Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Shepherd and The Sheep

Oh the irony of the upside-down birth of Jesus in Luke 2!  After hearing that the long-awaited Savior had been born, the angel told the shepherds of the sign that this is Christ the Lord.  They would find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes laying in a manger.  The first part of the sign, while not anything unusual, evokes thoughts of not only the beginning of his life, but the end of his life.  At the end of his life, he was wrapped again but placed in a borrowed tomb rather than a manger.  We know that in both cases, he did not remain there, but arose to perform his redemptive ministry.  

The second part of the sign was highly unusual.  He was placed in a manger, where livestock may have eaten before.  This may remind us that Jesus is the bread of life, and that we have no life apart from him.  But this scene seems too domestic and mundane for the King and Lord.  What a contrast to the earthly king who was living in a palace.  As I reflected on this, I wrote down the phrase, "Domestic Divinity."  I do not know if I had heard this phrase before, or if it just appeared in my thoughts.  There cannot be a more domestic scene than this.  When people put up nativity scenes, what strikes me is how domestic they often appear.  I realize that nativity scenes try to compress several stories about Jesus into one scene, but historically, the Magi do not belong there because they came later.  The manger, barn, animals, and shepherds make for a very mundane and domestic scene.  Yet God typically glories in the mundane and the ordinary.

This scene from Luke two reminds me of several passages.  In Zechariah 10:2, God said, "2 For the household gods utter nonsense, and the diviners see lies; they tell false dreams and give empty consolation. Therefore the people wander like sheep; they are afflicted for lack of a shepherd."  A recurring problem was the lack of spiritual and moral leadership in Israel.  Kings, false prophets, priests, and fathers often turned to false gods and led the people away from God.  Without proper shepherding, the people were devoured.  The people were sheep without a shepherd.  

What was God's plan for this?  In Ezekiel 34, God condemned the leaders, whom he referred to as shepherds, for not exercising spiritual and moral leadership.  The result of their failure was the scattering of the sheep.  They had become prey to predators.  God then declares in verses 11-12, "For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness."

God fulfills this promise in Christ.  In John 10:11, Jesus declares that he himself is the shepherd.  He said, "I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." Jesus came to those who were like sheep without a shepherd to save and care for them.

What an irony, then, that the first to tell of the coming of Jesus were literally shepherds.  These shepherds, whose job was to care for and watch over the sheep, came to the barn and saw the lamb of God.  The lamb of God is the good shepherd.  The lamb has become the shepherd, and the shepherds have become the sheep!

This reminds me, that even though I benefit from fellowship and leadership from people, I must let nothing take the place of the leadership of the good shepherd.  The people had their shepherds, but despite this, Jesus saw in Matthew 9:39 that they were like sheep without a shepherd.  Only Jesus can lay down his life for his sheep and take it up again.  Only Jesus can renovate our hearts through the Spirit as we submit to him.  Only Jesus can redeem us and give us life more abundantly.  

Sunday, December 13, 2020

In Whose Company Do They Stand?

This time of year, I see the beautifully crafted nativity scenes, which compress several of the stories of Jesus' birth and infancy into one scene.  Some people use these as teaching tools for children.  I sometimes like to go back and read the stories as they have been handed down from the scriptures.  This helps to separate all of the cultural baggage that has been attached to these scenes.  

One of the stories that has captured my interest in the past several years have been the stories of the magi.  In earlier times, they were portrayed as kings.  You can see this reflected in the art of the period, and even in many of the nativity scenes today.  There were church leaders that at one time claimed these were kings of the east and used this story in their list of arguments to justify a Christian monarchy.   It is interesting that after the renaissance, you begin to see them no longer portrayed as kings.  Perhaps this had something to do with the rejection of Christian monarchies and state churches.  The art of the period sometimes portrays the magi as wearing the scholar's garb.  Instead of kings, they were referred to as "wise men."  All of this may reflect the value of the rebirth of learning during that era.  They are usually portrayed as being 3 in number of differing races, perhaps to reflect that Jesus came to be king of all peoples.  Sometimes they have been portrayed as twelve in number.  One line of tradition even gave them names.  I find it interesting that this is not unusual with enigmatic characters in scripture, such as the Nephilim in Genesis 6.

The fact is, we know nothing about them except that they were called "magi" who came from the east.  I find it interesting that if you add the letter "c," the word becomes magic, which is what these men did for a living.  

In the text, the word, "magoi" is the same word used of Simon the Magician in Acts 8, and for the so-called Bar-Jesus, known as Elymas in Acts 13.  Both are negative examples.  Simon is an example of wickedness through wanting to profit off the Holy Spirit, and Elymas is an example deceit and opposition to righteousness.  In the Old Testament, Nebuchadnezzar had magicians in his group of wisemen.  In Daniel 2, Nebuchadnezzar suspected their ineptitude and deceit because he demanded that they interpret his dream without telling them the dream.  If they were able to tell both the dream and the interpretation, then they will have demonstrated their true ability.  If they were not able, Nebuchadnezzar planned to have them all killed.  Of course, Daniel was the one who could accomplish this, not through magic, enchantment, or astrology, but by the revelation of God.  Pharaoh also had magicians in his employment.  They were repeatedly bested by the signs Moses and Aaron performed.  What is comical is that when the Nile and all of the streams were turned to blood, Pharaoh's magicians responded by making more blood.  At the second plague when the frogs swarmed over the land, the response of Pharaoh's magicians was not to make them go away, but like the blood, make more plague rather than decrease it or make it go away.  They were not able to reproduce the third plague, which were the gnats.  When the sixth plague came which consisted of being covered boils, the magicians were afflicted with them and were not able to stand before Pharaoh.

Ancient Jewish literature mocks magicians as fools.  There were often called "wisemen" in the ancient world.  The term "wiseman" was a more expansive term than it is today.  It refers to anyone educated or trained, whether it was in a trade or as a scribe.  An example of this can be seen in the craftsman who constructed the tabernacle.  They were called "wise" in their trade.  Ancient Jewish literature acknowledges that magi were "wisemen," in that they were trained, but they were wise in the area of foolishness.  A prominent of example of the foolishness of magicians in Jewish literature is Balaam and his talking donkey.  Even though he was some kind of soothsayer who pronounced omens, he had no wisdom or spiritual discernment.  An angel of the Lord was ready to strike him down, and what saved him was not his discernment or his soothsaying skills, but it was his talking donkey whom he proceeded to beat after it saved his life!  Like Bug's Bunny would say, "What a maroon!"

For us today, our assessment is probably similar.  How would regard someone who has a PhD in crystal balls, astrology, wizardry, voodoo, etc.?

However, the magi of Matthew 2 stand in a completely different class than this.  We usually do not class them in the same category as Pharaoh's magicians, or Simon, or Elymas.  We usually class them as being among those who acknowledged Jesus as King of the Jews.  The irony is that the Jews rejected him.  Herod tried to destroy him by killing every baby close to his age in the city he was born.  The Jewish "wisemen" of the first century, which would have included people like the scribes and Pharisees successfully plotted to have him crucified.  If they were wise before, they have now become fools.  In Matthew 11, John pointed out how they rejected John when he came fasting, accusing him of having a demon.  Next, they rejected the Messiah when he came feasting, denouncing him as a glutton, drunkard, and a friend of sinners.  Then Jesus declared in verse 19, "Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds."  Those who accepted Jesus displayed wisdom, and those who rejected him displayed folly.  Jesus then points out that if the signs he had performed in Jewish cities had been performed in gentile cities, they would have repented long ago.  After this, Jesus prays these words in verse 25, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will."  

I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 1:20-31:   "Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.  For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.  And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."

This passage reminds us that true wisdom from Heaven is not the same as worldly wisdom.  It says that Jesus "became to us wisdom from God."  Not many who are wise by the world's standards are called.  Their worldly wisdom is a stumbling block.  In their worldly wisdom, they consider the message of the cross to be foolishness.  Yet the exact opposite is true.  The passage says that God chose the foolish things to shame the wise.  This seems to be what is happening with the Magi in Matthew 2.  

History remembers the magi of Matthew 2 as "wise men."  This is appropriate because they came to worship Jesus as King.  They do not stand in the company of all the other magi in scripture, but stand in the company of those who accepted the kingship of the Christ.  If they were fools before, accepting the Lordship of Christ turns them in another direction.  Matthew 2:12 says that after they had worshipped Jesus, they did not return home the same way.  How poetic.  Following Christ puts you on a different path, which is the path of righteousness and wisdom.  The way of wisdom is not the broad way that leads to destruction, but the narrow way that leads to life.

In meditating on all of this, I ask myself the question, "In whose company do I stand?"  Do I stand with Christ and my brothers and sisters in Him, or am I enamored by fleshly power, worldly wisdom, and earthly influence and wealth?  Do I cherish the simple wisdom of Christ, or am I blinded by worldly wisdom with all of its elite titles, degrees, and worldly honor?

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Essential Personnel


There have been several words and phrases that have entered our every day conversation. One of these is, “essential personnel.” A few Sundays ago, as we were preparing for our livestream setup, we were concerned if we would exceed the 10 person limit in our skeleton crew. We had a conversation about not having to count the “essential personnel,” who needed to be there. Someone mentioned the preacher as being “essential personnel,” along with the elders, and worship leaders. Then it dawned on us. There is no such thing as “essential personnel” in the church, if by that you mean some personnel, but not others.

I am reminded of this passage in 1 Corinthians 12 that deals with this idea using a human body as an analogy for the church. Here are some highlights:

14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. … But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. …21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, … God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

The body of Christ is different than the world. Our value does not come from the manner in which we may useful, but from being created in the image of God and redeemed by the precious blood of Christ our Lord. At great cost, God redeemed each of us and placed each of us into the body of Christ, which is entirely precious to God. There is no such thing as nonessential personnel in the body of Christ.

I prefer to say, “skeleton crew.” A skeleton needs the rest of the body. This is what I have been painfully aware of in the last several weeks. The skeleton conducting the livestream have said how hard it is to be encouraged in the way we would like because we are not all actually together. Those who have been watching from home have also expressed the same sentiment.

You are all important to God, and you are important to the rest of the body. When all of this passes, hang on to the renewed appreciation you have for the body and come back with a renewed energy for being connected. Outdo one another in showing honor and value. Hug each other. Appreciate each other. Be together. Thank you, Lord, in advance, we know that all of us will ultimately be together with you.

The Constitution vs. The Gospel

The founding fathers of our country seemed to have a biblical understanding of human nature, law, and governance. I was reminded of this when I once again read a letter written by John Adams in 1798. Here is an excerpt:

"But should the People of America, once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another and towards foreign nations, which assumes the Language of Justice and moderation while it is practicing Iniquity and Extravagance; and displays in the most captivating manner the charming Pictures of Candour frankness & sincerity while it is rioting in rapine and Insolence: this Country will be the most miserable Habitation in the World. Because We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

What stands out to me is, "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion." In other words, the constitution, no matter how well written, cannot make people better. If good laws were all that are needed for a people to be better, then there would never be a need for law enforcement officers. But they are needed. Without them, there would be lawlessness, violence, and chaos. Adams affirmed the absolute necessity of religion in order for the new America to survive. He concludes that "Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." In other words, government by the "consent of the governed" can only work for a moral and religious people.

Romans 3:10 declares that "None is righteous, no, not one." Jeremiah 17:9 says, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" Our founding fathers understood the corruption in the human heart. This is part of the reason they established a federal form of government that included co-equal branches of government as checks and balances.

But Adams declared that without morality and religion, the constitution is as powerless as a net is to a whale. Laws cannot make people better. Changing the system cannot transform individuals. Laws and its systems are powerless to do so. At best, it leads to what Jesus called "whitewashed tombs" in Matthew 23:27. The change is superficial and outward, but it is not real change. Only our Lord can transform people. This is why God promised in Ezekiel 16:26-27, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances." This is what Romans 8:29 means when it says that he predestined us to be "conformed to the image of his Son…"

This should be a reminder for Christians not to forget our calling. Social justice causes, politics, activism, and other such things are not our primary calling. Participation in such things should never take the place of our primary purpose. The danger is that these could become a trojan horse that causes us to leave our first love. These could lead to becoming so unequally yoked that the unique voice of the church with its Gospel becomes muted. Jesus did not come to change the system, but to redeem and reform individual hearts for God. The system is not the power of salvation. The Gospel is the power of salvation, and nothing else.

I Was Sick and you Came to Me

Plagues were a common occurrence in ancient times. What was also a common occurrence was abandoning the sick to die. Even in an impressive place like Rome, the only people who received any kind of health care were the wealthy and powerful who had the money to hire a physician. There was no such thing as a hospital in first century Rome. This was because there was no pagan theological basis for the inherent value and dignity of the stranger. The only option for the poor would be a visit to a healing deity's temple, such as Asclepius. It was a common practice for people to carry their sick out of the house and leave them in the street for fear of catching the plague themselves. During a plague that struck in 250 A.D., it was reported that 5,000 died in one day in Rome. Bodies were left piled up in the street as pagans tried to appease the gods whom they believed were angry at them.

Into this situation came a group of people with a radically different view of human beings. They believed that humans have inherent value and dignity because they are created in the image of God. Their Lord, Jesus, had modeled and instructed love that gives sacrificially to all, especially those without status or money. As a result, they cared for the sick and the dying, taking great risk on themselves. Many of them contracted the disease and died. However, they viewed this as a type of martyrdom in the name of Christ. In the third century, Eusebius pointed out that only Christians showed sympathy to those who were sick. Christians not only cared for their own, but also for the pagans, many of whom had persecuted Christians, blaming them for angering the gods. These efforts became more organized over time, which gave rise to various orders whose purpose was to care for the sick and the dying. This, along with the Christianization of the culture, drastically changed the public attitude toward the sick. Rather than seeing the sick as those to be avoided, they were seen as those that needed to be cared for in the name of Christ. This divine motivation to care for the sick is what eventually led to public health care, clinics, and hospitals.

Later, in the early 1500's the plague came to Wittenberg in Germany. While many were fleeing, Martin Luther, a minister, believed that he was called to stay. Just as health care workers stayed to care for the bodies of the sick, so he was called to stay to care for the souls of the sick. He refused to abandon those in need.

During the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, A.B. Lipscomb, nephew to David Lipscomb, wrote an article in the Gospel Advocate about one Nashville church's response. As the hospitals became overwhelmed, The Russell Street Church of Christ offered its building as a field hospital. The editor, J.C. McQuiddy, praised this action in the next issues, citing the parable of the Sheep and the Goats as the authority to do this.

In 2015, medical missionary Dr. Kent Brantley, traveled to Liberia to serve in the name of Christ. While there, he contracted the deadly Ebola virus and survived with an experimental treatment. In February this year, he told Fox News, "The message I shared in 2014 is just as true and just as pertinent now as it was then: We must choose compassion over fear. We must choose to respond to people (even in deadly outbreaks of infectious diseases) with actions and words and attitudes that convey compassion and uphold the dignity of our fellow human beings."

The thing that all of these and many, many other similar examples have in common is the love of Christ. Love overpowers fear and causes one to run to the disaster to help rather than away in fear. John wrote that perfect love casts out fear. Paul wrote that the love of Christ is what compels us. Like our Lord who left Heaven to come here, we love in deed and in truth, and not with just words. It is that love, the love of Christ, that opens the door for the Gospel which brings about true spiritual healing, even in the face of violence, danger, sickness, and death.

Would Jesus Wear a Mask?

Would Jesus wear a mask? I saw this question a couple weeks ago in an online article. I understand where the question is coming from. The author pointed out that Jesus looked out for other’s people interests and poured himself out for others and that we should do the same.

I understand why I wear a mask. But why would Jesus wear a mask? Would it have been to prevent him from being infected by someone? Was it to prevent himself becoming a carrier of a sickness? Becoming sick or a carrier is what happens to other human beings. However, Jesus was not just a son of man, he was The Son of Man and The Son of God.

For this reason, contact with Jesus had a very different result than contact with someone else. In Matthew 8:14-15, it says, “And when Jesus entered Peter's house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him.”

People came from all over just to touch Jesus. Mark 9:53-56 says, “When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.”

Jesus left the safety of Heaven and entered into our infected world. Rather than himself becoming infe
cted and spreading it to others, Jesus did just the opposite. Jesus did not infect anyone, but “exfected” them. In the NRSV, Isaiah 53:4 says, “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.” Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 say that sin came into the world through the first Adam, but that healing and life came through the last Adam, which is Christ. As the Azazel bore the sins out of the camp and away from the people on the day of Atonement, so did Christ carry our sins away as far as the east is from the west. In fact, one of the words translated “forgive” in Hebrew literally means “to carry,” which is what Jesus does for us at the cross and the empty tomb. His blood does not infect, it disinfects through faith. He is the carrier of the cure, not the disease.

I am reminded of the time Jesus breathed on his Apostles and said, “receive the Holy Spirit.” His breath does not weaken and bring death, his breath strengthens and brings life. Through Christ, there ultimately will no longer be any death, mourning, crying or pain.

As a result, we no longer have a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-discipline. We are able to be cautious and prudent from a place of love rather than fear. Love moves us to consider risks in a different way than fear does. When it comes to serving in the name of Christ, we see the greater risk in doing nothing rather than serving in the way Christ did when he left Heaven. We stand in the company of Christians who minister to the sick and dying while the rest are fleeing in fear. Like many early Christians, we see it as a type of martyrdom that expresses devotion and love.

Unlike other human beings, Jesus did not need to wear a mask. Thank you Lord for Jesus, whose blood bore our sins away, and whose breath brings us life.

Monday, November 02, 2020

Cosmic Level Prayer

Reading through the book of Ephesians has been a good reminder of how we always need to keep the big picture in our minds, especially in 2020.  The first three chapters focuses repeatedly on the cosmic picture of God's plan and how we fit in it.  At the center of his plan is the "Immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places" (Eph 1:19-20).

Ephesians 2:6 says that God "raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus."  We are also seated with him in the heavenly places!  We are involved in cosmic struggle alongside Christ with many things happening behind the scenes.  This is why the text goes on to say that God has entrusted his grace to us so that, "through the church that manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rules and authorities in the heavenly places" (Eph 3:10). 

Since we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places, we participate in his work.  Reigning with Christ at God's right hand involves dominion.  God's plan for dominion is through personal redemption and reformation through the Gospel of Kingdom.  As we spread the Gospel, people respond by submission to the King of Kings.  

This is a spiritual battle.  Ephesians 6:12 says, "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."  The following analogy of the armor of God teaches that we need truth, righteousness, the Gospel, faith, salvation, the word of God, and prayer.  The text tells us to take up the whole armor of God, which means that each of these are indispensable in our cosmic struggle.  The text says as we use the armor, we need to be "praying at all times in the Spirit."

There are two prayers in Ephesians which could be called "cosmic prayers."  The first in at 1:15-23, and the second is at 3:14-21.  It is good to reflect on these prayers as a model of what to pray for as we struggle against the cosmic powers in the heavenly places.  

In the second prayer, I am struck by the phrasing in verse 3:18, which prays that we "may have the strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth."    The word, katalambano, which is translated "comprehend," means to overtake, seize, overcome, or apprehend.  It is used in places like Mark 9:18, where a demon would "seize" someone, or 1 John 1:5, where the darkness did not "overcome" the light.  When it is used of thinking, to "overcome/apprehend with the mind," it can be translated "comprehend," which is how many translations have rendered this.  The prayer is that we would have the strength to apprehend/overcome the breadth, length, height, and depth.  However big it is, the prayer is that we have the strength to overtake it.  

This prayer, in light of Ephesians 6:10-18, is a reminder of what "praying at all times in the Spirit" should focus on.  The prayer is not to diminish the battle, but to increase our strength through the power of God.  The prayer is not a prayer to change the circumstances, but to change me.  God did not shrink Goliath.  Instead, he strengthened David with power in the inner person.  He increased David inwardly and David overcame Goliath.

What a needed reminder during a time such as 2020!  Whatever Goliath comes our way, we need to pray.  There is a struggle happening behind the scenes, and it is not about a virus, politics, or even the economy.  The enemy is hard at work to both prevent and destroy faith in God.  However, God is able to do for more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power that works in us. We know Christ is reigning at God's right hand, and we are seated with him.  May we never lose our focus.

Lord, please enlighten the eyes of our heart.  Fill us up with all the fullness of Christ.  Root and ground us in love.  Fill us with power, love, and discipline.  Make us greater than the task. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Christian and Elections (all 4 parts)

 (Note:  This article originally appeared in four parts, but is combined into one full article here) 

I usually don’t spend a lot of time on topics such as this for various reasons.  Perhaps I should spend more for at least two reasons.  First, the Bible does have relevant things to say on this.  Second, this is another opportunity to be salt and light.  I hope this will offer perspective, guidance, and encouragement.

General Theological Considerations: 

There are some things to keep in mind in reflecting biblically on this topic.  

First, the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the world are vastly different entities.  According to the vision in Daniel, the Kingdom of God will put an end to all the kingdoms of the world and will last forever (Dan 2:44-45).  This is a reminder that the Kingdom of our Lord, Jesus Christ, is not of this world (Jn 18:36).  It also reminds us that we cannot serve two masters (Mt 6:24) and that we want to be found squarely in his kingdom when he abolishes all rule, power, and authority and delivers the kingdom of God to the Father (1 Cor 15:24).  Unlike the Kingdom of the world, it is we who have been seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Eph 2:6).  

Second, the purpose of God’s Kingdom on the earth is to bring cosmic harmony in union with Christ through submission to his Lordship (Eph 1:10; 2 Pet 3:13; Rev 11:15).  God’s plan for this is through the proclamation of and submission to the Gospel of the Kingdom.  For the Christian, citizenship and nationhood is in the Church that belongs to Christ (Eph 2:18-21).  The Christian nation is the church, and as part of this Christian nation, our purpose is to be ambassadors for Christ through engaging in the ministry of reconciliation through the Gospel (2 Cor 5:18-20).  

Third, we, as citizens of another kingdom (Phil 3:20), are called to respect and honor civil government (1 Pet 2:13-14).  Civil government has always been part of God’s plan for the governance of the world.  God created humans to rule and have dominion over the earth (Gen 1:28).  God intended for man to multiply and fill the earth with culture building, science, and governance for the praise of his glory as part of the Reign of God on the earth.  However, sin created a conflicting kingdom, the Kingdom of the World.  God has been working toward his goal for all creation to once again be in harmony under the lordship of Christ when he returns.  In the meantime, God still has an integral place for civil government in his creation.  Written at a time when Nero was the Roman emperor, the Bible tells Christians to honor and be subject to governing authority because all authority ultimately derives from God and governing authority exists to be “God’s servant” for punishing evil and promoting good (Rom 13:1-7).  In order to fulfill this mandate, governing authority has the right to collect taxes which Christians are to render.  To resist is to resist God.  Of course, if governing authority attempts to force Christians to act contrary to God’s will, Christians are obligated to obey God rather than men, but to do so respectfully (Acts 5:29; 1 Pet 3:15).  

Fourth, as exiles who are not of this world (1 Pet 2:11), we should pray for those who are in authority because this is good and pleasing to God.  When God’s people lived in exile in Babylon, he specifically instructed them to “…seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jer 29:7).  In context, God was telling the craftsmen, farmers, merchants, etc. to be productive in the place they were in exile and seek the welfare of that place.  Similarly, in the New Testament, Christians are urged “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.  For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man[a] Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim 2:1-6).  This is a reminder that our ultimate purpose is the proclamation of the Gospel which brings salvation.  Everything we do in seeking the welfare of where we live is in service to that goal.  

Fifth, we have the privilege of voting.  This is a privilege God’s people in biblical times did not have.  Paul could appeal to Caesar (Acts 25:11), but he could not vote for a ruler that would make it more conducive to the sharing of the Gospel and serving God.  This offers some perspective on many of the instructions about government in the New Testament, especially in Revelation.  Christians could not and would not participate in much of civil government, military service, etc., because it often involved some sort of oath or commitment to the gods.  However, in this country, we live under a system that has attempted to be founded on a biblical understanding of governance, humanity, the world, and God.  This country has often fallen short of their ideals, but the ideals themselves derive from the almighty creator.  All of the limits the country’s founders have placed on government came from an understanding of the flawed nature of human beings due to sin.  This includes the division of power between branches of government and the states as well as voting for local and national leaders.  Many Christians view voting not only as a privilege, but a responsibility.  It is a way to be salt and light in the world (Mt 5:13-16).  Christian should exercise this responsibility in service to the church’s mission of the proclamation of the Gospel. 

Leadership Considerations:

After consideration of the biblical purpose of the Kingdom of God in the world and what our role is as ambassadors for Christ and exiles in this world, there is the question of how to vote.  From the election of local leaders all the way to national ones, responsible voters should make the effort to be informed and proceed with sound, godly judgment.  The Bible instructs Christians to consider the Lord’s will in everything (James 4:15).  Christians are to take every thought captive to Christ (2 Cor 10:5).  As those who offer themselves up as living sacrifices to God and are not conformed to the world (Rom 12:1-2), Christians regard every aspect of their lives as being under the lordship of Christ.  This includes going to the voting booth.

Here are some of my considerations.  Hopefully, this will help you in your consideration as you go to the voting booth.

1. Promotes Religious Freedom.  Obviously, we would want leaders who will allow Christians to practice Christian discipleship without interference from governing authority.  1 Timothy 2:1-5 reminds us prayers for leaders in government so that we can live a quiet and peaceful life is pleasing to God, who wants all people to be saved through Jesus, our mediator.  Our interaction with governing authority should help to promote the preaching of Jesus, our mediator.  Therefore, a question to ask would include: “Does the candidate support and promote religious freedom while opposing suppression of religious freedom?”

2. Respects and protects human life.  God has ordained governing authority to bear the sword to punish the wrong doer (Rom 13:4).  Governing authority has the obligation to protect its subjects and citizens without partiality.  Man is made in the image of God (Gen 1:27) and therefore has inherent dignity and value, which makes it wrong to take a human life (Gen 9:6).  Questions to ask would be: “Does the candidate protect human life through the passage of policies that support quality law enforcement that can effectively protect human life?  Does the candidate pursue and support policies that promotes the prevention of the taking of human life and punishes those that do?

3. Upholds justice, order, and stability.  When God first instructed man to have dominion over the earth and to rule over it, he had just finished bringing order to the formless and void chaos (Gen 1:2).  Man’s activity was to subdue the earth and rule over it (Gen 1:28).  This is a reflection of God, who ordained governing activity and is not a God of disorder but of harmony and peace (1 Cor 14:33).  The charge to subdue the wild and untamed earth involves establishing and maintaining social and moral order, which brings peace and harmony.  This at times means being hard on the wicked and the wrong doer.  This is why the sage says, “A wise king winnows the wicked and drives the wheel over them” (Prov 20:26).  A good leader will ensure that communities are safe and stable.  Questions to ask would include:  “Does the candidate pursue policies that promote justice, law, and order in social stability?  Does the candidate support quality law enforcement?  Does the candidate work for policies that impede social chaos and lawlessness?

4. Protects the poor and vulnerable.  Part of God’s indictment against his people were that the leaders and judges were not upholding justice, especially for the poor because the poor had no money for bribes.  The people were taking advantage of the poor and the defenseless, who had no legal recourse because rulers and judges were taking bribes from the rich (Mic 3:9-12; Am 5:10-15).  God commanded them to love good, hate evil, and to establish justice so that God could be merciful to them.  The Bible says that “The LORD watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps 146:9).  It also says that “If a king faithfully judges the poor, his throne will be established forever (Prov 29:14).  Protecting the poor and vulnerable would include taking action against human trafficking, slave labor, unjust labor practices whether here or abroad, and things of this sort.  Therefore, another question to ask would be:  “Does the candidate promote policies and laws that promote the welfare of all citizens without partiality?  Does the candidate work to end practices that take advantage of and trample on the weak and defenseless?  Whether it is children, the aged, those with special needs, the poor, the preborn, or the sojourner, etc., does the candidate work to uphold the value, rights, and dignity of all human life?

5. Displays administrative and ethical wisdom.  This involves both character and skill, each of which are extremely important.  In Proverbs 8:12-16, Wisdom speaks and declares, “I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion. The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil.  Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.  I have counsel and sound wisdom; I have insight; I have strength. By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me princes rule, and nobles, all who govern justly.”  Proverbs 29:4 says “A king brings stability to a land by justice, but one who exacts tribute tears it down.”  Ecclesiastes 9:17 says, “The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools.”  Passages such as these are a reminder of the need for both administrative skill and wisdom.  They are also a reminder that wisdom is not the same as being slick or efficient.  True wisdom is inseparable from righteousness, character, humility and ability.  Questions to ask would include:  “Does the candidate display leadership skill?  Does the candidate display good ethics in his policies and beliefs?  Is the candidate fair and wise in issues of taxation and policies?  Does the candidate display a willingness to listen to counsel and wisdom? 

6. Stewardship of resources.  This is not only an issue of wisdom but is also connected to the mandate God gave to mankind in the beginning.  When God created man in Genesis, he gave them the task to have dominion over the earth, to rule over it, and to be its keeper or caretaker.  Genesis 2:15 says, that God placed man in his creation to “work it and keep it.”  This, along with the instruction to “have dominion” over the earth in Genesis 1:28, indicates the responsibility that man has.  Ruling activity includes being a caretaker.  This means that scientific activity that learns to harness the resources of the earth for good while managing it wisely is a God-given mandate.  A Question to ask would include:  Does the candidate display a concern for the wise management and stewardship of resources?  

7. Promotes the productivity and welfare of the people.  By design, man was made to be productive and to work.  It is interesting to see how God had instructed Israel to provide for the able poor.  In Leviticus 23, God instructed growers not to harvest all the way to the edges of their fields, but to leave the remainder for the poor.  The idea was that the poor would be able to glean some of the produce.  This was a means not only to provide for the able poor, but to preserve their dignity by allowing them to work.  In fact, 1 Thessalonians 3:6-12 gave explicit instructions to the church concerning lazy people.  If they refused to work, then they were not to get any help.  Questions to ask would include:  “Does the Candidate promote policies that helps created the conditions for the poor to be able to be productive?  Does the candidate help to create an environment where people have opportunity for productivity and progress?  Does the candidate avoid policies that would have a tendency to squash productivity, innovation, and progress?

8. Displays good character.  Proverbs 14:34 says, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”  Obviously, leaders need to display righteousness and good character.  The Bible is replete with examples of the effect of unrighteous leaders.  Questions to ask would include: Does the candidate promote an environment conducive to righteous living?  Does the candidate display good character?

There are many other issues that we consider in candidates.  Some are a matter of preference, and some may be a matter of what is good or bad.  But those in this list are perhaps the most important for the Christian.  

Voting Process Considerations:

After consideration of what the Bible teaches about the difference between the Kingdom of God and the World and what my place is in it, and after reflection on the characteristics in a candidate that I should consider from a biblical standpoint, there are a couple of other things that I keep in mind as I proceed.

First, I consider the information I have.   On the one side, I have the biblical information that I need to think theologically about this.  However, the other side is much harder to navigate.  When it comes to accurate information about the candidates and the issues, some sources are extremely biased and incomplete.  I tend to the sources that give a fuller and more accurate picture.  There have been those who have demonstrated and written about how much of what is called journalism has gotten sloppy, lazy, and sometimes downright misleading.  What is trying to be passed off as information is often propaganda.  It can be designed either to distract or to mislead.

All of this is a reminder to myself to make the extra effort to ensure I am getting good information.  It is a reminder to sift out the chaff from the wheat and to not get distracted from the questions I am considering about the candidates.  I stay focused on the questions I have carefully constructed above to ask about the candidates before I consider anything else.

Some sources of information include:
     1) Website and Printed Material.  Go to the candidate’s own website and publications to see where the candidate says he/she stands on certain policies and issues
     2) The Record.  If a candidate already has a political record as a representative, go to the congressional website to see their voting record on the bills that have come before them.
     3) Speeches and Debates.  Listen carefully to what the candidate says and does not say as well as how forthright the candidate is.  
     4) Other Sources.  Other sources might include something like a voter guide.  The are several Christian organizations that provide voter guides that highlight where candidates stand on certain issues based either on an answered questionnaire sent to the candidate, or on their voting record or published comments.  A couple of places to start would be or  

Second, I consider what my votes mean and what they do not mean.  For me, a vote does not mean I endorse everything about a candidate or believe that a candidate is a stellar human being.  I am voting for who, out of all of those who are running for a particular office, meets the greatest number of the considerations that I have listed above.  I have never voted for a perfect candidate, and probably never will.  There have been times when I did not care for any candidate.  However, I knew one of those candidates was going to take office whether I voted or not.  Therefore, I voted for the better of the candidates, or as some put it, “the least worst.”  That is all my vote means and nothing more.  This is why I always have found voting preferable over not voting at all.  It is one small way to be the salt of the earth.

Third, I do not become consumed with politics.  Politics are not my life, nor are they the life of the church.  Galatians 3:28 says that in Christ, we are all children of God, and that there is neither Jew nor Greek, Slave nor Free, Male nor Female, we are all one in Christ Jesus.  This means that in Christ we are neither Republican nor Democrat but are one in Christ.  The Bible says that the Kingdom of God will put an end to the Kingdom of this world when the King returns.  We are ambassadors for Christ in his eternal Kingdom.  Our hopes and dreams reside with him, not with the leaders of this world or their parties.  We are “Christians,” which in Greek means, “Of the party of Christ.”  Our platform is the Gospel and our goal is the Eternal Kingdom.  I was reminded of this when I saw the image of one of our presidents on the front page of a magazine after his re-election.  Under his face, the heading read, “Second Coming.”  That so-called “second coming” has now come and went.  The only “Second Coming” I place my hope in is the second coming of our Lord, King, and Savior, Jesus the Messiah.  It is like the song says, “In Christ alone my hope is found.”

Labor Day Reflections

 There are some holidays on our calendar whose meaning we reflect on, whether it is civic or religious. Whether it is Independence Day or Thanksgiving, these are days that were set apart to commemorate something important.

Labor Day was intended to be just that. As I understand it, this was a day set apart to honor the laborer and their contributions to society. Early Labor Day parades featured workers and labor organizations. I remember reading about a banner in one of these early parades that read, "Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for recreation."

As I reflect on the nature of work from a biblical perspective, I am reminded that it is a reflection of God. God is a God that works, and he calls us, his people to work to fulfill his purposes. In order to understand this, we must find the true meaning for our work in the scriptures. 1 Timothy 2:15 says, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth." If I am going to be an approved worker, I need to go to the word to learn what this means.

The place to start, as with anything else, is at the beginning, in Genesis. The reason one should start with Genesis is because this is what Jesus did. When they asked him about marriage and divorce, Jesus did not refer to the law of Moses, but went all the way back to Genesis, where God designed marriage and set the paradigm. The same is true for mankind and work. The very first command was to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over it. This means that the taming, harnessing of the earth's resources, enculturation, and the building of society are all part of the mandate that God has given to the human race. Whether it is scientific discovery, teaching, art, literature, building, engineering, planting, growing, repairing, maintaining, cleaning, etc. it is all part of the mandate God has given to us.

This means that all work is ultimately God's work. This is why Colossians 3:23-24 says, "Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ." This means that there is no such thing as a "secular" job. All work is sanctified. Every individual person's work fits in some way with God's mandate to fill the earth and subdue it for his glory.

There is no meaning or significance in work apart from God. This is what the teacher in Ecclesiastes discovered after a lifetime of impressive accomplishments. Without God, there was no meaning or significance in any of it. When he instructs young people to remember their creator while they are young, he is calling them to reflect on the significance of work under God, rather than merely under the sun.

As God called mankind in Genesis to work in order to fulfill what many now call the "Cultural Mandate," he also calls us as Christians to work to fulfill what we call the "Great Commission." Redemption from the corruption of sin can only come through the Gospel. Romans 8:18-25 tells us that both the creature and the creation will be redeemed from the corruption of sin through Christ. To participate in his work of redemption, Jesus charged his followers to proclaim the Gospel to all creation.

All of this means that our Cultural Mandate and the Great Commission are connected. 1 Timothy 6:1 says, "Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled." Titus 2:9-10 says, "Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative,  not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior." Working with honor and integrity is connected to the teaching of the Gospel.

Friday, May 15, 2020

What Are We Supposed to Learn?

When a “natural disaster” hits, we are quick to jump to God’s defense with an assertion that God did not cause this.  I can still remember when “natural disasters” were called “acts of God.”  The term, “natural disaster” takes God out of the picture all together.  The word, “natural” fits in nicely with “naturalism,” which is the belief that the world operates without any divine activity because the supernatural does not exist. 

As I read through the scriptures, I get a different picture.  Due to rampant sin or injustice, God would either intervene or withdraw. The results included things like plagues, famines, and enemy invasions.  The prophets pointed out that these were most definitely “acts of God.”  Their purpose was either to motivate the people to repent, or to punish due to lack of repentance.

When some of these things happen today, people call them, “natural disasters” rather than “acts of God.”  We are offended at the suggestion that God would do such things.  Many of the “official prophets” who worked in the kings courts were also offended at the faithful prophets of Yahweh when they issued prophetic warnings and instructions connected to “acts of God” (Jer 26; 38:1-13; Amos 7; Is 30:8-10; 1 Kg 22;13-28)  The false prophets seemed more interested in raising troop morale and comforting the people than speaking God’s word in difficult times.

I have to ask myself, “Do I sound more like the faithful prophets of Yahweh, or the chaplains of the kings court?”  “Am I helping people ask theological questions after a disaster that will lead to a reevaluation of loyalties, ethics, and morals?

Listen to the message of the prophet Joel after a Locust plague destroyed everything, “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. (Joel 2:12-13).

God’s intervention was not an isolated event.  Notice God’s words to Solomon after he finished building and dedicating the temple, “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place” (2 Chr 7:13-15).  

God continues to act for the sake of repentance.  In Revelation, John wrote that after God had sent plagues and disasters, they “still did not repent.” (Rev 9:20,21; 16:9,11).

In Matthew 5, Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”  I have to ask myself the question, “What does God’s light sound like in a time of darkness?”  Is it, “God had nothing to do with this!  It will be over soon!  Everything will be okay!”? Or, is it, “We don’t know exactly how God is working, but we do know that he wants us to repent and turn to him.  If we do this, then everything will ultimately be okay, because Jesus has overcome the world!”

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Not a Comforting Message

During a time of national crisis, what do we do?  Many young people will not remember 9-11.  Some young people might remember people talking about the financial crisis a little over ten years ago.  There was the tsunami, the hurricane, the fire, and other natural disasters the devastated the lives of so many people.  Today, it is a disease that has rapidly spread out over the entire world, claiming the lives of thousands of people and sickening thousands more.  How do we in the Kingdom of God respond in such a time as this?

One of the things we do not do is attribute it to God in any way.  We do not want to be seen as a wild-eyed religious nut case who takes smug satisfaction in the ruin of precious lives.  In addition to this, we do not know if God caused any of this.  In fact, we do not believe that God would ever do such a thing.  God is good and does good things.  It is extremely offensive to our religious understanding to think otherwise.

Faithful Prophets of Yahweh vs. the King’s Chaplains

As I have been perusing the scriptures, I am reminded that this is very similar to the various times of national crisis in Israel.  When the enemy was at the gates, the official prophets tried to “pastor” the people, to uplift their spirits, to give them hope.  They tried to avoid discouraging the people as a religious and civil service to the nation.  The official prophets, who prophesied in the kings courts, were patriotic chaplains to the king, troops, and the nation.  The faithful prophets of Yahweh, were always at odds with them.   Here are some examples:

And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there,  but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’ Then Amos answered and said to Amaziah, “I was[a] no prophet, nor a prophet's son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ (Amos 7:12-15)

“So they took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king's son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. And there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud” (Jer 38:6)

Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’  Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.  But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers’ “ (1 Kg 19:2-4).

And the king of Israel said, ‘Seize Micaiah, and take him back to Amon the governor of the city and to Joash the king's son, and say, ‘Thus says the king, ‘Put this fellow in prison and feed him meager rations of bread and water, until I come in peace.’’’ And Micaiah said, ‘If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me.’ And he said, ‘Hear, all you peoples!’” (1 Kg 22:26-28).

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated -  of whom the world was not worthy - wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Heb 12:35-38).

God’s Assessment

There are more examples, but these demonstrate that the message of the faithful prophets of Yahweh were not popular, especially times of national crisis.  God called and sent his faithful prophets to proclaim a very different message than what the false prophets were prophesying for the kings.  Here is God’s assessment of those false messages:

“Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail.  Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? (Jer 7:8-10).

“They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they committed abomination?  No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush” (Jer 8:11-12).

“Then I said: ‘Ah, Lord God, behold, the prophets say to them, ‘You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you assured peace in this place.’’ And the Lord said to me: ‘The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds’” (Jer 14:13-14).

My hand will be against the prophets who see false visions and who give lying divinations. They shall not be in the council of my people, nor be enrolled in the register of the house of Israel, nor shall they enter the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord God. Precisely because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear it with whitewash” (Ezek 13:9-10).

Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths. Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without divination. The sun shall go down on the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God” (Mic 3:5-7).

Because of the false sense of security that led to non-repentance, the end wound up being worse.  One of the hardest chapters for me to read in Lamentations chapter 2, which highlights the devastation of the country because the people refused to listen to the Lord’s message and instead listened to the false prophets.

What can I say for you, to what compare you, O daughter of Jerusalem?  What can I liken to you, that I may comfort you, O virgin daughter of Zion?  For your ruin is vast as the sea; who can heal you?   Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen for you oracles that are false and misleading” (Lam 2:13-14)

Biblical Perspective on “Natural” Disasters

I wonder if Israel and the faithful prophets of Yahweh ever viewed a disaster as a “natural” disaster?  They believed that God was involved in earthly affairs, whether it was to stir the heart of the king (Prov 21:1; 2 Chr 36:22), a locust plague (Joel 1:1-12), a nation-wide sickness (Ex 15:26), or an enemy invasion (Heb 1:5-11).  These occurrences were supposed to have gotten the attention of the people, but they were not paying attention.  Even when God sent his messengers to make it clear, many did not listen.  Rather than repent, they chose to try and silence the voice of God through his messengers.  They were highly offended at what was often the lone voice criticizing the God’s nation and the king, calling on them to repent.

As I read through the book of Revelation, there are national disasters, sicknesses, and enemy invasions that the people faced.  A phrase shows up several times after these events in chapter 9 and chapter 16, “they still did not repent.”  These things did not get their attention.

I stop short of saying God “caused” a particular crisis because I do not know the extent of his direct involvement.  It is not because God never does such a thing.  The scriptures clearly say otherwise.  However, there is one thing I do know confidently.  God has the ability to prevent these things from happening.  I wonder how many times God prevented a disaster, and we are barely aware of it if at all?  When they do happen, God could have stopped it, but did not. 

I am always encouraged when I see my brothers and sisters demonstrating Christian compassion by serving others in the name of Christ, even when it means taking a personal risk.  This follows in the footsteps of Christ, who left the safety of Heaven and came to our dangerous and infested world to minister to us and bring the ultimate cure through his own blood.  I understand that early Christians who served during the plagues and contracted the sickness saw it as a form of martyrdom.  They were sharing Christ and gave their lives to do so.

The Message of Repentance

But what of the message of repentance?  Should a national crisis be an occasion to humbly look in the mirror?  Is this not a time to ask some tough questions of ourselves in humility and to pray for mercy?  It is not a popular message to point out that there is sin in the camp.  It is offensive to suggest that perhaps God is trying to get our attention.  But what good is it to bring comfort without repentance?  This is what the false prophets of old did and it ended with an even worse disaster.  True comfort and true peace only comes when we are in harmony with God according to his will.  His peace is peace in the midst of the storm.

I hesitate in writing this message, thinking, “This is not what the people need to hear.”  But perhaps this is exactly what we need to hear.  This is a reminder that our idols will not ultimately save us, whether it is government, medicine, or anything else of this creation.  Trust in anything other than God is crumbling wall that will fail when an enemy comes against it.  Whether it is a storm, or a virus, the walls we can build will fail.  Times like this remind should remind us of our need for our Lord and cause us to do an inventory of our life.  Are we in harmony with God?

I am reminded what Isaiah wrote in Isaiah

For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Is 30:15).

Returning to God, which the Bible also calls “repentance,” and staying there in peaceful trust and obedience is our salvation.

The Sufficiency of God’s Grace for Christ Followers

God is gracious, and things such as these can be seen as one of his expressions of grace.  I think Paul came to understand this.

“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me.  But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:7-10).

God’s grace left Paul’s thorn in the flesh in place.  Paul called it a “messenger of Satan to harass” him.  Yet, God, in his wisdom and power, used it for good.  “My grace is sufficient for you.”  Oh, to remember these empowering words in times of difficulty.  God has given us all that we need.  We have all sufficiency in every situation when we are equipped with God’s grace.  The power and wisdom of God is not that he works in spite of these things, but that he works through these things.  Paul demonstrated that it takes a life of prayer, humility, and submission to God to gain this empowering perspective. 

Our confidence is that we know how it will all end.  The end will be the beginning for us.

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).

Our confidence is that all things work together for good for those of us that have accepted Jesus as Lord and love God.  “All” includes sicknesses, disasters, dangers, and other things.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

However, the sobering reality is that the opposite is true for everyone else.  Nothing will ultimately work out for good for those who have not accepted Jesus as Lord and love God.  It may seem to be good for a season, and it may seem like peace, but without God, there is no peace. 

Grace.  It is what our Lord demonstrates to us in ways we are still learning.  It is what enables us to minister to others, even at great risk to ourselves.  It is what motivates us to love and compassion.  It is what moves us to share the message of repentance, hope, and reconciliation. 

The title of this reflection is, “Not a Comforting Message.”  But I realize that this depends on how we respond.  In Christ, we have comfort, even in our afflictions, and are able to comfort one another. 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.  If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.   For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.  He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.  You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Cor 1:3-11).

May you continue in the comfort, confidence, and grace of our Lord and be encouraged.