“Jesus Is Lord” Means Caesar Isn’t

 

Scripture: Ephesians 2:1-10

 

Once…

Once upon a time……

There’s a wealth of storied history and legend that follows those words, is there not?

Once upon a time, a man named Odysseus set out on a journey……

Once upon a time, Hansel & Gretel wandered into the woods……

Once upon a time, a mermaid named Ariel caught a glimpse of a human……

Once upon a time, a young Arthur discovers a sword in a stone in a churchyard……

 

Once upon a time, a small group of persecuted British Christians started a church that called itself “Baptist”……

Once upon a time, the American colonists grew weary of being treated as second-class citizens and said “Enough!”……

Once upon a time, a teenager named Claudette Colvin refused to get up from her seat on the bus, inspiring a woman named Rosa Parks to do the same, who in turn inspired a Baptist minister named Martin King……

 

Once upon a time, God created the heavens and the earth……

Once upon a time, a baby was born in Bethlehem……

Once upon a time, a cross was erected in Jerusalem……

Once upon a time……

Paul’s “Once up a Time……”

In today’s scripture lesson, Paul is telling a “once upon a time” story.

Once upon a time (he shows us), we were citizens of this world. Our allegiance was to this world—its ways, its laws; its behaviors, its promises; its hopes, its dreams. But in this once upon a time, our allegiance was also to the ruler of this world, though we did not even know we were forming this allegiance.

We didn’t realize it because this ruler taught us to live for ourselves, that nothing is wrong unless it hurts someone, that if it feels good it must be good, that external struggles are worse than internal struggles, and that my rights are more important than yours.

Even though this world and its ruler taught us that these things lead to a full and complete life, God has revealed it to be a lie. These things damage our health, our relationships, our communities, and our planet.

But they also damage the connection we have with God. They are modern manifestations of the same temptation that felled our first ancestors in the Garden of Eden. Then—as now—the temptation is to decide for yourself what is right and pleasing and good, instead of trusting the God who brought all things into being.

Paul says that “once upon a time” this was everyone’s story. Because once upon a time we didn’t know God. Once upon a time we did live for ourselves. Once upon a time we pledged allegiance to nation and flag and culture, and we believed that was the highest allegiance that was due to anyone beyond our own person. That is the way “in which you used to live,” as Paul says in the first verse.

But God…

But there’s a but. Or at least there’s supposed to be. “But God”……

Hereafter we discover an abbreviated telling of an incredible story—one fit for the ages, for sure! It has a hero and villains, comedy and tragedy, suspense and romance, and a plot twist more unexpected than that of The Sixth Sense. Paul says:

“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:4–7 NRSV)

As one of our old hymns tells it:

One day when Heaven was filled with His praises,
One day when sin was as black as could be,
Jesus came forth to be born of a virgin,
Dwelt among men, my example is He!

One day they led Him up Calvary’s mountain,
One day they nailed Him to die on the tree;
Suffering anguish, despised and rejected:
Bearing our sins, my Redeemer is He!

One day they left Him alone in the garden,
One day He rested, from suffering free;
Angels came down o’er His tomb to keep vigil;
Hope of the hopeless, my Savior is He!

One day the grave could conceal Him no longer,
One day the stone rolled away from the door;
Then He arose, over death He had conquered;
Now is ascended, my Lord evermore!

This amazing thing has happened—and not just in the past, but in our lives today. God has made us alive through Christ, saving us by God’s grace and on account of God’s great love for us.

After such a dramatic change of circumstances, Paul expects our priorities are going to shift. We will respond to God’s liberating love with the recognition that “we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works” as we read in v.10 (NIV). And as a result, we will spend our new, redeemed, transformed, liberated lives allowing Christ to live through us, as Paul says in Galatians 2:20.

Instead of pledging allegiance to this world, its powers, and its empty promises, we now pledge allegiance to God’s Kingdom. When we confess that Jesus is Lord, we confess that Caesar is not. Our citizenship in God’s kingdom overrides our citizenship in any worldly nation. If we have “by grace been saved” as Paul insists twice—twice!!—in these verses, then that “once upon a time” is not going to describe the way our present life is lived.

But…

But……

But my “once upon a time” (the description of my life before my commitment to follow Jesus) too often describes the current events of my life.

Too often my transgressions and sin bring death to my life—the death of relationships, the death of possibilities, the death of hopes, and even very real physical death.

Too often I still follow the ways of this world.

Too often my cravings for donuts and coffee and Thai food and books and buying and learning and indulging and consuming and possessing take precedence in my life over everything that is really important.

Too often, my allegiance is fractured at best, all while Jesus himself reminds us that “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste” (Matthew 12:25 NRSV).

This isn’t a guilt-trip sermon. You all know I don’t approve of those. Instead, this is a sermon about our honest confession that where we are doesn’t line up with where we are called to be. There are things that have become entangled with our faith that have more to do with politics than the bible. There are confessions we make religiously that are nothing more than our regional cultural identity.

And (of course) there’s nothing inherently wrong with these other parts of our identity. In fact, to deny that they shape us is both dishonest and it hinders the Cause of Christ (or so I believe). But they are not to be where our primary allegiance lies. And they should not be allowed to contradict the priorities, values, and purposes of our primary identity as the Beloved of God, citizens of God’s Kingdom.

Paul’s Conversion & Commitment

Sometimes I get frustrated with Paul. He has this amazing “Road to Damascus” conversion experience, filled with shining light, voices from the sky, and being changed inside and out forever. But Paul doesn’t seem to always understand that not everyone has encountered God in that kind of way. Maybe Paul can turn 180 degrees in a couple days, but most of us can’t go half that far in a lifetime.

But then again, I don’t think Paul’s transformation was quite as instant or complete as we often imagine. He left for Damascus that day with a devil-may-care attitude and a commitment to carry out his mission whatever the cost. When he began laboring for Christ instead of against Christians, he did it with a devil-may-care attitude and a commitment to carry out his mission whatever the cost. Maybe there was a subtler shift than we—or he—realized.

But regardless, no one can doubt that Paul knew what it meant to confess that Jesus is Lord.

It landed him in prison.

It got him beaten.

It led him to advocate against slavery and for women’s rights in ways that were radical then, but (admittedly) seem backwards today.

He went toe-to-toe with Jesus’s disciples and expanded their conception of Jesus’s liberating work.

He went toe-to-toe with pagan leaders, judges, soldiers, and even (according to John Chrysostom) with Caesar Nero himself before Paul was killed—beheaded, according to tradition—because his allegiance rested unequivocally with Jesus and God’s Kingdom.

Jesus is Lord means Caesar isn’t.

It’s a hard truth for us to live into. It’s a harder truth for this world and its powers to accept.

May God help us put to death our allegiance to this world, so our allegiance to the Kingdom of God might be completely undivided.

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The Not-So-Subtle Work of God

 

Scripture: Psalm 50:1-6

 

 

 

Transfiguration: Mark 8-9

It happened before they even knew what was going on.

Things with Jesus had been strange for a few days–ever since Jesus got weird with Peter. There’d been some amazing things happening: thousands fed miraculously, a blind man healed. And then, in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus circled the wagons (as he was wont to do when he wanted to ask hard questions or offer some mysterious teaching).

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. (Mark 8:27–30 NRSV)

But this time it seemed neither. “Who do people say I am?” he asked. It was a strange question, coming from Jesus. For someone who cared so much about people, Jesus never seemed to care much what they thought of him.

Not knowing where he was going with this, they tried to answer his question: “Some think John the Baptist, others Elijah, or one of the prophets.” But then Jesus made it personal: “Who do you say I am?”

Of course, before anyone else had the chance to say anything, Simon Peter’s enthusiasm burst out: “You are the Christ.” Given the way Jesus responded, it seemed to be the right answer, so to speak. Because that’s when Jesus started getting all hush hush about him being the Messiah (–that’s what “christ” means, after all).

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:31–33 NRSV)

But that’s also when Jesus started getting pretty explicit about what was to come, saying he was going to suffer, face persecution from the religious establishment, and ultimately be killed and rise again.

But then Peter’s enthusiasm got the better of him……again. I think he stopped listening at “be killed,” assuming he got any further than “suffering.” Peter pulled Jesus aside and told him that Jesus has it all wrong–that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

The intensity of Jesus’ rebuke hit all twelve disciples. He addressed Peter as though Peter were Satan himself, and said that Peter had lost sight of God’s values.

Peter wilted, of course. You couldn’t look at him and not think he must have gotten whiplash being jerked from such a height to such depth.

After that, the disciples were all a bit wary of Jesus. And not much happened until several days later when everything changed forever.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus…Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. (Mark 9:2-4, 7-8 NRSV)

Jesus was going out, and with him he took only Peter, James, and John. That part wasn’t all that strange, really. They made up the inner circle, so to speak.

Jesus had lots of disciples–hundreds of men and women mentioned in the scriptures.

But there was a smaller circle of 70 that got commissioned to go out two by two and perform miracles and preach the Kingdom of God.

Of that 70, there was a smaller group known as the Twelve. These were what we think of as the disciples, proper.

But then there was still an inner circle within the Twelve, made up of these three. They were Jesus’ most trusted confidants. They were closest in the most pivotal or sensitive moments of Jesus life.

And this thing that happened…… well, I’d say it fits that bill.

Like many times before, Jesus seemed to be going to pray. And when he went out to pray, Jesus often went into the country, and he climbed up to a high place. For virtually the whole of human existence–despite culture or geography or religion–humans have felt that high places were holy places.

But instead of just praying like the disciples expected, something otherworldly happened.

Jesus’ appearance changed dramatically. It was so extraordinary that it’s hard to describe. His clothes looked so white it was difficult to look at them. There was a sparkly radiance, like the sunlight being reflected by a shard of glass. And before the disciples came to terms with this sudden transformation, they realized they were not alone. Two other human figures appeared–as if out of the ether. Somehow the disciples knew them to be Moses and Elijah–but how can this be? they’ve been dead for ages! The three of them talked–Jesus, Moses, and Elijah—-and for how long? no one could tell. It seemed over before anyone came to terms with it starting.

It took some time, but the disciples slowly understood what had happened. This not-so-subtle transformation of their Rabbi Jesus was a kind of revealing or unveiling (that’s what “apocalypse” means, by the way). In this moment, the curtain of eternity temporarily pulled back and they saw Jesus for who he is: the Beloved Son of God.

We today, of course, know that the Beloved Son of God will return. Immanuel–God with us–will one day return and bring about the full transformation of all things according to God’s loving desires.

Like the transfiguration of Jesus before his disciples, the transformation of all of creation is not a subtle thing that God is doing. As another translation of Psalm 50 puts v.3: “Our God will come, and He will not enter on a whisper” (VOICE).

In order to help us imagine it, Isaiah 42:14 tells us that God is like a woman giving birth, “crying out” and “gasping and panting” “like a woman in labor” (NRSV). As someone who’s been in the room three times while a woman gave birth, I’d say “crying out, gasping, and panting” is an understatement–and that’s with modern medicine smoothing the way as best as it can.

I can’t even imagine what it must have been like 2000 years ago, when child-bearing was incredibly dangerous for both mother and child. It is estimated that at that time almost 1 in every 50 childbirths resulted in the death of the mother. Around a third of newborns did not live a month, with more than 50% dying before they reached ten years of age.

I simply cannot imagine the physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma these mothers endured. And Isaiah says to us that God is like this.

God is like this because God is working to birth a future into existence……a future that Jesus and the bible call the Kingdom of God. Today’s psalm talks about this not-so-subtle transformation of all things as being characterized by God’s justice, people of all sorts being drawn to God, and the recognition that Yahweh is the only and true God.

Later in the New Testament, Jesus says this Kingdom is incubating in us (Luke 17:21 MLS). We, as his followers and disciples, are the womb where this transformation is gestating. This isn’t going to be easy for us either–this birthing of God’s kingdom into the world. And if we’re going to do it, it is going to require some not-so-subtle transformation of our own lives as well.

Someone once said that a church is a community where we practice living in the Kingdom of God. There’s something to that, I think. If we cannot learn to do it alongside other people who are supposedly learning to do it too, how are we going to do it alongside people with a different set of priorities and convictions?

Subtle Goals?

But sometimes I wonder if we undermine all of this by convincing ourselves that the change–the transformation–God intends is a subtle paradigm shift. Our emphasis on “achievable goals” means that each generation reaches only slightly forward of where we are. If we believe any progress is possible among the church or in the world, we think in terms of being a little bit bigger, a little more wealthy, a little more knowledgable, a little better production, a few more people “served,” and so on.

But today’s psalm reminds me that God doesn’t really do subtle. If you doubt me, look at virtually any interaction Jesus had with anyone: there are no subtle actions; there are no subtle insinuations; there is only direct engagement about the radically transforming work of God.

If we’re going to be honest, we know that we don’t look much like the Jesus we’re supposed to be embodying. That goes for us as individuals, but also as the church.

And while I am fully aware that we are a bunch of sinners who have no hope aside from the hope we find in Jesus, I wonder if we’re just not thinking big enough.

If God is about not-so-subtle transformation, maybe we should be too.

If God is bringing about dramatic changes, maybe we should be dreaming in more dramatic terms.

As much as we’re using our imaginations this morning, I don’t think I’m imagining anything. I think God has big hopes and dreams for each one of you–and for our church–and achieving them is as simple as opening ourselves up for God to do the work in us.

But in order for that to happen:

We’ve got to realize that a band-aid won’t do when major surgery is needed.

We can’t expect that afterward our life will remain essentially the same.

We’ve got to realize that with great power comes great responsibility, and if you’ve been liberated by Christ, it’s for a purpose that’s bigger than you.

If we’re going to be part of birthing God’s Kingdom into this world, it’s going to change us in some not-so-subtle ways. But that transformation will bring about a greater fulfillment and love than anything we can ever know.

And it takes a not-so-subtle commitment to our not-so-subtle God. What do you think? Are we up to it?

 

Resurrection

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

 

Matthew 28:1-10

 

A New Boy

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, a boy was born. The circumstances of that birth were only noteworthy on account of the misfortune that tainted that supposedly joyous day.

The mother—pregnant out of wedlock.

The location—forced to travel 70 dangerous miles on account of a ridiculous political decree.

The parents—so shunned by family members that they were forced to sleep where the animals were kept at night.

There would be visitors laterafter the birth of this boy—but their arrival would be more unsettling than joyous. I mean, what do you do with the promises and predictions of vagabond shepherds and Iranian astrologers?

The childhood of this boy also bears no particular mention. It was a typical childhood for one born into a blue-collar family in that time and place. There was one peculiar event when he was about 12 years old. The family was traveling back from a festival, and it appears the boy did not get on the bus home with the rest of the family. When they saw he was missing, they called the police and went searching—but he was at a church (of all places) doing some Bible study. Certainly atypical for a teenager who runs away. But then again, maybe it was just a mix-up, right?

The life of this boy does not gather much attention until he is a man. But even then, one wonders. It was a turbulent time and place—and itinerant preachers were pretty common. I’m sure it was hard for his father and mother when the boy-now-man failed to continue the family business. But I suspect they came around—especially seeing the way people came to seek him out.

The man taught a back-to-basics type of religion. Be kind. Care for each other. Do good. Wash behind your ears……that kind of stuff. But he had some radical notions too.

He said that following God involved self-sacrifice: “take up your cross and follow me.”

He taught an inversion of the social order: “the first will be last and the last will be first.”

And—most radically—he taught that we are to love our enemies.

Like many of us in the exuberant days of our youth, the man had a flair for bucking authority. He didn’t keep the Sabbath the way he was taught—that attracted a lot of negative attention. But what made it worse is that he’d break the Sabbath by doing remarkable and incredibly good things.

Somehow, he’d heal someone’s blindness……but it was on the Sabbath.

Somehow, he’d cure someone’s sickness……but it was on the Sabbath.

Sometimes, it almost seemed like he was giving the middle finger to the religious authorities.

And people in power will usually do anything to keep their power. That’s the way this story goes, too. Our fellow upsets the wrong people. A plan is made. A betrayal is bought. A trap is set.

Arrest.

Trial.

Sentence.

His life ends as a footnote: just another would-be messiah, crucified by the Romans as a rabble-rouser and insurrectionist. Just as in the beginning, there are those who saw something more as he died, yet they proved unsettling too: a crucified thief, a Roman centurion……

But death was not the end for our Jesus. The morning after the Sabbath, two women go to the grave. They are tasked with the dirty, stinky, tainting job of attending to a decomposing corpse. But instead of a fetid body, they discover an empty tomb. Instead of the corpse of their teacher and friend, they receive word from an angel. And as they run away, afraid, they meet their risen Savior, who proclaims “Do not fear.”

A New World

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far, away, a new world was born—a Kingdom “not of this world.” It’s birth, too, went largely unnoticed by the world at large. It’s advent, too, appeared more unsettling than joyous in the moment.

Jesus, having “descended to the grave” (as the Apostle’s Creed and 1Peter 3:19 tell us), is raised by God to new life.

His resurrection conquers death and paves the way for abundant life—eternal life.

His resurrection breaks this world open so that a new creation can emerge.

His resurrection is a taste of the resurrection that awaits us all.

For in Jesus’ resurrection, the power that this world has wielded against us—the power of death—has been rendered impotent, for all time.

In Jesus’ resurrection, the very fundamental realities of how life works have been altered. It is as dramatic as though gravity no longer applies, or the earth no longer rotates around the sun.

In Jesus’ resurrection, the Kingdom of God is birthed into this world.

And now we—who were so lost to sin—can find rescue.

Now we—who were so broken by the world—can find healing.

Now we—who were so devastated by grief—can find comfort.

Now we—who were so afraid—we can find love.

In the resurrection of Jesus, what is of this world has been broken open. A new day has dawned. A new beginning has started.

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, the End was decided. And life, peace, joy, and hope……and love……love wins.

Christ has died!
Christ is risen!
Christ is coming again!

 

 

Lent: Rejection

A huge thanks to Rev. Mindi at Rev-0-lution.org for this year’s Lenten theme, which I’ve slightly reworked under the title: “Advancing the Kingdom, Resisting the World.”

 

Matthew 4:1-11

 

Rejection

It’s a familiar text and story that we have before us today. Jesus, having just been baptized in the Jordan by John the Baptist, is whisked away to the wilderness where he experiences a period of preparation, discernment, and temptation. The gospel accounts pay the most attention to the last hours of this isolating-yet-constructive experience of our Savior, as he—like any and every other human being that has ever lived—experiences pressures that could very well reroute his life away from the narrow path of God’s Kingdom.

Three times he experiences the pull of this world, forces that would draw him away from the path of God’s Kingdom—forces that are still very present and very powerful in our world today. These are the forces of the world—the empire, if you will—that we too will need to learn to reject, if we are to remain on the path of God’s Kingdom, following the footsteps of Jesus our leader.

1. Miracle of Bread

As Matthew tells the story, the first temptation faced by Jesus—the first strong pull of the way of the world—is to turn stones into bread. The temptation here is more than miracle—it is to be a savior of people’s immediate needs—and thus to be needed by them.

Now when we see folks hungry, God is pretty clear that we should be working and sacrificing to meet their needs (cf. Isa 58, 1John 3:17, Matthew 25, and many other places). But as Jesus reveals in John 6, he did not come to end physical hunger but to become the Bread of Life, through whom we obtain abundant and everlasting life.

The temptation that Jesus faces here in the desert is the temptation to be needed by others. And Christ could have done this. Jesus could have come as our high-and-mighty Savior, turning stones into bread, purifying the waters of the world, renewing creation, and saving us from ourselves by taking away the free will that we were given when formed of the dust of the earth.

And honestly, some days that sounds pretty good. But it only sounds good because of how we’ve been brainwashed by the culture and powers of our world. Jesus himself knows it to be a false promise—that it doesn’t really work that way, and that it couldn’t work that way.

And so Jesus rejects this pull that the world imposes on him, and he chooses the way of God’s Kingdom.

Instead of appearing as our high-and-mighty Savior, Jesus is born as yet another apparently insignificant Jewish baby.

Instead of crushing our free will, Christ enters into our broken human condition, engages with the lowest and least of society and the world, and extends sacrificial love to all.

Instead of being our “white knight,” Jesus accompanies us through the valley of the shadow of death, supporting and encouraging us. Becoming human like us and with us, he walks with us and guides us toward salvation through relationship with God.

The pull of the world is to make sure others need us—to ourselves become the saviors who brings culture/enlightenment/protection to the weak heathens around us. This was, in fact (and quite sadly), the way the Christian church performed missionary activity for quite some time. Identifying with a savior instead of those Jesus loves (those in need of salvation), we infiltrated and destroyed entire cultures in the name of evangelism. We tried to force our own way of faith upon people instead of meeting them where they were, which was what Jesus himself did. And in the process, we Christians became complicit in some of the most violent and unjust systems that continue even to this day.

To follow the Kingdom way of Jesus is to reject these impulses to be needed and to save. Instead, we follow the example of Jesus Christ to love sacrificially, remembering his teaching that “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13 ESV).

The cause of Christ is advanced—the Kingdom of God is expanded and made more complete in this world when we identify with the broken, the forgotten, the abused, the abandoned, the addicted, the imprisoned, the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, and the powerless. If we cannot learn to love them for the sheer purpose of loving them, then we are not following the example of Christ in rejecting the empire of this world in favor of God’s Kingdom.

2. Miracle of the Superman

After this first temptation in Matt 4, Jesus is tempted to play Superman—to perform amazing supernatural feats that are guaranteed to impress and garner positive attention. If only Jesus would use his abilities to bring himself fame—if only he would amaze and entertain the easily-impressed masses—then he would have a platform to carry his message throughout the world. That is his temptation. That is the pull of the world.

But this, too, is rejected by Jesus. It is rejected because it involves—once again—playing by the rules of this world instead of the rules of God’s Kingdom. To seek to impress people and cultivate fame is one of the more powerful forces this world wields within us. Yet (as Jesus knows), fame is an empty promise; it never leads us to the expected fulfillment.

Yet there is so much we do in order to impress—in order to ensure people think well of us. When we meet new people, we change our introduction of ourselves so they will accept us. So many of our untruths—our lies and deceptions—are fueled by the fear that we won’t be accepted, or that we need to impress. Instead of “count[ing] others more significant than [our]selves,” as the Kingdom way of Jesus instructs (Phil 2:3), the way of the world (the pull we feel within us) is to prove ourselves superior to everyone we meet, no matter the deception or violence it entails.

If we are to reject the pull of the empire around us and follow the way of God’s Kingdom, we will practice a disciplined humility, instead of a false pride. One early Christian voice, a man aptly nicknamed “the Shepherd,” offered this recommendation: “Behave as if you were a stranger, and wherever you are, do not expect your words to have any influence and you will be at peace” (Abba Poemen).

3. Complete World Domination

This brings us to Jesus’ third temptation. Psychologists tell us there are two powerful desires within us that require constant management: control and power. In fact, most of our conflicts with one another come down to issues of power or control.

When we feel a loss of power in one area of life, we seek to exert power in another. I have seen many good folks do terrible harm to their families and churches because of an experience of powerlessness somewhere else.

In the same way, when we feel a loss of control in one area of life, we seek to control other people and things as a way of restoring balance. Along with power, such efforts to control others bring us great frustration and can result in great violence. The most dramatic example of this reassertion of power and control is domestic violence, but there are far more insidious ways we inflict power and control on people, as well.

There are times when we deceive ourselves into thinking we are helping them—saving them from themselves, perhaps. But here Jesus has that opportunity—he is offered complete world domination, to use however he sees fit. He could successfully take over the world, as Pinky and the Brain could never manage. He could end poverty, stop all wars, mete out true justice, ensure land is used responsibly and for the best purpose. He could redistribute populations to ease the burdens on creation that we generate when we clump up in cities, and to ensure reliable access to the necessary services that are harder to come by in rural areas. He could blend our red states and blue states into a royal purple, where he is to rule as king. With Jesus exerting ultimate power—with Jesus controlling everyone and everything—it seems like the world would be so much better, doesn’t it? Doesn’t it??

It might seem that way, but Jesus did not come to control us but to love us. Such it is for our life and mission as well. Even those times when it seems controlling others would be for their benefit, we are being deceived by the forces that want to break us down and destroy us. The way of Jesus—the way of God’s Kingdom—is not to control, but to love.

And the Bible tells us what that love looks like: willing, humble, self-sacrificing obedience. In 1John we find repeated over and over that we know we are walking with Jesus if we obey his commandments and if we love one another. These are (of course) one and the same, for Jesus tells us that the way of God’s kingdom is fulfilled when we love God and love one another—even our enemies.

So while the world pulls us toward trying to exert as much power and control over people and things as possible, we Christians must reject and fight against this notion. Like our example and savior Jesus, we must submit completely to God in order to purge our desire for power over others.

There’s an ancient story from the early years of Christianity that is symbolic of the kind of counter-cultural submission and obedience to God that Jesus demonstrates for us.

There was a Christian leader named Sylvanus, who was regarded as a wise fellow who closely walked Jesus’ path. Because of this, others were drawn to him as disciples or apprentices, seeking to be mentored by this sage. Trouble was that his disciples thought Sylvanus had a favorite disciple, a man named Mark. They got so jealous of Mark that they started causing trouble, and the other Christian leaders in the area showed up to correct Sylvanus, reminding him not to have favorites and all that.

When they showed up, however, Abba Sylvanus decided to show them around first—you know, give them the tour. As he passed the rooms of his disciples, he knocked on the door of each, calling out, “Brother, come out, I have work for you to do.” But none of them opened their doors right away.

When they came to Mark’s door, Abba Sylvanus had hardly finished speaking before the door was opened. He issued Mark some task to complete, and Mark went on his way. But Abba Sylvanus and his visitors went into Mark’s room. He’d been writing—copying a book—and was making the letter “O.” But when he heard Abba Sylvanus’ voice, he didn’t even finish that one letter, which is made of a single stroke of a pen.

The kind of obedience to God that Jesus demonstrates for us is immediate and complete. Jesus does not ask God to wait for him to finish what he’s doing—not even to finish that word or that letter. No, Jesus submits in complete obedience to God. He voluntarily chooses powerlessness. He voluntarily gives up control of his life and destiny. He voluntarily rejects these ways of the world.

And he does it on account of love.

1 + 1 + 1 = Empire

It’s important to understand these temptations individually—these “pulls” on our hearts by the powers of this world. But it is equally vital that we recognize them in combination as the core of an empire that is not God’s Kingdom. These forces are the building blocks of the social evils around us and throughout history.

If we do not reject this empire, we can have no part of God’s Kingdom. If we wish to follow the way of Jesus, we must reject the ways of this world. A house divided against itself cannot stand (Matthew 12:25).

Sisters and brothers—followers of Jesus and citizens of God’s kingdom—let us then reject the empire around us and follow Jesus’ kingdom example to love sacrificially, to humbly consider others more significant than ourselves, and to submit completely in obedience to God’s leading and desires.

In doing so, God’s kingdom will come, God’s will will be done, on earth, just as it is in heaven.

Amen.

Fulfillment

 

Matthew 1:18-25

 

Posture: Responding to Fulfillment

As we near the climax of this Advent season, we have already reflected on many different experiences:

How does anticipation position us so we are ready to serve God and each other?

In what ways do we resist the confrontational nature of the gospel?

How do we reconcile faith with our inner questioning and uncertainty?

And now today……How do we respond to the fulfillment of our hopes?

What goes through our minds?

What changes in our physiology—in our body’s language and composition?

And how does the fulfillment of our hopes impact our lived-out faith as disciples of Christ?

The Story

The scripture reading today is well known among Christians. Now, the Sunday before Christmas Day, we have begun our move into the Christmas narrative itself, inserting ourselves as a fly-on-the-wall into these intimate, fearful, and joyous moments of Mary and Joseph’s relationship.

Joseph and Mary are engaged to be married……or so we would position them in today’s rituals and rites. In their own time and culture, it would be more accurate to say Joseph had contracted to wed Mary. While Joseph is certainly painted as a compassionate and caring individual here, the fact is that marriage in that day and age had nothing to do with love and everything to do with economics, social aspiration, and the cold, hard realities of a thoroughly patriarchal society.

Mary—throughout this episode—is not afforded a voice. Her opinion is not consulted. Her perspective is not presented. The version of Jesus’ birth told here in Matthew is not about Mary—it is about Joseph. It is about the hope of Israel. And it is about the fulfillment of that hope in an unexpected way.

As we begin, I think it’s important to realize that while we know Mary is “with child from the Holy Spirit” (v.18), no one else seems to know this at the time. Of course, as Luke will tell, Mary has an angelic visit of her own—but (as I said) Mary gets no voice in Matthew’s gospel.

Joseph, in resolving to divorce her in v.19, reveals that he does not know about—or believe—any spirit-impregnating mumbo-jumbo. He only knows that a pregnant fiancée is scandalous, that the child is not his, and that an unfaithful fiancée is likely to be an unfaithful wife. Since the covenant has been violated, he intends to quit the covenant.

Yet still, as a godly person, he does not intend to cause irreparable harm. Unlike so many separations today, Joseph is not intent on lashing out and destroying the one he perceives has wronged him. He does not want Mary to suffer for her unfaithfulness; he just doesn’t want that kind of trouble in his life any more. Whatever hopes he had for this marriage have been dashed—and dead hope brings its own kind of grief, as we mourn a life we were invested in but will never breathe a breath.

Out of this grief—and out of this quiet wrestling—an angel invades Joseph’s contemplation. Like most angels, this one begins with an instruction to not be afraid. The angel tells Joseph to go ahead with the wedding, that Mary has not been unfaithful but that her baby is brought into being by the Spirit; and the angel tells Joseph something about this baby’s future: call him Jesus, because “he will save his people from their sins” (v.21).

Why?!?

There is……one more thing we learn here in Matthew, too. It’s an answer to the question that is first on our lips when our own hope is dashed. It’s the question we most want answered when our grief peaks. It’s the question “why?”

Why?……Why?……Why?…… How many times must Joseph have asked that question in the hours and days before the angel appeared? How often must he have shouted it at the heavens, or prayed it with the same intensity as will Jesus pray at Gethsemane?

How many times have we prayed “why?”, crying out in grief to the sky, or falling on our knees, or having it echoing around inside our empty soul?

How many times have we ourselves earnestly desired an angel break into our despair, offer us words of peace, and promise the fulfillment of all our hopes?

But alas, while such experiences happen, they do not happen to everyone, everywhere, or every time. They are, in truth, exceptions to the norm—as befitting their exceptional nature.

The answer to Joseph’s “why” is certainly an exceptional one. This boy who will be born in such exceptional circumstances has an exceptional fate—even more exceptional than his name alone suggests. This Jesus will not just be the one who will “save his people from their sins”; he will also be “Immanuel… God with us” (vv.21, 23), the presence of God promised by Isaiah hundreds of years and a nearly equal number of pages ago.

History Lesson

Now, there’s some interesting history behind this prophecy of Isaiah, not the least of which is that the Jews of Jesus’ day believed these words of Isaiah had already been fulfilled.

Here’s what Isaiah 7 is actually about. In the early 700s BCE, Syria and Israel allied with other small states for protection against Assyria, the region’s 800-pound gorilla. Judah refused to join the alliance. Syria and Israel, fearing a potential enemy at its rear, moved to conquer Judah.

God spoke through the prophet Isaiah to tell the king of Judah that, with faith, his enemies would be destroyed. Isaiah tells the king to ask God for a sign of this prophecy, but the king refuses to put God to the test. Isaiah [then] sees this as a lack of faith, scolds the king, and gives him a sign: “The [maiden] will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (7:14). Before the boy is old enough to understand right from wrong, Syria and Israel will be destroyed.

In other words, in five years or so, your enemies will be destroyed—that’s the point of the Immanuel [prophecy]. The boy simply acts as a clock. And not only is Immanuel not a messiah, his three-verse story isn’t even a significant part of this chapter, which goes on to describe the impending conquest of Judah by Assyria and…[the] painful future [that awaits].

(The previous paragraphs copied with slight alterations from HERE)

You see, from the perspective of Joseph and his peers, this is a prophecy that had already been fulfilled. It had been fulfilled when an otherwise unimportant boy was born to the house of the King of Judah, and when Syria and Israel were destroyed less than five years later. This otherwise unremarkable child is called “Immanuel” because his presence reminds ancient Israel that God has not forgotten them, and that God is at work to save them.

“Fulfillment”

It is this meaning, I believe, that led Matthew to see a connection to the infant Jesus. Like the Immanuel of centuries prior, the presence of Jesus reminds us of the presence of God. Like his namesake, Jesus will help us see that God is working to save us. Perhaps too, Jesus serves as a kind of clock for us, marking both the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God at his birth and its fulfillment when he returns.

But with Jesus, there’s more to it too. When Matthew says that Jesus’ virgin birth is the fulfillment of prophecy, we remember this is not the only prophecy Jesus will fulfill. A big part of the purpose of the gospel of Matthew is to connect as many of these prophetic dots as possible.

But “prophecy” and “fulfillment” are not fatalistic concepts in the New Testament, despite how we have read them over the years. For Jesus to be the fulfillment of Isaiah 7 is not to say that he and only he is what Isaiah 7 intended. Rather, the fulfillment of prophecy takes place when faithful people choose to embody the hoped-for reality. Jesus is familiar with the scriptures of his Jewish religion—which was made up of the bulk of what we now know as the OT. And in particular places we can read about Jesus deliberately choosing to live into an OT text—deliberately choosing to “fulfill” an OT prophecy.

It’s obvious and mysterious and earthy and supernatural all at the same time. But it’s also the same sort of task that is presented to faithful disciples of Jesus over and over.

Fulfilling the Kingdom

Jesus spends most of his teaching and preaching ministry talking about the same thing. Know what it is? It’s the same thing John the Baptist talked about: the kingdom of God.

John will proclaim that the Kingdom is “near” (Matt 3:2).

Jesus takes it a step further to say it is “in you” (Lk 17:21).

Paul will talk about how we are to live in the world but according to a different set of laws and standards (Titus 3:1-8 and others);

and Peter will show how we “ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

They’re all talking about the same thing—inching and pushing and plodding and fighting their way forward as they seek to bring the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God into the world.

So it is with us, as well. We are citizens of this nation, tasked with upholding justice and peace, and with praying for our leaders.

But this nation is not where our allegiance lies.

Each one of us must live the Kingdom of God into being.

Each one of us must contribute toward its fulfillment.

Each one of us has roles to play in order for “thy kingdom” to come, and “thy will” to be done, “on earth as it is in heaven.”

The past fulfillment of hope in Jesus reminds us of God’s presence, love, and desire to deliver us from the bonds that oppress us—both within and without. But that past fulfillment also drives our future hope, and our present labor.

In a world so deeply divided, who will know unity?—unless it is lived out by the Church.

In a world filled with such pain, who will know comfort?—unless it is lived out by the Church.

In a world driven by consumerism and greed, who will know generosity?—unless it is lived out by the Church.

In a world where facts have become irrelevant in public discourse, who will know truth?—unless it is lived out by the Church–the people who embody the way, the truth, and the life—that is Jesus the Christ.

We have a role to play in the world, sisters and brothers. God is not finished yet. The Kingdom is not yet fulfilled. The cause of Christ is still advancing.

But are we advancing with it? Are we fulfilling the Kingdom of God through our choices and engagements? As we do what we call “the Lord’s work,” is good news being preached to the poor? Are captives and prisoners being set free? Do the blind now see? Are the oppressed liberated?

These are the things Jesus indicates are fulfilled in his life and mission. Are they fulfilled in ours?

Letter from Birmingham Jail

For some weeks and months, I have discovered my mind recalled a particular writing of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963. In so many places, Dr. King seems to speak straight to the circumstances of our world today, to the criticisms used against those pursuing justice, and to the difficult task that committed followers of Jesus are likely to have in the future.

As we reflect on “fulfillment” today, I regret that we have lived into the prophetic fears expressed by Dr. King instead of living into the life of Christ and Kingdom of God. Near the end of this substantial letter, Dr. King says this:

So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.

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

(accessed HERE)

From dashed hopes, to fulfilled hopes, to dashed hopes again. This is our history. And this is where we stand today.

But it is not where we have to remain.

Each of us—one by one—can choose to fulfill Jesus’ life with our own.

Each of us—one by one—can choose to live in the Kingdom of God even now.

Each of us—one by one—can choose to stand with God against the injustices of this world, actively fighting the “powers and principalities” that crush the lives and spirits of those on the margins.

In doing so, we fulfill the life of Christ and advance God’s Kingdom.
Sisters and brothers: Gird up your loins. We’ve work to do.

Confrontation

 

Advent 2

Matthew 3:1-12

 

Confrontation

For Advent, we are following an unorthodox path through some very traditional advent texts. As we read these scriptures each week, we are exploring the way we posture ourselves on account of what we are experiencing. In other words: how do we think/feel/change when we experience anticipation, challenge, questioning (from inside ourselves), fulfillment, and promise? And what does that mean for us as disciples of Jesus Christ?

This week, we attend to confrontation.

I wasn’t a pastor very long before I discovered it to be a vocation that involves a great deal of confrontation. At less than a year into the job, I recall a man–a church member–in my office, screaming and cursing at me, threatening me and the church with lawsuit after lawsuit until it bankrupted us, and promising me that he would use every dime of his (repeatedly spoken of) wealth to slander and ruin us forever. The tipping point that brought us there? He had been in charge of building us a website, which had been “in process” for three years but he had yet to produce anything tangible. I told him we were going to have someone else do it.

As he cursed me a blue streak and threatened me with lawsuits, imprisonment, and more, imagine you were in my shoes:

What do you think I felt?

What would you imagine was going through my brain at the time?

How do you think my own physical posture changed during the confrontation?

What does confrontation feel like? When someone “comes at you”–both guns blazing or even in a quiet, sneaky way–what happens in you?

Most of us respond with anger, at least on some level.

Most of us feel our pulse race, and our blood pressure rise.

Most of us clench–our fists, our abs, our teeth……something!–as the tension rises.

Most of us think thoughts of outrage, perhaps mixed with hurt and betrayal.

Some of us move forward, puffed up to meet the challenge; others instinctively retreat.

Confrontation–in all truth–may be the most reliable way to create conflict and imperil relationships. Which is part of why John the Baptist’s tactics here should stop us in our tracks.

John & Pharisees

Here’s John, dressed in vintage camel hair, an up-cycled leather belt around his waist, munching on some sustainably-sourced locusts and honey, perhaps completing the picture with a hipster beard and a can of pomade in his back pocket. His counter-cultural ways are somehow influencing a new culture, something he calls the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God.

And this resonates with people. Many flock to him on the yet-to-be-gentrified shore of the Jordan River, where he teaches and gives people a symbol of their new citizenship in this new culture, the Kingdom of God.

Let’s picture John–in all his hipster self–showing up here. Every day he stands down by the river and preaches to whomever happens to be nearby. Many of us, I’d imagine, would simply ignore him and expect he go away after a short time.

But what if he didn’t go away. What if he regularly draws a crowd–a crowd that starts to include our church members, members who might even choose on Sunday morning to go down to John at the river instead of coming to our church? What then?

Among other things, I imagine some of us pastors and preachers might start taking John a bit more seriously. Maybe we’d even go down to the river and have ourselves a listen–incognito, of course: we’d be the ones in big Hollywood sunglasses and hats.

But John–being John–would see right through even a Marx Brothers eyeglasses-nose-and mustache disguise. We clergy folk have come out of genuine curiosity–some of us anyway–yet John attacks us verbally, calling us “vipers” and threatens that we will be “cut down” and “burned.”

Confrontation.

How do this feel? What do you think? What changes in your attitudes and actions?

There’s a reason that successful, Christ-like evangelists do not use John the Baptist as a pattern for their ministry.

Confrontation for Everyone!

But recognize that John is not just confrontational with the religious leaders. His call is a call to repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and when folks accept that call, they “confess their sins” and are “baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Matt 3:1, 6 NIV).

Now those who have ever attended a Christian church with any regularity are pretty comfortable with the language of repentance. But repentance is never a familiar or comfortable thing.

The call to repentance is an accusation of guilt--and no one wants their sin named.

The call to repentance exposes that we are subservient to a higher authority–and none of us wants to admit that we are not in complete control of our lives.

Moreover, true repentance is followed by action. “Prepare the way; make paths straight” means to make this world look more like the Kingdom of God so it’s easier for the two to fit together–“your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Confrontational Realities

These are confrontational realities. And advent is one of the best times to come to terms with them.

You are a sinner. [repeat]

Your lot in life is hopeless unless you learn to submit to the God who created both you and the universe with like complexity and care.

And knowing the right things?……Knowing the right things is not going to save you. The Pharisees knew the right things, yet John condemns them and issues the charge: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (v.8).

None of us should be altogether comfortable with any of those three statements. We should never become comfortable with these confrontational realities until that day when we will be changed–when “we shall be like [Christ], for we shall see him as he is,” as we read in 1John 3:2.

A Confrontational Christ

Keep in mind–this is not just John’s call to repentance we’re talking about. John’s message is the same one Jesus picks up in his ministry. And Christ’s ultimate role–as John describes it–is to winnow (or thresh) us as wheat, separating the chaff in us (and among us) from the grain. Christ is the one who will gather the wheat and destroy the chaff completely.

Now, we’re talking in parables, but don’t let that diminish the gravity of this kind of confrontation, either.

It is confrontational to have our “chaff” separated from our “wheat”–to have someone sift through who we are and what we’ve done and decide what was meaningless and what mattered, what was bad and what was good. We can’t stand someone judging us based on the sliver of our closely-guarded selves that we reveal to the world; let alone peer behind the curtain into our dark and spiderweb-ey soul.

But even more than that: burning our chaff destroys parts of who we have been. And if we’re honest, it’s hard to let go of even those bad parts of our past.

When I was younger, I drove fast–I even raced my friends at times on the streets, albeit usually in rather ancient and asthmatic vehicles. I know it was wrong. I readily admit it was wrong. But there’s something kind of thrilling that it is something I once did.

My first car was a 1959 Oldsmobile 88 Holiday Hardtop, bought from the original owner. It had been parked in his garage since 1972. Beautiful lines on that car. I fell in love with the lines and woke up with a car with some serious problems, which I attacked straight on. But a change in academic priorities resulted in my Oldsmobile fund drying up. For nearly two decades, she sat–she and I hundreds of miles apart. In theory, I would have been glad to sell her, but I never tried that hard. When she finally transferred ownership only this year (believe it or not), my heart broke. In a sense, that Oldsmobile was a pile of chaff in my life. But in ways that are difficult to articulate, I still feel less whole without her.

Threshing ones soul and burning the chaff is a confrontation, to be sure.

Jesus–in his person and his message–is always more confrontational than we readily acknowledge. When beginning his ministry, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61, asserting that these verses are fulfilled in him. They speak of “good news to the poor,” “freedom for the prisoners,” “sight to the blind,” “freedom for the oppressed,” and so on. These are not idle phrases. They are a political statement as much as a religious one–this is how you describe revolution. And when Jesus takes up John’s message about the immanent Kingdom of God……well, what do you think that meant for the current government? It’s no wonder the religious and secular politicians of the day conspired to kill him.

Making It Personal…

Now, there’s a reason I’ve spent so much time exploring how all this feels and affects those in the NT story. The reason is this: the message of Christ is the same today as it was two thousand years ago. It is still a call to repentance; it is still a call to make way for the Kingdom of God in our lives and world. It is still confrontational.

If I preach a quality sermon that is encouraging and affirming–one that tells people to “stay the course” and “keep doing what’s right”–I’ll hear feedback about it being meaningful, impactful, and powerful. I may be told it is one of the best sermons I’ve ever preached.

But if I preach a quality sermon that is challenging–one that exposes places that need healing or change, or one that outright names a sin in our culture or world–in a case like this the feedback will be all about how I stepped on toes, I was divisive, I need to stay out of politics (even if I said nothing of politics), and that people will stop coming if I continue preach like that.

This isn’t universally true, but it is a pattern: affirm people where they are and I did a great job; suggest people need to change and I should improve my resume as I might be needing it in the near future.

Christ confronts us. Christ calls us to repentance. And this advent season we must wrestle with God and ourselves as we prepare for the coming of the Christ.

Advent, you see, is not about outreach. It is not about others. It is about getting our own souls and our own houses in order. That, I believe, does create the only solid foundation for successful outreach. But that is a sermon for another day. Unless we have learned to be honest and aware of our own individual sin and reliance on God, any attempts at getting others to follow our religion will fail, because to the outside–to the mainstream culture–we will look like hypocrites……”whitewashed tombs,” as Jesus says in Matthew 23:27.

Let this be a season where we invite our confrontational Christ to expose us for the hypocrites and sinners we are.

Let this be a season where we pull back the curtains and allow the light of Christ to dispel the darkness within us.

Let this be a season where we learn to give up the broken pieces of our past and present, trusting that our true wholeness will be found in Christ.

Let this be a season where the rubber of faith meets the road of life, and we too learn to be liberators after the fashion of our Savior Jesus Christ.

Amen.

 

The Apple of God’s Eye?

 

Psalm 17:1-9

 

Living Stories

We talk about the Bible being a “living book.” But I wonder sometimes whether we realize what that means.

There’s a piece (in my mind) that is Holy Spirit driven—the Bible continues to speak in powerful ways to each of our lives, today. Unlike some other ancient texts, it transcends time and space to attend to the needs and challenges of this current era. That’s inspiration—happening even now through the work of the Spirit.

But there’s another dimension I see too. There are strong resonances between these ancient stories and our lives. They are our stories, too—told with other names and places, but entirely analogous to what you and I experience each and every day.

In the story of Adam and Eve and the first sin, we find a retelling of every time we choose our own way over God’s way.

In the story of Noah, we see a retelling of every time we think the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we find encouragement that God will be faithful.

In the story of Abraham, we find a retelling of every time we try to force God’s will into being through our own efforts and initiatives.

In Jonah, we have a retelling of every time we try to run away from God.

In Job and Ecclesiastes, we have a retelling of our struggle for answers in the face of senseless tragedy or injustice.

And so on. These stories are our stories. Part of why they have become scripture and Bible is because for so many hundreds and thousands of years they have lived in us—they have spoken the truth of who and how we are, and of what life in the world and with God is genuinely like.

Such is our story for today. In the episodes from the history of ancient Israel that we will look at this morning, we do not read ancient history, but current events.

Reflecting on a nation of God’s favored people, we find application for our own, oft-called “Christian,” nation.

Examining the hearts of ancient people of faith, we find our own hearts—and sin—revealed.

Living stories of a living book coming alive.

Psalm 17

While there’s much in the Psalm that could be applied in this way this morning, I want to focus on two adjacent lines, which have captured my imagination, mediation, and prayer of late: “you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes” (v.7) and “keep me as the apple of your eye” (v.8).

You see, there is a connection between seeking refuge in God, being saved, and being “special.” These elements are interdependent, kind of like our Baptist churches. They are distinct from one another, yet also reliant on one another to form a functional whole.

And yet our propensity—as Baptists and as humans—is to emphasize the individual and neglect the whole; to amplify our independence and silence elements of interdependence. And when this happens, things never go well for us.

When we do seek refuge in God, we are saved, and we feel special. Perhaps, as we read here and other places in the bible, we are special—friends of Christ and children of God.

And yet…… The testimony of scripture is that when we associate too strongly with our specialness—when our whole identity is wrapped up in being “the apple of God’s eye”—when we are most convinced that God is on our side——that is precisely the moment when the bottom falls out, because that is also the moment when we stop actually taking refuge in God. That is the moment when we trust our identity for our protection instead of trusting God. That is the moment when our expectations of God actually become idolatrous.

History of Israel

There are no better illustrations of this than can be found in the history of ancient Israel. As descendants of Abraham, the people of ancient Israel know they are special. They are without a doubt “the apple of God’s eye.” Centuries of covenant relationship have proven to them that God loves them and pays them particular attention.

They were saved out of Egypt.

They were given the Law at Sinai.

Their battles for control of the Promised Land were fought and won by God alone.

For them God raised up righteous leaders—”judges”—to get them out of binds with the Canaanites.

And during generations of kingship, they were protected by God from invading powers.

But they began to think themselves invincible. They began to see God as a totem of protection—a cross to wear around your neck to ward off evil spirits, like the bloody lintels of Passover night in Egypt. As long as they maintained the symbols, they believed they could wield God as a weapon for their protection and benefit. Jerusalem could never fall, because God would never allow it.

Captivity of the Ark

Back in 1Samuel 4, there’s an interesting story along these themes. It’s one of those stories that should have stood as a warning against this kind of thinking to later generations. But like so many of the lessons of the past, we choose to repeat our errors instead of remember and learn from them.

In 1Samuel 4, the Israelites are once again at battle. If you read their story from the beginning, it seems like they’ve been at war for generations now. War appears to be something they’ve gotten good at, from the strategic brilliance of folks like Joshua and Gideon to the mundane brutality of others like Jael or Ehud. The Israelites are a force to be reckoned with, and they have dominated the Philistines for some time. And so, at this point in the biblical story, the Philistines are revolting, trying to escape the destiny of becoming “slaves to the Hebrews,” as we read in v.9 of 1Sam 4.

At the beginning of this chapter, however, a battle is fought, and the ancient Israelites are defeated (v.2)—four thousand Israelites die that day. But defeat doesn’t seem possible—How can they lose with God on their side? They are the people that God favors; it is inconceivable that any human power could triumph over that!!

But then some astute person recognizes a pattern. Patterns are our salvation and damnation. Sometimes patterns show us the rhythms of life that we must recognize to succeed. Other times, such correlation does not equal causation—what we see as a pattern obscures the real causes.

This story is one of the latter times. This astute person realizes that when they carry into battle the Ark of the Covenant—which for the Israelites (and their enemies) was a visible representation of their God—they won. Every time. Never fail.

But when they did not bring the Ark into battle, they did not always win.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? If they bring the Ark into battle every time, they simply can’t lose. All they have to do is bring the Ark into every battle and they will never be defeated.

Except…… this is one of those times where correlation does not equal causation. Bringing the Ark doesn’t lead to victory; trusting God for salvation brings victory. Or, to put it in the terms of Psalm 17, taking refuge in God results in salvation.

The ancient Israelites thought they were the apple of God’s eye, and that God would never allow harm to come to them. But they put their trust in a wooden box instead of into the Creator of the universe, and as a result, 30,000 Israelites died that day, and the Ark itself was captured by the Philistines.

Exile of Judah

Many years later, as the ancient nation of Judah is threatened by foreign powers, it again begins to overemphasize its “special” relationship with God, believing (as I mentioned earlier) that Jerusalem can never fall to a foreign army. After all, God had promised them “In this house, and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever. And I will not cause the feet of Israel to wander anymore out of the land that I gave to their fathers” (2Kings 21:7-8).

As a result, they believed they were golden; they were the apple of God’s eye—God’s chosen nation——to quote Psalm 56:11: “what can man do to me?” And so they trusted in their special status. And they trusted in their own political prowess. And they expected—genuinely expected—that nothing bad could or would ever happen.

Of course, they forgot about the second half of that promise: “if only they will be careful to do according to all that I have commanded them” (2Kings 21:8).

They remembered the “getting saved” and the “being the apple of God’s eye” part, but they forgot about the “taking refuge in God” part. They forgot that trust needed to be anchored in God, not their status or identity. They forgot that being the apple of God’s eye was a conditional state—favor to be revoked if conditions changed. And changed they did, as Israel took refuge in themselves instead of in God.

Israel’s downfall happened because they thought they were God’s nation and thus could not fall. In doing so, they made their identity into an idol, trusting themselves for their own protection instead of seeking refuge in God.

The Remedy

There is, of course, an easy and obvious remedy. In the words of the psalmist, “take refuge in [God]” (Ps 17:7). Or in the ancient confession of Christianity, live out the commitment that “Jesus is Lord.” The key to continually trusting in God alone for protection is to remember that God and God alone is king. God and God alone is able. God and God alone will save us.

Our allegiance is not to the nation of our residence. We are instructed in Leviticus 25:23 to live as aliens wherever we find ourselves. This is an image Peter develops further for Christians in 1Peter 2, urging us to both “fear God” and “honor the emperor” (v.17).

Our allegiance is not to a president, king, or ruler. The ancient confession that “Jesus is Lord” was a dangerous confession to make, as it implied that Jesus is lord and Caesar is not. By insisting that we live under God’s watchful eye instead of complying with the government’s demands, many faithful have experienced great suffering and even death, from the time of Daniel on through the present age.

Our allegiance is not to a party or a platform, but to the ethic and life initiated by Jesus Christ, who proclaims “good news to the poor… liberty to the captives…recovering of sight to the blind…to set at liberty those who are oppressed…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”—a Jubilee Year, the year of liberation and forgiveness when everything goes back to the way it was created to be.

As Christians, it has never been our dominance that drew people to Christ. Those drawn by power are those who are always drawn by power, and their purposes have nothing to do with those of the Savior of the world.

Instead, it has been our humble and quiet willingness to suffer for the good news of God’s love that has spread the name of Jesus throughout the world. The cause of Christ has been advanced the most when we genuinely take refuge in God, trusting in God alone for our salvation, whether or not anyone thinks we’re the apple of God’s eye.

Prayer (inspired by Psalm 17)

Hear my prayer, O Lord!

Probe our hearts
examine us and test us
see if there is any evil in mouth and intents.

Where, we ask, have we been bribed by the world?
Where, we pray, have we been implicit in violence against our neighbor?
Where, we implore, have our feet stumbled from your paths?

Remind us of the wonders of your great love.
Remind us of your salvation.
Remind us that you are a refuge from the foes and forces that work against your work of Jubilee.

Shield us from enemies without and within
And make us new again.

Teach us to follow Jesus your Christ. Amen.