Reaching Our Cities for Christ

Christopher Wright said it well, “We argue about what can legitimately be included in the mission God expects from the church, when we should ask what kind of church God expects for his mission in all its comprehensive fullness.” (Wright, 534) Alongside this line of thinking, another way to look at this is “I may wonder what kind of mission God has for me, when I should ask what kind of me God wants for his mission.” (Wright, 534) To find any “success” in ministry, that thought is very important. To be effective, we have to allow the Holy Spirit to shape, mold, and transform us into the instruments and vessels he wants us to be. Otherwise, we are doing ministry for our sake instead of for the sake of the Kingdom of God. When looking at cross-cultural urban ministry, Wright’s questions help us put into, better, context what the Apostle Paul writes, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22 NIV)

So what does this look like? Is there a way to be effective in the way Paul was? Yes. Whenever Paul went to a new area, he made sure he went to the city centers. “[Paul] concentrates on the district or provincial capitals, each of which stands for a whole region…These ‘metropolises’ are the main centers as far as communication, culture, commerce, politics, and religion are concerned…Paul thinks regionally, not ethnically; he chooses cities that have a representative character.” (Bosch, loc. 3259-3274) Why did he do this? Because this is where Paul knew the most effective way to communicate to the regions was located. When he did this, he was able to “shift” his speeches and explanations of Christ to show the people he understood them and was willing to do life with them and guide them to come to faith in Jesus Christ. Paul knew how to be the kind of person the people needed, without giving up on who God created him to be. All of this helped to equip the people to carry on the ministry after Paul left and continued on his missionary trek. 

At the same time, Paul knew he was not doing his own work but, rather, the work of Jesus Christ in the world, empowered by the Holy Spirit. He practiced incarnational ministry and did it well. “The significance of incarnational ministry is that ministry belongs to God and His work, first and foremost.” (Buckman, 181-82) This is one of the reasons Paul was successful, he knew he was doing the work begun and continued by the Holy Spirit. He was confident in his calling and did not waiver in the message he proclaimed. So it should be with us. Do we know and have the confidence Christ has called us and given us purpose in this life? It is because of this confidence that we can handle what we go through. “The pastor…who enters a new culture, no matter how hard he or she tries to identify with the people, must expect to suffer, both out of longing for what is left behind and because of resistance to what the people are being called to accept or become.” (Wingeier, 38)

One of the interesting things about cross-cultural ministry is the opportunity to learn more about another culture. “Since most multicultural communities in the United States consist of the dominant (powerful) culture plus at least one other less-powerful culture, justice issues need to be paramount in any cross-cultural ministry, not relief, not charity, but what the New Testament calls righteousness.” (McConnell, 592) This means that opportunities are available if we take the time to learn about different cultures and how people live. “Henri Nouwen teaches us that a powerful ministry occurs with people of a powerless culture when we demonstrate a capacity to learn from them and a willingness to show our gratitude for the gift they thus offer.”( McConnell, 593) The gratitude we experience comes from the knowledge of the blessings God has bestowed upon us. As the cliché goes, “we are blessed to be a blessing.” “’Be a blessing’ thus entails a purpose and goal that stretches into the future. It is, in short, missional.” (Wright, 211) This brings us to contextualization.

Contextualizing the Gospel message to any culture is important. “Contextualization begins in those areas where the biblical context overlaps with the contemporary cultural context. One often talks about certain parts of culture in abstract terms like ‘collectivism,’ ‘honor/shame,’ ‘patronage,’ or cyclical vs. linear views of time. After all, no one today existed in the time Scripture was written. That distance creates an unavoidable degree of abstraction. The critical point at this stage becomes finding how we move from abstract categories to their concrete modern expressions.” (Wu, loc. 1686) There are ways of communicating, here in the United States, that would not fly overseas, like and area such as Saudi Arabia. What is the goal of the missionary? “We desire for people to see all that is good in the gospel. However, this takes time. Thus, we must take steps so that people can see, as much as is possible, what is good in this news. By drawing from the entire Bible, not simply our favorite texts, we gain a balanced perspective on salvation. By not developing a ‘canon within a canon,’ one identifies the major themes or motifs that God uses to explain salvation.” (Wu, loc. 1530) When we do this we communicate the full scope of the Gospel. Jackson Wu says it well, “In a word, the gospel is the message by which sinners are saved. Naturally, evangelism in its fullest sense requires we talk about sin in some form or fashion. This story is not complete without making clear God’s reaction to sin.” (Wu, loc. 1514) He also reminds us “judgment has a positive side. In judging his enemies, God brings salvation to his people and righteousness to the earth.” (Wu, loc. 1522) What about the cities?

Cities, urban areas, are very important. As we have seen, the Apostle Paul utilized the cities to spread the Christian message of Jesus Christ to the outlying areas. He was strategic in where he went and who he spoke to. We should do the same and realize how quickly the landscape is changing within the cities. “The rapid growth of urban populations is well known and has been well documented. In 1800, for example, less than three percent of the world’s population lived in towns of more than 5,000 people. By the year 2000, half of the world’s population lived in cities of more than 100,000 people. As cities have grown, they have become more diverse with respect to culture and class, as well as professional and residential differences, and almost endlessly multifaceted.” (Buckman, 183) Allan Buckman goes on to say, “Moreover, the City has enjoyed a reputation for being welcoming and hospitable toward immigrants and refugees…In other words, the considerable flow of New Americans into the City will almost certainly continue into the foreseeable future.” (Buckman, 183) What does this have to do with contextualization? For starters, this means there is a diverse group of people all in one place. 

Different groups (cultures) may live in certain pockets within the city limits, but they are still gathered and lives intersect with others. As Jesus says, “the harvest is plentiful…” (Matthew 9:37 NIV) so there is an incredible opportunity to reach different people. “In the city can be found pockets of small village-like communities where people live as much as they did before they migrated to the city. Within that community they shop at family-owned stores where personal ties are important. They discussed choices with their neighbors. Outside the neighborhood, however, they learn to make decisions as city folk do, and this begins to change their community.“ (Hiebert, 179) This makes strategic movements within the city very important. We cannot just go in and start something new, we have to take time and follow any “chain of command” there is, whether it is stated or not. “When attempting to develop a ministry or program among members of these communities, one must always receive some kind of approval of one or more of the community leaders. If a ministry is to be developed in a manner meaningful to the ethnic community you are trying to reach, it is obligatory.” (Buckman, 186)

One of the challenges with cities we should be aware of is migration. People come from all over the area just to live in the city, but refugees also come from other countries to live in the cities. As ministers/missionaries we have opportunities to reach these people as well. “According to the United Nations Population Fund, there are 214 million displaced people in the world, which is 3% of the total population.” (Wingeier-Rayo, 19) How we live our life affects this group of people also. We may even have to step out of our comfort zone to aid and support and minister to any person that is displaced. “Jesus has crossed geographic, linguistic, cultural, ethnic, gender, religious, and socio-economic borders.” (Wingeier-Rayo, 30) To illustrate this point further, Philip Wingeier-Rayo goes on to say, “[Jesus] left his comfort zone in Galilee…He identifies with the people of his region and shows solidarity with them…” (Wingeier-Rayo, 31) Ready to leave the comfort zone? To do this, we need to make sure we are sensitive to the culture and background of the people. Urban areas provide opportunities to come in contact with a diverse group of people. “This increased cultural and ethnic diversity demands that we attend to and respect the gifts of the various groups now represented in our society, church, and institutions. It also requires us to develop intercultural sensitivity and skill. Most importantly, it asks us to reexamine our understanding of ministry, which can be seen as a way of bridging different ‘cultures.’” (Wingeier, 35) How we communicate the Gospel matters.

Dr. Hiebert writes, “Communication of the gospel across the chasms of cultural differences rests upon the quality of interpersonal relationships between human beings—between missionaries and the people they serve.” (Hiebert, 147) As we communicate, we have to know how to speak to the people. This is where it is important to live a life free of reproach so the message we proclaim is heard from words and actions. “[T]he mission in the church, according to Peter, includes both vertical proclamation and ethical living, and the impact of his tight argument is that both are utterly essential.” (Wright, 390) The context in which people live is important. Context really is king, especially when proclaiming the gospel. “We face a very practical question. When it comes to preaching the gospel, which context is king? The ancient biblical world? Literary context? The interpreter’s culture (or subculture)? How about the cultural context of our listeners? If we are honest, finding an answer is far more difficult and sobering than one might expect.” (Wu, loc. 266) Taking time to understand the meaning of the scriptures and how to communicate them, in any setting is essential. This creates a unique challenge within urban settings. You have to know who you are talking with, and at least some of their background, to be able to understand how to communicate with them the core of the Gospel: Jesus Christ is King. Proclaiming this fact can be done in any setting. “Contextualization, if done well, keeps in perspective for us the fact that Jesus is King of every context.” (Wu, loc. 671)

Before continuing, we have to realize we may not be called, by God to try and reach “everyone.” But we are called to go to different people. It is these people, and this culture, we can immerse ourselves in and learn how God is speaking to them today. This will help us to be flexible in the manner in which we proclaim the Gospel yet remain firm in the core message. “Christians need a contextualization method that has both flexibility and firmness…The gospel does not change. On the other hand, biblical writers clearly present the gospel in contrasting ways. Even within the Bible, there is no single prescribed way of preaching the gospel. In addition, the world’s cultures are diverse and ever changing.” (Wu, loc, 1363) For example, a person in China is more likely to respond to communication about honor and shame versus guilt and punishment. “A person in America may not use words like gaining or losing ‘face,’ but they might talk about ‘people pleasing’ or ‘trying to look good in front of others.’” (Wu, loc. 1391)

Now no matter what context we serve, there will always be the truth God “desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4) In urban areas, there are multiple places and venues and ways to find “a truth” that fits the individuals, even what will fulfill the desires each person faces. This raises the reality of other “false gospels” that people will buy into to be justified in the lifestyle they have chosen. “A culture’s false gospels also answer the four questions mentioned above. Thus, we first could ask, ‘Functionally, who is the savior-king in the culture?’ Personally, one asks, ‘Functionally, who is the savior-king figure in my life?’ Second, ‘What has this savior-king done in the past?’ Again, the answer to this second question clarifies both what kind of a person the “savior” is as well as his significance. Therefore, it matters that one knows about this savior-king’s character and power.” (Wu, loc. 2944) In Acts 2, Peter was speaking to a large crowd. They were in the city of Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost. It is possible some people were searching for a relationship with Jesus Christ. Then, when Peter got up to speak, they found what they’ve been looking for, in the mighty works of God through Jesus Christ Peter spoke about. The same is true today. To help people see why God is vital and is enough, we speak about what he has done. We do not have to be fancy with the language we use, we just speak about God. “When talking about God, we need to highlight his works in history in order to explain what God is like. We do not merely want to say he is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. This is how systematic theology describes God. Rather, we seek to emphasize how God demonstrates his character and attributes.” (Wu, loc. 1245) This is a great undertaking but well worth it. The works of God include the person of Jesus Christ and his atonement for the sin of the world, as well as the personal sin of the individual.

When we present the Gospel, especially to people who can find their pleasures fulfilled on a whim and find purpose in their jobs and people they hang around, there are going to be some questions that will need to be answered when giving a Gospel presentation. “The biblical gospel answers four key questions. I’ll review them briefly. There is a clear logic to the order of the questions. (1) ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’…(2) ‘What has Christ done?’ This question aims to show what kind of a person he is. (3) ‘Why does Christ matter?’ In other words, why is Jesus significant to us? This point largely deals with salvation. Traditionally, evangelicals have laid the greatest stress on this aspect of the gospel message. (4) ‘How should we respond?’” (Wu, loc. 2925)

Now, the challenge will be avoiding syncretism, especially when a concept sounds close to one the person has known before. In the urban areas, even cross-cultural settings, it is possible to keep certain traditions, customs, and way of life and still think they are living as a Christian. One of the ways to combat this is to fully immerse ourselves in the setting. Many call this “incarnational” ministry. The point is to become involved enough in the culture and community to gain the respect of the people. Relationships matter. “If the success of missions depends largely upon the quality of the relationships between missionaries and the people to whom they go, the parent/child relationship model is not biblical. The biblical model is that of incarnation. To bridge the cultural gap between heaven and sinful earth, God became human and dwelt among us, eating our food, speaking our language, and suffering our sorrows, yet without giving up his divine nature. Incarnation is identification, but it does not deny who we originally are. It is, in fact, a bicultural or by personal state. Just as God became one with us in order to save us, we must become one with the people to whom we go in order to bring them to message of salvation.” (Hiebert, 158) Only when living life, on some level, with the people will trust begins to develop and the mission and proclamation of Jesus Christ will be heard and lived out by the people we serve.

This is truly only possible with the presence and person of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who guides as he did for the Apostle Paul by sending him to Macedonia (Acts 16:9). Following the leading and guidance of the Spirit prevents us from proclaiming our own culture and ideas. The Spirit helps us proclaim the full gospel. This is what is important in urban centers and any kind of cross-cultural ministry.

Bibliography

Beale, G. K. (2014). God Dwells Among Us : Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth: Vol. North American Edition. IVP Books.

Bosch, D. J. (2011). Transforming mission : paradigm shifts in theology of mission (20th anniversary ed. / with a new concluding chapter by Darrel Guder and Martin Reppenhagen.). Orbis. Kindle Edition

Buckman, A. R. (2012). Contextualization in an urban setting. Missio Apostolica20(2), 181–189.

Martin, M. (2011). Cross-cultural perspectives on the call to ministry. Vision (Winnipeg, Man.)12(2), 70–78.

McConnell, T., & McConnell, J. (1991). Cross-cultural ministry with church and family: the final report of a research project. Religious Education86(4), 581–596.

Wingeier, D. E. (1992). Emptying-for-filling: an approach to cross-cultural ministry. Quarterly Review12(2), 33–56.

Wingeier-Rayo, P. (2015). Jesus as migrant: biblical understand of immigration as a cross-cultural model for ministry. Apuntes35(1), 19–32.

Wright, C. J. H. (2006). The mission of God : unlocking the Bible’s grand narrative. InterVarsity Press.

Wu, J. (2015). One gospel for all nations : a practical approach to biblical contextualization. William Carey Library.

God’s Story, Your Story: The New Testament

If you could sum up the Bible in one word, what would it be?

This may be tricky for some. Some may be thinking we can’t sum up the Bible in one word.

I think we can sum up the Bible with the word, JESUS. After all, in Luke 24, Jesus tells the disciples on the way to Emmaus that all of scripture points to him. Paul, in Colossians, says that all things are held together in him. So as we read scripture, even the Old Testament, we should be able to see Jesus in everything.

As we take the time to talk through the New Testament, remember how the storyline of the Biblical narrative goes:

Act 1: Creation, Fall, Israel

Act 2: Jesus, Church, New Creation

Last week, we saw the 39 books of the Old Testament are divided up into categories:

Pentateuch (Torah), History, Writings/Poetry/Wisdom, Major Prophets, Minor Prophets

The New Testament is divided up into categories as well:

Gospels of Jesus, History (Acts), Paul’s letters (longest to shortest), General letters (longest to shortest), Apocalyptic

So the way to think about the layout of the New Testament is like this:

Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension 

The spread of the message (Acts)

Living out the Christian life through the empowerment and presence of the Holy Spirit (the letters and Revelation)

Now, if the whole Bible could be summed up with JESUS, can we think of key passages that help explain the gospel and the way the Christian is supposed to live in the world?

Many know John 3:16 (For God so loved the world the he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.)

Unfortunately, this is where many people stop—at the point of gaining their own salvation. But the Christian life and faith is so much richer and deeper than simply personal salvation—it’s about being in community, sharing life together, and laying down our lives for the sake of others.

The second part of the gospel we need to hear, and live out, is 1 John 3:16 (This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.) This is why we follow the command, and example, of Jesus to take up our cross and follow him. We follow him even though we, as believers, will have challenges and suffering in this life. We follow him because he is the only source of hope and life.

So many people think the Christian life is just for them—it’s become what can Jesus do for me here and now? How can my life get better? But see how we miss out on the power of the gospel? The power of the gospel is found when we live our lives in community, when we seek to bring new people into the family of God (this is kingdom growth not just numerical growth). The power of the gospel is found when we live our lives for others instead of ourselves.

This is why there is so much emphasis on not judging, gossiping, slandering, anything that destroys or devalues another human life. The emphasis is on love—a word that has honestly lost it’s meaning because we over use it. (I love hamburgers, I love my spouse, I love (pick your favorite sports team).) Love in the Bible is not a feeling, or even how we feel in the moment. Love is the way of life. Love is at the core of who God designed us to be.

A little pastoral care moment: When we “speak truth in love” our goal is never to belittle the person but to build them up and encourage them. So often we attempt to speak, what we call, truth and end up having anger in our hearts towards the person. This is not the example of Jesus at all.

Christ followers are to emulate and imitate Jesus in their everyday lives. This is the point of the epistles (letters) from Paul, Peter, John, Jude, James, the author of Hebrews. What’s incredible is how the Spirit continues to speak through these words today—with the intention of building up the community and growing the kingdom of God (God’s rule and reign in the world).

Then we come to the book of Revelation. This is a book that has been misunderstood and misapplied for the last 200 or so years. We’ve said it before, the point of Revelation is to show how God’s people can and should stand firm in their faith even when everything is going to pot. 

The ancient readers would have understood this was a letter, written in code, so they could understand what’s happening in the world to them at that time. We do know that Christ will come again and set things right (true justice not revenge). That is why we can live in hope and joy—we know the end of the story.

This is the New Testament, in a brief nutshell. 

One more thing to consider. There really is nothing new in the New Testament that is not in the Old Testament. In fact, what we see is an expansion of the thoughts and teachings from the Old Testament. (Think Sermon on the Mount which we’ll begin next week.)

This is why it is so important to study and read through the Old Testament. There are many resources available to help us study to learn the history, traditions, and context of the Old Testament. When we better understand the OT, we will begin to see more of the beauty found in the New Testament.

Jesus is the point of the Bible. Jesus is the point of the Christian life. How we live, in this life, matters and it has eternal consequences. I challenge you to read through at least one Gospel, a few letters, and Revelation this week. Ask God to reveal himself to you. The best picture of God is found in the person of Jesus Christ. 

Then, ask God to mold you into the likeness and image of his Son and give you the grace to live out the Christian life in community and help you be a person to build people up and work with God to grow the kingdom of Heaven.

Who is YHWH?

The Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible) begins with a land that is fertile and ready for humanity and ends with the people of Israel on the cusp of moving into the land of promise. Beginning in Genesis 12 through Deuteronomy 34, the promise of land is a key theme for the people of Israel. This is what they continue to move toward and keep their minds on—home. This may be a common destination throughout these five books, but what holds the Pentateuch together is the nature and character of YHWH, the One God with any significance. The Pentateuch is answering the question, as Pharaoh asked Moses, “Who is [YHWH] that I should obey His voice…?” (Exodus 5:2b NASB) Not only this, the Pentateuch is also answering the, implied, question of how God’s people should act and live in this world and this life.

YHWH is the only God that is above all of creation. This is made clear, in Genesis 1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1-2 NASB) This transcendence means that YHWH can be involved, but not necessarily impacted, by the actions of the people. He is able to act and move in the best interest of what needs to be done. The Pentateuch is making the case that YHWH is not made by humans so he is not manipulated by any spells or incantations other cultures and peoples might do to get the god(s) to do their bidding. YHWH stands alone above all the other gods. Holiness, love, just, true (promise keeper and fulfiller) are some of the attributes that the Pentateuch teaches about the nature and character of YHWH. Because YHWH is transcendent, he is able to be all of this, and more, and expect his people Israel to be holy as well. The Pentateuch is held together by the character of YHWH that the people are supposed to demonstrate to the world and live as.

The phrase “I am the LORD” (אני יהוה) is one of the recurrences that helps to make the case God is the only God with any significance and is above all others. This recurrence is used throughout Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, especially when YHWH is making a statement about what he has done. Most of the time, “I am the LORD” (אני יהוה) is combined with his action of delivering the people of Israel from Egypt (הוֹצאתין מארץ מצרימ) “brought you out of the land of Egypt.” This recurrence comes at key points within the Pentateuch and serves as a reminder of who did the delivering for Israel. This is one of the major characteristics of YHWH—redeemer and deliverer. YHWH does not desire his people to be held captive by anyone or anything, except for his covenant. His name implies he is able to be and provide anything the people need. YHWH’s provision is shown through the storehouses of grain in Genesis when the famine struck the land, deliverance from Egypt, water from rocks, manna, quail, new life in the wilderness journey, guiding with a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, giving of the covenant, and even bringing the people to the border of the promised land. YHWH is able

How can the people of Israel live up to the holiness YHWH requires? The covenant is what makes the people of Israel unique. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, the people are constantly being called back to the covenant life taught in the Pentateuch. The people are called to be holy because YHWH is holy. The covenant is central to demonstrating the faithfulness of YHWH and how the people are supposed to live. This brings up a contrast in the way other people live versus the way YHWH expects his people to live. “Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine: and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:5-6a NASB) If the people of Israel followed the guidance and kept the covenant of YHWH they would be set apart and be different from the rest of the nations and people groups. Because YHWH is transcendent, above all other gods, he is able to say he own everything and can set the people of Israel apart from everyone else. “There is only one being in the universe who can rightly be called ‘holy.’ Thus it becomes possible for the first time to describe ‘holy’ behavior: it is the behavior of the Holy One.” (Alexander, 850) This makes the covenant vital to the way of life for Israel.

Covenants were not new to Israel at YHWH’s revelation on Mount Sinai. Covenants have been part of the people of God from the very beginning. When YHWH makes covenants he is showing his faithfulness and love to and for his people. Other deities would have expected something from the subjects, YHWH gave himself (Genesis 17) and said Israel needed to follow him and they would be his own people (Exodus 19). This was done so YHWH could show his love for the world through the people of Israel. Not only this, but YHWH is demonstrating his loyalty to the people of Israel, something different from other cultures who worshipping other deities.

At the core of the character of YHWH is his hesed (חסד), his holy love, his unfailing love. YHWH’s hesed is highlighted over fourteen times in the Pentateuch (Gen 19:19, 24:12, 24:24, 24:27, 32:10, Ex 15:13, 20:6, 34:6, 34:7, Numb 14:18, 14:19, Deut 5:10, 7:9, 7:12) which shows that YHWH is acting out of his love and mercy for Israel, for the purpose of the nations knowing who YHWH is. “…the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.” (Exodus 14:4c NASB) The biggest revelation about the hesed of YHWH is found in his own self-revelation in Exodus 34:6-7, “The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness [hesed] and truth; who keeps lovingkindness [hesed] for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin…” (NASB) This is a key verse that is found throughout the Old Testament and recurs in the Pentateuch (Ex 20:5,6, Numb 14:18, Deut 4:31, 5:10, 7:9) This is another example of contrast between YHWH and the other deities other people worship. However, this could also be a climax of the Pentateuch because this describes the nature of YHWH, by his own words, the people of Israel know how their God will be with them, treat them, even offer opportunities to forgive their sins against him and their fellow Israelites.

Because the hesed of YHWH is so prevalently known and shown (through the acts of deliverance, giving of the law/covenant, people of Israel growing and thriving, providing food in wilderness, not destroying the people when he had the chance) we can also get a glimpse of how just YHWH is. He is not a God who acts on a whim. YHWH acts for justice (setting things right) in the world. The plagues of Egypt were judgements on the gods of Egypt, the deaths of Aaron’s sons in Leviticus 10, Moses and Aaron not able to enter the land, and many more examples happened because YHWH cannot allow sin to remain and go unpunished. This can also be one of the most loving things YHWH could do. He is not punishing for the sake of his own amusement or “just because”. The punishment comes into motion because of the effects of sin. Through the law/covenant, YHWH has already stipulated how to live. Moses, in Deuteronomy 30:19 says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants.” (NASB) This is an act of hesed, and the justness of YHWH because he gives the people a chance to choose life, to choose the way of life he is telling them to live, in order for them to thrive and live a long time in the land. 

In Exodus 32, the people of Israel were waiting for Moses to come back down the mountain after he had already been up there 40 days and 40 nights. The people became anxious and pleaded with Aaron to make them a golden idol so they could worship it. So Aaron made a golden calf from the gold the people took from Egypt when they left. This is where the hesed of YHWH is shown as well as justice. “In simple justice, God was obligated to destroy them. But in fact he invited Moses to intercede for them by saying that he would destroy them if Moses would ‘let me alone’ (Ex 32:10).” (Alexander, 851) Justice was still played out because the sin damage had been done so the Levites killed many people by the sword for bowing down to an idol. Justice needed to happen because of who YHWH is. YHWH always acts in consistently “right behavior” because of his holy character. (Alexander, 851)

Because YHWH does the right thing, all the time, he can be counted on to keep his promises. This is shown throughout the Pentateuch in the covenants he makes with Noah, Abraham, and Moses. YHWH also demonstrates he is trustworthy to Abraham and Sarah who received the child of promise, Isaac. He also tells Abraham his descendants will be slaves to another nation for four hundred years. This also comes to reality when the Exodus story begins. His promise of land to Abraham and the Israelites is mentioned many times throughout the Pentateuch. Ironically, this is the only promise that was not fulfilled in the course of these books. But we can be assured the people will receive the promise because of this important inclusio.

What is consistent throughout the Pentateuch is this is the same God who creates, who delivers, who guide, who provides for the people. The inclusion deals with the Spirit (רוחּ) of God. In the beginning, Genesis 1:1, the Spirit (רוחּ) of God is over the waters of creation. In Deuteronomy 34:9, Joshua son of Nun is filled with the Spirit (רוחּ) of wisdom to become the leader the people need to carry them into the promised land. It is the Spirit (רוחּ) of God that holds the people together, this is the presence of God that is with the people.

Even though the Pentateuch is made up of five individual books that tell the narrative history and story of the people of Israel and how YHWH redeemed and delivered them. The consistency of YHWH’s character throughout demonstrates he is the one God with any significance and he is the same. When Pharaoh asked, “Who is [YHWH]…?” He got displays of power and saw how fiercely loyal he is to Israel. The God of Israel desires to make himself know to the world through the people of Israel. Because YHWH is holy and just and loving in his character, the people of Israel know how they should live and act in the world to be living, tangible examples of the God who is above all.

Bibliography

Alexander, T. D., & Baker, D. W. (2003). Dictionary of the Old Testament : Pentateuch. InterVarsity Press.

Arnold, Bill T., and Choi, J.H. (2003). A guide to biblical Hebrew syntax. Cambridge University Press.

Dozeman, Thomas B. “Deuteronomy,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. II. Nashville: Abingdon, 1995 (pp 271-538)

God’s Story, Your Story: The Old Testament

How well do you know the biblical story? If we’re honest, we all should say we don’t know it as well as we want.

One of the most beautiful things about scripture is that it continually speaks, even today, the words of God through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

If I were to ask you how to easily explain the biblical storyline, how would you do it? Think about it.

If we look at the biblical story, we can look at it in 2 acts, each with 3 parts:

Act 1: Creation, Fall, Israel

Act 2: Jesus, Church, New Creation

What we have to realize is how each of these “parts” is really a representation of our life here: we’re created (born), we know we sin, we believe God is real and calling us apart, we meet and encounter Jesus, we become part of the family and movement of God, Jesus makes us into new creations. So, when we read the Bible, we’re really looking at a mirror of our lives, in many ways.

Today, we’re looking at the Old Testament storyline. This is how God (YHWH) has moved in, through, and with his people, Israel. Throughout these 39 books we see how Israel comes to God, follows God, gets excited about obeying God, decides to do her own thing and ends up going against God leaving her alone and exiled. See how the Old Testament is our story also? When is the last time you did everything right, and followed God to the perfect “T” you wanted to? For me it was in the split second I woke up today, before I had a chance to think or do anything.

Yes, I know the Old Testament is long, has a bunch of traditions we don’t practice today, has some strange names, and I’d downright confusing. But what we have to understand is the point of the scriptures. The point is to know who the God is Israel was/is supposed to know, follow, and reflect in the world.

One of the challenges we have today is that we live in a time when we tend to focus more on devotional thoughts, meditations, and books/teachings about  the Bible and we have missed out on reading and absorbing the actual words of scripture themselves.

Over the last 2 years, I have developed a love for the Old Testament because I have now realized that unless we take the time to read and study the Old Testament, the New Testament doesn’t make as much sense.

One of the things we have to understand is that what we call the Old Testament is what Jesus referenced. Why? Because there was no New Testament yet. Also, the Apostle Paul says that all scripture is God-breathed, know he is talking about the Old Testament.

So let’s take this time and go over the Old Testament and see how this is our story as well.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. This is the foundational statement to show who (not how) the earth was created. We live in this world because God set everything in motion and spoke everything into existence for his people.

Everything was all well and good, until…

Imagine how it would be to live in paradise. Can you imagine everything in a state of perfection? Unfortunately, we can’t because we will always expect something bad to happen. Why? Because of the presence of the serpent in Genesis 3. The serpent planted the seeds of doubt into Adam and Eve. Now doubt, in and of itself, is not bad. When doubt turns to unbelief, we begin to not believe in God: who he is, what he says he’ll do. This is when we begin to take matters into our own hands and sin corrupts us.

The fall is found in Genesis 3-11. It’s amazing how quickly the later generations embraced the life of sin. It goes to show that “what one generation tolerates, the next generation embraces.” Genesis 3-11 is important to read because it shows the state of the world we’re still in. If we get upset about younger generations acting a certain way, or embracing certain values/opinions, we do have to ask what it is we tolerated in our life.

Now the Old Testament is about who God is. God is the God of hope and second chances. We see this in the flood narrative, and especially in the calling out of Abraham. This is where the storyline of the Old Testament moves from the universal scope of all of creation and begins to tell the story of a particular people group.

The people of Israel have begun. To see the family tree from Abraham, take time to read through Genesis.

The people would not last long on their own. They became (over time) slaves to Egypt and remained in that state for over 400 years. There was still the hope from the promises of God to Abraham the people held tight to. God may have seemed absent, but Exodus gives us the picture of a God who pays attention and knows what’s going on. God acts in a mighty way, and delivers the people of Israel by having Moses lead them. The Exodus is the foundational story for Jewish people—how they were brought from a life of slavery to freedom. This is also, in a sense, our story too since we were slaves of sin until Christ broke the curse of sin over humanity.

Something we have to take time to realize is that when Israel was freed from the slavery of Egypt, they really moved into a different kind of slavery—into the service of God. The paradox is that unless we live our lives as servants of God, then we really don’t know or understand freedom. True freedom if found in the expression of love that if only found in God.

When you live for God, you see his character is that of holiness—he means what he says and he says what he means…he should be feared/revered. The holiness of God is laid out in Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. This is where the people learn that there can be no sin in their presence, that sin will not be tolerated in the presence of God. There were some strict punishments for sin, but the people knew exactly what would happen. I do wonder if we took sin as seriously as the Bible does, how would the world look? How would the church look?

This is a very brief and basic look at the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. Understanding these books is key to seeing where the rest of the story takes place.

Now we move into the history books (Joshua – Esther).

The first thing we see is God is a God who keeps his promises. His covenant with Abraham included land. Now the people of Israel were entering the land which was promised to them.

What we see, in these books, is what happens when the people live by their part of the covenant (which is following God and listening to him). We also see what happens when the people do not live up to their part of the covenant. Everything goes south.

The Israelites had incredible victories but soon became cocky and prideful and found themselves trying to be like other people, other nations. The kingdom of Israel was established with Saul and further expanded by David and Solomon. Now before we say Israel went against God and got their king after God said not to, that’s not true. God laid out specifications for how a king should be when the people asked for a king (Deuteronomy 17:14-20) But the reality is absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This teaches us how patient God is.

The history books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther all shows the ebb and flow of how the people yearned for God yet did their own thing. The cycle is what we still see today:

  • Revival happens and the people follow and decide to obey God
  • Life gets a little too comfortable and sin corrupts
  • The people do their own thing (and blame God for not providing)
  • Punishment – exiled
  • Repentance happens and the people return to their first love – God

See how this is our story today? What do you think we need to repent of as individuals? As a church? As a state? As a nation? As a people?

Moving from the historical books, we move into the Writing and Wisdom books. These are really the heart of the Biblical story (that’s why they’re in the middle 🙂 )

It is here we can see heartfelt prayers and wisdom that is needed to keep our hearts and minds open to the movement and presence of God.

Job reminds us God has not left us, even in the midst of tragedy.

The Psalms are beautiful cries and expressions to God.

Proverbs, Ecclesiastes tells how a person should think and live.

Song of Solomon (Songs) is a beautiful expression of God’s love and affection for his people.

Then we move into the Prophetic books. There are 2 groups (major and minor prophets). The “major” ones are only called so because they are longer, not because thy have more value. The “minor” prophets just have shorter books.

What do the prophets do? They warn of impending judgement and doom, if the people do no return to their part of the covenant and follow/obey/listen to God. That brings us back to the Pentateuch. The prophets are calling the people back to the way of life and loyalty the Pentateuch says.

In a nutshell, this is the basic storyline of the 39 books of the Old Testament. There is so much more we could say right now, but studying the scriptures is really a lifetime of God revealing himself to us.

To understand the Bible, understanding the first five books is essential. When you read it, see what the Bible is teaching about God and about who he says the people are.

I pray we can continually see how our story today, is the same story as the Israelites, which is played out in the story and life of God. Next week, we’ll dive into the New Testament and see how the New Testament reteaches covenant loyalty, through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Rahab: The Past Does Note Define You

How would you describe yourself before coming to faith in Jesus Christ? How is that different from your life now? What do other people think about you? Do your family and friends see something different and new in you since you began to follow Christ? Even if you have be “in church” your whole life, was there a time when you realized that you truly had nothing without the presence of Christ in your life?

Now, there are those people hearing this today and thinking when I’m going to get to the sermon. There are some hearing this that are bored. There are some hearing these questions today thinking, “of course I follow Jesus. Always have. Always will.” But we do have to ask, “do you really follow Jesus? What does that look like for you?” (Don’t think in terms of what you do or how you perceive yourself to be better than anyone else.)

Still others hearing these questions today are having tears well up in their eyes because they know the 180 their life has taken since following Jesus.

Here is the point of the sermon today—Your past does NOT define you. Jesus defines who you are.

Before we continue, we have to understand that it does matter what people think about and see in us because they will be the observers for the life change that Jesus brings us and can hold us accountable when we fall short.

Today we conclude our PEOPLE LIKE US series by looking at the story of Rahab in Joshua 2.

Joshua 2 is, to me, a fascinating story of redemption. Why? Because, like a lot of scripture, the most unlikely person, and their family, is saved from destruction.

If you have read this passage before, and even hearing it today, you know that Rahab was a prostitute. What you may not know is that she was an “inn keeper.” Because she was an “inn keeper,” she was a prostitute. Basically she was someone who ran a brothel, to put it bluntly.

Now, the spies that Joshua sent into Jericho came across Rahab. How they came across her, could be left to the imagination. But they quickly found out there is a stirring in the city gates about the Israelite army that is camped outside that is going to come in and defeat them.

Jericho was enclosed inside a wall. This is one of the first conquests of the promised land for Israel. If Israel could get past Jericho, then they could continue to march in and conquer the land promised to Abraham, by God.

So what happens? The Israelite spies tell Rahab, she and her family would be spared if she placed a red ribbon on her house. This was the Israelite army would know to “pass over” her house and keep her family safe. Notice something of a dejavu moment? On some level, this shows the Israelites have learned how God acted, in the Exodus plagues, and they are demonstrating the same kind of grace for the house that is marked inside the city of Jericho.

Understand this truth…God is NOT interested in anyone’s destruction. God desires ALL people to come to faith in Jesus Christ. God will do whatever means possible so people can know salvation (living in the presence of God here and now AND in the life to come).

So when we look at a biblical character, like Rahab, we see a picture of a way of life that is detestable to God. Rahab did not try to say she was better than anyone else. She didn’t even give the qualifications as to why she and her family should be spared. Instead, she admitted she needed to be saved and could not do it on her own. She had to trust that what the Israelites said was the truth.

Fast forward to the thief on the cross in Luke 23. He was at the end of his life, literally, and simply asked Jesus to be saved. He had to trust that what Jesus said was the truth.

Now notice how we talk about these people today. We talk about them in transformative, changed way. We may mention their old way of life. We do this to be reminded of where they came from and how they were different afterwards.

But really, we focus on the incredible power of God to bring about this kind of change in a person’s life.

So how about your life? How is Jesus Christ changing your life here and now? If this may be a hard question to answer, may we should take time to talk with him about it.

When we know we have the Spirit of Christ within us, we can no longer treat anyone as a non-believer would. We can no longer try to live the life we did before knowing Christ. We can no longer attempt to satisfy ourselves with the things detestable to God. Instead, we seek to be filled with the Holy Spirit each and every day so the presence of the Spirit is known and shown in and through our life.

There is always more to our story. The best days are always here and now and coming up. Rahab is proof of this. How?

No matter where you think  your life and legacy will end up, Jesus always has something really cool for your life and my life. Rahab is one of the few that are listed in the “heroes of faith” in Hebrews 11. Not only that, but Rahab is in the direct lineage of Jesus Christ.

You and I have had a past we are not proud of, but it is how we got where we are now. I’m praying we all trust in the presence and promise of Jesus Christ so our lives can be re-written and bring glory to God through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

All of this is possible because of the work of God in our lives and because of what God sees is possible because of his life lived through us. The only thing we do is not stop the hard work God does in and through us.

As you participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion this morning, take time to praise God for the work he has already done and is continuing to do in your life. Take time to realize the incredible power of God working in your life. Take time to trust in Christ fully and allow his grace to shape you. Not by what you do or who you are. But because of who he is and who he says you are.

Remember, your past does not define you. Christ says who you are!

Let’s pray…

Gracious God, thank you for the work you have done, are doing, and will continue to do in our lives. May we NOT stop the work you’re doing or hinder your plan for us. Even though it may seem difficult, at times, we can trust that you are re-creating us and giving us what we need to thrive so we can share and show your Kingdom and all of your glory in the world. It is in Christ’s name, we pray. AMEN.

RESPONDING TO CHRIST AND THE PRESENCE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT HERE AND NOW

NOW IF YOU have never said YES to Jesus by answering his call on you life, now is the time. I pray you get to live into the joy. If you say YES to Christ’s call, let us know and we can help you live your response out. If you say YES again, let us know and we can help equip you for God’s purpose in life.

People Like Us: Adam

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, but the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

Right here we get a picture of God who seeks to be intimately connected with his creation by remaining close. For God it was, and still is, all about relationships and being involved personally with the created order.

Unlike the gods of other faiths, YHWH is the God who “comes down” and is personally involved with creation out of love, not anger or a war, but to create something his image bearers, humanity, would be able to live in and enjoy. This is the picture of God we have right at the beginning of the scriptures, and also why the book of Genesis begins the way it does.

Genesis 1 sets the stage and shows how God has so much concern for what he creates that he sets everything up before he fills it. God made sure everything was needed for humanity and the plants/animals to survive and thrive in this world.

Genesis 2 shows the personal relationship between God and humanity. God not only created humanity but was personally involved in “hand forming” them. As a divine potter, God carefully and meticulously crafts and shapes the human and gives his breath, his life for the human to be able to live.

Remember last week, we began a series called “People Like Us.” We began with the question of “who are we trying to reach?” and also asked if we would be willing to worship with them in the same building. Today, we begin to look into the scriptures to give a snapshot of 5 people, who are just like us. The point and purpose of this series is to show us how humanity is all connected and more similar than we may want to admit. But, we never just end by talking about what people are capable of. Why? Because the point of the Bible is to show and tell who God is and what God’s purpose for humanity and all of creation is. So, we mainly focus on the hero of the Bible, God in flesh, Jesus Christ himself.

Today, we begin with the first human, Adam.

In Genesis 2, we see how much God loved Adam and saw it was NOT good that Adam was all alone, that no suitable helper was available. Adam had been given the task of caring for Eden (paradise, this place of delight). So it was not like he had nothing to do. But Adam did not have anyone else to share life with. That is a point of life, to share life with others, especially God. In fact, scripture says that God would walk in the garden in the “cool of the day” with Adam and Eve (though her name comes at the end of Genesis 3).

One day, a serpent came and struck up a conversation with Eve. The essence of the questioning from the serpent (Early Christians and today say this is Satan) was to try and question God’s motives and care for the people. The serpent made it seem as if God was hiding something from them. Then he says Adam and Eve will not die. 

Side note: serpents in ancient literature were credited with a special knowledge of death because of their ability to produce venom and ability to renew themselves by shedding their skin.

Now, if you read Genesis 1-3, you can see what happens. You see that the woman, Eve ate the fruit (does not say apple) and gave it to her husband. For a long time women have been blamed for so much wrong in our world. But this is NOT what scripture teaches.

Adam and Eve were to be helpmates to each other and keep each other focused on the commands and presence of God. Notice the text says that Eve gave the fruit to her husband, “who was with her.” Adam failed to protect his wife and thus exhibited cowardly leadership.

Maybe he was scared of the serpent? Maybe he was tired? Maybe he was really hungry? Who knows. But the point we have to see is that Adam failed in his role as Eve’s helpmate. Because of this act, all of creation fell under a curse we still experience today.

Genesis 3 begins the “fall” and we see just how far people can go, without the presence of God actively guiding them, throughout Genesis 4-11. Then, in Genesis 12, we see the answer to creation and humanities redemption beginning to take place with the calling of Abraham.

What does all of this mean for us today?

Number One we have to make sure we are steeped in the Word of God and do not let anyone try to steer us away from scripture. I spend hours each week reading the scripture and paying close attention to the commentaries and articles I read to make sure everything is in line with the scriptures. There are times I could be wrong. This is why it is vital to take the time to study the scriptures each day.

But, even when we are at our best, the serpent still comes to challenge us and to bring doubt into our minds. Remember that doubt is not bad. But if the doubt turns to unbelief, the serpent wins. That’s what happens in Genesis 3.

The next thing we see is the blame game beginning. Eve blames the serpent. Adam blames Eve. For us to be the best version of who God created us to be, we cannot throw the blame anywhere else, we have to take responsibility for our actions.

But, our pride gets in the way and we still try to keep face by blaming others. After all, we cannot be to blame about anything, it’s always someone else’s fault, right? Nope. But unfortunately this is how we still live today. This is one reason why it is so important to take responsibility for our words and actions. Keep in mind we are 100% responsible for 50% of the relationship, meaning we are 100% responsible for the role we play in our relationships.

Here is some of what scripture says about taking responsibility:

Galatians 6:4-5 “But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.”

Romans 14:10, 12 “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.”

2 Corinthians 6:3 “We put no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry.”

Proverbs 28:13 “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.”

Here’s the deal. We are all like Adam in that we try to pin the blame on someone else as to why we are like we are or why we did what we did. We will all fail God. We will all fail our church. We will all fail our community. We will all fail our family and friends. We will all fail ourselves and not live up to who God says we are.

So where is God in all of this? God is the One who gives us the grace to continue living. He is the One who has given us, by his grace, the Holy Spirit within us. God has even come down, Emmanuel, Jesus Christ, to teach us the ways of Heaven. Even after the blaming happened and God banished the humans from Eden, God gave Adam and Eve clothing so their shame would be covered. What an incredible display of grace! Through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, our shame is covered as well. We are made right with God.

Now, the Holy Spirit working in us and through us to be the people God created us to be. This is only possible because of his steadfast love and grace.

Taking responsibility means we trust that God continues to grant grace. Blaming others prevents us from experiencing the grace God has.

We are all like Adam. But the better news is that Jesus came so we can be like him! The question we all have to ask is, who do I want my life to resemble?

Let’s pray…

God who created everything, and called it good. Speak to our hearts, once again, to remind us we live this life for you. We do not have to put on any shows, try to be people we aren’t, think higher of ourselves than we should. Guide us to be strong enough and courageous enough to do what we need to do. It is all about your Kingdom and being reconciled and transformed by Your. Nothing else matters. Holy God, we are yours. Thank you for personally creating us, calling us, and guiding us each step of this journey we call life. In Jesus’ name we pray, AMEN.

Invitation to Sabbath Rest (Exodus 20:8-11)

““Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.”
‭‭Exodus‬ ‭20:8-11‬ ‭NASB‬‬

YHWH gives this Sabbath command for the people. This is more of an invitation to stop being restless and live in a restored relationship with YHWH, as at the beginning of creation. Not only is this invitation (command) for the people, but also for all of creation (animals, vegetation, land) to allow the created order to flourish, through times of rest, as designed by YHWH.

The Sabbath command is placed within the middle of the Decalogue, giving it significance to what YHWH finds important as well as show a balance in how to fully live out the relationship with YHWH (commandments 1-3) and with people (5-10). It is as if YHWH is saying, we are not able to accomplish this unless we take the time to rest (cease from normal work) and take the time to praise, celebrate, and glorify God on this holy day. “…the Sabbath would communicate that Israel’s whole life was to be lived in imitation of the Lord.” (Blackburn, 71) The covenant YHWH is making with Israel is working to set Israel apart, making them holy. This is something the people are to teach to their children, grandchildren, and through the generations.

זָכ֛וֹר֩ (remember) is used to begin this section of this commandment. The active state of remembering o keep the Sabbath day holy (set apart) is an act of keeping YHWH as the only God Israel would pay attention to and live for (commandment number one). “The force of the Sabbath, then, is not simply in remembering the fact that God created the heavens and the earth, but also remembering how he created the heavens and the earth, through establishing an order that brings blessing and ensures Israel’s well-being.” (Blackburn, 111) Again, this commandment is set here as a reminder (an invitation) to step into the creative work YHWH has done, is doing, and will do in the world. It is a command to live in such a way that Israel has a completely whole relationship with YHWH, not like the other nations who worship other gods. “Remember” is a key theme throughout the Pentateuch and the rest of the Old Testament. There were many times when Israel “forgot” YHWH and his law and chose to go their own way. But “remember” is also important with YHWH because he never forgets his people or his promises, something Israel was supposed to embody. “Remembering” the seventh day, as a day of rest, is a tangible reminder of what Israel was to be about—the work of God in the world as his priests and a holy nation to the rest of the world. ““Remembering” is more than a mental act, it is an active observance (see God’s remembering in 2:24).” (Freitheim, 229)

The seventh day (symbolic of the day YHWH rested) is a שַׁבָּת, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ (Sabbath to the LORD your God). This was to be a day different from the other six days of work. The Sabbath day is a day to stop doing “normal”, “everyday” work. “Derived from a verb meaning “to cease, stop,” especially from work, the sabbath day was patterned on the divine rest from labor at the termination of creation. It was a day of rejoicing and feasting, related particularly to creation (Ex 20:8-11).” (Alexander, 304) When Israel ceased from work, they were being set free from the burden of having to work for everything as the other days of the week. Stopping normal work allows Israel the opportunity to remember they need to rely on YHWH to provide for them, and to celebrate all that YHWH has done and has provided. “Not having to work freed the people from their material burdens so that they could celebrate their relationship with God and their families. On a holy day, numerous sacrifices were offered at the sanctuary to honor God and to provide an abundance of meat for feasting. Israel was commanded to make each *sabbath holy by observing it as a day of rest (Ex 20:8; Deut 5:12; cf. Ex 31:15; 35:2).” (Alexander, 425)

    לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה  (you shall not) is expressed as an action that should not be taken in the future. YHWH giving this command, for future Sabbath days, is setting it apart and making it holy, making this day something different from the rest of the week. Brevard Childs writes, “Throughout the Old Testament the Sabbath is described as holy (Ex. 16:23, Lev. 23:3, Neh. 9:14, Is. 48:13).”  (Childs, loc. 929) YHWH is working on making his people holy. At the same time, YHWH is using this command as a teaching moment to demonstrate the rhythm of creation. “God’s resting is a divine act that builds into the very created order of things a working/resting rhythm. Only when that rhythm is honored by all is the creation what God intended it to be.” (Fretheim, 230) As we have seen earlier, this command (invitation) is not just for the people; it is also for the created order (animals, vegetation, land). If Israel does not live into this command, then there will be consequences, and the consequences will bring chaos because there is not a time of rest. Not keeping the sabbath is a violation of the created order; it returns one aspect of that order to chaos. What the creatures do with the sabbath has cosmic effects.” (Fretheim, 230)

The Decalogue, Ten Commandments, teaches how Israel was supposed to live in the world. If Israel obeyed and kept this covenant, they would be blessed and be regarded as YHWH’s “treasured possession”. (Ex. 19:5) The people of Israel would experience the blessing(s) YHWH has in store for them. For Israel to experience the blessings this covenant would bring require them to be obedient to the voice of YHWH and keep their end of his covenant. If they do not keep this covenant, or obey his voice, the people will be like restless wanderers not able to find the rest, completeness, and identity they have in YHWH. “Restless wandering is a result of sin and its punishment. Thus *Cain was sentenced to be a “restless wanderer” (Gen 4:14 NIV), no longer able to settle and facing the insecurity of threats from enemies…Rest is therefore about more than safety and settlement; it also concerns restored relationships with Yahweh. It is an objective reality and an inner state.” (Alexander, 688)

Following the commands, and living into the invitation of YHWH’s rest allows Israel to live in a complete, restored relationship with YHWH. Israel as priests to the world would be the examples of how the rest of the world could enter into this kind of relationship with YHWH. “It is to this that Exodus 20 appeals, inviting Israel to participate in a weekly sabbath modeled on the original, very good creation (so also Ex 31:12-17).” (Alexander, 697)

Bibliography

Arnold, B. T., & Choi, J. H. (2003). A guide to biblical Hebrew syntax. Cambridge University Press.

Alexander, T. D., & Baker, D. W. (2003). Dictionary of the Old Testament : Pentateuch. InterVarsity Press.

Blackburn, W. R. (2012). The God who makes himself known : the missionary heart of the book of Exodus. Apollos.

Childs, B. S. (1986). Old Testament theology in a canonical context (1st Fortress Press ed.). Fortress Press.

Fretheim, T. E. (1991). Exodus. John Knox Press.

God’s Love Prevails

While I was sitting in the airport recently, I observed the people around. Some were in the hustle and bustle of their day. Some were very irate when their flight was missed or delayed. Some were very worried about not making connecting flights. The tension in airports is very high.

The airport is also one of the places where we will see people really only caring about them. I mean, people will run over you, or treat people bad if they do not get what they want. It is as if we have forgotten who we are and who we belong to.

This attitude is not only at the airports, it is all throughout our culture. I have this attitude, “it’s all about me and my schedule”, at times. You do too. We live in a world that makes us believe we are the central focus. We go for our preferences and say this is what God desires for me. We’ll look down on people because they do not have the same lifestyle as us, or their sin has caused more harm to them than our sin has caused us. We can get to the point we end up blaming God for what’s wrong in this world and can easily forget to thank and praise him for all the good and joy in this world. We can forget that God is ultimately sovereign over this world.

WHERE WE HAVE BEEN

A couple weeks ago, we talked about why there is suffering in this world. We looked at the phrase, “everything happens for a reason” and noted that many times the reason we have suffering is because 1) we live in a fallen world, 2) our personal sin does have consequences in our lives, and 3) we humans make decisions that impact more than we realize.

Last week, we talked about finding and knowing God’s will for our lives. The first thing to do is to seek God. God’s general will for all of humanity is to 1) love God and 2) love people. Everything else falls into place. There are times God will speak to you and guide you (call you) to do more; that’s why it’s important to keep a listening ear toward what God is saying.

This week, our point is simply this: God Wins.

Now, there is so much to this statement that we have to take time to look at it closely.

To us, WE LIVE IN THIS WORLD EVERYDAY. TO US THIS IS REALITY.

If we are constantly seeing all of the wicked, negative, and evil news all around us, we will actually miss God’s work in this world. 

One of the places I like to sit and write is at Starbucks and McDonalds. I was at McDonalds one morning and saw many people coming into get their food and just pay attention to themselves. When, all of a sudden, a man walks in and sits down at a table with two other men. He has a concerned looked on his face. After he sits down, he hands over a letter and apologizes for his attitude and behavior and asks for forgiveness.

The other men vented their frustrations with him and told him why he was wrong. NO THEY DIDN’T. They listened to his request for forgiveness and sat there calmly talking things through. The conversation even got around to talking about faith in Jesus Christ.

Many people do not have opportunities to see this kind of behavior in the world because we get so caught up in what’s going on in our lives and what we perceive to be “news.” With all of this information being captured in our minds through our eyes and our ears, we can be filled with the knowledge that keeps us from seeing God work. We become numb to all the brokenness that we actually become indifferent to things working out for God’s glory or not.

I invite you to continually seek God and seek His heart in and for this world. See the world as God sees it: His creation that He loves so much that He will do whatever it takes to transform, redeem, recreate. He’ll do this work in and through His people more often than not.

But how can we see God working in this world through His church when there is so much negativity about the Christian church in America? How can we see God working through churches that are divided? 

Statistically speaking, less and less people are believing in the power of God through His Holy Spirit, and there are less people going to worship in a community of faith. As the body of Christ, we have been gifted with the Holy Spirit to do great work and witness in this world. 

Think about when this particular community faith was started in the late 1800s. There was a great desire to reach people for Jesus Christ by verbal witnessing and by acts of service. We can rekindle that desire to seek the least, the last, the lost (of all socio-economic levels).

Why do I mention this? If we lose our true heart for following God through Jesus Christ, it really all becomes about us and about our own desires and preferences. But God has given us His heart to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world because of the life changing relationships we develop.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, warned his followers:

‘I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.’[1]

So, here is our challenge today: are there times when our zeal for following Christ less important than what we want to accomplish and do in this world, in our life? Do we lose the use of the power through the Holy Spirit in doing the work He has called us to?

The truth is we get so caught up with the negative news and junk that we lose our heart for the mission God is leading us to do. We can get so caught up with what we think is “wrong” that we forget to keep moving toward what is “right.” We get so caught up in saying what we are against and don’t always tell people what we stand for.

Every week, we gather for worshipping the Triune (three-in-one God). Every week, God faithfully shows up. There are times when I am so busy with my to-do lists and work that I can forget to pay attention to His presence. Do we expect to encounter Jesus Christ every Sunday in worship? Or do we only seek for what we think will “feed” us?

The Day of Pentecost came 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection, This was a day when thousands, millions, of devout Jewish people would again descend upon Jerusalem to praise God for their harvest. It was during this time that God was showing the harvest He was reaping through the lives that were being changed.

Think about that. God had not forgotten nor given up on the world. Just because Jesus had been raised from the dead, this was not the end of the story. 

GOD’S LOVE FOR US AND WORK IN OUR LIVES IS NEVER COMPLETE.

People were coming to know and follow Jesus Christ, as their Lord and Savior, by the thousands. All because Jesus’ followers were obedient to sharing the message of Christ wherever they were. The world was turned upside down by just a relatively small number of people. 

Big things happen when small groups of people put their full trust in God through Jesus Christ and do His work in the world. The early followers were not concerned about what the rest of the world though they were lacking. They had everything they needed, the power of God through the Holy Spirit.

God has not given up on this world. Even with all of the chaos and negativity going on, God has given us the greatest gift and resource of all…God has given us Himself.

Our focus should really be on salvation. When we focus on salvation, we can have our eyes open to the incredible work God is doing all around us, and is inviting us to participate.

Now, salvation is so much more than where we will be after this life. Salvation is so much more than escaping hell. Salvation is living in the presence of God here and now. Salvation is knowing Christ.

This is why Jesus told Zacchaeus “today, salvation has come to your house.” Jesus was talking about himself being with and around Zacchaeus and his family.

What if salvation is not what we think it is…”getting to heaven”?

And living in perfect peace away from this world. 

What if salvation is actually bringing heaven to earth?

What if it is about being “saved”, better word is “transformed” to be instruments of Christ to bring his light and love to a dark world?

Salvation is mainly about here and now not just leaving this earth to “go to heaven.”

Salvation is about transformation and redeeming (making right) the fallen, messed up world. 

When the people of God live in ways where his light shines through them, we get to experience heaven (God’s full presence) here on earth and we can see how God’s love prevails and forces evil, or the hardships, to serve the purposes of God by being reconciled (reversed and made right). 

So how does God’s love prevail in this world?

We have seen and learned how the worst thing in life is never the last thing. God forces the evil to be transformed and still work out the circumstances for our good – for the good of transforming and redeeming all of creation.

There are times when it doesn’t feel as if God is with us. How we feel about the closeness of God does not demonstrate the actual proximity of God to us. God is closer to us than we realize and He will be with us, working within us and through us.

As the Apostle Paul reminds us:

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Pentecost reminds us God is always with us because of the Holy Spirit. You and I are being called to be in the world to transform the world by bringing people to faith in Christ (think about who is NOT in a community of faith…have more conversations…want to learn how to talk with people about Jesus? I can help) and to serve in this world through missions – we have several opportunities coming up.

We get to help people see and experience the real presence of the Kingdom of God here and now – not just something to look forward to after this life

God’s love prevails and wins in this world because God ultimately has the final word.

We are already living in victory

We know the end of the story – Revelation 21:1-6

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth, ”for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. 

Live as people who 

Know God

Love God

Know God’s love for others (including our enemies and people we don’t like)

Love people

Go into the world showing and sharing God’s love wherever you are and with whomever you’re around


[1] Wesley, John. ‘Thoughts Upon Methodism,’ 1786.

The Problem of Evil

A perfectly good God exists, and evil exists. This is a challenging enigma to contemplate and understand. After all, a good God would stop all evil and suffering from happening, so we would not have to experience it, right? This is where we need to pause and consider some of the characteristics of God and consider how God works in the world.

God is omnipotent. This means that God is all-powerful. Wouldn’t it make sense that an all-powerful God would be able to eradicate all evil in this world? But there is still evil, and many use this as an argument against God, or his goodness. This argument comes in because we have a misconception about the concept and reality of real power, mainly how God uses his power.

Real power is not coercing and forcing your will and desires on other people or situations. Real power comes from restraint, as well. Underlying the all-powerful nature of God is that his nature is of love. God can, and maybe sometimes does, prearrange circumstances to make sure things turn out as he intended, but this does not mean this is how God acts all the time.

Real power also comes from restraint. Since God is all-powerful, he can do anything he wants. Since God is loving, he does not desire his creation, us, to follow and serve him out of anything but a desire and a sincere love for him. Everything has been set in motion and is perfectly aligned and created to make life habitable here on earth for humanity. If there were one, seemingly insignificant part out of correct alignment, life as we know it would end. For example, if the core temperature of the earth was a degree hotter, or the earth’s axis was off by .01, life would not be sustainable. This is true even if the moon was an inch closer to earth. Everything is placed in the proper placement and, therefore, has been given natural laws to run so life can continue. Even though J.L. Mackie says the argument that God limits himself in our world takes away from the teaching God is omnipotent (all-powerful), this is one of the best ways to describe what’s going on.

Another aspect of God’s restraint from merely taking control and erasing evil comes from his great love for the created order, especially humanity. If God wanted people to follow him, no questions asked, he would have robotic slaves. This is not what God desires. God desires a relationship with his creation. Because of this, God has given humanity the “gift” of free-will.

Free will has been a blessing and a curse for humanity. It has been a blessing because we have been allowed to learn, to make our own decisions, and to choose what we believe. It has been a curse because we have also been given a chance to do good or to do evil. There is much evil because people have exercised their freedom to bring evil into the world, maybe even into our situations. This is called moral evil.

Moral evil does not explain all that is wrong in this world because there are things that happen that occur because we live in a world where sometimes things happen beyond our control. We cannot stop the destruction of natural disasters. We cannot always prevent illnesses and diseases that take life. We cannot stop people from making the wrong decision. We cannot stop the consequences from the actions of others affecting us (i.e., Enron or financial systems doing what they believe is right). This is called natural evil.

This brings us to the next question, “did God create evil?” Saint Augustine argued that God only created/creates good things. And since the whole universe is God’s, it is fundamentally good. He also says that evil is not a created thing; it is an entity and, therefore, evil is the lack of good. God is all-powerful and has created an incredible world and universe. He is also unchanging and eternal, but the created order isn’t. Creation is mutable and changeable and, therefore, is corruptible to manifesting as evil. This lines up with the account of the fall in Genesis 3-11. Creation, humanity, rebelled against God, and brought evil into the world.

Bishop Irenaeus taught something a little different from Augustine. John Hick has his rendition of this teaching—Adam and the original creation were innocent and immature but were offered the opportunity to do good by loving God and people. He goes on to say that evil is here because this is an “inevitable stage in the gradual evolution of the human race.”

There is an argument that we cannot know good without knowing about evil. J.L. Mackie argues this with a few points: evil is a necessary counterpart to good, evil is a necessary means to good, and the universe is better with some evil. One of the issues with this kind of thinking is that it implies God is the One who created and brought about the evil and suffering we experience in this life. There is evidence to support this thought in scripture, but we also have to understand people are going to do what they are going to do.

To know evil means we have the opportunity to know good. To identify good means we know what is evil. And this is precisely why we were given the Law in our Bibles—to understand how we should live, so we do not end up living an evil life and corrupting the world even more. The created order is designed to do what God set in motion through natural laws. Humanity is the only part of the created order that has been given the gift of knowing right from wrong. God must have known we were going to make the choices we made and still make today, right?

Many theologians believe that God knows everything—past, present, and future—and lives within the space of being able to see and know all possible outcomes and scenarios (probable and factual). This means that God knows every possible way we could act or think. Some argue that this way of thinking about the knowledge God has means humanity does not have free will if God knows what we are capable of doing and do what we want. Scripture teaches God works all things together for good—meaning, God has a plan in place for every situation we might choose so his perfect will is done here on earth, even amidst the evil that surrounds us.

The biggest thing we have to wrestle with is not, why has God not eradicated evil, but what do we believe about God and what do we believe about how God works in this world and yours and my life. Sometimes faith has to go beyond the intellectual level and go into the heart level. This means there are some things we are going to have to be okay not being able to reconcile, and we have to trust that God is working for the good in this world. If we believe this about God, we can put simple trust that what the book of Revelation says about a new heaven and new earth are real, and God’s goodness will win in the end. The question now is, how will you and I choose to live?