Posted by: ozziepete | 24 February, 2015

I Have a Complaint… Or Four.

Have you ever shared a weakness, mistake, or vulnerability with someone only to find yourself on the receiving end of criticism?  It that doesn’t hurt enough, how much worse might it be if you know the other person shares the same struggles?

  • Have you ever been mad at Adam and Eve wishing they’d resisted the temptation of the tree and the serpent?
  • Have you ever shaken your head at the Israelites refusal to enter the Promised Land?
  • Have you ever critiqued David’s behaviour in the chain of events leading up to his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah the Hittite?
  • Have you ever marveled that so many people could harbour enough anger towards Jesus that they demanded his crucifixion?

As I grew up in a Christian family I had all these thoughts.Today, I find myself living out each of these circumstance more than I’d care to admit. I cave to temptation just as Adam, Eve and David did. I find my self paralyzed by fear at times I shouldn’t. I have no confidence that I would have stood up for Jesus in the face of the Jewish leaders teaching. To be honest, I find my story told much more often in the failures of Scripture than the heroes.

One of the traits I admire about Biblical history is it’s willingness to admit failures. That’s not to say that some accounts aren’t biased in favour of God’s people, but the Bible also shares tales of significant failure.

This brings us to my sermon text for this week: The Wilderness Wanderings of Israel.

How could the Israelites complain so continuously during their time in the wilderness? How could people who had walked through the watery walls of the Red Sea despair that God would provide food and water for them? How could the nation that so enthusiastically submitted to covenant with Yahweh prefer to return to Egypt rather than enter the Promised Land? How could people who saw God’s presence regularly meet with Moses at the ‘tent of meeting’ so often rebel against his leadership?

Where does this negativity come from?

All my life I’ve been trained to read these stories and criticise the complaining Hebrews.

complaints 01But then I jump on Facebook or surf various Christian blogs, and I’m overwhelmed by wave after wave of complaining about the Lord’s church.

  • I see complaints about nominal Christians.
  • I see complaints about the way some churches address the LGBT community.
  • I see complaints that worship services are too entertainment based.
  • I see complaints that worship services need more pizazz to reach millennials.
  • I see complaints because churches invest too much money in buildings.
  • I see complaints that churches aren’t evangelistic enough.
  • I see complaints that church don’t concentrate enough on discipleship.
  • I see complaint, after complaint, after complaint…

It’s not as though God’s people stopped complaining when Israel entered the Promised Land.

And just like that, I’m complaining about complaining!

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got my list of things I’d like to see churches do better. I’m sure if you searched my blog you’d find plenty of instances where I’ve complained.  It comes so easily.

As I spent time over the last couple of weeks reading in Exodus and Numbers I noticed the importance of Yahweh’s reputation to the surrounding nations. Here are some passages,

God says, “The Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I gain glory through Pharaoh, his chariots and his horsemen.” (Ex. 14:18)

In Moses’ song:In your strength you will guide them
    to your holy dwelling.
14 The nations will hear and tremble;
    anguish will grip the people of Philistia.
15 The chiefs of Edom will be terrified,
    the leaders of Moab will be seized with trembling,
the people of Canaan will melt away;
16     terror and dread will fall on them.
” (Ex. 15:13-16)

Moses pleaded to God,Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.” (Ex. 32:12)

Moses again pleads,If you put all these people to death, leaving none alive, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, 16 ‘The Lord was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath, so he slaughtered them in the wilderness.’ 17 “Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared.” (Num. 14:15-17)

It mattered to Moses what others thought about God.

Shouldn’t it matter to God’s people today how surrounding peoples think about God? Shouldn’t we consider how our words and actions will reflect upon God and His kingdom? Shouldn’t we care whether or not we present God and His church as attractive to those needing Him?

I fear that sometimes as Christians seek to “purify” the church we accomplish little more than smearing the name of Christ. Maybe we win a battle of a particular interpretation or custom, but in the way we conduct ourselves we lose the war.

A Closing Prayer

May we, as Children of God, present our Father to the world in way that honors and glorifies Him. May we dwell upon the riches of His grace. And may we live as people for whom this prayer from Colossians 1:9-14 is a reality.

We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Posted by: ozziepete | 16 February, 2015

Dancing With God

I’m not a dancer. Around the age of 20 I enjoyed the wonderful experience of performing in several musicals. When the dancing started my primary responsibility was to stand still and let the pretty girls take the spotlight.  Occasionally I got to move too, although mostly that was simply to get me out of the way. But through the hours of rehearsals I learned a few things. moon dance

A dance tells a story. No matter how chaotic the stage appears, the movements were designed with a purpose.

It’s all about movement. Sometimes the movement is toward each other. Other times it’s a movement away.

Everyone one has a role. It might not be difficult, but it’s important. Just ask left shark!

It has a destination. There’s a precise feeling it seeks to produce. An exact point on the stage to conclude. A dramatic pose to capture.

As I prepared this week’s sermon from the book of Exodus I noticed four movements in God’s interaction with us. Sometimes it’s his move, sometimes it’s ours. The goal is always that we end up at the same place.I see these four movements recurring throughout God’s interaction with humanity. I’ll give a couple of illustrations below.

Move 1: God Graciously & Lovingly Moves Toward Us

  1. EXODUS: God hears the cries of the Hebrews in slavery and in response He calls Moses and sends the plagues on Egypt. Nothing about this particular group of slaves made them more worthy of rescue than others. They couldn’t demand God’s rescue. God chose to hear them and rescue them, out of His grace.
  2. PENTECOST: Dies on a cross and rises from the dead, graciously defeating death for us.
  3. US: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8

Move 2: We Respond by Faith Toward God

  1. EXODUS: The Hebrews responded to God’s promise of rescue by following his instructions to paint their doorways with lamb’s blood. Perhaps an even greater demonstration of faith is when they walked between the walls of water. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t be nervous as you imagined the water collapsing on top of you. Although the Hebrews walked through the water, no one could realistically claim that they had saved themselves. They simply responded out of faith toward God.
  2. PENTECOST: After initial skepticism the apostles respond to Jesus’ resurrection with faith. Many Christian apologists point to their willingness to die for their faith as one of the strongest “proofs” of the reality of Christ’s resurrection. Perhaps no greater statement of faith exist than Thomas’ exclamation as his skepticism cracked, “My Lord and my God!”
  3. US: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Ephesians 2:8.

Move 3: We Lovingly Obey God

  1. EXODUS: The specific text for this sermon was Exodus 19-20 and the giving of the 10 Commandments. However, I chose to emphasise the larger setting within which the commands were given than the specific instructions given. I did this because we often label this section of the Pentateuch “law” like it’s a bad thing. This would no doubt puzzle the Israelites who were grateful for the laws God gave them. In fact, Deuteronomy 7:9 refers to God’s law as a “covenant of love”. Israel’s obedience to God was a loving response to a loving God. Remember also that Psalm 119 is basically a love song to their covenant with God.
  2. PENTECOST: The end of Luke’s Gospel Jesus explains to his disciples the implications of his death and resurrection. He then instructs them to remain in Jerusalem. This may not seem like a big deal, but Jerusalem represented a hostile environment for these disciples. The same people who killed Jesus would surely kill them if they felt a need and an ability to get away with it. Home and safety for the apostles was Galilee. Galilee was where their families lived and where they had travelled with Jesus for three years. But Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem… and they obeyed because they loved and trusted him.
  3. US: “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.” 2 John 1:6

Move 4: God Moves Into Our Neighbourhood

  1. EXODUS: Chapters 25-30 and 36-39 contain very detailed instructions about the design and construction of the tabernacle. To our modern eyes we might question the relevance of this passage for us. But these chapters are important because Israel is preparing a place for God to dwell. He will not be their distant God ensconced upon a heavenly throne looking down upon them. He will be their God visibly living among them. I love how the book of Exodus concludes, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels.” Ex. 40:34, 38.
  2. PENTECOST: As the apostles and other disciples waited in Jerusalem as Jesus had instructed them, God delivered the power he had promised them. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” He empowered them for the mission he had given them. Immediately Peter and the others begin sharing the Good News of Jesus. God was with them.
  3. US: “Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” 2 Corinthians 1:21-22

I know I’ve written a lot here, but I hope you can at least take away this thought: God always makes the first move toward us. We can’t compel Him to move. We can’t move on our own. God graciously initiates. How we respond determines the remaining movements of the dance.

Have you experienced these movements in your life?

I wrote a similar post from a slightly different perspective last year titled “God Initiates”. You can read it HERE.

Posted by: ozziepete | 12 February, 2015

Immersed in a Cloud

My sermon on Sunday spent some time in 1 Corinthians 10:2, which in part says “and all were baptised… in the cloud”. As someone who’s thought and written quite a bit about baptism, and who’s job it is to present the Bible in ways relevant to life in the 21st century…. I immediately began pondering whether or not one could “be baptized” during a skydiving adventure on a cloudy day.  Could this be the new evangelism method that connects with the 21st century audience?!?!

For, I hope, obvious reasons, I decided not to preach that sermon yesterday. For starters the church doesn’t own a plane. But we do have a pilot…. hmmmm…

Okay, I joke, but the concept of Israel’s baptism in the cloud and the Red Sea is an important one.

Exodus 13:17-22 describes as the Hebrews left Egypt how God led the people of Israel in a pillar of cloud during the day and and in a pillar of fire by night.

This cloudy & fiery pillar fulfilled several functions.

  1. In a very real sense the pillar was the presence of God.
  2. The pillar guided the Israelites.
  3. The pillar protected the Israelites.
  4. The pillar also obscured God from the Israelites.

Here’s 1 Corinthians 10:1-2

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.

When we read these verses the reference to passing through the sea as a type of baptism makes sense. It’s water. You leave an old life behind and arrive at a new life. You leave behind the gods and chaos of Egypt and move toward a Promised Land. The sea makes sense, but what’s with the cloud?

Many scholars see the cloud as representing the Holy Spirit. After all, the Holy Spirit fulfills several functions:

  1. In a very real sense the presence of God in our lives. (“indeed the Spirit of God lives in you.” Rom 8:9)
  2. The Holy Spirit guides us. (“the Spirit of truth… he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13)
  3. The Holy Spirit protects us. (“…you were sanctified… by the Spirit of God.” 1 Cor. 6:11)
  4. The Holy Spirit obscures God from us. (“the Spirit himself intercedes for us…” Rom. 8:26)

Hopefully, those points are fairly plain. However, the fourth point probably needs some explanation. When the Israelites traveled through the wilderness they could see God’s presence in the cloud, but they could not see God. However we find an exception after God makes the covenant between God and Israel at Mt Sinai. At that time four leaders and seventy elders had a meal with God and “saw God”. (Exodus 24:9-11)

A little later in Exodus God tells Moses, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (Exodus 33:19-20)

This second passage describes the normal relationship between God and humanity. We cannot see God’s face an live. So the cloud both reveals God presence and obscures God face. Similarly, the Holy Spirit is the presence of God within us, but also an intercessor for us. We don’t see God’s face but the Holy Spirit ensures that he hears our prayers.

Returning to the point of 1 Corinthians 10 that the cloud represents the Spirit, we find some correlation to this thought in   John 3. In verse 5 Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born of water and the Spirit. Baptism is not just a physical ritual or act of obedience. Baptism is a spiritual event where, among other things, we submit to God, accept His Spirit and commit to follow His guidance.

The Israelites didn’t have an option to walk through the sea but abandon the cloud. Well, they had the option but the outcome would be tragedy. Just as cloud and sea could not separate, neither can water and the Spirit in our lives.

Posted by: ozziepete | 27 January, 2015

Did Jacob Really Wrestle God?

Did Jacob really wrestle God? If so, why couldn’t God defeat Jacob in a wrestling match?

The account of Jacob’s wrestling match in Genesis 32 is filled with metaphor, but I have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the events described in this passage. I’ve often heard this story summarised as the the time “Jacob wrestled with God”. Is this actually what the Bible says?

The story opens in v24 saying, “a man wrestled with him [Jacob] till daybreak“. There’s no indication here that this person represents anything other than a human like Jacob himself. But that soon changes.

In the very next verse as daybreak arrives, “When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man.” Verse 31 implies that this injury was a permanent one, “he was limping because of his hip.” And v32 uses this injury to explain why the Israelites avoided a particular portion of meat in their diet.

This description of the fight certainly doesn’t provide definitive proof that this man was anything but human, but it paves the way for that line of reasoning. When most people read, “he touched the socket…” we picture a gentle touch with the power to cripple. However, the Hebrew word can also mean “struck” and it’s difficult to decide which is most appropriate. Whatever the precise action, the point is that he did this because daybreak was approaching. Apparently, he possessed the power to disable Jacob at any point during the night.

Then in v30 Jacob (now named Israel) raises the stakes by observing that,”I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” Jacob claims that he saw (and wrestled) God. Not a man. Not an angel. But God himself… in the flesh.

Making the issue particularly cloudy is the statement in Hosea 12:3-4 which is translated differently in many Bible versions, but seems to indicate that the person Jacob wrestled was an angel, “He struggled with the angel and overcame him” (NIV).

So was it a man? An angel? or God himself?

I’m not sure how one could read these different descriptions and arrive at a definitive answer. Personally, I am inclined to think that Jacob wrestled an angel.

It seems to me that the angel is first described as a man because that’s how Jacob knew him. But after the crippling “touch”, Jacob realised that something much greater was going on. It’s at that point that Jacob seeks the blessing.

I wonder why Jacob described this encounter as “seeing God face to face“. Certainly the “man” didn’t describe himself as Yahweh. In fact, when Jacob asked for his name the man declined to give it. I suspect that Jacob wasn’t splitting hairs at this point. Whether it was God, or a messenger sent from God, Jacob would not have expected such an even struggle.

I have trouble accepting that the “man” was God mainly, because v25 says that the man “could not overpower Jacob“. That certainly doesn’t sound like God in the flesh. Then, when Hosea describes the man as an angel, it suddenly all makes sense.

We see an example of this style of thinking from the lips of Jesus in Luke 10:16, “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me.” Or we might say, “Whoever wrestles with my messenger, wrestles with me.

I wonder how many times we reject or wrestle God because we fail to acknowledge those acting as his messengers?

I know this post doesn’t really deal with any super profound meaning, but I hope it adds a little clarity to this passage. If you want to dig deeper I encourage you to listen to the sermon linked at the top of the post.

Posted by: ozziepete | 22 January, 2015

Creation 2.0

creation 01I began Sunday’s sermon with the observation that, “for many people the Bible begins with an argument.” Primarily Genesis chapter 1 is the battleground for the creation vs evolution debate.The biggest problem is that Genesis 1 wasn’t written as a scientific explanation of how the world came into existence.

I understand that for some people creation vs evolution is really a symptom of the deeper question, “Does God exist?” Some people have even converted to Christianity when they find the creation arguments persuasive. More people walk away from their faith when they find themselves unable to answer all the evolution questions.

When we make Genesis 1 all about creation vs evolution we overlook the greater significance of the creation narrative.

Genesis 1 introduces God. When the apostle John wants to introduce Jesus in the first chapter of his Gospel, God in the flesh, he utilises the language of Genesis 1.

  • In the beginning… The first three words of both Genesis and the Gospel of John.
  • The Word – Although this title has other first century significance, it is impossible to overlook the fact that God created in Genesis 1 simply by speaking. He commands, it appears.
  • He was with God in the beginning… What an amazing claim, that Jesus was with God at Creation and was integral to the Creation event.
  • In hims was life and that life was light… Life and light are prominent themes in Genesis 1.
  • As God walked in the Garden with Adam & Eve, so Jesus lived among his Creation.

The apostle Paul would later illustrate that this Creation theme is not just a clever literary method to make grandiose claims about Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15 he describes Jesus as a “second Adam”.

The first man, Adam, came from the earth and was made from dust; the second man, Jesus, has come from heaven. The earth man shares his earth nature with all those made of earth; likewise the heavenly man shares His heavenly nature with all those made of heaven. Just as we have carried the image of the earth man in our bodies, we will also carry the image of the heavenly man in our new bodies at the resurrection.  (1 Cor. 15:47-49 VOICE)

Jesus didn’t come to earth just to teach a new ethic. Jesus came to earth to initiate a new creation.

Look at the quote, “The heavenly man shares His heavenly nature with all those made of heaven.” That sounds a bit cryptic. I know I don’t feel like I’m “made of heaven”. But over in Philippians 3:20-21 Paul tells us, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.As followers of Jesus we participate in the New Creation. Our citizenship is in heaven. We share Jesus’ heavenly nature.

This doesn’t mean we’re perfect. It doesn’t mean we’re superior to anyone else. It doesn’t even guarantee that we’ll never change our minds about Jesus and return to our former life.

It does mean that we participate in something bigger than ourselves: Creation 2.0.

It does mean that the darkness has not overcome the light, nor will it.

It does mean that Jesus has defeated death.

And it does mean that while this victory is not completed and we continue to experience death, sickness and suffering, we look forward to that day when Christ finalises His victory. We look forward to the day when Jesus recreates Eden.

Creation 2.0 has begun. The Creation story of Genesis 1 introduces God. The Creation story of John 1 introduces Jesus as God. And the Bible story identifies the followers of Jesus as participants in God’s new Creation, moving towards the dawning of the eternal New Heaven and New Earth: Creation 2.0.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor. 5:17 NIV)

Posted by: ozziepete | 19 August, 2014

Could Jesus Transform Ferguson?

In yesterday’s sermon I described how the absence of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness leads to events like the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. (Colossians 3:12-13)

I’ll open by acknowledging that there is no simple solution to the distrust, rage and bitterness that is evident in Ferguson. The underlying causes, attitudes, behaviours and systems are often systemic and have accumulated over years. I’ve written more about this complexity here, but I thought this op-ed piece in Time Magazine by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar provided a good starting point.

I should also highlight that I co-preached this sermon with one of my church’s college students. We had worked on this for a month. It was only in the last 48 hours that it became apparent how applicable the passage was to the headlines coming out of Ferguson.

Why apply Colossians 3 to race relations in the United States? It’s my understanding that the church in Colossae had a fair degree of ethnic diversity. O’Brian in the Word Biblical Commentary has this description, “So the Colossae of Paul’s day seems to have been a cosmopolitan city in which differing cultural and religious elements mingled.” Although the letter seems to indicate a predominantly Gentile church, it’s still reasonable to expect there to be a Jewish presence.

Then in chapter 3:11 we find this inspiring vision, “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” The act of baptism and following Christ means that the converts identity in Christ supersedes identities based upon nationality, race, ethnicity, and social status.The call to unity here and again in v14 indicates that some division existed within the church, quite possibly founded within the racial and cultural diversity of the church.

tear gas 01Earlier, in v8, Paul told the church that they needed to “put off… anger, rage, malice, slander, filthy language and lying.”

How’s this for a tinderbox? We see an ethnically and culturally diverse church with a considerable number of people who struggle with anger, rage, malice and slander. It’s no surprise that the church is also experiencing division. The potential for hateful talk and actions seems only a breath away.

I suspect that many readers will quickly draw a comparison between the Colossian church and the current state of race relations in the United States. The US is a cosmopolitan society and even has a black president, but we all know that not far below the surface in many communities lies anger, rage, malice, slander and in some cases lying against racial groups other than our own.

Thankfully, Paul doesn’t just tell the Colossian Christians to stop the negative behaviour. He also gives them a positive prescription for them to work on. Paul wants followers of Christ, to cover themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness. How would these virtues change the dynamics of the combustible Colossian church? How would these virtues change the dynamics of inflamed Ferguson?

I’m not suggesting anyone can walk into downtown Ferguson and simply say, “Hey everyone, lets all just have some humility and gentleness today” and that saying this would change everything. But I do believe that when Christians integrate these values into our lives, into our families and into our churches, God will transform communities.

When I picture how these virtues can impact racial tensions, I picture people humbly listening to each other and seeking to understand different cultural values. I picture people having compassion toward those caught in a cycle of poverty rather than demanding that they simply get a job. I picture people showing kindness and gentleness as they provide practical assistance to those in need without a sniff of condescension. I picture patience from minorities who come to understand that systematic change takes time and moves much more slowly than anyone wants. And perhaps most importantly, I picture people walking into disagreements and conflicts with a predisposition to forgive because Christ has forgiven them.

This is a long-term approach. It doesn’t bring Michael Brown back or solve the current crisis in Ferguson. But I believe that God can use His people to transform communities.

I also believe that multi-racial churches are a necessity if Christianity is to have any credibility in the area of racial tension. How can we teach God’s vision for a peaceful, unified society when we can’t worship Him in the same building? God’s people have a responsibility to live out the truth that Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, [black or white, rich or poor], but Christ is all, and is in all.

ADDITIONAL READING:

Posted by: ozziepete | 31 July, 2014

Colossians 2 – Freedom in Christ

In Paul’s letter to the Colossian church he places Christ front and center throughout the letter. We can learn a lot from this.

I really loved preaching this chapter and I’m really appreciating the Christ focus throughout the book. I find it so easy to get caught up in “emergencies” and “situations” and “discussions” that my natural human problem solving gene kicks in. Paul’s writing to a church that has problems, but he doesn’t problem-solve. He consistently points them back to Jesus.

The verse that really caught my attention as I read through this chapter was v23. Speaking of “human commands and teachings” this is how The Message renders v23:

Such things sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice. They even give the illusion of being pious and humble and ascetic. But they’re just another way of showing off, making yourselves look important.

What a lovely description of human “spiritual” rules.

At this point I’m going to completely take the verse out of it’s historical context of Judaism, paganism and dietary rules. Hopefully I can still remain faithful to the theological point Paul makes.

Our churches generally overflow with man-made “spiritual” rules. Here’s a few I can think of:

  • Sunday dress code
  • Bible version
  • Church name
  • Celebrating (or not) Christmas and Easter
  • Song styles
  • When the collection should be taken during a worship service
  • Women are restricted from many roles within the church without a shred of Biblical support.
  • Clapping during worship
  • How church finances should be spent
  • Whether or not a minister can also be an elder
  • Who can perform a baptism

rules 01I know there are many more. Feel free to leave your contributions in the comments section.

Here’s the rub. I actually think man made rules are a good thing.

I’m glad that our children get told to slow down when they run through the church building. I have no desire to visit Sister Perkins in hospital because my daughter crashed into her while traveling at high speed.

I think it’s wise that a church requires new members to attend a special class for new members that discusses the values of the church before they can lead a ministry.

Forbidding adults to be alone in a classroom with children is a good rule to prevent child sex abuse.

BUT we get off track when we start requiring particular man-made rules be observed in order that a person maintain good standing with God.

This brings us to the GREAT DILEMMA. It’s easy to sit back and take cheap shots at churches and their various rules. What’s difficult is to honestly examine our own lives and churches and to distinguish between God-required and man-made obligations. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with asking those serving communion not to wear shorts, as long as I recognise that it’s a local preference not a Divine ordinance. Then having acknowledge that this is a preference, we should willing set the rule aside if circumstances require that someone wearing shorts serve communion. It’s not a big deal… really.

Here are a couple of random thoughts that might help us keep things in perspective:

  • Are we more concerned with how we do things or why we do them?
  • Do we have a rule against something because it’s unscriptural or because it makes us uncomfortable?

Maybe you get a chuckle out of this post. That’s okay. We’re funny people sometimes. And I believe that all these “rules” are genuine attempts to help people live holy lives and honor God in our worship. But that’s what often makes it so hard to determine if they’re human or Godly. There’s usually a Bible verse to back up every rule! As The Message says, “They sound impressive if said in a deep enough voice.

So Paul doesn’t get caught up in all this silliness. In the very next verse he lays down this “rule”….

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above

 

Posted by: ozziepete | 30 July, 2014

Finding a Secret Song in Colossians

The commentaries I referenced all seem to agree that Colossians 1:15-20 is a song, a hymn, or a piece of poetry. Yet many of the major English Bible translations don’t acknowledge this presence.

There’s something different about Colossians 1:15-20. Is it the vocabulary? Is it the metre, or rhythm of the text? Is it prose, or is it poetry?

Most scholars I can find agree that this paragraph is something different from Paul’s typical writing. There’s quite a discussion in academic circles concerning whether Paul wrote the hymn personally, or if he quoted it because it fit his message. A third path seeks to determine if Paul edited and existing work to make it fit his letter.

Mostly, these verse are referred to as a hymn, but not a Fanny Crosby style hymn. It’s not possible to know if this “hymn” was ever sung. Maybe it was chanted. Perhaps it simply existed as a poem one particular church. Maybe they recited it in unison to start their worship, or a gifted individual may have simply shared it with the apostle.

Interestingly, many of the major English Bible translations simply include this hymn in the standard paragraph format. This layout decision conceals the presence of the hymnic material. Even some of the translations that acknowledge the presence of a poetic section do a terrible job of displaying it. For example, the Holman Christian Standard Bible gives the entire piece a single straight left margin. I’m no poet, but I can tell this layout doesn’t add any illumination to the poem.

That’s my criticism. Now for my solution.

I have very little talent or appreciation for poetry. I’ve never really graduated beyond rhymes. But with a little help from my reference books and NT Wright in particular, I hope I can shine a light for you on the beauty of this hymn.

I know it’s a bit clunky, but for the sake of layout I’ve used powerpoint and will insert and discuss the slides below.

To begin I’ll share a format for the whole hymn that I believe works well. It has two stanzas with a bridge in between.

colossians 1a

The first stanza celebrates Jesus’ role in creation and describes his total supremacy. “In him all things were created.” The second stanza explicitly declares Jesus’ supremacy. It also focuses upon Jesus humanity and ultimately his death. The bridge makes the transition from praising Jesus in the cosmic sphere to acknowledging his Lordship of the church. He holds the universe together and unifies and directs the church.

On a broad scale I like this symmetry. The verses maintain a common theme, albeit with a separate application and the bridge manages the transition well.

The hymn also uses lots of repetition to emphasise its points. The technical term for this is parallelism as different pairs of lines say the same thing using different words. Verse 16 provides a great example:

  1. For in him all things were created:
  2. things in heaven and on earth,
  3.           visible and invisible,
  4. whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities;
  5. all things have been created through him and for him.

Lines 1 and 5 bookend this verse by painting an image of all things being created in, through and for Jesus. Just in case you forgot who you were praising. Lines 2 and 3 display a parallelism or repetition that provides additional details to the sweeping claims of lines 1 and 5. Then line 5 provides an even deeper level of clarification with four different terms that seem to all describe the same thing.

There are no exceptions to Jesus’ supremacy!

The last feature of this hymn I want to highlight is the correspondence between the stanzas.

colossians 1b

Each stanza starts at the beginning and describes Jesus as firstborn. Jesus is both firstborn of the first creation, and firstborn of the new creation. Both origins testify to his supremacy.

colossians 1c

This slide is a bit jumbled, but I’ll attempt to clarify it.

1. While the connection between creation and supremacy is obvious, the supremacy of the man Jesus is not as clear. So v19 explains that the human Jesus had the fullness of God living within him. It clarifies how the man Jesus is “the image of the invisible God.” (In hindsight, perhaps v19 should have been on the previous slide.)

2. In the first stanza the supreme Jesus creates. In the second stanza the supreme Jesus reconciles.

3. Just as Jesus created all things on heaven and earth, he has also reconciled all things on heaven and earth. The fullness of God dwells in him so that all things are reconciled through and for Jesus.

I really admire the cleverness of this hymn. There are additional links and threads that I haven’t mentioned here. However, the literary skill demonstrated in this passage should not distract from the reason Paul included it in his letter to the church in Colossae. The message is simple:

“JESUS!”

 

(For a different perspective on the same passage, I previously blogged on this text HERE.)

FOOTNOTE: After reading this blog a friend referred me to a prayer / hymn apparently written by St. Patrick. Here’s a sample of that work that like Colossians 1 gives uninhibited praise to Christ our Lord.

I bind unto myself today the power of God to hold and lead, His eye to watch, His might to stay, His ear to hearken to my need: the wisdom of my God to teach, His hand to guide, His shield to ward; the Word of God to give me speech, His heavenly host to be my guard.

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me,
Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort me and restore me, Christ beneath me,
Christ above me, Christ in the hearts of all that love me,
Christ in the mouth of friend and stranger.

Posted by: ozziepete | 16 July, 2014

Start with Gratitude

How would your life be different if each day started with GRATITUDE?

Do you know that Paul begins most of his letters in the Bible by thanking God for the church or person he’s writing to?

  • Romans 1:8First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.
  • 1 Corinthians 1:4 “I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus.”
  • Ephesians 1:15For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you
  • Philippians 1:3I thank my God every time I remember you.In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy…”
  • Colossians 1:3-4We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people…
  • 1 Thessalonians 1:2 We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers.
  • 2 Thessalonians 1:3We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing.
  • 2 Timothy 1:3-4I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy.
  • Philemon 1:4-5I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus.”

The exceptions are 2 Corinthians, Galatians and 1 Timothy.

In 2 Corinthians I’m guessing Paul was just exasperated that he needed to write to this church a second time. (Possibly this was the fourth letter he’d written to the Corinthian church in total.) In Galatians he’s obviously upset as he opens with “I can’t believe your fickleness—how easily you have turned traitor to him who called you by the grace of Christ by embracing a variant message!” (MSG) This is obviously no time for formalities!  1 Timothy & Titus I can’t explain.

Scholars tell me that Paul was following standard letter templates as he opened his letters first by introducing himself and the recipients and offering a greeting. He also followed the usual conventional structures by including a thanksgiving paragraph in his letters.

As you read through the list above you’ll notice a fairly consistent format to these thanksgiving paragraphs. I’m not going to break down that structure any further. The more practical point is to notice that Paul personalises each of these thanksgiving paragraphs.

I don’t believe that these thanksgiving paragraphs are mere flattery.

They are not just form letters where Paul has Timothy fill in the blanks with different names. He takes time to think of traits about that church for which he can offer thanks to God.

Now I get to jump on one of my favorite soap boxes.

In every church I know the list of prayer needs far exceeds the list of thanksgiving points.

It seems that most Christians view prayer as a means of communicating our needs, wants, hurts, and requests to God. I happen to agree with this.

It also seems that most Christians, myself included, make very little effort to look for God’s presence in our lives and then pause to thank Him. The church prays for Sister Brown’s foot pain as she submits a prayer card each Sunday for weeks and months, then when she finds a helpful medication we offer a brief prayer of thanks mixed in with other needs, if we mention it at all. (Luke 17:11-19 seems pertinent here.)

This unbalanced prayer life impacts the way we see God. We don’t use prayer to express love and appreciation to a loving Father. Rather we view him as a giant-vending-machine-in-the-sky and if we can just hit the buttons the right way we’ll have our hearts desires drop into our lap.

family breakfast 01I wonder how our lives would be different if we consciously decided to “Start with Gratitude”.

Would we appreciate our spouse and kids more if thanked God not just for their presence, but for something about them? Would it make the breakfast table be a different place if our daily routine started with thanks?

Would we have a better attitude toward our co-workers, or teachers, or classmates if we thanked God for them on the way to work or school?

Would we speak differently about our church if each day we gave thanks for the presence of the church, a ministry of the church, and some individuals from the church? Have you ever prayed down your church directory just thanking God for the way he’s working in that person or family’s life and the way he’s using them to bless others? Do you think that if you thanked God for that young Christian who seems to stumble more than grow but is still committed to Jesus, do you think you might say something different next Sunday?

I believe that when we make gratitude our starting point in our relationships with God and others the whole relational dynamic makes a positive shift.

On Sunday I encouraged the church to deliberately spend more time offering prayers of thanks rather than requests this week and see if it makes a difference. Perhaps you’d like to try this also?

DISCLAIMER: We all experience season of our life where we feel closer to Psalm 13:1 “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?” than we do Psalm 34:1 “I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips.

There are moments when praise and thankfulness seems shallow and fake. There are times when grief and pain overwhelm us. This post is not intended to tell those of us experiencing this darkness to “just get over it” or to “fake it”. If that’s you, I pray that God provides healing. I pray you don’t feel guilt because others experience joy and gratitude. Even Paul in Galatians felt that the urgency of the Galatian problems meant skipping his usual paragraph of thanks. I pray that your day of gratitude will arrive soon.

 

Posted by: ozziepete | 10 July, 2014

5 Tips for Crossing the River

I haven’t written on my blog for a couple of weeks because I traveled to Nashville to attend Lipscomb University’s “Summer Celebration“. For me, this conference provides an annual spiritual high. But each year I struggle to implement into my life and ministry the excellent ideas and lessons I hear. If you also have this struggle, here are some ideas…

This week’s blog title comes from the above passages. The 2014 Summer Celebration adopted the book of Joshua as its theme. In Numbers 32 we read that a couple of tribes wanted to settle on the eastern side of the Jordan river. The problem is that Jericho and the Promised Land lies to the west of the Jordan. Were these tribes going to bail and separate themselves from their countrymen?

Moses reached an agreement with them that they would leave their families and livestock on the eastern bank, but their fighting men would cross with the rest of the nation and fight for the land of others.

In Joshua 22 after the major cities in the Promised Land have been defeated, Joshua releases these tribes to return to their families. As Joshua releases them, he gives them this warning:

“Return to your homes in the land that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you on the other side of the Jordan. But be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you: to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to keep his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.”

WP_20140701_004[1]Joshua understood the risk that after being on mission for God with the encouragement and presence of fellow believers the isolation of the eastern bank could lead them to forget their commitment to God and to their neighbours. Joshua understood that with the dramatic battles behind them and the celebrations of corporate worship fading that the “everyday-ness” of every day could lead to complacency and a loss of awareness of God’s presence and involvement in the world. So….

love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to keep his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.

Those of us blessed with the opportunities to attend spiritual workshops, conventions, camps, or maybe those who experience powerful Sunday worship service know that we also encounter the struggle of maintaining that God-focus as we return to our desks, our homes, our pews, and our communities.

So here are 5 tips for making a successful reentry to everyday life after experiencing a time of intense spiritual learning and encouragement. Lets work to ensure that we can pass on to others the inspiration which we received, and that we can turn dreams into reality.

1.Plan to Find Applications: If you attend a workshop, or church service, expecting the presenter to apply the material to your life or ministry for you, then you’ll come away disappointed. Each listener needs to accept responsibility for filtering the presentation for the elements that pertain the most to their life circumstances. If you don’t accept this task you will return home with a lot of great information, but nothing to do with it.

2. Don’t Let the Schedule Enslave You: At this year’s Summer Celebration I passed up some great sessions because they weren’t the highest priority for my ministry or personal walk with God. At one point I deliberately skipped a class session so that I could followup with the presenter of the class that just finished. I decided that discussing my concerns and questions about ministry in multiracial churches with this guy took priority over sitting in another class on a less pertinent topic.

3. Review Your Notes: I’m not sure how many people today actually take notes at workshops. But if you do… when you get back to normality… Make time to look back over them. At Lipscomb I had the opportunity to attend at least 12 classes and 5 keynote sessions. There is no way I’ll naturally remember all those points if I don’t refresh my memory. It’s not that I need to remember everything I wrote down, but I want to make sure I remember what’s important. There’s many a vital idea, or Scripture verse, or principle that could transform a ministry or a life that lies buried in a stack of conference workbooks.

4. Tell Someone Else: You come home fired up by a powerful presentation on a subject you feel passionate about. It was a great session with wonderful information and motivational stories. Now the time arrives for you to take ownership. Have coffee with a friend and make and effort to describe the high points of the conference. This exercise of verbally explaining ideas, teachings, or applications provides a great gauge to how well we understand the concepts. Often we’ll find that we need to do some more research or problem solving before we can communicate our passions clearly. We were inspired by big picture concepts and visions, but we need to develop greater clarity on how the details work and how all the dots connect.

5. Don’t Underestimate Relationships: Hopefully, you met some new people or reconnected with old friends at this particular conference. These are people who shared the experience with you and heard some, or many, of the same speakers you heard. Don’t wait another twelve months to discover what they did with the teaching they received.  Contact them while they still remember who you are!  Promptly reach out to them (facebook, twitter, email, phone call) and begin a conversation that will last at least a year. The lessons they learn as they integrate their conference experience into their lives may be the practical encouragement you need to make the changes you need to make in your life or ministry.

If you have some additional habits that you’ve found helpful in maximising the benefit of spiritual workshops, I’d love to hear them in the comment section below.

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