In the Center

When we leave the world of right living in the first Psalm, where the wicked blow away like chaff but the righteous stand strong like a tree, we come to the disorienting world of the second psalm. Here the outer world is in chaos. Kings and rulers are revolting against the Lord and his anointed one. Makes one wonder what kind of world is this of which this psalm speaks. However, the psalms affirms the King remains in the center.

This psalm divides into three parts:

Rulers seek to overthrow God’s rule (vv. 1-3)

Yet God still appoints his king (vv. 4-9)

Rulers had better seek God’s rule (vv. 10-12)

On one edge of this text there is conspiring, plotting, revolt. On the other, there is fear, trembling, anger, and potential destruction. Scholars believe that this psalm might have been used when a new king was being installed in ancient Israel. During regal transitions from the old king to the new king, subject nations would sometime use the occasion to gain their freedom. That seems to be the picture here.

It is time to install a new king, and Israel’s vassal nations are considering revolt. So they “take their stand against the “Lord and his anointed one.” This last reference is to the king of Israel (or Judah later on) in the original context. The vassal kingdoms seek to release themselves from their bondage (“chains” and “fetters”).

HOWEVER, in heaven, God can only laugh at their feeble attempts. God’s will will be done. His king has been installed on Zion, this king will inherit, the earth, and will rule the world with an iron scepter.

Therefore, the kings of the earth will do well to pay homage to the king: “Kiss the son!” calls the psalmist.

When the king is installed, he is recognized as “God’s son.” (cf. 2 Sam 7:12–16; 1 Chr 17:10–14). This language was common in the ancient world where several cultures consider their king somehow the son of their God. But more importantly, for us, it points to the role that Jesus would play as God’s son and our king.

So, remember, when life is disorienting on the edges, our king reigns in the center where God is.

Where were You on August 29, 2005?

Within American history, there have been several events that qualify as “conscientious altering.” Among these one might list the Civil War, the Great Depression, the Great Wars (I and II), the assassination of Kennedy, 9-11, and, I would class with these, Hurricane Katrina.

Of this level of event, you can ask people, “Do you remember where you were that day?” and they can tell you exactly where they were. While I’m too young to remember Kennedy’s assassination, I remember the impression the event left on my parents and grandparents. They would tell stories about where they were at the exact moment they heard the news.

I remember 9-11 vividly. I was in New Orleans, more precisely, I was getting ready to take Rachel to school. We were watching the morning news and watched, along with millions of other viewers, as the first place crashed into the World Trade Center. The scenes are forever sketched on my mind.

For me, Katrina was much more personal. I knew people who were forever affected by the storm. I was in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada when Katrina struck but my family, but because of our ties to New Orleans, we helplessly watched CNN for a month because it felt like it was happening to us, too. We gasped as reporters showed us places we knew. Now that we are back in this area, I understand what people mean when they say things have changed—alot.

Katrina and aftermath had an enormous impact on the life of the Tammany Oaks Church of Christ. On August 28, 2005, the building where we now worship was to be formally dedicated to God’s purpose. The church numbered over 200 in regular attendance; things looked up. That is a far cry to where the church finds itself today, but that dogged determinism remains and though the times have been hard, we are still here. And that signals hope.

It is not unusual for someone who has survived a terrible car accident to believe they are still here because God has a mission for them. I wonder if that is the same attitude we should take. God has preserved us to this day, thus, he must have a purpose for us. We are here; we have survived.

Long ago, when the Judeans were forcefully exiled to Babylon, they experienced an event as soul-shaking as our Katrina. When they finally returned home, they thought it would never be the same. They looked at the once magnificant Temple which now seemed only a shell of its former self.  When they thought that things could never be as good as they once were. God announced through his prophet Haggai:

‘The silver is mine and the gold is mine,’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘And in this place I will grant peace,’ declares the LORD Almighty.” (Haggai 2:8–9 NIV)

Perhaps that is what God has in mind for us, too. In Christ, we have to believe that the best days are yet to come.

Copied from Tammany Oaks Church of Christ Bulletin, 29 August, 2010.

When God Listens to Us

There has never been a day like it before or since,
a day when the Lord listened to a man.
Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!

(Joshua 10:14 NIV)

This amazing comment concludes the story of the time when God caused the sun to stand still over Gibeon so Joshua and the Israelites could defeat the kings who had come against Israel’s new ally. You can read the story for yourself in Joshua 10.

The notion that God is a mighty warrior is found throughout the Bible. So we are not surprise to find that God fought for Israel. However, that language is more subversive than we might see at first. Shouldn’t Israel be fighting for God? After all, who is God here? This is bit like saying that God works for us? Yet the Bible reveals a God who serves his people; what is a strange God, indeed.

The background of this particular story involves a covenant or treaty between ancient nations. The more powerful nation would conquer the weaker. Then the overlord would form a covenant (or treaty) with the vassal nation. The covenant would stipulate the responsibilities of both nations: on the one hand the powerful nation would promise to protect the weaker nation. In exchange, the weaker nation would pledge their allegiance to the conquering nation, which often include providing solders, and tribute. In fact, in this very story, Israel is fulfilling its covenant responsibilities to their new ally, Gibeon.

The Bible frames Israel’s relationship to God in the language of covenant or international treaty. Actually, the book of Deuteronomy looks very much like one of these ancient covenant.

Yet, there is more than mere covenant responsibility here. There is relationship. God seeks a relationship with his people. Notice how t his comes out in the text cited above. There had never been a day “when the Lord listened to a man,” says the narrator of Joshua. Did you hear that: when the Lord listened to a man. Now who is working for whom?

Our Bible is full of stories where this kind of give-and-take relationship is what God seeks and acts out. For example, once God shared with Abraham his intent for the wicked cities Sodom and Gomorrah and Abraham interceded for them and God agreed to spare the cities if there should be ten righteous people living within them. Read about this in Genesis 18.

Again, but later, Moses intercedes for the people of Israel after they exchanged their loyalty to God to follow a golden calf. God wanted to wipe out the people and to start over with Moses and his descendants. Moses argued against God and pleaded for the people. Then, the Bible relates,

“Then the Lord relented (changed his mind?) and did not bring on the people the disaster he had threatened”(Exodus 32:14).

Yet later Moses seeks a face-to-face encounter with God.. Yet God concedes,

“I will do the very thing you asked …” (Exodus 33:17).

God is willing to go part of the way on this request

There are many other stories illustrating this give-and-take relationship that people can have with God. It works something like this: God acts, we respond, God responds, we act, and so on.

If this is how God really is, then, it would seem, that our lives with him ought always be filled with adventure and new surprises around every corner. Not only should we take God seriously, it appears from Scripture, that God takes us seriously as well. What we do counts!

Gotcha: How Scripture Subverts

I find that when I really hear Scripture, I have a “gotcha” moment. By this I don’t mean that God is seeking to trick us through Scripture, but that Scripture has a way of deflating our egos, correcting our visions, and taking us to places we would not have travelled ourselves. Perhaps it would be better if I illustrated one of the subversive moves of Scripture. Jesus tells this catching parable in Luke 18:9-14:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable:

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

I’m assured by the gospel writer that this parable has nothing to do with my friends or me. This parable was clearly addressed to the self-righteous and those who look down upon other people. This parable is for those evil religious leaders that resisted Jesus’ ministry, right?

I may even reassure myself that I am much more like the tax collector than the Pharisee. I know I’m a sinner so I would never compare myself to others the way this Pharisee does—though, secretly, I know I am better than say, robbers, evildoers and adulterers. Nor would I think of bragging to God about all the pious acts I have done and I would never brag about how often I fast or how much I give. Not me.

So aren’t you glad we are not like that Pharisee? Gotcha!

The Disappearance of Sin

It has been a long time coming, but I think we can safely say that “sin” is hardly a functional concept in our culture. As early as 1973, Dr. Karl Menninger published a book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin? In this book he explores why “sin” became obsolete. He promises

… to review the events in the recent rapid decline and disappearance of the word “sin,” not because any particular word is so important in itself, but because its obsolescence may be a clue to fundamental changes in the moral philosophy of our civilization (p. 27).

While the world has lost the notion, the Bible retains a rich vocabulary for sin (at least ten words in the OT alone). The Hebrew word most commonly used for sin in the OT means “to miss the mark.” When use of archery, the word referred to missing the target. In religious contexts, the word described actions which fell short of some divine standard or goal. Paul picks up this image in the famous passage from Romans:

This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22–24)

There are several other passages that get close to defining sin in the NT as well. For example, Paul writes later in Romans: “…and everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23) which touched on doing something about which a person is unsure. The apostle John will identify sin as “lawlessness” and “unrighteousness” (1 John 3:4; 5:17).

The problem with sin is not so much the inappropriate behavior (which can be more or less serious due to the consequences) but how it functions to keep us away from God. The longer we are away from God, the less clearly we can think about our sin. Therefore, it is important for the church to remember that we have been called to “interfere” in the lives of sinners. Paul said it this way: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1).

Whatever the world does with the notion of sin . . . it will remain in the church’s vocabulary. When we totally lose the vocabulary of sin, we will have finally arrived at the place where no one is responsible for anything.

The Motherly Side of Ministry

When Paul wants to talk about how ministry cares for people, he compares ministry to the work of a mother. In 1 Thess 2:6-8 Paul wrote,

As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.

Since all genuine ministry is rooted in the nature of God, it might be instructive to think of how God is like a mother. This may come hard to some as we tend to think of God as Father, and thus male. However, most of us—in our more introspective moments—know that gender probably isn’t a defining characteristic of God.

For example, Genesis 1:27 reads

So God created man in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.

Somehow out of God’s image, comes both male and female; it takes both together to capture something of God’s total nature.

Consequently, along the way, God can use feminine images to help us understand God’s nature. For example, when Moses once complained to God, he whined,

Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their forefathers? (Numbers 11:12 NIV)

Of course, the truth was that God was the one who “birthed” Israel and God carried infant Israel.

Likewise, Jesus will assume a motherly role in relationship to the city of Jerusalem, when he weeps for the city:

…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. (Matthew 23:37 NIV)

Therefore, this Mother’s Day, we can look to our moms as examples of what Christian ministry should be but even more our mothers are windows into who God is.

God’s Life: Taking on the Powers

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power (Eph 6:10 NRSV). With this command, the letter to the Ephesians enters the final stretch. Nice transition from the previous conversation about power between people, wouldn’t you say?

One of the most prevalent commands in the Bible is to be “strong and courageous” (See, for example, Deut 31:6–7, 23; Josh 1:6–7, 9, 18; 10:25; 1 Chr 22:13; 28:20; 2 Chr 32:7). Take, for example, the following:

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. (Deut. 31:6 NIV)

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go. (Josh. 1:9 NIV)

Be strong and let us fight bravely for our people and the cities of our God. The LORD will do what is good in his sight. (2 Sam. 10:12 NIV)

God must know that we need our courage bolstered—

—especially since our war is not with humans but against demonic forces, known in the Bible variously as principalities, powers, rulers, authorities, cosmic powers, and spiritual forces of evil. Ghastly is the evil that seeks to dethrone our God and destroy us.

However, there is protection—the armor of God. In a rather extended metaphor, Paul uses various pieces of armor to describe God’s resources for us in the battle against evil.

These consist of the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, sandals/shoes ready to spread the gospel, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and finally the sword of the Spirit. In each case what is important is not the piece of armor but the virtue that piece of armor represents.

Attempts to tie these to the armor worn by Roman soldiers—often done in Vacation Bible Schools—fail primarily because we know where Paul gets each piece of armor—from the OT prophet Isaiah. For example, the belt of truth (in 11:5), the breastplate of righteousness (11:5, 59:17), sandals/shoes ready to spread the gospel (52:7), the shield of faith (31:5), the helmet of salvation (59:17) and finally the sword of the Spirit (49:2).

What this means is that the armor of God is not armor from God, but the armor belonging to God. It is God’s armor that we are invited to wear! In each of the Isaiah texts, God wears the armor, except for the sandals. I wonder why?

If this is God’s armor, a couple of pieces seem to require some explanation. For example, why would God need a helmet of salvation? Aren’t we the ones in need of salvation.

Here it is good to remember that all of these images come out of the Old Testament stories of military battles. In that context, the word we translate as “salvation” might be better translated “deliverance” or even “victory.” Thus, God wears, and shares with us, the helmet of victory over our enemies, in this case, the forces of evil.

Additionally, the sword of the Spirit only secondarily refers to the Bible as so often understood. The sword represents the Spirit of God—God’s very voice, God’s decisive judgment against those who challenge his people. See this image in the Isaiah text listed above and in the picture of Jesus in Revelation:

… and among the lampstands was someone “like a son of man,” dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. (Revelation 1:13–16 NIV)

While it would be profitable to trace the development of the notion that God is our warrior throughout the Bible, we don’t have space here. However, these strands find a tight synthesis in the Jewish writings between Old and New Testament times. In a first century BC writing called the Wisdom of Solomon (5:17-20), we find

The Lord will take his zeal as his whole armor, and will arm all creation to repel his enemies; he will put on righteousness as a breastplate, and wear impartial justice as a helmet; he will take holiness as an invincible shield, and sharpen stern wrath for a sword, and creation will join with him to fight against his frenzied foes.

While the images are fluid, the point remains the same: God is our mighty warrior and not only does he fight for us, it is his armor that will protect us.

Be strong in the Lord, indeed.

What do you mean? Spiritual?

Supposedly, we are in a time of spiritual awakening—I mean, with angels floating around our heads and paranormal activity on the increase, we now hear the words “spiritual” and “spiritual-ity” often—even on TV and at the movies!

Now Christians are obviously not opposed to the spiritual, in fact, we embrace it. Nevertheless, it may be that we have missed what a spirituality centered in Christ really is.

In our culture “spiritual” often means no more than “religious” or even “ritualistic.” Yet, more recently, “spiritual” is good while “religious” is bad. So all in all, being spiritual is a bit confusing.

If, though, we allow the New Testament (NT), and particularly Paul—after all it was he coined this word—define what it means to be spiritual, we come up with a completely different understanding than those current in popular thought.

Paul thought of the word in relationship to the Holy Spirit, thus he spoke of Spirit-uality. The Greek word translated spiritual occurs 17 times in the NT, literally means something like spirit-ness.

Thus, for Paul, spirituality had nothing to do with being religious—a thought both Jesus and Paul repudiated—but with what happens to a person who encounters God’s Spirit—that is, what happens when our spirits come in contact with God’s Spirit.

For example, in 1 Cor. 3:1, Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, we were not able to speak to you as those who are spiritual (led by the Spirit) but as those who are carnal (led by the flesh), even as babies in Christ.”

While Paul touches on being spiritually immature here, the focus is on our unwillingness to yield to the Spirit of God, and this is the way one becomes Spiritual. Paul had already pointed out that the unspiritual, (those without the Spirit of God) cannot understand the things of God for they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor. 2:10-16).

Thus, being spiritual in the New Testament has to do with being changed by the presence of God—that is what the Spirit symbolizes: God living in us.

For those interested in following what the New Testament say about being Spiritual, the references are: Rom. 1:11; 7:14; 15:27; 1Cor. 2:13-15; 3:1; 9:11; 10:3, 4; 12:1; 14:1, 37; 15:44, 46; Gal. 6:1; Eph. 1:3; 5:19; 6:12; Col. 1:9; 3:16; and 1Pet. 2:5.

Credo: I Believe

The Latin credo means “I believe.” From this word comes our English word creed. Often a creed will be a summary statement of what is believed and thus a short way to describe our most important beliefs. Creeds are by their nature reductionistic and only become problematic when we see them as the sum of what we believe as oppose to a summary of our main beliefs.

The Bible—though we rarely recognize them as such—also contains several creeds or creedal type statements. For example, try this one: “The Lord our God is one.” Though a very short sentence, it say a lot. It does not say everything but it does say something essential, central, core.

Or, take this repeated creed: “You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2 as well as Ex 34:6; Neh 9:17; Psa 86:15; 103:8; and Joel 2:13).

Likewise, in the New Testament, “Jesus is Lord” powerfully condenses the whole of the Gospel.

By the 3rd or 4th century, the church found creeds a useful way to summarize the faith—though, creeds were sometimes use to exclude those who did not believe exactly as the creed stated this or that tenant. The more positive function of a creed was to state what Christians believe in fairly short order.

One of the earliest creeds was the Apostles’ Creed, though it was not really by the apostles, it did capture their main teachings.

I believe in God the Father Almighty
Maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord;
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into Hell [lit., Hades];
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic Church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting. Amen.

In all, not a poor summary of the Christian faith. We might quibble with Jesus going to the underworld, but there are texts (See e.g., 1 Peter 3:18-20 and Eph 4:8-10) that seem to support that Jesus did in fact visit the abode of the dead while his body lay in a tomb for three days. And the mention of the catholic Church throws most Protestants, but catholic here is an adjective meaning universal. I can honestly say that this creed captures what I believe the Bible teaches.

That is because this creed echoes Scripture and reflects what Paul does in his vision-casting letter to the Ephesians. Paul, having spent the first three chapters of his letter describing what God had done to save us, now (in chapter four) calls his readers to respond to what God has already done.

The place Paul begins his call for believers to live virtuous lives is with what he calls the “unity of the Spirit.” Just as God is one (remember the OT confession above) so the church is to be one.

This oneness is relational, not just doctrinal. Paul calls on believers to express “humility, gentleness, patience, and forgiveness” toward one another as the means of “keeping” the unity that comes from God’s Spirit.

Then Paul offers us a creedal statement in which to ground our unity: “There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4–6 NIV).

The oneness of God, then, is the basis for the unity of the church and is the foundation for all we believe. We believe in one God who sent our one Lord who in turned poured out his one Spirit. Therefore we confess in Jesus one faith and one baptism; we commune with the Spirit in one body with only one hope—to be re-united with our one God.

This I believe.

Do I Have a Witness?

Several times in his letters, Paul will give a personal reflection or testimony (as he does in Ephesians 3:1-13). There are several aims for why Paul would use a personal testimony.

First, it bridges the gap between Paul and his readers. In effect, Paul not only invites the readers to participate in his story but his story also serves as an exemplar of how God’s story frames our individual stories. Simply, God did this in my life; he can also do it in yours.

Second, by showing that God is actively involved in his life, it become more real. This is not just theory (though, in the Ephesians reading there is plenty of that). What God has done is actualized in the life of a real person such a Paul.

Finally, Paul will use testimony to give context to what might be an embarrassment in Paul’s story (see Eph 3:13). Paul is in prison; he is suffering. This does not square well with resurrection power that Paul had so confidently announced earlier (see Eph 1:19-20; 2:4-6).

When the chips are down is where the “theory,” or more accurately the “theology” part comes in. God has already acted; what that means is not yet fully clear. In this text, Paul believes that what God put into motion in the past was becoming a reality in Paul’s ministry.

Those formerly excluded from God’s people are now invited in. The big story in Paul’s testimony is that God was using him to announce that non-Jews (Gentiles) are now co-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in God’s promise (Eph. 3:6).

Paul has a testimony because his ministry is to announce this move of God. Paul understands that through him God is setting something big in motion—the implication of which were not yet visible.

This “not yet” part of God’s plan is bigger than we usually think or teach. It involves not just history (see “ages” in Eph 3:9) but future ages (see Eph 2:7). What God is up to is cosmic, universal and eternal—not just personal and individual.

Yet, God has called the church, the people of God, to be the instrument through whom God will announce his wisdom (Eph 3:10). This not merely evangelism, either, since the ones hearing the announcement from the church are “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places,” or angelic and demonic forces at work in our world. This is where our story ties with Paul.

We are that church and we have, as the text says, access to God. Thus we can walk in boldness and confidence through faith in him even when the circumstances around us suggest otherwise.

When we do this, we too have a testimony.

Can I have a witness?