Posted by: ozziepete | 18 May, 2015

The Seeds We Sow

A couple of weeks ago I told a story during my sermon that a friend shared with me as he explained why he entered ministry. This friend was raised in a small church and wen through all the normal career phases that boys go through: Policeman, Fireman, Soldier, Professional Athlete…. But he ended up going to college and studying Bible.

Everyone I know in ministry has a different story of their calling. God has a large bag of tricks when it comes to getting our attention.

As he told his story, my friend described how frequently the “little old ladies” at his church would tell him that one day he would be a great preacher. “God’s really blessed you with the gift of speaking up the front.” “I can see you really love God and love encouraging others. Keep it up.” These godly women saw and affirmed this teenager’s abilities and planted seeds of calling in his heart and mind. I

have no idea if those ladies ever knew the role they played in this young man’s life, but God used them to bless many through the life and ministry of that boy they encouraged each Sunday.

IMG_0095This weekend I was blessed to visit a little country church on the banks of the Ohio River. About 50 people worshiped together, which seemed the usual number. The building must have been half-full. This church will never have 2,000 members, the community simply isn’t large enough. But I was reminded that God loves each of these people meeting faithfully in this quaint little building every Sunday.

I found myself there yesterday because almost 10 years ago I studied the Bible with Justin. I was a campus minister in Louisiana and Justin’s wife had just started a master’s program at the university. Justin wasn’t a student. I didn’t even know if I was supposed to study with him or refer him to the “grown-up” preacher. But we studied the Bible together regularly for a year or two. To this point in his life Justin had bounced around different churches, but had grown serious about his faith and studying the Bible in his last year of college. So we talked.

After eighteen months or so, Justin moved to the next town down the highway. I studied the Bible with other students. Then I moved to upstate New York. Eventually, Justin moved back to his home in the hills of Ohio. Before long, this church approached Justin and asked him to preach for them!

That was about 5 years ago.

For a while, Justin and I would Skype each week talking about ministry and preaching. Gradually the calls became less frequent. Then they stopped altogether. It’s been several years since Justin and I last talked.

Yesterday I just happened to be in the neighbourhood. So we worshiped, and Justin preached. It was a wonderful experience.

I’m certainly not taking credit for Justin’s preaching or love of God. But I am glad to have been one voice of encouragement along his journey to this place. I never would have predicted that Justin would be full-time preaching for a church. But God didn’t ask me.

This experience reminds me that we never know how God will use the lives of people around us. Sometimes we act as though it’s our job to dispense career advice, or life coaching. Some of us may possess a gift of wisdom to speak guidance into the lives of others. However, most of us have the simple task of pointing others to Christ and letting Him guide their lives.

Are there people around you that make a point of encouraging in their walk with God? You never know what God will do with those seeds.

Posted by: ozziepete | 11 May, 2015

The Power of a Compliment

My daughter is five.

The other day we were sitting in a diner enjoying brunch when the waitress told us, “That man over there just told me that your daughter’s adorable.” That same made said the same thing as he walked past us on his way out.

beautiful 01My daughter gets it a lot from strangers. “Oh, you have the most beautiful eyes.” Personally, I don’t even know what that means, but she hears it a lot.

Lately, Little Miss 5yo has come to recognise that people in stores will give her a lollipop or something, “because I’m cute”.

While the compliments she receives focus on her beauty, cuteness and eyes, it’s usually different for boys. Young boys will be told by strangers that they’re strong, tall, or fast. The compliments still focus upon physical attributes, but they’re more related to accomplishments than fate.

I appreciate that these random strangers take time out of their day to compliment my daughter. I prefer this to the same random stranger complaining that her 5 year old behaviour is disruptive.

I appreciate that my daughter has a growing sense of self-worth. But I don’t want my daughter, or your son, to  receive the message that her physical attributes make her a better person than someone else who doesn’t receive that affirmation.

I don’t resent that strangers make these comments. Generally speaking it’s a positive experience. When I would come home from university a couple of times a semester, my Grandmother would often greet me with, “Have you put on weight?” I hadn’t. I was in good shape. I came to resent that criticism and it impacted my regard for her. So yes, I’ll take compliments of criticism.

What I would like to change is the way the Christians in our lives compliment my daughter, other kids her age, teens and the rest of us.

Yesterday I preached from 1 Samuel 16:7. As the prophet Samuel looks over the candidates to anoint the next king of Israel…

 the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

The apostle Peter makes a similar statement in 1 Peter 3:3-4.

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.

So I wonder where and when we began emphasising the need to dress up for church. You know. You’d wear your finest clothes if you knew the queen or president was going to attend your church today. Shouldn’t you do the same for God? But neither the queen or the president knew me in my mother’s womb or see me in my birthday suit like God does.

I wish churches provided a different environment and expressed different values. Shouldn’t I expect that my daughter will more likely receive a compliment for generosity, kindness, honesty, loving God, or peacemaking than her pretty dress when she gathers with our church? Shouldn’t we affirm the gentleness, compassion, initiative, love for God, or patience of our young men, rather than their ability to move tables around the church building?

Even among the adults I worship with each week, I’m more likely to congratulate them for a promotion at work than I am for noticing their growth in Christ. Don’t I overlook their spiritual growth? Is that why I don’t say anything about it?

Compliments communicate values.

My Mum never complimented my accomplishments in the many video games I played. She didn’t value them. But she did value the grades I made at school, and she told me so. She did value the Godly choices I made, and she let me know it.

Churches often make public statements of how the heart is more important than the outward appearance. It’s time to integrate this truth into our daily speech. It’s time to pass on this message to those around us.

Maybe you are beautiful. Maybe you are strong. But I admire most the Godly growth I’m seeing in your life.

Strangers compliment appearance because that’s all they know about a person. Complimenting one’s heart requires a greater investment in that person in order to see their heart. But isn’t that what church is supposed to be all about?  Complimenting the heart demonstrates sincere love for one another.

Posted by: ozziepete | 6 May, 2015

Samuel’s Big Mistake

You can listen to my sermon on this topic HERE.

Most of the time we regard Samuel as a great man of God.

We know the story that his mother dedicated him to God before birth and that he lived with the priests int he tabernacle from a young age. We remember God calling to him in the night and requiring him to give a difficult message to his mentor, Eli. We admire Samuel’s faithfulness as he obeyed God’s directions.

Samuel was the last in a long line of Israel’s judges. Before Samuel the quality of men and women filling this role had gradually deteriorated. After each judge died the nation of Israel would slip further and further away from following God. But Samuel turned this all around.

Samuel came to be regarded as “Israel’s leader”. While he was judge the Philistines were defeated. Peace reigned. The government was stable and Samuel continually called the people back to Yahweh.

So the Philistines were subdued and they stopped invading Israel’s territory. Throughout Samuel’s lifetime, the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines. The towns from Ekron to Gath that the Philistines had captured from Israel were restored to Israel, and Israel delivered the neighboring territory from the hands of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites.

Samuel continued as Israel’s leader all the days of his life. From year to year he went on a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah, judging Israel in all those places. But he always went back to Ramah, where his home was, and there he also held court for Israel. And he built an altar there to the Lord.

This description of Samuel’s influence sounds idyllic, the transformation is extraordinary.

But it’s not the end of the story.

In Judges 8:22 we first see some Israelites approach Gideon seeking to establish a hereditary monarchy. Gideon’s response seems to have become the orthodox thought of the faithful from that point forward. “But Gideon told them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.”

So when Samuel appointed his sons as judges (1 Sam. 8:1) it seems that he was taking matters into his own hands. Was he trying to establish a hereditary judgeship? He apparently didn’t even know his sons well enough to recognise their greed and corruption.

When he immediately turns around and gets upset at the Isrealite leaders desire for a king, one has to wonder if some of his displeasure comes from a rejection of his own sons.

To complete the picture, God also views the request as a rejection of His kingship. It’s to Samuel’s credit that he immediately took his concerns to God. Ultimately, it seems that God’s concern wasn’t that Israel desired a king, but that they wanted one “such as all the other nations have.

However, I wonder if Samuel ever considered that his actions in appointing his sons as judges may have contributed to the Israelite people wanting a king. They sure didn’t want those corrupt sons as their leaders in perpetuity.

Here’s the challenge for us. Sometimes the actions we criticise in others, may actually be a response to our own behaviour to which we’re oblivious.

This is why our first response before criticism and anger, should be to follow Samuel’s example and talk it over with God.

Posted by: ozziepete | 27 April, 2015

My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

You can listen to this week’s sermon by clicking HERE.

What does Jesus mean when Jesus screams in anguish from the cross, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

The view that I most often hear goes something like this.

When Jesus was hanging on the cross he “became sin for us” (2 Cor 5:21). The sins of all humanity were placed upon Jesus. Because God is holy and sinless the Father was unable to stand the presence of the, now sinful, Son. As a consequence, the Father turned His face away, or removed His presence from Calvary. Sensing this departure, Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This cry represents a reality not only of Jesus’ despair, but the reality that God abandoned Jesus.

There are several troubling aspects of this view of Jesus words. I’m not the first to raise them and many scholars have defended them. I think it’s important that anyone holding this view at least acknowledges the concerns and thinks them through.

  1. Did the Trinity only have two members? How could the Father forsake the Son and the two still be One? In The Expositor’s Bible Commentary DA Carson observes, “If we ask in what ontological sense the Father and the Son are here divided, the answer must be that we do not know because we are not told.” I’m not one to try and tell God what he can and cannot do, but it is incomprehensible to me that the Three became Two while the man Jesus hung on the cross.
  2. Where do we get the idea that God would abandon Jesus because of sin? I understand the holiness and purity of God. I also know that God is present all over this globe where sin prevails. Jesus walked upon the Earth in constant contact with sin and its consequences. Does the concentration of sin upon the person of Christ somehow make it more repulsive to God than when it’s spread throughout time and space?
  3. Does God abandon us at our weakest moment? If the Father abandoned the Son at the lowest moment of his life, does that impact our ability to have confidence in God’s presence during our trials and sin struggles?
  4. When did Jesus “become sin for us”? Was it when he died? Was it when he was nailed to the cross? Was it at a random moment prior to his death? Why would the Father forsake the Son at this moment? I don’t think we can really answer this question, but it’s an important one.
  5. Does Sin have power over God? The danger with this view is that sin becomes more powerful than God. God cannot be present when sin is around. Surely it’s the opposite that is actually true. Sin cannot be in the presence of God. There is no reason for God to flee from sin, even as Christ becomes sin for us.

cross on hillThe other primary view I’ve heard regarding Jesus’ cry ties it to Psalm 22. The approach goes something like this:

When Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He is actually quoting the first line of Psalm 22. Six of the seven statements Jesus uttered on the cross can be linked to that Psalm. This shows that Jesus was thinking about the entire Psalm when he quotes the first line. Since the Psalm moves from despair to victory, Jesus’ words actually point his hearers to triumph rather than abandonment. In fact, v24b specifically says, he [Father] has not hidden his face from him [Son] but has listened to his cry for help.

I tend to lean toward this second understanding. However, at least in the versions I’ve heard, it also faces some difficulties that must be addressed.

  1. Do the words mean anything in themselves? I have difficulty believing that Jesus utters these words as a way of saying, “Hey I’m winning a victory here on the cross. Go read and reflect on Psalm 22:3-31.” Jesus could have started his quote in v3 if he wanted to emphasis victory. Wouldn’t it express a lot more confidence and faith in the Father to cry out, “Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One!”  Carson notes, “Though OT texts are frequently cited with their full contexts in mind, they are never cited in such a way that the OT context effectively annuls what the text itself affirms.
  2. Did Jesus experience despair and abandonment on the cross? It seems to me that some proponents of this view understate the agonies and torture of the cross. The cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” seems a very natural response to the physical and emotional pain Jesus experienced.
  3. Do we need to defend Jesus faith? I get a sense that proponents of this approach view the face value of Jesus’ words as an expression of doubt or an absence of faith. Of course, that seems incongruous with our understanding of Jesus as the Son of God. I don’t believe this is the case. Oftentimes our feelings don’t match our theological knowledge, and expressing those feelings doesn’t diminish a person’s faith. We can feel abandoned even when we know God is present. Also, the fact that in his cry Jesus addresses the Father and seems to expect Him to hear reflects an intrinsic dissonance within this statement.

The primary point that I want to clarify in my understanding of Jesus cry, is that I believe Jesus did experience forsakeness  upon the cross. I’m not saying that God actually did abandon Jesus. I’m suggesting that as Jesus endured his torture and the fingers of death tightened he wasn’t singing, or thinking, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. His cry demonstrates his humanity and his emotions, not his rational theology.

So yes, Jesus had the entirety of Psalm 22 in view, but the words he uttered still expressed a felt reality. And yes, I believe that the Father was present and heard that anguished cry.

A friend of mine has also blogged on this topic HERE.

Posted by: ozziepete | 30 March, 2015

The Jesus Parade

If you’re interested, you can listen to my Palm Sunday sermon HERE.

palm sunday

Although I like to make a big deal of Easter, I haven’t always preached a special sermon on Palm Sunday. To be honest, I don’t really understand the events of Palm Sunday. Beyond that I have a hard time finding a contemporary application of Palm Sunday. Sure, it’s an interesting event, but do I really need to preach on it every year just because it appears on the calendar?

Here are my questions, with a little commentary.

1. Why did Jesus want a parade?

Couldn’t have Jesus just walked through the gates in the midst of the other pilgrims without drawing attention to himself? He could still have gone to the temple the next day and taught and throne over tables. None of his subsequent actions seem contingent upon this grand entrance.

Remember that Jesus initiated this parade by instructing his disciples to go and get a donkey. He must have had a purpose in making a public entrance, but I don’t understand what it was.

I preached on Sunday that his choice of riding a donkey was a humble choice. Wouldn’t he demonstrate greater humility by cancelling the parade and just walking through the gates?

If I’m grasping at straws, perhaps his grand entrance was a PR stunt to let the people of Jerusalem know he was there and invite them to hear him speak at the temple the next day. According to Luke 19:39 Jesus at least caught the attention of some Pharisees. Perhaps they did the rest of the marketing for him!

2. Was Jesus Intentionally Fulfilling Prophecy?

Many of the prophecies that Jesus fulfilled were beyond his control. For example, he had no say in where the Messiah would be born, or which tribe he was from.

palm sunday 01But Zechariah 9:9 reads,

Your king has won a victory,
    and he is coming to you.
He is humble
    and rides on a donkey;
he comes on the colt
    of a donkey.”

The Jews apparently recognised this as a Messianic passage. So in choosing to enter Jerusalem on a donkey, Jesus intentionally fulfills this prophecy. After all, if he’s the Messiah, then at some point he needs to ride a donkey.

Although Matthew and John both quote Zechariah 9 as an explanation of Jesus’ actions, here’s my question. If Jesus chose to ride a donkey to demonstrate that he was the Messiah it doesn’t seem like a very good strategy.

  • He could more easily have communicated this message by simply saying, “Hey everyone, look at me. I’m the Messiah!”
  • While all four Gospels tell the story of Jesus riding the donkey, only 2 of them connect it to the Zechariah prophecy.
  • Apparently, even at the time, no one really understood the significance of Jesus riding the donkey. After quoting Zechariah, John immediately reflects, “At first, Jesus’ disciples did not understand. But after he had been given his glory, they remembered all this.” (John 12:16 (CEV)

If Jesus was just checking off a list of prophecies that he could control, do you think it’s legitimate? It seems a bit manipulative and insincere to me.

3. Was Jesus Surprised?

I am fascinated by the question of what Jesus was thinking as he rode that donkey through the cheering crowds. Matthews account of Jesus’ grand entrance is found in chapter 21. In chapter 20 Jesus predicts, We are now on our way to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the teachers of the Law of Moses. They will sentence him to death…

He knew his fate.

Was Jesus able to join in the joy and celebration along with the crowd? Was Jesus an island of misery in surrounded by a sea of exuberance? Did Jesus resent the crowd’s shallowness? Was Jesus hoping that the people would accept him and crown him king?

Again, if he knew the praise lacked sincerity, why throw the parade?

I just don’t get it.

I also don’t get why this series of events is important enough to get its own day on the calendar.

4. What are We Celebrating?

When the church celebrates Palm Sunday, what exactly are we celebrating? Are we excited that people misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ kingdom? Do we want to highlight the rejection of Jesus as Messiah? If so, why the joyfulness and palm branches?  Are we thrilled by the transition in Jesus’ ministry as he finally enters Jerusalem? (Although John’s Gospel tells us he’s been there twice previously.)

In Luke 20:40 Jesus tells the Pharisees that “If [the people] keep quiet, these stones will start shouting.” Clearly he believes that their well-intentioned, but misguided praise is deserved, appropriate and unstoppable. This seems to contrast other passages of Scripture where God cares about right motives when it comes to worship. So are we celebrating a loosening of worship forms and functions?

Perhaps we celebrate Palm Sunday because now that we understand the nature of Jesus’ kingdom, we can give him the praise that he deserved in this event but we can give it to him with greater understanding. Hopefully, we also give him our worship from a heart of sincerity and faithfulness. In this way we kind of rectify and redeem the worship of the original Palm Sunday.

5. From a Pre-millenial perspective…

From a premillenial perspective this event seems to make a little more sense. By this interpretation it’s important that the Jews get an opportunity to reject an earthly kingdom. The thinking goes like this:

  1. God’s initial desire was for the Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah and crown him king.
  2. Jesus legitimately wanted to establish an earthly kingdom with Jerusalem as his throne.
  3. All the Messianic prophecies were intended to be fulfilled in this earthly kingdom.
  4. On palm Sunday the Jews reached the brink of crowning Jesus king, but ultimately backed away.
  5. Their rejection of Jesus led to Plan B, a spiritual kingdom made possible through Jesus’ sacrifice.
  6. Although Jesus knew they were going to kill him, it was important that he give them the opportunity to crown him.
  7. Thus the Palm Sunday Parade was not a charade, but a hope-filled opportunity for Israel to embrace her Messiah.

While I don’t agree with this understanding of Scripture. And while I have a problem with the cross being “Plan B”. At least this approach provides an understanding of Palm Sunday in which Jesus acts with genuine motives.

So help me out. What encouragement do you draw from Palm Sunday?

Posted by: ozziepete | 23 March, 2015

When Ruth Comes to Church

Ruth 01The book of Ruth features three main characters: Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz.

In many ways the book could be called the Book of Naomi, as the story opens and closes with Naomi and she guides Ruth’s actions throughout the story.

Many Christian commentators seize on Boaz’s role in the story as “kinsman-redeemer“. Since Jesus is our redeemer Boaz becomes a type, or shadow, of what Jesus will be.

Then we come to Ruth.

She’s an outcast. Perhaps we often regard her as a romantic figure. She represents us: A recipient of grace.

As I read through this book last week I noticed some comparisons between her movement from Moabite to member of Jesus’ family, and the outsiders who visit our churches today.

1. Ruth was an outsider. Ruth was a Moabite. An Israelite enemy. She worshiped idols. She couldn’t be trusted. She spoke differently. Maybe she dressed differently. The local boys had been warned about women “like her”. She was destitute.

2015 Ruth is also an outsider. As the US immigrant population increases there’s a good chance that she’s a foreigner. Maybe an illegal immigrant. As such, some may regard her as the enemy. She probably doesn’t come from a Christian family. She has other interests, passions, or idols. Not being raised in the church, she speaks differently. She thinks differently. And she probably dresses differently. She may be destitute.

2. Naomi went into Ruth’s world. I wish I could describe Naomi as a missionary. In fact, it seems that Naomi’s family moved to Moab out of desperation, and perhaps a lack of faith in God’s ability to provide for them. Nonetheless, she entered Ruth’s world and made such an impact that Ruth followed her out.

2015 Ruth needs someone to enter her world. She needs someone to accept and love her so strongly that she doesn’t notice the differences. She needs someone to walk alongside her through times of grief and struggle. When she experiences this loving relationship, 2015 Ruth wants to learn more about the God of her 2015 Naomi.

3. Ruth moved to Bethlehem. At this point in her journey Naomi’s role wasn’t to motivate her, but to guide her. She needed to guide Ruth through the new Israelite customs. (I’m pretty sure the Moabites didn’t have the same gleaning laws the Israelites did, and certainly not a kinsman-redeemer.) Naomi needed to guide Ruth through the web of pre-existing relationships. Naomi knew who Boaz was and his eligibility to be their kinsman-redeemer. Ruth would have been lost without Naomi.

2015 Ruth needs someone to guide her into the strange world that is church. It’s not enough to expect 2015 Ruth to stay, just because she walked through the doors of a church. Who will explain what an elder and a deacon are? And who they are? Who will convince her that small groups may be uncomfortable at first but beneficial in the long run? Who will help her children find the right Bible classes or guide her through the sign-in process? 2015 Ruth needs compassionate guides every bit as much as Biblical Ruth did.

4. Ruth was courageous. When Ruth lay herself at Boaz’ feet, I wonder the thoughts that raced through her mind. This was a risk. Would he be angry? Would he treat her as an outcast? Would he refuse her? Would he mock her vulnerability or her lack of decorum? This was the moment when she lived up to her earlier pledge that Naomi’s land, people and God would become hers. There was no turning back if Boaz accepted her.

2015 Ruth requires courage. Although she has come to trust some of God’s people, she knows the people better than she knows God. God is a new entity to her. She likes what she’s seen so far. She longs for what’s promised. So she joins herself to God in baptism. But God and his church often has a bad reputation out there in the world. Christians often fail to acknowledge that the commitment that comes so naturally for those raised in a church requires great courage for 2015 Ruth her friends.

5. God validates Ruth. The book of Ruth closes with Naomi holding Ruth’s son in her arms. Then it details how the future king, David, is a descendant or Ruth. She becomes an integral part of God’s family.

2015 Ruth also needs validation. She needs a church to point out her gifts. She needs people to involve her in the life and ministry of the God. She needs a purpose. As she is integrated into the body of Christ one day she’ll look back and realise… “I’m no longer an outsider. I am loved.”

If Boaz represents Jesus, then our churches need to identify Naomis willing to seek and invest in Ruths. That’s how we’ll establish a lineage of faith.

Posted by: ozziepete | 10 March, 2015

What We Celebrate Matters

This blog post was previously published here.

Lawson Rd Flags

Jesus knew the truth that what we celebrate matters. Shortly before his death Jesus instructed his disciples to remember his death through a simple meal. (Luke 22:14-20) I imagine that without this instruction the disciple may have decided to celebrate other aspects of Jesus’ ministry. Earlier the apostle Peter had wanted to construct shelters to memorialise the spectacular event of Moses and Elijah appearing and talking with Jesus. Other disciples could easily have chosen to celebrate Jesus healing ministry or concern for the poor.

How would the history of Christianity differ today if the first followers of Jesus decided to politicise His criticism of the religious establishment? Would they have sought revenge against the pagan Romans? Would they have sought to initiate an uprising and seize control of the temple, freeing it from apostate religious leaders?

Instead, Jesus preempts these possibilities by establishing a celebration of his death and his resurrection. This move required the first Christians to pursue understanding of his death. Why did it happen? Do you remember what he said? Do the Hebrew Scriptures speak of a resurrected Messiah? How does this impact us? Does this change our relationship with God?

The simple meal. The memory. The celebration. The understanding. Jesus directed the focus of future generations for thousands of years to the thoughts that are most important.

Our churches still face the same opportunities. In addition to the Lord’s Supper, we get to decide what and who to celebrate.

I once visited a church and watched an elder call every one 18 and under who had a birthday that month to the front of the room. As they stood on the stage with him he prayed over those children. What an affirmation that these children matter to God and to the church!

I know of a church that hosts a VBS each year for special needs children. This event shines the spotlight of love and grace upon these children and their families, letting them know that they’re valued and important.

Last October, the church a friend of mine attends encouraged everyone to wear purple one particular Sunday in support of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. This topic seldom receives attention from churches and this congregation sought to publicly stand with victims of abuse.

I recently saw a church workshop advertised with the theme, “Reprove, Rebuke, & Exhort”. This celebration clearly communicates what matters to them: Reproving and Rebuking. Getting things right. Doing things right.

I’m aware of many churches that have special “Mission Sundays” or “Ministry Fairs” as they highlight the need to send and support missionaries around the world, or the importance for members to involve themselves in church ministries.

Each of these churches chose to express issues, topics, causes, and people that they view as important through celebration.

It would be overly simplistic to infer that the reverse is true. Just because a church does not celebrate a particular cause or person does not mean that they don’t care. No one church can emphasise every issue. If they try to acknowledge everyone, eventually no person or cause is particularly special because everyone’s treated the same.

Which brings us back to where I began: What we celebrate matters!

With this in mind, I’m thrilled that my church celebrated our racial diversity last Sunday through a special day that we call Harmony Sunday. I’ve been part of multi-ethnic churches in the past who preferred not to acknowledge their diversity. Taking one day to celebrate the reality we see each Sunday communicates to the church and the community that each person matters. It reinforces God’s vision for his kingdom as a house for all nations. And most of all, it communicates that this topic is important, not an accident.

I am convinced that events like Harmony Sunday are vital for the good health of multi-ethnic congregations and those seeking to broaden their membership. Among many other benefits, this type of celebration gives permission for conversations about race to take place. It communicates a desire for the church to provide a safe place for dialogue.

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 and live. So the cloud both reveals God’s presence and obscures God’s 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.

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