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

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

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

Posted by: ozziepete | 27 January, 2015

Did Jacob Really Wrestle God?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: ozziepete | 22 January, 2015

Creation 2.0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It does mean that Jesus has defeated death.

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

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

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

Posted by: ozziepete | 19 August, 2014

Could Jesus Transform Ferguson?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ADDITIONAL READING:

Posted by: ozziepete | 31 July, 2014

Colossians 2 – Freedom in Christ

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

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

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

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

What a lovely description of human “spiritual” rules.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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