she gives and gives and gives. And remember in all of this that we are all the children of God. We may not be tempted to cry out or be distracting, but we are all no less tempted to be distracted. So I call all you to attention now, come and worship, the Lord invites you warmly, and despite your immaturity, despite your fidgeting, despite your wandering minds, he invites you and he says come and welcome.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Last Week

It's been a little while, I know. Things have been hopping around here.

Just a couple of short notes: First, I just got back from last week's CREC Council and Presbytery meetings in Houston, TX. It was a rip-roaring good time full of cigars, beer, laughter, more beer, good jokes, missionary reports, psalm singing, and of course we did a little business somewhere in there. God has been very kind to the CREC in its short history, and at the close of this year's Council (this is our General Assembly that meets only every three years), we divided into seven presbyteries which also include a number of churches from Europe and Asia.

Another point of interest is that our presbytery and council "moderators" now go by the title "minister" or "presiding minister" which is meant to communicate a more pastoral and representative sort of role than merely running meetings (which "moderator" seems to suggest). Perhaps the closest historical precedent in Presbyterianism for this sort of role is the Scottish Presbyterian "Superintendents." These were the sort of quasi-bishops that even John Knox was comfortable with, having pastoral roles in the regional church but which nevertheless still answered to presbytery and were not hierarchically "over" the other pastors. Anyhow, that was a move in a good direction by my estimation.

The week closed out with the Christ Church ministerial conference which was held in the same location as presbytery to allow for as many as presbyters as possible to attend. While all of the talks were quite good, the highlight was easily the opening lecture given by Pastor Tim Bayley.

Anyway, that's all for now.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Washing Away Sins

“For you will be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” (Acts 22:15-16)

Here we have an instance in Scripture where Ananias , a devout disciple of Jesus calls upon the newly converted Saul to be baptized that his sins might be washed away. Similarly, in the prayer that we just prayed a moment ago, we asked God to drown the sins of the one about to be baptized just like he drowned Pharaoh and all his host in the Red Sea so many centuries ago. Of course there has been controversy over the centuries in the church concerning how this can be true. Is there something powerful in the water? How does a little water with a few words wash away sins? But some of the confusion regarding this may be based on our misunderstanding of what forgiveness means. Forgiveness is not first and foremost the removal of sin. If sin is like a bad paint job, forgiveness is not the action of scraping all that ugly paint off. Forgiveness is not primarily the removal of sin. So in that sense, baptism for the remission of sins does not mean that you are covered in sin like a bad paint job, and this water is some kind of supernatural paint thinner: you pour it on and the sin comes off.

Forgiveness is the refusal to hold existing sin against someone. Forgiveness is the whole-hearted determination to begin again, to start over with someone. Remember Jesus on the cross asking the Father to forgive his enemies while they were carrying out their crimes against him. Jesus was asking the Father to not hold this grievous evil against them. He was praying that the Father would treat them as though they had not killed him, as though they had not wronged him. In other words, forgiveness is a legal declaration. When the judge declares a verdict, his verdict always creates a new beginning, either the beginning of not-guilty existence of the accused or the beginning of the guilty existence of the accused. Of course in our case, as the accused, we are most certainly guilty. And our children share in that guilt which we have inherited from Adam together with all the sins we have added of our own. And this is why we call on the name of the Lord. We call on Christ to be our advocate, to be our defender, to rise up and save us and deliver us from what we deserve.

And this begins to get at how baptism can wash away sins, how baptism can be used by God to declare forgiveness. Baptism doesn’t wash away sins like a paint thinner; it washes away sins like the Red Sea washed away the sins of Israel. Baptism cleanses us from sin like Jesus and the woman caught in adultery when Jesus asked her, where are your accusers? Go and sin no more. The point is that baptism is an adoption ceremony, the place where God places his name on us, washes us (quite literally), and calls us his son or daughter, claiming us and all our faults, all our failures, and then he looks up at us and says, where are your accusers? Where are those chariots and horses that were chasing you only minutes ago? In other words, this is a baptism for the remission of sins because God has vowed to make this sacrament a sacrament of new beginnings, this is where we begin again. Here, God declares a verdict over us and over our children, and the verdict is not-guilty because we call upon the name of the Lord, because we put our trust in the perfect Son and in his work on our behalf.

If Jesus calls out to his Father to forgive those who crucified him, he has in effect declared his willingness to forgiven anyone and everyone. What did you do? Have you stolen, lied, committed adultery? Jesus forgives you. What? Did you kill Jesus? He forgives that too. The point is that while sin always grieves Jesus, it does not deter him; it does not ruin his plan to remake this world. We continue to break covenant, we fail and fall, we are unfaithful, but God remains faithful, he remains true, he does not fail. And he says, I forgive that and that and that other thing over there, yeah that too. And this is the way that God actually cleanses us; He actually cleanses us by declaring that we are clean. He washes us and says we are sinless, go and sin no more. He says you are new, you are born over again, you are my son, my daughter. He declares our forgiveness, and that is how God is actually remaking us. In the same way he always creates; he speaks. He says the word, and the worlds come into existence. He speaks again, and mountains grow out of the sea. He speaks, and the stars burst into the heavens. He speaks again and the sea divides; he speaks again and says, where are your accusers? And he speaks again, and says you have my name, Father-Son-Holy Spirit, you are mine and you are clean. I have washed away your sins.

So Des and Heidi, the charge to you is to raise your son in this faith, in this reality. Teach your son from his earliest days this gospel, this good news that he is forgiven, that his sins have been washed away. Teach your son to revel in this goodness, to believe this goodness, to believe that all his sins have been drowned in the sea, that all his accusers, all his enemies have gone away, and to therefore go and sin no more. And in particular, I exhort you to live this freedom before Andrew in your life together and as a family. Be a family that forgives over and over and over because you have been forgiven much. Do not be accusers toward one another, rather be christs to one another, call out for forgiveness, and remind one another frequently that your accusers have gone, and go and sin no more.


Drinking Forgiveness

Week after week Pastor Leithart or I stand here and repeat the words of Christ that this cup is the new covenant in the blood of Jesus for the remission of sins. And if we remember our Bibles well, we know that Jesus originally said these words before he was betrayed, before he was falsely accused, before he was spat upon, beaten, mocked, and scourged. He gave his disciples this cup of forgiveness in his blood before he was crucified like a common criminal. And he gives it to us to drink. And this goes in two directions. First, while the text doesn’t tell us explicitly, it is most likely that Jesus drank the cup first and then handed it to his disciples. This follows the Jewish customs of celebrating Passover, and it fits with Jesus’ previous question regarding whether his disciples were able to drink the cup that he would drink. Jesus sets the example, he drinks the cup of forgiveness first and then offers it to us. He goes to the cross first, and calls upon us to follow him there. And this is because when we have been wronged, when we have been cheated, lied about, mistreated, abused, and hurt it is death to forgive. To forgive scoundrels, to forgive dogs, to forgive enemies and even friends who have hurt us deeply, to forgive them is to go to the cross. It is to die. And Jesus did it first. He took the cup and drank it for us first, and then he hands it to us and says drink it, all of you. Secondly, we can never forget that the forgiveness that Jesus drank includes our own forgiveness. Jesus drinks first because we must be forgiven first. Jesus suffers and bleeds and dies for our failures, our lies, our slander, our cowardice, our abuse of others. And then he offers us the cup, and he says, do you believe that you forgiven? Can you drink this cup? This is the cup of forgiveness. Drink it all of you. You are drinking the forgiveness of God. The blood shed for the remission of sins. Jesus knows that you have failed, and he lifts this cup and says this is for you. Jesus knows what you’ve done, and he knows what’s been done against you, and he says come and drink. If you have been hurt, if you have been wronged, and you need the strength to forgive, then this cup is for you. And if you have been the one in the wrong, if you have inflicted pain and sin, then likewise, this cup is for you. This is the cup of forgiveness, and because it is the cup of forgiveness, it is also the cup of joy and salvation. So come and rejoice.


Worship Runs the World

In a matter of weeks we will have a new president and vice-president elect. As we live during these days, we must (as always) live and think and act like followers of Christ. And this means several principles must not be neglected. First of all, because we are Christians, we confess that Jesus is Lord. Jesus is the lord of presidents and vice-presidents. Jesus is Lord of the media, the Lord of opinion polls, the Lord of politics, the Lord of elections, the Lord of ballots, and the Lord of ballot boxes. And this means that all these things must submit to Jesus. They must all bow the knee to him as their rightful Lord. Christ is the King of this world. When he ascended into heaven, he was given all authority in heaven and on earth, and this kingdom is not a pretend kingdom. It is not something that is only true on Sunday mornings. Second, we are called to love our neighbors and honor our rulers. This means that it is most certainly a Christian virtue to be patriotic. At the same time, this must be done with our eyes open, recognizing the great failures of our nation. We have economic sins, we have military sins, we have sexual sins, we have medical sins, and we have not been faithful to defend the helpless, to enact justice and mercy. Godly patriotism isn’t blind to real problems but is able to thank God vigorously while still praying that God would deliver us from evil. Lastly, we need to remember the book of Revelation. Throughout Revelation John is given a vision of heaven where he watches how heaven and earth are connected, how events on earth are related to what is taking place in heaven. The lesson we are invited to learn is that worship runs the world. When the four living creatures cry ‘holy, holy, holy!’ and the 24 elders fall down and worship the lamb on the throne the scroll with the seven seals appears in heaven. When they sing a new song and proclaim the blessing and honor and glory of Him who sits on the throne, the seals are opened by the Lamb on the throne, and wars erupt, peace is shattered, disease and famine are poured out on the earth, the martyrs cry out, and the solar system reverberates with the judgments of God. When the saints worship in the heavenly places, the judgments of the Lamb fall on the earth. When the saints worship, the temple of God is opened and plagues descend on the people of the world. When the saints worship, the kingdoms of this world are brought low, and they become more and more the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ. As we approach the election and the future of our nation, we must do so fully convinced that what we do here far out ways the significance of a few minutes in a ballot box. And we will not be moved by the shrill cries of some insisting that what does or does not happen on November 6th determines the ultimate future of our nation. God is King of all the earth; let the nations tremble.


Monday, October 06, 2008

Blood, Family, and Covenant

We’ve considered Jesus’ instructions for church discipline this morning which is really just another way of learning to care for each other as family. In Christ we are brothers, we are all the little children of the Father. And this means that living like family in the details always comes back to this table. We are family here. We gather around this table, and we partake of a common meal, and this is not only a meal that we share, but by the power of God this meal actually makes us relatives. We are not merely close friends; we are partakers of the flesh and blood of Christ and therefore, we are blood relatives. We have been engrafted into that family tree; we share a common DNA. And this is why we want to continue to cultivate this family life throughout the week. If we eat together here, we eat together out there. If we greet one another in peace here, we are seeking one another’s blessing and peace out there. If we are brothers and sisters here, that does not suddenly end at the door as you leave. And if we are family, this means that are called to cultivate familial care for one another. Of course this means help physically: meals and child care and financial assistance when things get rough. But this also means that we are seeking to watch out for one another spiritually. If your foot is infected, you don’t shrug and say, O well, none of my business. We are one body, one family, one in Christ, and therefore if you are experiencing challenges seek help, and if you notice a brother or sister in the middle of a challenge, go to their aid. Of course all of this must be done with care, with wisdom, and in humility, but we must do this. In fact, this meal is a covenant, Jesus said, in his blood, and a covenant always includes covenant obligations. In your baptism you were obligated to keep this covenant, and every time you partake of this meal, you are renewing those covenant vows and renewing your resolve to faithfully uphold your responsibilities. Among those responsibilities is the call to care for your brothers and sisters around you. And just as you hand the bread to your neighbor and proclaim Christ’s body broken for them, just as you hand your neighbor the wine and proclaim Christ’s blood shed for their sins, so too, you are obligating yourself to all of your neighbors throughout this room, promising to watch out for them, love them, defend them, and honor them. If this is the body of Christ broken for them, that means you are family, and that means you are called to care for one another as family. These are your mother, your sisters, and your brothers.


Grace and Mercy for You

Jesus says, “For everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God.”

In a church this size it is always possible to hide. You can come to church, smile and shake hands, ask about work, politics, the weather, and even comment on the sermon, all while nurturing your sins. Sins by nature want to remain hidden. They like the darkness, and they do not like the light. They do not like to be exposed by the light. Of course Jesus is the light of the world; he has come to expose sins, to bring them to the light, not because he wants to humiliate us, not because he wants to embarrass us in front of everyone but so he can heal us. So he can save us. The beginning of wisdom here is learning not to curl up into a ball when you come here and when you get together with other friends in the church community. The Church is the body of Christ, we are called upon to be Christ for one another. And this means we are called to be light to one another and for one another. This is not an exhortation to begin pointing out all your neighbors’ sins. Don’t be rude; don’t be a crank. But at the same time, if someone is limping around, it’s not rude to ask why they’re limping. If someone has a black eye, it’s not cranky to ask what happened. And if the response is that it is none of your business, and there’s nothing wrong, then there most certainly is something wrong, and it’s worth pursuing with them or someone else who can. If you come here putting up defenses, if your conversations with friends are constantly defending yourself and justifying your scars and bruises, stop it. We come here for healing. We come here for grace. We gather here to be put under the light of Christ. We are a family, a community of people who know our need for grace and mercy. And if you come in here acting like you’re just fine, and you don’t need any of that grace thank you very much, then you should probably find something better to do with your Sunday mornings. If you go to your doctor to be told how healthy and strong you are then you are wasting your time and money. We are here because we need grace, we need healing, we need the light to shine on our darkness. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance." If you’re already righteous then Jesus didn’t come for you; go away. But if you’re broken and bruised, hurting and confused, if you have been beaten up by sin and abused by your own wicked heart and others, if you have burdens too difficult to bear, and scars too deep for words, then come and welcome. There is grace and mercy for you.


Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Lewis, Stories, and Imagination

I just finished reading The Silver Chair out loud to my son. We have one more to go before finishing the Chronicles of Narnia series.

It's taken a bit longer to get through this one as we started it before our move several months ago. And with sicknesses, new schedules, and everything else, it's taken longer to get back into the routine, but River is excited about The Last Battle not only because it has the word "battle" in it and it's the last book of the series, but our edition has a pretty rad picture of a unicorn on the front cover with blood dripping off his horn. Hard to beat that.

But what I wanted to comment on was the fact that Lewis still gets me. He still wins me; I'm still a believer.

As the story winds up, Jill and Eustace have brought the long vanished Prince Rilian back to Narnia from the underworld formerly under the dominion of the wicked witch and her enchantments. Puddleglum, our beloved marshwiggle, is busy being his delightfully pessimistic self. King Caspian of Voyage of the Dawn Treader fame is on his death bed as he returns from one last voyage and lives only long enough to see that his son is home and bless him before passing on. Aslan arrives to begin bringing Jill and Eustace home to England, but before going they watch in wonder as a drop of blood from Aslan's paw revives the old, dead Caspian who they find resting in peace beneath the waters of a gentle stream in Aslan's land. Caspian grows younger and younger and then leaps up alive again, full of vigor and joy. Aslan agrees to give him five minutes in England as the children return to their own stories. And of course that means facing the obnoxious teachers and classmates of Experiment House, some sort of modernistic huddle of ideological buffoonery. Of course one of the teachers sees the monstrous lion, the armor clad boys, the school wall burst open, and she calls the police. But by the time the police arrive the children have quietly returned to their living quarters, Aslan has repaired the wall, and he and Caspian have returned to Narnia. The Head Teacher is left alone with only with her mental categories in shambles. And this, Lewis says, is why she was immediately promoted to Supervisor before finally being sent off to Parliament where she lived happily ever after.

The wonder of great fiction, and yes even great fantasy or any other fiction genres really is the ability to comment on and revel in various aspects of our world without feeling the need to present it like a chemical equation, a mathematical chart, or the like.

You don't read the Chronicles of Narnia to figure out your Systematic Theology. You read the Chronicles of Narnia to love Jesus more, to love his world more, to be drawn into the story of God and his people. What great fiction accomplishes is this longing for something like that. One wishes to be in Narnia, one longs to be in Middle Earth, and then with a few seconds of thought it suddenly dawns on you that you are. We have an Aslan, and a greater than Aslan. We have had and continue to have Edmunds and Lucys. We have King Caspians and Wicked Witches with enchantments. And it's all there: sin, atonement, resurrection, forgiveness, renewal, politics, and faith. Sure, it takes a little imagination to continue living in this world like the story is in fact true. But that is the point, isn't it? That is what faith is all about, living our stories as though they belong to that one good story. Hebrews 11 is all about that story, the narrative of faithful men and women who imagined what they could not see because they believed what God had said.

Anyway, not to belabor the point, as we finished the last chapter of The Silver Chair the other night, I was caught up. I was won over again; I was converted. And I certainly hope and pray that my son continues to grow up with a longing for Narnia, a longing which as it turns out is a longing for the real world, the world God made, the world that Jesus is renewing.

So get your sword, River Edmond, and slay the wicked witch.