As Presidents’ Day was approaching I did some reading on the history of Presidential approval ratings. It was interesting to see the various highs and lows that have happened within my lifetime. The highest approval rating was given to George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks: It was up at 90% in that part of 2001. And the lowest mark of 24% came in January of 1974 for President Richard Nixon in the midst of the Watergate scandal. Those are the extremes, but more generally the approval rating has hovered around 40 to 60%. There are always some people who will strongly disapprove of the President no matter who it is.
This came to mind as I was thinking of the political situation in Jesus’ time. In ancient Jerusalem there was a strong sense of disapproval for the ruling Roman regime. It wasn’t always commonly spoken of, for fear of reprisal, but nonetheless it wasn’t hard to discern. Israel had a strong heritage of its own independent, Davidic kingships. It was remembered and celebrated as a historic monarchy under the blessing of God. The Romans, by contrast, were a Gentile power-group. They were very abusive; they imposed oppressive levels of taxation, and they didn’t show much respect for the customs of the people. At best they were abrasively tolerant of Israelite faith; at worst they were downright hostile and even violent. And the practice of crucifixion fell into this category. It was done as an open display of violence before the populace with the goal of scaring people into submission.
All of this led to a deep yearning among Jesus’ contemporaries for the restoration of God’s kingdom. There was a passionate hope for some kind of supernatural action from God. The question posed to Jesus in Acts 1:6, right before His ascension, reflects this desire: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” It all goes back to a deep-set frustration with the Roman reign over Jerusalem, and a yearning for God’s corrective action to come.
In this context, Jesus taught a lot about the kingdom of God. He emphasized its immanence; we should be expecting God to act. So He said, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (in Mark 1:15). Yet this kingdom does not conform to worldly hopes or expectations – and so Jesus said “My kingdom is not of this world” (in John 18:36). When people were putting too much focus on their surroundings and events, Jesus encouraged them to look within: “The kingdom is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). And yet there is also sense of promise of a kingdom that’s still yet to come, which Jesus illustrated with parables about a coming harvest (Matthew 13:24-30) and an arriving bridegroom (25:1-13).
One verse in particular got my attention: Luke 12:32 is where Jesus said, “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This verse is important for several reasons…
Good things are coming, my friends. Press on!
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
Epiphany fell on a Sunday this year. January 6th is the holiday where we celebrate the coming of the wise men to visit Jesus as a child. In worship that day I pondered over Matthew 2:12 which says, “And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”
This raised questions for me that go back to details the text doesn’t provide: Did all the wise men have the same dream simultaneously? Or did one of them have it and then the group collectively took it as a warning? What was the conversation like that led to this? What was their normal group decision-making process? How was it altered by whatever the dream was?
Of course there’s no way of knowing any of this for sure, but it made me think of the common-sense wisdom that says, “Sleep on it.” It’s to our benefit when we can get a good night’s rest before making a major decision. Sleep helps us to process the facts, and then we wake up with a clearer sense of what needs to happen. Dreams are a part of our sleep cycle. Our subconscious minds generate images that reflect our emotional and spiritual state. If you can start to understand what the images represent as you’re dreaming, and then if you can then remember what you were feeling, you’ll come away with a deeper self-understanding of your spiritual/emotional wellness.
It can seem scary to throw God into the mix of this. Certainly it would be a mistake to view every dream as a sign from God. (Most of us have had some pretty strange dreams.) But God can communicate His will in any number of ways. Think of how the divine hand can intermingle with our subconscious minds as we dream. We can come away from the process with a better sense of direction. I think of the words of Proverbs 3:6: “In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.”
All of this correlates with the broader scientific fact that a lack of rest can make for bad decision-making, while good rest can make for better decision-making. If you do a google search on sleep and decision-making you’ll find all kinds of scientific and health articles that speak to this.
These things came to mind when I was thinking about how to help the church in the decision-making process that we face. Many of our members have scattered, but new possibilities abound. There’s much to hope for, but there’s also a certain danger: Churches and other organizations can become deeply divided over questions of money and priorities. So on the last Sunday of January I chose to preach on Philippians 1:27-28 – “…let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.”
I relate all of this to Paul’s call for “striving” or for a collective struggle. Unity is a struggle because it’s not natural. Entropy is natural. Quarreling and disagreement and backbiting are natural. But unity is something that we all have to struggle for together, with each of us playing a part.
This doesn’t mean that we’ll always agree. Disagreement, in fact, is a genuine part of God’s process since He’s made all of us differently. We begin with our varying perspectives, and then the Holy Spirit leads us as we pray and converse so that it all coalesces into a unified perspective that reflects the singular will of God.
That’s probably how it was for the wise men. Tradition says there were three of them, and I remember an expression I heard from a Baptist layman: “If you have three Baptists in one room, you’ll have four opinions.” Yet somehow they came to a consensus. They knew what they needed to do, and it wasn’t the default path of complying with the authorities. (Legal authority loses its credibility when it’s on the side of evil and oppression, as Herod clearly was.) So they took a path that was seemingly more risky; it was called “another way” in Matthew 2:12. Yet it turned out to be God’s way for them, which is always the best way to go.
And so it is for us: The Christian path isn’t always easy. The decisions we make are not geared towards our own comforts or ease. Our call is to take up the cross and follow Jesus. And we all know that the cross is followed by the resurrection. This is the witness of our faith which we struggle together for. And the fearless sense of collective direction that emerges is a sign of this salvation that comes from God alone.
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
I am a husband, a Congregational pastor, and a native Kansan currently living in Thermalito, California. In the past I have also been a prison chaplain and a youth pastor. Interests include reading, railroads, prog rock, KU, and the KC Royals. Opinions are my own and are not necessarily those of organizations I have been with.