Posted by: ozziepete | 21 June, 2015

Eating Jesus

We can all sing in the car, alone.

We can all pray in a dark room, by ourselves.

We can all give online, individually.

Taking the Lord’s Supper requires community.

When it comes to the Lord’s Table, we come together to remind ourselves of the blessings of His body and blood offered for us.

communion 01Regardless of our personal resumes, we all celebrate exactly the same thing at the Lord’s Table. We’re equally separated from God and equally reconciled.

  • Our sins are forgiven;
  • Our guilt is removed;
  • Death is defeated; and
  • Intimacy with God is restored.

Every person receives every blessing.

Three times in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus acts as the host of a meal. Luke 9 (Feeding 5000), Luke 22 (Last Supper), & Luke 24 (Emmaus). Each time we’re told, “Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” The message of the Lord’s Supper, the significance of this table isn’t limited to a solemn Sunday morning. The Lord’s Supper is a continuation of eating with Christ on the hillside, and in the home.

In Luke 24:31, right after Jesus hands these disciples their bread, “Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him”. When we come to the table each week, it’s good that we don’t see hatred responsible for hanging Jesus upon the cross. It’s good that we don’t see division or classes or races. We see Jesus. Because Jesus is still our host. He still serves us. Our eyes can still be opened to recognize Jesus among us. And as our eyes are opened we acknowledge that the Lord’s Supper is not something we do alone. Our eyes are opened to those around us and we see people forgiven by God, just as we are.

The original corruption of the Lord’s Supper that Scripture reveals to us, was the introduction of division into the experience. Class warfare took over the Supper and removed the values of unity and equality before God. 1 Corinthians 11:20 describes the situation as so severe that “when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat.

And just as Jesus took his meal on the road, we cannot keep our worship to Sunday morning. I love that the Lord’s Supper is a symbol that we ingest, because it means we take it with. Our challenge is whether we take any more with us than a cracker and a sip of juice.

I wonder when Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” as he shared the Last Supper with his disciples, did he just refer to eating crackers and sipping juice? Or did he mean something more? Did he mean to eat with sinners, in remembrance of me? Did he mean break down political, racial and whatever barriers and eat together, in remembrance of me?  Did he mean to forgive and serve our enemies as he washed Judas’ feet, in remembrance of me?

This is a lot more challenging than making sure we have the right type of juice and cracker in the trays each Sunday.

I wonder if he didn’t have in mind this description of the family members of the victims of the Charleston shooting this week. They appeared at the bail hearing for the shooter and while communicating their hurt and loss also managed to speak mercy and grace to him. A journalist at the New York Times described the scene this way

It was as if the Bible study had never ended as one after another, victims’ family members offered lessons in forgiveness, testaments to a faith that is not compromised by violence or grief. They urged him to repent, confess his sins and turn to God.

What a wonderful description: It was as if the Bible study had never ended….

Jesus inspires us to go into the world as ambassadors of reconciliation, taking a message of hope and healing. Having ingested Him on Sunday, we are to live, as if the Lord’s Supper never ends… until the kingdom of God comes.

Posted by: ozziepete | 10 June, 2015

Why You Might Be Worshiping God Too Much

stars aurora borealisShout praises to the Lord!
    Shout the Lord’s praises
    in the highest heavens.
All of you angels,
and all who serve him above,
    come and offer praise.

Sun and moon,
and all of you bright stars,
    come and offer praise.
Highest heavens,
and the water
above the highest heavens,
    come and offer praise.

In Psalm 148 Creation explodes with praise for God. In v13 we’re told, “The glory of God is greater than heaven and earth.” Creation cannot contain the praise due God and the psalmist calls upon the angelic hosts and the highest of heavens to join in the chorus of praise.

Yet it’s possible that you might be worshiping God too much.

(While I’ve previously written about expanding worship beyond the Sunday morning worship service, in this context I’m focusing upon the church’s corporate worship.)

As a minister in a Church of Christ, I’ve heard all the arguments about instrumental vs a capella singing in worship services. Many of the arguments are drawn from Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16.

Over the years I have noticed that so much time has been spent discussing the spaces between the words that we’ve forgotten what the words actually say!

Examine this phrase from Colossians 3:16, “teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit“.

Here are some questions I wish we’d spend more time discussing about this verse,

  • “But I thought our worship was always directed to God?”
  • “How is singing teaching?”
  • “How is singing admonishing?”
  • “How can we make our singing more instructional?”
  • “What does it mean to have wisdom as we sing?”
  • “Can hymns not written by apostles be ‘from the Spirit’?” “Does this mean they’re inspired like the rest of the Bible?”

In my experience, churches have focused so much on singing toward God that we overlook the way the words and music impact the emotions and faith of those hearing the singing.  (Although, even as I write this I can think of many worship leaders who carefully consider how particular songs, lyrically and musically, fit specific places within the worship service.)

How can we better consider one another while singing?

When we direct our entire focus toward God during congregational worship, we fail to allow the songs to challenge the status quo in our lives. I believe this is one of the strong arguments supporting the inclusion of solos or other “performances” into our worship. Often people are quick to dismiss these as entertainment rather than worship, but I believe this step overlooks the need for us to listen, not only during prayer and preaching, but also to our singing.

The instruction to “speak to one another in song” requires that we also “listen to one another’s songs”. Sometimes this listening requires us to stop singing, to focus on the words and experience the music.

When we listen to our songs they often challenge the way we relate to those around us. A regular favorite at my church is the song “Love One Another”. Yet I wonder if singing that songs prompts us to look around the room and consider who needs to know they’re loved today. We sing songs of throwing out lifelines, but do we then make a point of talking to guests?

When we sing, “Bless the Lord O my soul… For all Your goodness I will keep on singing, ten thousand reasons for my heart to find.” and we know the man in front of us lost he wife last month and is struggling to think of one reason to keep on singing. Do we put a hand on his shoulder? Do we let him know afterwards that we know it must be tough for him to sit through that song?

What if we set a goal every Sunday of having each song prompt us to think of a specific person? Would our worship experience be different? Would the worship experience of others be different, richer?

I wonder if we don’t too often picture a profound experience of worship as eyes closed, hands raised, just me and God, feeling his love. No doubt there’s a place for that. But just as worship must encompass more than Sunday, Sunday worship must encompass more than “me and God”.

  • For another resource on “Why we sing in church”, check out a book review by my friend Frank Bellizzi HERE.
  • Coincidentally, another friend, Jonathan Storment wrote a blog this week titled “3 Big Reasons to Sing In Church” that you can read HERE.
Posted by: ozziepete | 3 June, 2015

Leadership Is A Real Thing

Are leaders made or born?

If you want to start a spirited conversation around a dinner table, just pose this question.

Clearly thousands (millions?) of people believe leaders can be trained and developed, rather than requiring an intrinsic trait bestowed at birth. I know this because if I Google “honesty” I get 83.4 million results. If I Google “wealth” I get 271 million results. A Google search for “Jesus” gets 681 million results. And a search for “leader” garners a whopping 886 million search results.

Then you can go to Amazon and find a gazillion or so books with the word “leadership” in their title. If you follow the trail of crumbs down the self-help rabbit hole you’ll find personalities such as Tony Robbins, John C. Maxwell, Dani Johnson, or Michael Hyatt. Each of these leaders, and many others like them, will offer innumerable conferences, workshops, webinars or courses to help you develop your leadership potential and create wealth. I don’t know the percentages, but while in some instances they deliver on their promises not everyone experiences the same success.

There’s also no shortage of Christian organizations focused on leadership development. Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago hosts one of the largest leadership events among evangelical christendom, The Global Leadership Summit. They’re hardly alone. For instance, one of the widely circulated magazines in Christianity Today’s stable has the specific title “Leadership Journal“.

Leaders: Everyone wants a good one. And many people want to be one.

While some churches stress leadership and leader development, I’ve also observed the opposite extreme. I’ve seen churches that choose to give all their men, or all their members an equal voice in decision making through regular Men’s Meetings or Congregational Meetings, or both. I’ve seen churches limit the influence of the minister and largely restrict him to preaching and teaching classes. I’ve seen churches second-guess the decisions of their elders and thus cripple the congregational leadership structure.

These churches seem to intentionally, or unconsciously, operate under the assumption that “The only leadership we need is the Bible and the Holy Spirit.” Or, “Jesus is our True Shepherd”.  This is despite the fact that Ephesians 5:11-12 appears to clearly teach that churches should emphasise the recognition of leadership abilities within the church, rather than fear the presence of leaders.  “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.

I give all these examples because on Sunday I preached on Jeroboam and Rehoboam whose story can be found in 1 Kings 11 & 12.

Rehoboam was King Solomon’s heir to the throne of Israel. Immediately, he faced a leadership crisis. Would he meet the demands of his citizens or would he seek to impose his will upon the nation?

He took three days to think it over. During that time he first consulted with Solomon’s advisers and then with advisers he grown up with and chosen himself. He chose to follow the counsel of his younger advisers and as a result ten northern tribes rejected him as their king and anointed Jeroboam.

Jeroboam quickly encountered a leadership crisis of his own. Realising that his people would still pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh he was concerned that they would come to see the king in Jerusalem as the rightful king of all twelve tribes and revolt against his leadership. 1 Kings 12:11 tells us that “After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves.” These calves were to serve as the new nation’s god and eliminate the need for people to travel to Jerusalem.

What caught my attention was that both of these leaders sought advice. Yet, both of these kings made terrible decisions. Conspicuously absent in these stories is any indication that either king sought God’s guidance in the face of these leadership crises. The impact of these poor leadership decisions was felt for years by the people of both nations. 1 Kings 14:30 observes, “There was continual warfare between Rehoboam and Jeroboam.

Mothers lost their sons. Wives lost their husbands. Children lost their fathers in the perpetual skirmishes between these two armies.

God’s glory was splintered as his covenant people fought amongst themselves and rejected his leadership.

So here are some leadership observations that I discern from this story:

  1. Both of these kings have advisers. That’s a good thing.
  2. Advisers should represent a variety of backgrounds, not just be “the guys you grew up with”.
  3. Deciding which advice to follow and which to ignore requires wisdom.
  4. Effective leaders will listen to advice (rather than rely on their own instincts) but will learn to discern between wisdom and foolishness.
  5. Great leaders will always seek God’s counsel before seeking the advice of His people.

Leadership is a real thing. It makes a difference in the rule of a nation. It makes a difference in the health of a church. Because it makes a difference, congregations should intentionally invest in the training and growth of their leaders. This might mean bringing in consultants or sending leaders to workshops, but gathering advice improves leadership. Churches that resent outside perspectives will seldom flourish, being wise in their own eyes.

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.

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