Old Hope in the New Year

The ball has dropped, the fireworks have burst, the toasts were raised, and it is now Day One of a New Year.

I don’t know about you, but 2016 has been a year I am happy to move on from.  Almost from the beginning, it seemed to be shaping into a year of pain.  Sometimes we saw that in the loss of beloved individuals in the entertainment industry.  Sometimes we saw it around the world in the sufferings caused by terrorism or the panic of families fleeing their homes.  In our own country we saw it in one shooting after another that broke or embittered the hearts of everyone.  My home congregation recently experienced it in the loss of two precious members.  So the heaviness of last year was a load I was happy to leave behind at last night’s last hour.

But even with the sense and desire of a fresh start, there is no guarantee that the New Year will be a great year.  More than optimism and resolutions are required.  So as Christians looking to put our best foot forward in the New Year, our faith must look backwards to a very old hope.

There’s a phrase in the Bible I want to familiarize you with; that phrase is “Ancient of Days”.  It’s a phrase that references the LORD God’s eternal existence and sovereign lordship.  It occurs only three times in the Bible and all three of those occurrences are in Daniel 7.  This is significant because at this moment, the prophet Daniel, along with his people, had been exiled to a foreign empire in the faraway land of Babylon, which itself would soon fall to the rising Persian Empire.  As both an exile and a favored court advisor, Daniel had a front-row seat to the crossroads of history and changing civilizations.  It was in this period that God gave Daniel a vision of the future where a Son of Man would appear before the Ancient of Days to receive a Kingdom that would never pass away and that would come to hold good dominion over all peoples and rulers of the Earth.

We believe the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone upon which God’s Kingdom is being built; but I also want to draw your attention to the One from whom the Son receives the Kingdom—the Ancient of Days.  The LORD God, who has existed from before Day One, has lordship over all things throughout all time unto Day None.  God possesses lordship over history.  Every good and redemptive thing Christ affects through his Kingdom rule has its origin in the Father who holds all history in His good and holy hands.

Our hope for the New Year is a very old one.  Because God is Lord over history, the hope that holds our hearts transcends history.  In knowing that and entrusting ourselves to God, we are able to put our best foot forward in such a way that gives witness to the One who is not only shaping a New Year, but a future of newness that revolves around the King who sits upon his throne saying “Behold, I am making all things new”.

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Why the Bethlehem Massacre Matters

Some weeks ago my sister came up with a great idea for our congregation’s December mission project: to collect baby clothes for local mothers who need to go to a local shelter for battered women in abusive relationships. 

The project seemed to me to do two things. Firstly, it would address a tangible need in our community.  And secondly, while celebrating the advent of hope in the birth of Jesus, the project would also acknowledge one of the most horrific and oft evaded scenes of the Christmas narrative. 

King Herod, in his insecure obsession to safeguard his rule, ordered all Bethlehem baby boys killed, in the hopes that one of them might be the Messiah he assumed threatened his throne. 

It’s not a scene you’re likely to see performed in any pageant this Christmas season, and understandably so.  It’s grisly and heart wrenching, and doesn’t maintain that positive holiday vibe.  Regardless, it happened.  And amidst the frenzy of our festive activities, we need to remember it happened. 

It’s good we celebrate the hope that has come into the world to save us from the horror that sin has wrought upon human reality; but if our celebrating ignores the reality of that horror, we omit what necessitates hope in the first place.  There can be no hope of shalom (God’s peace) without the horror of sin.  That Bethlehem was the place of both Jesus’ birth and Herod’s bloodbath shows how nearby hope and horror often are.  

Even now horrors are still close by. 

cogniet-massacre-innocents-rennes-copiebo-2As noted, our congregation’s mission project reminds us there are still women in abusive relationships, along with their children, who are being unleashed upon as scapegoats for an angry man’s insecurity. A Coptic Church in Egypt was recently bombed, killing several mothers and their children.  Civilian men, women, and children in Aleppo are currently suffering, and possibly being executed, in the latest chapter of the conflict in Syria.  

We need to remember these horrors in order that we might repeatedly comprehend that nothing good is ever created by them.  Whether cruelly inflicted upon people or utilized as a perceived solution to ending suffering, horror always gives birth to horror, explaining its constant existence within human reality. 

This is what makes the birth of Jesus so stark of an emergence.   His incarnate presence singularly exists as the substance of hope.  The horrors matter because the hope slowly supplanting them matters. To remember the horror doesn’t glorify it, but acknowledges that it is the background that accentuates the hope that is coming to the forefront of all reality. 

This Christmas season, abide in and embody hope; not only because we must, but for why we must.  All realities around us considered, hope is the only one of its kind.

Wealth, Worry, and the Wonder of God | Matthew 6:24-34

Much of Jesus’ chapter 6 comments focus on the development of Kingdom-centered piety for the disciple; beginning in v24, Jesus examines this pursuit in the context of our relationship with money.

That relationship can be a complicated one.  On the one hand, we all need money—to provide food, clothing, shelter, to pay bills, taxes, to provide a sense of security, to enjoy life.  But we also know there’s great tendency for money to become so much more.  For various reasons, money can go from being a means to life to becoming the meaning of life.

Jesus cuts right to the heart of the matter and says “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.”  Devotion cannot be divided.  Many have tried to parse their hearts amongst various pursuits, but deep down one is always a priority.  As the physics principle goes, two objects cannot occupy the same space; when it’s the heart’s devotion, there can be only one.  Jesus takes these general notions of dueling masters and specifies “You cannot serve God and wealth”.

The word Jesus uses here, Mammon, means more than just wealth.  It is a term that visualizes money as a godlike personality whose wealth-wiles can have mastery over us, how we think, choose to use our time, how we value people in terms of what they can do for us.  A mindset mastered by Mammon genuinely lives like “cash is king”.

It is okay to have an income, to make money, to provide.  As a disciple it’s not wrong to be reasonably concerned about your finances and to take wise steps to address those concerns.  But should those concerns begin to undermine our commitment to and contentment in Christ, those legitimate concerns have transformed into dictatorial masters over us.  We have to choose.

Jesus knows, however, that choosing to follow him, worthwhile as it is, also has the potential to exacerbate anxiety and worry.  Having decided to follow Christ in a way that does not obsessively seek out Wealth, the opportunity cost of all the money we might have had could begin to set our minds and hearts on edge.  We begin asking questions.  “Will everything be alright?  Will we be okay?  Will we be able to eat?  Will we have clothing, shelter?  Will we survive?”

These questions can very easily turn into nagging what ifs, knots in the stomach, trembling hands, unsettled minds, fear of the future, resentment of past choices, misdirected anger, paralyzing anxiety, and a waning passion for Christ.  Knowing how our choice to prioritize God over Wealth could potentially stir up these overwhelming concerns, Jesus comments “For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?  And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith!”

To not worry about food and shelter goes against our grain.  It’s an instruction that, admittedly, is difficult to accept.  But there’s more here than just an instruction.  There are questions.  There’s imagination.  There’s wonder.  The thing about worry is that our mind is always racing, frantically moving in circles.  Good questions, however, slow worry down.  They give the mind something productive to ponder.  And imagination, like food for an empty stomach, gives the mind something to feed upon, to be nourished by.

With his questions, Jesus wants to deconstruct this domineering understanding we often have that life is all about the materials.  Like an older brother draping his arm around us, knowing better, Jesus’ questions hush our hurried worries.  With his images, Jesus wants to fill up our understanding with the awareness and assurance of a caring Father.  Like a visionary painting, Jesus’ images invite us to behold a reality resplendent with God’s glorious riches, worth, and redemptive purpose.  Wonder feeds faith, making obedience joyful.

We are to “not worry then” about provisions as the world frantically does.  Rather, knowing how our heavenly Father knows our needs, we are freed to follow after what God is setting before us in Christ. Thus Jesus ultimately emphasizes “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

His kingdom is the heavenly reign of God spilling into and transforming the realities of Earth through the redemptive work of King Jesus for the reconciling of humanity’s relationship to God, creation, and each other unto the renewal of Heaven and Earth.  It is the good news Jesus proclaimed.  It is the epitome of God’s plan for us all.  It is the way of Jesus.  As “all roads [led] to Rome”, the continuous seeking of Jesus always conducts us into Christ’s rule and realm, cultivating us into witnesses of the wonder God is continuously working out amongst this world.  How do we bear witness?

His righteousness gives integrity to his redemptive words and works, and authority to his kingly rule.  As we keep company with Christ, his righteousness is instilled in us, conforming our character to his, molding us into God’s witnesses.

Seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness first by following Jesus is a pursuit whose single-mindedness simplifies all other pursuits and weeds out our worry by enrapturing our attention with God-glorifying wonder. A heart so consumed with the majesty of God has no room for worry.

Does this mean we stop working to provide for needs?  Of course not.  It actually enables us to work more wholeheartedly, with a contented wonder-while-we-work mentality.  It also frees our minds of the burden our heavenly Father has already promised to shoulder.  “So do not worry about tomorrow” Jesus concludes, “for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Worry does not give hope for tomorrow, but God-wonder does foster joy for today.  Thus the marvelous reality of God’s redemptive rule sets our minds and bodies into tranquil rhythms as we go forth living and working in ways that give witness to the wondrous work God is accomplishing in King Jesus.

Elections and keeping calm at the crossroads of history

My Dad and I were discussing the election the other day; I commented how elections always seem to generally bring out the scariest version of people.  Among the constant sense of upheaval and uncertainty, deep-seeded fears and ferocities seem to gradually emerge with every counted vote.  Even Christians may sometimes feel their support of a particular candidate somehow trumps the cultivation of Christ-centered fruitfulness.

Since America’s election process is spread out over so long a period, there’s no shortage of time and opportunity for candidates to outdo one another on positions and personality in clashes that are only matched, if not surpassed, by the ire of their supporters.  I understand the democratic process must do its thing; where I feel strained is the intense sense of finality often placed on elections.  As far back as I can remember and have read, every single election was supposed to have determined the fate of the world.  I’ve heard plenty of similar sentiments in these recent weeks.  I get it; regardless of how desires and support manifests, deep down people want hope and assurance that everything will be okay.  Regarding that, I’d like to share something that helps me remember hope and foster trust amidst all the drum beating.

Most of us remember the prophet Daniel from Sunday School as the guy amongst the lions.  His story is much broader than that.

Daniel was a man who had a front row seat to many of history’s crossroads.  He was born and raised in Judah, but when King Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, Daniel witnessed his own city and cultural narrative come to a tragic chapter many assumed was the end as he and his countrymen were exiled to the land of Babylon.  An intelligent young man, however, endowed with wisdom and discernment, Daniel appeared an ideal candidate to serve in the king’s court.  His commitment to Jewish dietary and ethical standards helped set him apart from his peers, distinguishing his abilities as a counselor, and enabled him to thrive despite his strange situation.  In this he learned the possible end of his culture did not necessitate the end of his character and convictions.  As a counselor to Nebuchadnezzar, he would demonstrate what people of faith can be when they are in situations they would rather not be.

As if the traumatic upheaval and transition to a whole new land and culture was not enough, Daniel would eventually witness another of history’s most critical crossroads.  After Nebuchadnezzar’s death, Babylon soon fell to the invading Persian Empire.  Still recognized as a worthy counselor, Daniel once again found himself at the service of a conquering king.  His faithfulness would soon be intensely challenged by royal advisors whose conspiring would put Daniel into the lions’ den.  His reemergence the following day, however, would affirm to the Persian king the validity of Daniel’s God, again demonstrating how a person of faith can play a redeeming role within a hostile culture.

The greatest crossroad of history Daniel would witness, however, would be seen from afar.  During both the rule of Babylon and Persia, Daniel was given a glimpse to the future of not only his own people, but of all the world; of a time during which “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed”, and a Son of Man, approaching the throne of God, will be “given dominion, glory, and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him.”

These visions that illuminated Daniel were the very words declared by Jesus centuries later during the peak of the ironclad Roman Empire; into that tense, politically charged atmosphere Jesus proclaimed the good news that Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.  As Christians, we look to Jesus’ death on the cross as that cumulative moment that consolidated his authority to enact this kingdom reality amongst the nations, to unite them in service to God and each other.  This is what we as Christians are to always bear witness to as we live at the crossroads of history and the future.

Since, as Paul wrote, “there is no authority except from God”, the nations—be they Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, or America—each rule in their time.  Since “rulers are servants of God”, whether Nebuchadnezzar, Darius, Alexander, Caesar, or our next president, each take their turn governing their generation.  But regardless of kings and countries, it is the rule of Christ and its redemptive reality that God-in-the-Church is sowing, cultivating, and growing within our cultural and international soils, whose foliage was beautiful and its fruit abundant, and in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, and the birds of the sky dwelt in its branches, and all living creatures fed themselves from it.”

Daniel’s life and character show us how to behave when everything else seems to be or is crumbling.  His consistency of holy character during inconsistent times was rooted in the knowledge that, as Eugene Peterson writes, “more important than the people of this place or the conditions of this place is the God of this place.”

Daniel shows people of faith that difficult seasons do not excuse us from embodying holy character.  Difficult seasons can actually serve to legitimize that character.  Daniel experienced the loss of countrymen and his homeland, exile to a strange land and culture, pressure to compromise his convictions, the overthrow of his captors by new ones, conspiracies on his life, the burden of his people’s questionable future.  He endured this all without surrendering to cynicism, anxiety, malice, fear mongering, or the worship of powerful figures.

I do not know what this season will give shape to, but like Daniel amongst the Babylonians and Persians, I believe history is influenced by everyday people whose faith moves them to live redemptively amongst their neighbors and enemies while cultivating a fruitfulness that conveys the hope of Christ.  May the most important results throughout this election season be the fruit of God’s Spirit yielding in you the person of Christ Jesus.

Advent VI: When Hope Comes Home

IMG_4683When Luke started his Advent story, he began in the temple, which for the Jewish faithful was home. It had been rebuilt centuries earlier by returning exiles to signal God’s hope was alive in the homeland. Hope was in short supply, however, “in the days of Herod”. Amidst expanding empires, Israel’s role in civilization had diminished; and when Rome subjugated the Jews by way of occupying the land and violating the temple’s sanctity, labeling the Jews as atheists and offering a pig on the altar, this place of God’s presence now seemed all but a fading relic of God’s past glory. But hope always defies the way things seem, bubbling beneath the surface, going against the grain.

Luke writes “And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him.”

While the ways of the world trailed off in various diverging directions, Simeon kept himself to the way of the LORD as established in His words. It is a way that transforms how we perceive life and God at work within it. It was a way that brought Simeon into God’s presence and permeated his spirit with hope. “And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.”

The hope God gives is not abstract, like some floating wisp of ideas detached from reality, but always connected to the world in which we live. God had promised Simeon he would one day see his Messiah; not a conceptual figure or representation of idealism, but a person whose life would be all about God’s salvation. The hope that held Simeon’s heart all his days would be a human who was so much more than that.

One day God’s presence moved Simeon to enter the temple, this place he and so many others longed for God to glorify. He was about to discover God’s presence had just returned. Jesus had been born about forty days earlier; now on this day his parents had brought him to the temple in Jerusalem “to present him to the LORD”. Sometime during their visit, their path crossed with Simeon’s. A lifetime lived upon the way of the LORD had led Simeon right to Jesus; “…then he took Him into his arms…” The hope that held his heart for so many years Simeon now held in his arms. A life of waiting, hoping, and anticipating now culminated in this baby as God’s past glory visited Simeon’s present with a glimpse of a glorious future.

Captivated by wonder, Simeon “blessed God, and said, ‘Now Lord, You are releasing Your bondservant to depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.’”

In this tiny infant Simeon saw his entire life story reach a climax that made his every moment worth the wait. Everyone sees death; not everyone sees Life. Having hopefully seen it from a distance all his days, he now beheld it before him, savored it, and was satisfied in the heavenly peace that saturated him. The hope that was somewhere out there had come home. But not just for Simeon.

This salvation he saw had been prepared amidst “all peoples” for “all peoples”. Drawing on Isaiah’s messianic imagery, Simeon likens this little one to light that will both reveal God to the Gentiles and return glory to Israel’s story. Like Simeon, Israel’s story was reaching its climax in this advent of its Messiah. Israel had always thought of the days of Solomon as their golden years, when God’s great glory filled the temple; bygone days that were mournfully missed. But now here in the infant Jesus, the infinite incarnate, the perfect image of the Father, God’s great glory has returned to the temple. This place of God’s past glory has become the place of God’s present glory; a glory that will shine out salvation throughout the world’s future.

Jesus has arrived; our Advent story has concluded. But Simeon offers one final comment to an amazed Mary and Joseph: “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed…to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

As Jesus would eventually affect all life in Israel, he would inevitably do the same throughout the world. Being either a step to raise others up or a snag over which others would fall, who Jesus is reveals who we really are. The person of Jesus forces us all to show our true colors. How we respond to him reveals where we stand with him.

Historically, globally, and communally, that puts all Jesus-followers in the place of Simeon—waiting, hoping, anticipating. Waiting for God to work His salvation out upon this world, hoping in God’s Spirit to remain faithful witnesses to His salvation, and anticipating the Second Advent of Jesus our Messiah.

Jesus was brought home to the temple to be presented to the LORD that the LORD may present Jesus to the world. Hope had returned to the home that had been lacking its hearth. But the home is a haven just for momentary respite, a harbor to ready the ship to sail again. Hope went home so that hope would again set out to visit homes, hearts, and lives.

I pray that as your Advent season concludes and you begin a New Year, Christ-centered hope will attend, keep, and cultivate you all your days. Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”