Unshrinking the church

I’m not familiar with Mark Brouwer, a Christian Reformed pastor at Loop Church in Chicago, but I had a post of his recommended to me a few weeks ago.  Titled “Second thoughts about ministry, church, and faith,” the Rev. Brouwer asks, “Am I the only one who thinks this?”  He isn’t, and thankfully, neither am I.  It’s an excellent piece.  I particularly appreciate his point #3, which I think is fundamental to the others:

For me, the central message in the Bible — and the interpretive overlay to the Bible and the spiritual life — is multi-faceted reconciliation through the establishment of the Kingdom of God. . . .

Atonement through the cross is obviously an important part of salvation, but it needs to be understood in the context of the bigger picture of the Kingdom of God. This is, in my view, the key insight that separates Reformed theology from the typical Evangelical and Fundamentalist church. In today’s evangelical church, the emphasis is on a reductionist version of “the Gospel,” which boils down to the need to believe a certain atonement theory about the cross so that your sins can be forgiven.

If we don’t understand that this “Gospel” is part of a larger story, we misunderstand the Bible, and we will become increasingly individualistic in our faith-life, and will become irrelevant in our culture. The Gospel is about reconciling people together, setting captives free, overcoming injustice, bringing healing to hurts . . . it’s not just getting our sins forgiven so that we can go to heaven when we die.

The message of the cross stands at the center of that center, but he’s right:  when we narrow our focus too much, we shrink the work and purpose of Jesus on the cross to something just our size.  God is on about something much bigger than me.  (Thank goodness.)


Image:  Dave Pape. Public domain.

Enter the phoenix

This site replaces two blogs—my personal blog, The Spyglass, and my sermon blog, Of a SundayThe Spyglass went dormant about five years ago, and the sermon blog went silent when I left the church I had been serving for seven years.  I’ve still been writing, it just hasn’t been posted anywhere.  I’ve still been collecting articles and ideas, I’ve just been storing them on Facebook or in Evernote.  It’s time to change that.

I won’t do all my writing here, because I’m working on a book on the Sermon on the Mount; I borrowed my working title for the title of this blog.  That project continues to be a priority for me, but it does have one great disadvantage:  that conversation is only with other books, which don’t talk back.  I’m looking forward to starting some conversations outside my own head.

In my previous blogging incarnation, I spent a lot of time writing about politics.  I expect to do so far less here.  The biggest reason I stopped posting five years ago wasn’t the birth of our fourth child, though the sleep deprivation that caused did play a part.  The biggest reason was that I lost hope in the American political process.  I didn’t have the energy to keep writing on politics, and I didn’t want to abruptly shift the focus of the blog, so (foolishly) I did nothing.  Starting over, I can let all of that go.

I have brought over all the posts from both blogs, though I’ve deleted a number of duplicates and near-duplicates.  The importation process mangled a lot of the formatting, however, and I haven’t cleaned it all up.  There were over 1900 posts imported (rather fewer now), and I may have fixed half of them.  If you happen upon a post for which the formatting is still a mess, please drop me a line through the contact page at the top of the site and I’ll try to get to it fairly soon.

I’m sure there will be more to fix, and more to tweak, but in this world, the search for perfection is often just a way to never get started, and it’s time to get started.  For now, I’ll leave the last word to the great Mark Heard.

Rise from the Ruins

There ain’t nobody asks to be born;
There ain’t nobody wishes to die.
Everybody whiles away the interim time
Sworn to rise from the ruins by and by.

The engines are droning with progress,
The pistons are pounding out time,
And it’s you and me caught in this juggernaut jaunt,
Left to rise from the ruins down the line.

We will roll like an old Chevrolet;
The road to ruin is something to see.
Hang on to the wheel,
For the highway to hell
Needs chauffeurs for the powers that be.

Go and tell all your friends and relations;
Go and say what ain’t easy to say.
Go and give them some hope
That we might rock this boat
And rise from the ruins one day.

Did you ever try to carry water in a basket?
Did you ever try to carry fire in your hand?
Did you ever try to take on the weight of the everyday freight
Til you find that you’re too weak to stand?

Why so pale and wan, fond lover?
Why so downcast and desperately sad?
We can walk, we can talk,
We ain’t yet pillars of salt,
We will rise from the ruins while we can.
We will rise from the ruins while we can.

Words and music:  Mark Heard
 © 1990 iDEoLA Records
From the album
Dry Bones Dance


Image:  Halloween Bird, © 2009 Ms. Phoenix.  License:  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.

Who Are We For?

I’ve now said this a couple times, and I’ll say it again, and perhaps I should keep saying it every week until it truly sinks in with us:  our worship isn’t about us and it isn’t for us.  It is only and entirely about and for God.  Moses is perfectly clear on this in Deuteronomy 6, and Jesus reinforces it when he cites Deuteronomy 6:4-5 as the most important of all the commandments of God.  You’ll notice in Mark, the teacher of the law responds to Jesus by saying that this commandment, combined with the commandment from Leviticus to love your neighbor as yourself, is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices—which is to say, all the outward activities of worship.  Jesus confirms his insight and praises him, for he has shown by his understanding that he is near to the kingdom of God.

To put this into our context, it’s more important to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength—which is just four different ways of saying, with everything you have—than it is for you to ever go to church.  It’s more important for you to love God with all your power to love than it is for you to ever give any of your money or time to God’s work through the church.  Now, as Jesus knew and I’m sure that scribe understood, anyone who loved God in that way would give him all the burnt offerings and sacrifices mentioned in his law.  Anyone who loves God in that way will come to church regularly, give generously, and serve in any way they can.  But what God wants isn’t just for us to come to church regularly, give generously, and serve gladly.  He wants for us to do these things because we love him.  He doesn’t want our offerings just as offerings, he wants them as joyful offerings of grateful hearts.

And if they aren’t, and we don’t?  If we come to church because we want to see our friends, and only give if we’re pleased with who’s leading the congregation and how they’re leading it?  If we only give our time to serve when it suits us, when it’s something we want to do and we get to make sure it’s done our way?  If we come to worship as consumers, evaluating it based on whether our desires are satisfied and our felt needs are met?  Then we hit the reality expressed by the Christian Reformed writer Shannon Jammal-Hollemans:  “God rejects worship that is not worthy of God.”  Then we aren’t worshiping God at all, we’re worshiping our own desires—we’re putting ourselves at the center of the church instead of God.  Then, to be blunt, we’re worshiping an idol.

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I said last week that in thinking about worship, we need to begin with the principle that our worship is only and entirely about and for God.  As I noted, this statement raises an important issue:  why is that OK for God to demand our worship?  Having answered that question, however, there’s actually another one which we ought to address.  In order to understand what it means to worship God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we need to make sure we’ve defined our terms properly.  What is worship?

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Circle Dance

(Genesis 1:26-28John 14:15-26Galatians 4:4-7)

As I was praying and thinking about the sermon schedule for this year, I found myself being led to begin the year by preaching on worship.  Ken Priddy, who leads the EPC’s task force on church revitalization, divides the ministry of the church into four areas which he calls “faith centers”—outreach, evangelism, discipleship, and worship.  For a while, I was thinking about doing a series on each, but the discipleship series wasn’t coming together, and so I ended up moving in a different direction.

One of the things Ken notes, though, is that there’s an upward spiral through these areas of ministry.  As we worship God, we’re motivated to reach out and share the gospel with others; as they come to faith and are drawn into the church, they become disciples of Christ and learn to worship him; and then they in turn are motivated to share the gospel, and the cycle continues.  You can begin talking about that at any point, but it seems to me that worship is the critical element.  Worship defines our relationship to God and God is the one who makes everything else happen.  At the same time, we have to see that worship extends beyond Sunday morning.  As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Unless life is a form of worship, your worship has no life.”  So we’re going to start by talking about worship, but with the aim of showing how worship connects into the rest of life.
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Prince of Peace

We are promised a king who will reign in the wisdom, power, and faithful love of God; therefore he will be the Prince of Peace.  Remove any of the first three names, and this fourth one becomes impossible, inconceivable, unfathomable.  Coming after all three of them, however, this one is almost inevitable.  Isaiah describes a ruler with the love and commitment to desire only what is good and right, the wisdom to understand how to make all things good and right, and the power to make that happen and to defeat any who would try to oppose him.  What else would such a monarch bring but peace?

This doesn’t just mean the absence of war, either.  If a king were powerful enough, he could accomplish that without being either wise or loving.  The biblical concept of peace is much bigger and much greater than that.  As I’ve said before, this is one of those Hebrew words that’s worth learning for everybody, because you can’t translate it with anything less than a paragraph.  This is the word shalom.

At its root, it means to be whole, perfectly complete and unmarred; it carries within it the concept we call integrity.  To experience shalom, to live in the peace of God, is to be in complete harmony:  first of all with God and his will; and because of that, second, within yourself.  The result is a calm, unshakeable sense that all is well, and freedom from anxiety.  This in turn creates harmony with others, to the extent that they are willing to be at peace with you.  There will always be those who aren’t, whatever their reasons; the peace of God gives you the ability to behave peaceably toward them regardless, and to pursue peace with them even so.  A life of shalom is a life lived in tune with God, ordered by his order, in accordance with his will.

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Everlasting Father

In reading Isaiah 9, I’ve always snagged on this third name:  “Everlasting Father.”  For one thing, you’d think Isaiah’s contemporaries must have had trouble with that one, too.  A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and he will be called Everlasting Father.  Putting those two things together, the fatherhood of a child, seems odd.  If the people of Judah and Israel had been in the habit of using “Father” as a title for their kings, that would have been one thing—they would have been used to seeing that sort of name hung on baby boys—but that had never been the case.  God was described as the Father of his people, and he didn’t even share that title with David.  To have this baby called “Father” is unprecedented.  To have him called “Everlasting Father,” one who will be the Father of his people for eternity, is even more so.  This is a title which could only be given to God—and here God’s prophet is using it as a name for a human baby boy.

Now, this looks less strange to us, since we know “the rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey would say; we know how Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled.  But is Jesus ever called “Father” in the New Testament?  No—he’s the Son, Son of Man and Son of God.  If we were to call him “Father,” wouldn’t that make God the Father our grandfather?  But Jesus doesn’t teach us to pray, “Our Grandfather,” he tells us to pray, “Our Father,” to see God the Father as our Father as well as his.  So how does it make sense to call Jesus “Everlasting Father”?

To understand this, we need to hold fast to the first principle of biblical interpretation:  let Scripture interpret Scripture.  In particular, we need to learn from the great rabbis, such as Gamaliel who taught the Apostle Paul:  if you want to know how to understand a word, go see where it’s used elsewhere in Scripture.  So when the Old Testament calls God Father, what does it say?

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Mighty God

(Isaiah 9:1-7John 20:19-29)

To us a child is born, to us a son is given, and that child will be the king who will bring an end to war and oppression and all the darkness of the world.  He will be the perfect king who will rule forever and bring eternal peace—but not the peace of the tyrant, who brings the peace of the grave by crushing dissent and killing anyone who opposes him.  His peace will be a peace of life and growth, in which all the world will flourish.  He will bring this about through his wisdom, for he is the miraculously-wise counselor, the one who speaks and leads with the perfect wisdom of the Lord of all creation.  He will bring this about through his power, for he is the mighty God.

The word for “mighty” in the Hebrew is an adjective, but it was often used as a noun, rather like our national anthem calls America “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  When it was used this way, it meant a great warrior or a great hero.  The meaning is clear.  This child who is king because he is God will not only rule with the wisdom of God, he will defend his people with the power of God, and so he will be incomparably mighty in battle.  He will defeat all his enemies, and he will never be overcome.  His kingdom will endure forever because there will never be any power that can conquer it; it will grow forever because there will never be any power that can stand against it.  His people will know absolute security and freedom from any threat.

That all sounds conventional enough.  Empires grow by winning battles and wars, after all, and they start to shrink when they start losing.  If you’re going to envision a ruler who will reign forever and whose kingdom will never stop expanding, it’s probably going to have to be someone who never loses a battle, let alone a war.  That’s why the greatest empire-builders in human history have been military geniuses like Alexander the Great.  But the funny thing is, that’s not actually what God has in mind.Read more

Wonderful Counselor

(Isaiah 7:1-17Isaiah 9:1-7John 12:20-26)

The people of God were a house divided.  They had been ever since the death of King Solomon.  In the later years of his reign, Solomon turned away from God and the ways of his father, King David, to worship the false gods of the surrounding nations.  In judgment, God took the ten northern tribes away from Solomon’s son and successor, Rehoboam.  The northern tribes became the kingdom of Israel, which was sometimes referred to as Ephraim, for its dominant tribe.  The south was known as the kingdom of Judah, after its dominant tribe.  One people became two nations; as is the way of the human heart, self-will and the desire for power and control turned that separation into rivalry, and often enmity.

In the days of King Ahaz of Judah, Israel allied with Syria to launch a plot against Judah—a plot to remove Ahaz from the throne of David and replace him with a Syrian puppet king.  This was nothing God would ever allow to happen, whatever might be said for Ahaz himself—which wasn’t much, to be honest—because it would violate the covenant promise God had made to David.  To reassure and encourage the king, God sent Isaiah to tell Ahaz that hewould take care of those two burned-out torches.  Just sit quiet, don’t worry, and don’t do anything, Isaiah says, because God will stop them.  What’s more, the prophet makes clear that this is the king’s only hope:  “If you don’t stand by faith, you won’t stand at all.”  To confirm his promise, God invites the king to ask for a sign—anything at all—and God will do it.

Unfortunately, while Ahaz has spent his entire life around the worship of God, he doesn’t really worship God himself.  In our terms, he’s the sort who’s in church every Sunday but isn’t actually saved.  Like a lot of folks like that, he’s become adept at using the Bible and spiritual-sounding language to make excuses for not doing what God has explicitly told him to do.  He’s so good at that, in fact, that he thinks he can pull that on God’s own prophet and get away with it.  He doesn’t.Read more

God of All Nations

(Isaiah 56:1-8, Micah 4:1-8; Matthew 28:16-20)

That’s what it’s all about.  It’s often said that churches need mission statements.  It’s sometimes said more perceptively that the church has a mission given by God which it needs to discern.  A few go beyond that to realize that it isn’t that God’s church has a mission; rather, God’s mission has a church.  We invoke that mission each Sunday when we pray, “Your kingdom come, and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  At the beginning of this series, we saw what that looks like from God’s end, when all the heavens and the earth are finally made new.  In that video, we see it from ours:  all peoples, tribes, nations, and languages, and every region and landform on this planet, gathered together to pray and praise the Lord with one voice.  As of now, it’s just a vision; but it will be a reality, because God has already done it.  In the Great Commission, we see the road he has laid out before us to follow him in obedience as he makes it happen.  The only question is, will he do it through us, without us, or despite us?

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