I took a new interest in the Beatitudes after hearing Brian McLaren talk about them at the 2013 Festival of Homiletics in Nashville. He challenged Christian leaders to give the Beatitudes some of the same energy that we have for the Ten Commandments (e.g. with monuments, catechisms, etc.) The nine Beatitudes of Jesus are given in the Sermon on the Mount (in Matthew 5:3-12. There’s also a different version of some of them in Luke 6:20-23.) Then as now, they are both very countercultural and very relevant.
I believe the world is looking for happiness and blessing, so I think the Beatitudes speak to our times. And they point us to some deeper discoveries too, since Jesus didn’t invent the beatitude genre. He was building on an Old Testament tradition that He inherited. There are a couple examples that came to mind recently…
It also speaks of a blessing associated with fear, but the “fear” is not a puppy-dog kind of trepidation. Rather, it’s a reverence, an honoring of God that is rooted in a love for what He teaches us about Himself and life and the common good. It inspires us away from a fearful and worrisome mode of living (112:7-8), so that we can be generous and compassionate as Christ is (112:5,9; cf. Matthew 5:7).
The alternative to this bad detour is to trust in the Lord. This opportunity is anchored in the memory of all that God has done for us; hence what follows in Psalm 40:5 is a prayer to God: “Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders you have done. The things you planned for us no one can recount to you; were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to declare.” The bottom line is this: God’s blessings are all around us. If we’re observant enough to see and remember some of them, we’ll know there’s no reason not to trust. We won’t be fretful, anxious, or troubled; we will be blessed.
Let’s think of the content of these beatitudes put together: On the one hand, there’s the risk of a bad detour in the direction of ego and idolatry. On the other hand, there’s this yearning for God’s teaching, and for who He calls and empowers us to be (cf. Matthew 5:6).
Have you ever been down a wrong road that took you into a bad neighborhood? Were you scared? Were you delighted when you got out of there and got on the right track? That’s what the path of blessing is like. We follow Jesus, and we know He is gracious. We know that He is leading us in the right way.
God bless you.
Pastor Andrew McHenry
I used to have a more entrepreneurial approach to ministry. I thought that pastors and churches need to make things happen. I was motivated towards action. This was partly because I had read Charles G. Finney’s classic, Revivals in Religion. Finney was basically the Billy Graham of the 19th Century, and these were his lectures on revivals that communicate his philosophy of ministry. He saw revival as being all about the right use of the right means. God is always ready to make a revival happen; he believed that any of us can do it if we’re willing to take the right steps. To his credit, he led many people to Christ in what today is called the Second Great Awakening.
I was really drawn to that approach, but later I became more motivated to wait and trust. I had read Henry Blackaby’s book, Experiencing God. Its emphasis was different from Finney’s. You don’t want to just make a bunch of plans and hope that God blesses those plans. Instead, you want to jump on board the moving train of what God’s already doing. It all goes back to the difference between trying to get God to accommodate your will, versus you pursing and seeking His will. So it accords well with the portion of the Lord’s Prayer that says “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” (Matthew 6:10).
That insight was complemented when I read Philip Yancey’s popular book What’s So Amazing About Grace? Yancey pointed out that Jesus didn’t just accommodate the interruptions to His ministry. In fact, the interruptions were His ministry. This served as a necessary corrective to my instinct to be so organized that I rule out God-opportunities that come my way. I normally begin each week with a list of 30 or 40 things that I need to do. I get so focused on that list that I want to push away all the distractions. It’s an approach that turns away a lot of God-moments. So it was good for me to learn to engage the conversations when they happen. With that, I learned to spend less time in front of a computer screen and more time in front of people – listening to them, praying for them, and ministering with them.
The juxtaposition of these different approaches to ministry really struck me. Back last summer I felt compelled to preach on two narratives that illustrate each end of the continuum...
But the second of these narratives provides a useful contrast. The description of the mission of the 70 (or the 72, depending on which Bible translation you’re reading) describes a very planned-out ministry. Only one verse is devoted to the ministry itself (Luke 10:9), which consisted of healing and preaching. But there are a number of verses that focus on the practical details. The first one is prayer; in a famous verse for evangelism (Luke 10:2), Jesus gives the call to use prayer as a means of preparation. Personally I have learned the advantage of making advanced prayers – i.e. praying ahead of ministry meetings and preaching engagements on the schedule. And I have learned the hard way when I have forgotten to do it.
The succeeding verses (in Luke 10:3-8) describe a mixed variety of details that always have to be planned out: food, lodging, travel gear, travel tips, introducing yourself to new homes, etc. People may say “the devil is in the details,” but Jesus was spelling out the details right there. This was His way of giving instructions to His advance team.
It’s also significant that he gave instructions on how to handle rejection (in Luke 10:10-12). Rejection is part of the Christian experience. Don’t be surprised by it; expect it. But don’t overreact to it either. Shake the dust off your feet and move on. The harvest is plentiful; there are more people out there, and there will always be more opportunities to bring a blessing. There will always be homes where a son of peace resides. Where your ministry is well-received, the blessing of peace rests on them. And where your ministry is refused, the peace comes back to you. So it’s a win-win situation either way. Peacemakers always turn out to be the children of God, even when the things that make for peace become such a bone of contention that persecution arises (cf. Matthew 5:9-12).
These two narratives in neighboring chapters of St. Luke’s gospel show that there’s a balance: The church wants to be faithful with the opportunities that God puts in front of us. But we also want to be thoughtful enough to make practical plans. But in either case, it’s God’s project, not ours. So we look to Jesus and we trust in Him as He leads us ahead.
God bless you,
First Congregational Church
“When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
- Luke 2:15
I had a job once that I absolutely dreaded. I worked in a warehouse that wasn’t climate-controlled, so it was hot in summer and cold in winter. Since it was a food warehouse, sometimes my work sent me into the cooler (which was around 40°F), and sometimes I also had to go into the freezer (where it was around 5°F). Besides the conditions, some of the people there were difficult to work with. One fellow eventually got fired for being so rude to staff and volunteers. It was easy to criticize him, but looking back I can remember that I wasn’t always easy to work with either. There are reasons why people get grumpy; workplace conditions can aggravate tempers. Plus the tasks of the job were stressful. I was managing both tons of food product and also leading volunteer teams that worked on it. We were getting it ready for the organizations that feed the homeless and the needy. So it was a good cause, but it was difficult work.
Have you ever been in a situation like that? The conditions are harsh, the tasks are stressful, the circumstances are aggravating, and the people are difficult. If so, perhaps you can relate to the shepherds that are mentioned in Luke 2:8. Their work was outdoors in difficult hours. And certainly there were attitudes against them in the popular culture – the type that elites have toward the working class. Bigotry causes all kinds of pain in this world.
Perhaps the best way to respond is to do what the shepherds did: Shift your focus from your troubles to “what the Lord has made known to us”. Faith is all about responding positively to what God has revealed to you. In the case of the shepherds, it came in an angelic theophany (in Luke 2:9-13). The angels gave news of a savior who was born in Bethlehem. It would be confirmed by the sign of a baby in a feed trough – which was not something you see every day. There were lots of babies in Bethlehem; but when they saw that one, they’d know they’d come to the right place.
Faith is a core part of the Christian life. Sometimes it appears in a sequence like what we see in Luke 2:15…
Hebrews 11:1 tells us that “…faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Rarely does a person get to see some great theophany. Jesus made this clear when He told the doubting disciple Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have yet believed” (John 20:27b). True faith goes beyond what is seen.
But that doesn’t mean that we’re totally in the dark. God has His ways of making things known – through His word, through the lives of Christians around us, through His Holy Spirit, and in any number of other ways. We do well when we focus on that. Yes, life has its difficult circumstances and there are difficult people. But our focus is on what God has shown us, and responding to that in faith. And God always gives us what we need to make the journey.
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
Life is full of messy situations. They can happen in families, in marriages, in sibling rivalries, in workplaces, and even in churches. What does the Bible say about messy situations?
Amos 7:10-17 gives a good example of a messy situation. It was a clash between the prophet Amos and Amaziah, the chief priest at Bethel. (Bethel was the sanctuary worship site that had been established by Jacob after he saw his famous ladder in Genesis 28:10-22). This narrative is found amidst four separate visions that God gave to Amos:
First, he engaged in triangling. Triangling happens when a third party is brought into the conflict before the other person has been addressed directly. Jesus counseled His disciples to go directly to the person before you go to other people (in Matthew 18:15). It appears that Amaziah didn’t do this. He first sent his complaint straight off to the king (in Amos 7:10-11).
Part of the problem is that this leads to a distorted presentation of things. Second-hand versions are notoriously unreliable. In this case, Amaziah painted a picture of Amos as a conspirator against the king. He exaggerated his prophecies of exile as if they were made out as death threats against the king, which wasn’t true. (Compare Amos 7:10-11 with 7:8-9.) Amos had prophesied a national exile, and that happened in 722 BC when the Assyrians conquered and destroyed Samaria. He made reference to the king as the leader of the nation, but it was not a personal threat. Of course that didn’t matter to the priest when he sent out a false version of the story. Lies can go out quickly, and they can be hard to control.
A second problem was in the manner of confrontation. There is a place for biblical confrontation, particularly if the first attempts at conversation have not succeeded (cf. Matthew 18:16-18). But it can also be done poorly. Amaziah’s confrontation (in Amos 7:12-13) was laced with both an insult and with geographic prejudices. His reference to the southern kingdom would be like someone from the American South saying, “Yankee, go home!” And his reference to eating bread (which implies earning a living) was something that maligned Amos’ motives; it suggested that he was only interested in earning a salary.
Fortunately, Amos’ response shows us how we can stick true to the word of God in a messy situation. It’s an ancient account, but there’s much to learn from it for today. I’m thinking of three things…
1 – Identity: When other people have been talking about you, it’s important to have good, well-developed self-concept. Other people aren’t the ones who have the right to define you. That goes back to who you are and what God has called you to be. So Amos started out by making his history clear (in 7:14). He wasn’t part of the old prophetic cohorts who did political assassinations. And he wasn’t simply out to draw a salary; he had other ways of doing that (specifying his background as a herdsman and working with fruit trees). It wasn’t up to Amaziah to define what kind of prophet Amos would be. Other people may try to mischaracterize you, but don’t overreact to that. God knows who you are.
2 – Direction: It’s important not to let your detractors throw you off course. If you understand your life direction and calling, stick to it. Amaziah told Amos to go away, and to leave his ministry in Bethel behind (in 7:12). But Amos remembered how God told him to leave his flocks behind and to go and prophesy. Amos was going to obey God, not men (7:15, cf. Acts 5:29).
3 – Truth: There will always be attempts to silence prophetic voices, but ultimately they can’t succeed in suppressing the truth. Truth is always more powerful than falsehood – which is something that’s important to remember in an age when lies and liars are celebrated. And this links up with the prophecy to Amaziah in Amos 7:16-17. Amos gave a direct word to the priest. It was harsh: it anticipated suffering, death, and unspeakable desecration. But it was vastly necessary. And it was true to the conditions of the exile that came in 722 BC.
Life is full of messy situations, but remember this: God’s Son came into the world to endure the worst of the mess for our sakes. The religious and governing authorities came after Him and killed Him. But they still couldn’t stop Him. In His resurrection we find that truth is more powerful than all the lies. As Jesus said, the truth sets you free (John 8:32).
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
The first worship service I led after the Camp Fire was at the Sycamore Glen retirement community on November 18th. I kind of drew together a collage of scriptures that had come to mind both in the moments of crisis and then afterwards in reflection on all that happened. Here’s a summary of the thoughts and scriptures I shared.
One was Job 1:21, which says “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Hillary and I found ourselves as homeless guests in a friend’s apartment right after the fire with little more than the clothes on our backs. The host couple was very gracious, but all the same, it’s always a bit inhibiting when you’re not in your own place. For one, in sharing space with friends you have to cover yourself as you move around the house. And nakedness in general involves some vulnerability; if you ever have had dreams where you’re naked or exposed, that’s what it goes back to – the feeling of vulnerability. And the fire certainly left a lot of us feeling vulnerable.
Many things were lost in fire: clothes, cars, homes, etc. But these help us turn our thoughts to what is more enduring. I was reminded of the three-fold stained-glass windows at the front of the old chapel where I preached in Paradise – which was also destroyed in the fire. They showed Easter lilies, which remind us of the resurrection. And below them was the text of Jesus’ sixth beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). It was put in by the building architect in in 1909 in memory of his mother, no doubt reminding him of her character. The windows are gone, but her impact is enduring.
Another verse from the Sermon on Mount came to mind while we were stranded in traffic during the evacuation: Matthew 6:19-21 is where Jesus says “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” That came to mind when I wasn’t sure if we would make it out alive. It helped me to place my focus on what is lasting and indestructible.
A dear friend of our family named Zula Bennington Greene lost her rural Kansas home in a fire many years before we knew her, back in the 1930s. Her observations in her autobiography (now entitled Peggy of the Flint Hills) about their recovery showed the positive side of their losses. She wrote: “We found we could live in two rooms about as well as in eleven, with indeed some advantages – fewer rooms to clean, no unnecessary furniture, clothing, dishes, or ornaments to take care of. Many things were gone which no one wanted, but which we would’ve hesitated to destroy, mellow old things that had been full of tender memories for someone now long gone. The accumulated clutter of two or three generations was disposed of in a roaring conflagration which lasted only a few hours. We could not have known what to do with it. It would have filled up useful space for years. Now it was gone and no feelings hurt. We had nothing that we did not need.”
Placing that in perspective, I thought that the real winners of the fire were my niece and nephew. I’ve never wanted any of my belongings to be a burden to them or their lives, but I know how it can become with old heirlooms. Our house was loaded with old furniture, pictures, and keepsakes going back generations. Who knows if they ever would’ve wanted it? Now it’s no longer around to hinder anyone.
Stuff is just stuff. But that said, the losses we experience are real – and the feelings of loss can be significant. I remembered in our bedroom I had a dresser with two little shelves, and on it I had pictures (one on each shelf) of each my two grandfathers. I also had rings that I had inherited from each one. Today the pictures are gone and the rings are gone, but their influence and the blessing of their lives continues. Some things are indestructible.
In the same spirit, I was drawn to I Corinthians 15:42, which says “So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.” I share this one with a qualifier; I don’t believe in treating Bible like one of those old magic eight-balls, where you ask God for a verse, open the Bible at random, put your finger down on something, and hope it’s just what you need to hear. I’m normally more methodical in how I approach Bible study. But when I was stranded at the corner of Skyway and Wagstaff in Paradise, with smoke and fire all around, in what seemed to be an interminably long wait, I needed a word from the Lord. Houses nearby were on fire, no firefighter was in sight, and I was getting anxious. So I opened my little Gideon Bible I plopped my hand down on that verse, and it gave me the hope I needed. Even if we perished in the fire, the resurrection still gives us hope. Life will carry on.
A final verse that I’m drawn to is an excerpt from Ecclesiastes 9:11, where the wisdom author observes that “…time and chance happen to them all.” There is a certain randomness in life, and it was that way with the fire too. With so much that had burned, somehow there were houses that were left standing virtually unscathed in the middle of it all (several of them belonging to members of our church). Some homes were left as the sole remnant of their original neighborhood – with acres and acres of devastation surrounding them. Who can explain this?
Occasionally Christians will say that there’s no such thing as luck, but I’ve never agreed with that. God has made this world with a certain amount of randomness and chance in the created order. The message of the gospel is not that we somehow avoid the chaos that comes with that. Rather, the message of the gospel is found in the cross: Whatever befalls us in this chaotic world, there’s another day that comes afterwards. However bad Good Friday may be, Easter Sunday follows. And there’s where we find our hope.
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
One of my biggest losses from the fire was that of my personal library. I had thousands of books in a variety of subjects – probably more than I would ever have needed. All my reading ambitions were contained in that collection. So it was a challenge to start over by having to buy new books. But thankfully there have been lots of pastors and friends who have offered help by donating out of their collections. Their gifts have helped me to replenish my supply.
Among the books I received was one that came from my in-laws, who are very devout Lutherans. They sent me a brand-new copy of Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. It’s basically the doctrinal standard for Lutheranism; it includes the Augsburg Confession with an apology (i.e. an explanation/defense of it), Luther’s Smalcald Articles, the Formula of Concord, and Luther’s Small and Larger Catechisms. It’s good stuff! I’ve been reading it since March and I’m almost finished.
One thing I noticed were Luther’s instructions for table grace. It’s common for Christians to say grace before meals, but Luther’s instructions included devotions for both before and after the meal. The Lord’s prayer is prayed each time and several scriptures are recited (including Psalm 145:15-16, Psalm 107:1, Psalm 147:9-11). This was interesting to me. It’s normative for most of us to say a blessing before we eat. Then when we’re done, we’ll excuse ourselves and go watch TV or do whatever. But the norm that Luther taught was for devotions both before and after the meal.
Warren Wiersbe, a well-known Baptist preacher who died recently, brought this custom up in one of his commentaries on Deuteronomy. He mentioned the example of Simon, his “Swedish preacher-uncle,” who made it his practice to say grace before and after meals. Wiersbe observed: “It’s natural to give thanks for food when we’re hungry, but it’s also wise to give thanks after we’re full.”
That is true indeed! In fact, it’s all too easy to treat God like a 911 phone call when you have emergency needs and cry out for help. But then when the problem’s solved, you get back to forgetting about God. This is why Deuteronomy 8:11-18 gives these words of caution: “Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.”
Notice the pattern here. Sometimes it puts things in perspective when we can think about our experiences in the worst and the best of times. These verses take the people of Israel through the range of their history. There was the worst of times where they were living in the desert with scorpions, snakes, parched ground, and a dearth of resources. And there’s also the best of times, when there are anticipations of plentiful food, good homes to live in, economic resources (in an agrarian culture this would consist of herds and flocks), and an abundance of wealth. Can you think of your worst of times? What were they like? Can you think of your best of times, and what have they been like?
When things are well, there’s always this danger of being sucked into the myth of the self-made man. So we are warned not to start thinking that “my power and the might of my hand” was what made everything turn out so well. This is a deification of the self, which invariably means forgetting about God.
We’re always dependent on God. It’s good to be reminded of that. Situations of scarcity show us our dependency on God. And this should help to keep us from becoming arrogant when we’re in a situation of plentitude. We can say with Paul (as he writes in Philippians 4:12-13), “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
God bless you
Pastor Andrew McHenry
God is in the business of leading those who look to Him. Sometimes we sing the hymn, “He Leadeth Me” which testifies to what a blessed thing this is. The words of Psalm 23 also reflect it: He makes us lie down in green pastures, He leads us beside the still waters; He restores the soul. And later it says the He leads into paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
All of this is wonderful, but what about when He leads us into times of struggle? What about the times when life doesn’t make sense?
Joel Gregory once said this: “I’ve never belonged to the school that seems able to peer over the divine shoulder and thus discover the will of God. The actual term ‘finding the will of God’ does not even appear in the New Testament… Paul seemed to see the will of God in life’s rearview mirror rather than its periscope.”
Sometimes things can be better-understood retroactively. I thought of this while I was looking at Deuteronomy 8:2, which gives us these words: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.” Think of this in relation to the times of struggle that you have been through. What happened? What was it like? How long did it last? (Hopefully it wasn’t 40 years like it was for the Israelites, living as refugees out in the desert.)
For some people it comes as a time of displacement. For some it’s the aftermath of a divorce or a significant breakup. For some it’s the loss of a job and a time of unemployment. For some it’s a loss of a loved one – which means learning how to pick up and continue on alone. Whatever it is, it stands to be revealing – and that’s just the point. The Bible says it reveals the condition of the heart.
It’s too easy for someone to think that they know their own heart. Is that really true? None of us can read other people’s minds, but with so many emotional layers and all the complexity, how much do we really understand about ourselves?
I can think of a time in my life, back when I was in my late 20s. I was going through some awful things; it was the worst time of my life. And goodness, what a jerk I was. I hope the people who had to work with me back then have forgiven me. Occasionally I think back on it and it’s just embarrassing. If you had talked to me just a few years before then, when things were well, I might have told you that I had a good sense of where my heart was: I was striving to follow Jesus, acting out of good character. I couldn’t have seen it coming.
Warren Wiersbe put it this way: “The devil tempts us to bring out the worst in us, but God tests us to bring out the best in us. When God allows a difficult circumstance to test us, we will either trust Him and become more mature, or we will tempt Him and become more miserable. The difference? Believing the promises of God and relying on the Lord to care for us and bring us through for His glory and our good.”
I would add that even when it brings out the ugly truth, that works for our own good as well if we learn from the experience. The true condition of our heart is revealed. The reality that was once hidden is now out in the open and it can be disarmed. It’s just like Jesus said: If you know the truth the truth shall make you free (John 8:32).
God’s leading then, points us in a better path. We let the sins of the past be nailed to the cross of Jesus. Since we’re always looking forward, never backward, we move on with a better sense of what our excesses are and how to hold them in check. We’re more acutely aware of the dangers that can come out of our heart.
It’s kind of like when the devil tempted Jesus (as recorded in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13). The temptations were based on questioning His identity, since the devil said, “If you’re *really* the Son of God…” The first temptation was to turn stones into bread. Jesus answered it by quoting Deuteronomy 8:4 – “Man shall not live by bread alone.”
Our hearts are prone to dangerous things in times of struggle. It’s good for us to be anchored in our identity as followers of Christ. It’s good when we fix our minds on His word. It’s good to live by what proceeds from the hand of God. It’s good to trust in His leading, even when we’re going through a rough patch – because just like with the Israelites of old and their Promised Land, we know it leads to a good place.
God bless you.
Pastor Andrew McHenry
Several years ago, back in the 1990s, I was challenged by a friend to read Philip Yancey’s best-seller The Jesus I Never Knew. That book is older now but it’s still worth reading. Yancey’s chapter on the Ascension struck me for how it illustrates the challenge of this part of our faith. He wrote…
“Living two millennia after the disciples, I look back and marvel at how little difference the church has made in such a world. Why did Jesus leave us alone to fight the battles? How can it be good that he went away?”
“…the Ascension represents my greatest struggle of faith – not whether it happened, but why. It challenges me more than the problem of pain, more than the difficulty of harmonizing science and the Bible, more than belief in the Resurrection and other miracles. It seems odd to admit such a notion – I have never read a book or article conceived to answer doubts about the Ascension – yet for me what has happened since Jesus’ departure strikes at the core of my faith. Would it not have been better if the Ascension had never happened? If Jesus had stayed on earth, he could answer our questions, solve our doubts, mediate our disputes of doctrine and policy.”
That line of thought has stuck with me, and it came to mind when I looking over John 12:34-36 a few weeks ago. In the New Testament era there were religious people who believed the coming Messiah would never leave – something like a savior with no Ascension. The text goes as follows…
The crowd answered [Jesus], “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”
For background, this took place on Palm Sunday. Jesus was in conversation with His disciples after some Gentile interest has emerged. They came to Philip, Philip went to Andrew, and Andrew presumably didn’t know what to do so they both went to Jesus. And Jesus said it meant that the hour had come. (This is in John 12:20-23.) Jesus referred to His cross with an agricultural image: It’s like a grain of seed, that must fall to the ground and die to eventually bear fruit. So Jesus says, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor” (12:25-26).
Jesus then prayed for God’s glory and there came a theophany: The voice of God was heard out loud. Jesus interpreted it, emphasizing that it came for the sake of the crowd (12:27-30). Then He explained what it meant: Satan will be expelled, divine judgment will happen, and the cross will become the means of drawing people near (12:31-33). With that I think of the crosses that are lifted high on the steeples of so many churches in America. It’s a beautiful thing, partly because it maintains the witness to God’s redemptive love.
But it’s also a troubling thing. The cross was an enormously violent form of execution. And the talk of it certainly confused the crowd that was listening to Jesus. They had no room in their belief system for anything like it. The Messiah will come, they thought, but then He’s supposed to stay for good. There’s no death, and certainly nothing like the Ascension.
But this is why we need to pay attention to Jesus’ response (in verses 35-36). He uses an image of a traveler at dusk, going through a sequence of observation, exhortation, warning, and exhortation that concludes on a note of hope.
Observation: The light is among you for a little while longer. In other words, Jesus will not always around like this. And in a way the same is true with each one of us. We learn to cherish the people who are around because they won’t always be here. We cherish the light that they shine.
Exhortation: Walk in the light. There are special opportunities that come with each moment of history. We don’t want to miss the moment. One pastor I know said this: “God shows up in the worst of times.” God is giving opportunities now that won’t always be there. We don’t want to walk away from them.
Warning: He says to walk in the light lest darkness overtake you. I’m remembering a time back before we could use our cell phones as flashlights. I was in my office in a country church, and the power went out. I literally couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. To get to the parsonage across the street, I had to use my intuition and sense of touch for where the sidewalk was. It was a relief to get a flashlight! Darkness overtook me.
But Jesus speaks here of spiritual darkness. We can think of this in relation to what all is out there – on TV, in politics, in the world, in the media, in realm of “religious” ideas, and all the crazy things that people are doing. Dan Haseltine, a popular Christian musician, said this a few weeks ago: "I think America has reach its obnoxious belligerent suburban drunk junior in high schooler phase. If it keeps this up it won’t get invited to prom." The darkness can overtake you. Jesus speaks of it as something that pursues us, like the end of day approaching for a traveler on the road. If you’re being preyed on, that affects how you think about things.
But fear should not dominate. The good news is that light contrasts with darkness because light is more powerful than darkness. A single candle and give light to a darkened room. Darkness has no parallel power. So this leads to His final word…
Exhortation: Jesus says that while you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light. Belief here is not just an act of cognition. It means having faith, having a sense of trust. The light is illuminating the traveler’s path; don’t doubt it! And Jesus also thinks of it as a kind of family relation. He speaks of becoming children of the light. You’re in God’s family when you put your faith and trust in Jesus. This is why Jesus said that we’re like His mothers and His brothers and His sisters when we walk in faith (Mark 3:35).
This is good news that we certainly carry with us. We’re part of God’s family. Christ has ascended, but He certainly isn’t gone. And we have a mission before us. Philip Yancey articulates it well: “Would it be too much to say that, ever since the Ascension, Jesus has sought other bodies in which to begin again the life he lived on earth? The church serves as an extension of the Incarnation, God’s primary way of establishing presence in the world.”
May the Lord help us in this calling.
In Galatians 2:1-10 the apostle Paul was writing to establish credibility with a church that he had founded. Our understanding of the situation is limited; reading his letters is often like listening to one side of a phone conversation. But it’s quite obvious that he felt his standing was under attack by established church leaders, and he wanted to respond. So he recalled his visit with Peter, James, and John. After 14 years in Christian ministry he went to see them, and they extended the right hand of fellowship to him. They offered their blessing to his ministry. The one qualifier was this: They wanted him to remember the poor. To the extent that Paul was ever catechized by church leadership, this was what was impressed upon him. And he was eager to do it. He didn’t need to have his arm twisted.
Other places in the New Testament give evidence to how this was carried out. In several of his letters he made reference to the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem. The most detailed writing on it is in II Corinthians 8-9. He also made mention of it in his letter to the church at Rome (which was written to a group of Christians he had never met – in Romans 15:25-28).
This might seem unwise. A ministry leader who is repeatedly bringing up money can turn people off. But Acts 11:27-30 demonstrates that it was not just Paul. A prophet named Agabus had a vision: Famine was coming, and it would be big and bad. Church leaders responded by being proactive and administering a relief collection, and Paul and Barnabus were put in charge of it. How was this to be done? I Corinthians 16:1-4 was given in answer to some kind of question about the procedure for it. Paul’s gave the following stipulations:
I say this to a large degree because we know that what comes around goes around. Things will change over the years. Paradise and Magalia are on the rebound. I see signs of it all over. And the time will come when things will be well for us and the disasters will be happening in other places. Then we will have the opportunity to be generous towards needs of others. As we have experienced blessing, so we’ll be prepared for God to use us to be a blessing.
Grace and peace to each of you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
"Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, 'Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.' Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, 'Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’' Pilate answered, 'What I have written I have written.' " - John 19:19-22
This scripture says that Pilate set up a sign for Jesus. It leads me to think about the signs that surround us in this world. They are seemingly everywhere: traffic signs, designed to keep us from getting into accidents; billboards, designed to attract our interest and ultimately to get us to spend money. There are business signs with a similar intent. And there are church signs as well. Sometimes they’ll show the name of church, sometimes they’ll show the times for worship and Sunday school, and sometimes they’ll carry some kind of Christian message designed to make you think.
We once had two signs on our church property in Paradise. There was a smaller sign with our denominational logo on it from the NACCC (with the Pilgrim ship and the three C’s featured). It had the full name of our church: Craig Memorial Congregational Church, along with our worship and Sunday school times. And then there was the larger sign over by Todd house which had the shorter version of our name: Craig Congregational Church. It was useful for putting out Christian messages for the community to see, and for publicizing church events.
There’s another kind of sign that we may not think about as much: an epitaph. Recently I finished reading the book Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. It’s a popular collection of poetic epitaphs written in musings over the semi-fictitious life of a rural, small-town community in Illinois. The collection takes you through both a variety of scandals and a variety of takes on life: from despair to joy, from yearning to shame, from thoughtfulness to anger and rage.
This leads to a question: What kind of epitaph would you like you like on your tombstone? And, who would you give the power to write it to? Several years ago I read one that really stuck with me. It was in a little collection of thoughts written by the famous Congregational minister and author Charles M. Sheldon. It said this: “This was a soul who had many faults, but he was always trying to correct them.”
In the case of Jesus the power of writing His epitaph was given to the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate, and he put a sign on to the cross of Jesus. In previous chapters of John’s gospel his motives were revealed: He was influenced both by his appetites and by his scorn of others, and by the danger he was in. History records that a man named Sejanus, the high-ranking Roman official responsible for Pilate’s appointment, suffered a great downfall in the year A.D. 31. He had at one time been the acting Caesar of the Roman Empire. But there came a time when he fell out of favor with the Emperor and he was executed. It reminds me a bit of what happened in North Korea almost six years ago: Kim Jong Un suddenly arrested and executed his older uncle, Jang Song-thaek. And then some of his family members were killed. Well, it was that way with the execution of Sejanus in 31 A.D. – and Pontius Pilate may have been in some peril since he was associated with Sejanus and he didn’t want to appear disloyal to Caesar. So to some degree he was operating out of fear when he made his choices.
And yet he also had a scornful disposition towards the Jews he was governing. He taunted them. That’s why we have this inscription being brought out with Jesus being presented as a mock-king – labelled derisively as the king of the Jews. He and his soldiers had some fun at Jesus’ expense, and with some intended derogation towards the Jewish people.
This gives us something to think about: What kinds of “signs” do we put up in relationship to other people? To some degree, each of us is in stewardship with the memory and the legacy and the reputation of other people. So how do we use this power? How am I defining other people? Am I prone to mis-characterize them? Am I prone to be derisive towards others? Am I being properly sensitive to other people groups? What I say is of consequence, even if I don’t think it’s important.
These are some items for probing, and yet we can also ask this question: How much was Pilate in charge here? God can use even stubborn and resistant people to accomplish His will; and when He does it’s often in ironic ways. And so with Pontius Pilate: In many ways his own vanity and insensitivity were just instruments for God’s proclamation: Jesus is really the king. The truth was proclaimed. And it came from the voice of Rome itself. Expect the unexpected, my friends, because God’s in the business of doing these kinds of things.
And lots of people were taking note from the sign. It was placed near the city. It was written in multiple languages. And by this it was rooted in the general spread of the gospel. This is why John’s Palm Sunday narrative shows a turning point when Greeks made inquiry about Jesus (John 12:20). Jesus then said that His hour had come. There were previous times where it was clear His hour had not come (e.g. John 2:4, 7:6, 30). But now it was evident that the shape of the future church was taking future form. The Jewish boundaries that seemed a permanent feature of the faith were starting to get challenged.
Think of what this means for us today. Christianity has always been an international religion. God is not a respecter of persons; He doesn’t care what your ethnic history is. Sure, we can celebrate the Scots, or African-Americans, or the Chinese, or whatever. But Christ is savior of the world. He lived and died for us all. And today things are changing. It used to be that America was a missionary-sending nation. It used to be that American churches sponsored and sent missionaries to all parts of the world. That’s still true to some degree, but the global center of the faith is shifting. The places in the world where the gospel is spreading are places like Africa and South America. And the United States is becoming a mission field.
God has His ways of getting the message out and to the people. In the book of Acts it was on Pentecost Sunday, where everyone understood the words of God in their own language. And here it was with an inscription made by a temporary and malevolent political figure. Sometimes you just have to see the irony in what God is doing.
Jesus said when the Gentile interest came that the hour had come for the Son of Man to be glorified – pointing the way to the cross. This was not the enthroning moment of Palm Sunday. This was not a great triumphant parade. Instead, it was brutal agony, Christ being lifted up on the cross. And yet there was multiplied irony in Pilate’s repeated presentations of Jesus to the crowd: Behold the Man! (John 19:5) Behold the King! (19:14) It was probably impossible for Pilate to see the truth in his own words. But rest assured: he was declaring the ultimate truth for all time. Jesus is the Son of Man! He is the new man, the new Adam! Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords! He who has ears to hear, let him hear what God is doing!
This shifts the sense of resolves. I talked about sensitivity towards other people; that’s not really the heart of the matter. Here’s a better set of resolves: I resolve to be intentional about looking for signs God is sending my way. I resolve to not close my mind to the irony. If something repulses me, that doesn’t mean it’s not from God. Maybe I can sense something that God is saying and doing. After all, this is how the salvation message was originally proclaimed.
How we respond to the things God is doing is all-important. We can keep this in mind as we ponder the reaction of the chief priests. They responded with a political act, lobbying Pontius Pilate. In the news there are lots of different political pushes from religious groups. Some of them are good; but some are over things that just don’t matter: symbolic things, things that have little to do with the real issues of human suffering. People will get worked up into a frenzy over these things. Well, this is what happened with these priests. They were dealing with the execution of the Messiah, but they were lobbying for a tweak on the sign. This is a perfect example of missing the point – of straining a gnat but swallowing a camel (to use Jesus’ words from Matthew 23:24) – of tending to a detail instead of the heart of the matter.
In my experience it’s very hard to get people in positions of power to admit they’re wrong. Sometime they see it as a compromise of their strength. Here Pilate refused to change the sign. He said, “What I wrote I wrote.” But to use a line from the book of Daniel, the writing was on the wall. The proclamation was in place. Behold the son of Man! Behold the king! Jesus, the King of the Jews! Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Jesus, who was persecuted with the most cruel kind of violence; Jesus, who was glorified in being lifted up on the cross. Jesus, whose cross today is the most visible symbol of the Christian faith. Often, in parts of America, it’s the tallest thing in any given town – other than the grain elevators and the radio towers. And I guess there’s some irony in that too: we might call it a “sign of the times”.
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.