I was in the cemetery at my grandmother’s resting place. This particular memorial park was an exclusively flat-stone only grounds, and each stone had a metal vase that you twisted out of the middle of the stone and turned over to display flowers. My aunt had tried to pull it out for Mother’s Day, but it was stuck. I was down on my hands and knees using a pocketknife trying to pry the vase free, it wasn’t budging! I look over and my daughter is on her knees with her hands folded. I asked what she is doing and she responded, “I’m praying that God will help you get the vase unstuck.” Frustrated and very sweaty, I was baffled because I was sure the good Lord had more important things on his plate than helping me turn a vase over…I mean, God doesn’t really work that way does he? When I returned to my car, I was blown away that at the very moment I was working, prying, and feeling defeated by a gravestone, my seven year old was praying.
Sometimes the things we perceive as strengths can become the most restrictive shackles to our faith. I think the ancient story of Adam and Eve still plays out in us…you see, I was reminded in that moment and many others that I have chosen to feast on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Moreover, I have studied the Bible and with that understanding comes the “shackle” of trusting myself to define not only if something is good or evil, but if God is likely to act or not act in a given situation. I think there are too many times where my familiarity with God through the Bible allows me to arrogantly move without an element of trust—to serve before prayer, as if God already affirms what I have decided to do.
As I reflect on this type of “faith,” I think it is why I tend to accomplish only the things I am naturally good at doing, never venturing into the unknown, uncomfortable, or uncontrollable. Those ministry opportunities or missions are just too sizable for my skills…it would take more than what I have. I believe that true faith gives LIFE (like the other tree in the garden) and often moves beyond our knowledge, skills, and experience.
Products of a fallen and broken world, I think that all of us come to God with a shackled faith of some sort. And I must admit that I like my shackles because they provide me with a way of understanding faith and they allow me to know that I am growing in faith.
Whenever I ask the question, “Does God really work that way?” I am beginning to see that question as a growth question because it is a direct attack on my knowledge and experience. When I reread the scriptures asking the question, “What does the Bible really say about this?” I see this question as a challenge to my study and the past interpretations. And when I finally take an opportunity to trust God and lean on God, when I find myself on a plane to Africa, having dinner with a stranger, opening up a Bible study, or praying that God would intervene in our heroin crisis…I realize that God is in the process of breaking my shackles and setting me free to trust him more.
We all have shackles, and God calls us anyway. As I think about what it means to live an unshackled faith, I think about the New Creation described at the end of Revelation. I think about all of the brokenness we have, all of the obstacles that make us cry to God to increase our faith, relieve our doubts, and give us greater perseverance. But there is great day coming when our faith will become sight. John says that God will, “…dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
Today we battle our shackles, but we learn to trust God, to believe God, and one day our hope is to be unshackled, face to face with God Almighty, Creator of the unbroken world!
Prayer: Creator God, call us to greater works and allow us the opportunity to trust in You more and more as that great day gets closer and closer. Our desire is to be set free from the shackles that hold us back. I pray that you reveal to me the limits of my faith so that I can identify my shackles and receive healing and wholeness from You. Come Lord Jesus, so that our faith can become sight and our brokenness can be fully restored. Lord God make all things new and that includes me, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.
Jonathan Woodall serves the GracePointe Church of Christ in Elizabethtown, PA. He is married to Hayley and they have two children. Jonathan spent ten years in campus ministry at Soma Memphis serving the University of Memphis and served as a worship minister at the White Station Church of Christ. Jonathan has a desire to see the church reach the next generation and is particularly drawn to the communication of God’s story through preaching and teaching, especially as it pertains to our contemporary context. Jonathan’s blog can be found at www.jonathanfwoodall.com and the church website is www.gracepointechurchofchrist.org (PS – if you are coming to Hershey, PA for a vacation or whatever, come worship with us!)
God likes colour.
God likes details.
God likes surprises.
God likes creativity and imaginative design.
God likes grand statements, and intricate whispers.
God likes to reveal himself, and to work invisibly.
We know these things because God reveals himself in Creation. Through nature God shares the things he likes with the people he loves.
This past Sunday our church held our annual Worship in the Park. Each year we enjoy lots of good food and games for all ages. We also worship in the open air surrounded by a wall of trees… and harassed by numerous insects.
My text this year was Isaiah 66:1-2. In preparation for this special service I started reading a new book by Hicks, Valentine & Wilson titled Embracing Creation. I’ve really enjoyed it so far as the authors draw attention to God’s love not only for humanity, but creation as a whole.
“Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
Could you build me a temple as good as that?
Could you build me such a resting place?
My hands have made both heaven and earth;
they and everything in them are mine.
I, the Lord, have spoken! Isaiah 66:1-2a (NLT)
The opening lines of this text describe heaven and earth (Creation) as God’s self-built temple or dwelling place. He then contrasts this with any temple or dwelling humans could construct for him.
When we think of Creation as God’s temple, the next logical step is to recognise Eden as his Holy of Holies. Eden provided the focal point for God’s presence and there he communed with humanity.
If God created the universe as his temple, it gives meaning to psalms such as Psalm 148 that call upon all nature to praise God. The temple is a place of praise and honor.
Science does a wonderful job of telling us how bird songs reflect mating calls, or statements regarding territory, or warnings of danger. But Christians also view the world through a more poetic eye. We recognise that birds sing not for our enjoyment, but to praise their Maker.
As the temple of God, Creation’s well-being correlates with humanity’s relationship with God. In Genesis 3 Creation bears the curse resulting from Adam & Eve’s sin.
Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field. Genesis 3:17b-18
In Isaiah 55 God invites his people to renew their covenant with him. If they will return to him he describes the consequences. Notice how God’s Temple, Creation, rejoices as joy and peace once more characterise the relationship.
You will live in joy and peace.
The mountains and hills will burst into song,
and the trees of the field will clap their hands!
Where once there were thorns, cypress trees will grow.
Where nettles grew, myrtles will sprout up.
These events will bring great honor to the Lord’s name;
they will be an everlasting sign of his power and love.
It is then unsurprising that Revelation describes nature responding in torment to the affliction of God’s people. As those worshiping in God’s temple are persecuted…
I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Revelation 6:12-14
I’m not suggesting that every natural tragedy can be paired with a sin. Rather, highlighting how God views the created world. I believe that if we walk through life and walk through nature regarding it as God’s temple, we’ll find ourselves seeing God around us. I believe we’ll interact differently with nature when we have the attitude that we’re engaging the temple of God. How we regard nature influences how we worship God.
Thus in the closing scene of Scripture we again find God coming to dwell upon the redeemed new heaven and new earth. The temple has been purified and humanity is once more invited into the Holy of Holies as God shares what he likes with the people he loves.
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” Revelation 21:2-3
This past Sunday the church celebrated Palm Sunday. This day is important as it marks the beginning of the final week of Jesus’ life. This week is often called Holy Week and concludes with the celebration of Easter next Sunday. You can read the description of Jesus’ entrance HERE.
I struggle to make a lot of sense out of Palm Sunday. (See last year’s blog post HERE.) On the one hand it seems like an attention-getting charade that Jesus organizes to check off another item on the list of Messianic prophecies. On the other hand perhaps Jesus organized it to placate the crowd but suffers through it as he knows the reality of his imminent death rather than coronation.
This year my perspective on the celebration focused upon victory.
Palm branches being waved at a procession would immediately symbolise to Greeks, Romans and Jews that a king or important official was present. However, not every governor entering Jerusalem would be greeted this way. The most likely scenario for a branch-waving, celebratory parade would be when a king or general had won a great battle and was returning to his home base. The branches waving and the coats on the ground honor the victorious ruler.
Ironically, while the crowd greets Jesus as a victorious Messiah, there actually is no victory at this point. In less than a week he’ll be dead. The celebration and palm waving are premature and nothing but hollow flattery.
In hindsight we recognise that though the timing of the celebration was off, and the crowd’s vision of a earthly messiah was misguided, the praise and description of Jesus was appropriate. In hindsight we acknowledge that Jesus is a victorious king. His victory was sealed through his death and resurrection, and he reigns right now at the right hand of God.
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”… But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:54, 57
I had never noticed it before but this year my attention was drawn to Revelation 7:9-10. In this passage we find a joyful scene of worship and celebration around the throne of God. As the elders worship we see that they’re holding palm branches.
The glimpse of glory and victory that we see on Palm Sunday is fully portrayed here in Revelation as Palm Eternity. 2 Corinthians 2:14 describes the ministry and ascension of Jesus as a “triumphal procession”. We live as participants in his triumphant celebration. At the same time heaven rejoices, waving palm branches before Jesus, the victorious king.
Just as the Jerusalem crowds cried out, “Hosanna” which vaguely means “God saves”, in heaven the multitude praises the Lamb saying, “Salvation belongs to our God.” Seeing Jesus for who he truly is leads to worship.
Jesus is victorious over sin and death. In the process he saves from the consequences of our own sinfulness. So we respond by crying out, “Hosanna! ” Praise to our God who saves! May we join the worshiping multitudes at the throne of the Lamb celebrating Palm Eternity.
The nature of preaching means that over the course of a year all preachers will preach sermons we know are important, but we don’t feel passionate about them. This past Sunday I was blessed to preach on a subject I feel strongly about.
The celebration of both Easter and weekly Lord’s Supper emphasise the death and resurrection of Jesus. I quickly run out of superlatives when trying to describe the importance of these events. [Apparently it’s not good writing to repeat the word “very” 127 times in a row.] As vital as these events are within the panorama of history, within the story of God, and to both the world and to Christians, they are not the complete story of Jesus. And I’m not just talking about the absence of Christmas. I fear that many Christians have come to accept the picture of Jesus painted by Renaissance artists and children’s story books. Generally speaking, this is a portrait of a wimpy Jesus. This portrait of Jesus might be accompanied with terms such as: Gentle, tender, kind, compassionate, gracious, merciful, caring, and mild-mannered. These are all wonderful words. They all describe Jesus accurately and I value each of them immensely in my relationship with Christ. However, the majesty of Jesus requires more than one set of words to accurately describe him. When we stop the story of Jesus at the Resurrection we lose the image of Jesus currently seated on a throne at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. This was a truth that in Acts 7 that Stephen died proclaiming. This is a truth that we often confess at baptism today when we affirm the statement that “Jesus is our LORD and our Saviour”. Sadly, most of our teaching at the time of our baptism focuses on Jesus as Saviour while the implications of calling him Lord are glossed over. Ephesians 1:21-22 describes Jesus currently as,
far above every rule and authority and power and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And God put all things under Christ’s feet, and he gave him to the church as head over all things.
In Revelation 1 the apostle, John, graphically describes Jesus as anything but gentle.
His head and hair were as white as wool, even as white as snow, and his eyes were like a fiery flame. His feet were like polished bronze refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. He held seven stars in his right hand, and a sharp double-edged sword extended out of his mouth. His face shone like the sun shining at full strength. When I saw him I fell down at his feet as though I were dead.
This is not a cuddly Jesus. This is a powerful, awesome, drop at his feet, Jesus. This is the Jesus that calmed the storm. This is the Jesus who taught with authority because he had authority. This is the Jesus who went toe-to-toe with Satan in the wilderness and sent him running. This is God the Son. And He’s not a wimp. This is the Jesus who will be returning to Earth in the future to judge us all. This is the Jesus who will return and ultimately destroy Satan and all forces of evil. This is the Jesus who is “King of kings and Lord of lords.” I’m not discussing this in order to change the artwork in children’s picture Bible’s. Our image of Jesus has deep implications for how we relate to Him and how we live our lives. When we approach life with the image before us of Jesus ruling all powers and dominions, we will live with confidence. We will live with assurance that our setbacks, hurts and struggles will not alter the final outcome. We will live with the knowledge that “our side” has already won. We will pray, believing that “God’s will can and will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We will not take the teachings of Jesus complacently because we acknowledge the power and authority he possess. Yet we will still approach his throne with confidence because we also experience his grace, mercy, love, kindness, and gentleness. Here’s my plea to all you preachers and teachers out there… When you summarise the Gospel, please don’t stop at the Resurrection. Let’s commit to talking about the Death, Resurrection and REIGN, and RETURN of Christ. The Good News is not just related to what Jesus did in the past. It’s the story of what Jesus does today and will do tomorrow. As I was preparing for this sermon I was surprised how often the biblical writers mention the reign of Jesus in their Gospel summaries. I’ll close with a few examples:
Hebrews 10:12-13 “ But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God,and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.” Hebrews 12:2 “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Romans 8:34 “Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.“ 1 Corinthains 15:3-5, 24-27 “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.” “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.For he “has put everything under his feet.”“
I don’t believe that Heaven is the eternal dwelling place of the soul. Instead, I believe the Bible looks forward to a New Creation: A new heaven and a new earth.
I’m familiar with 1 Thessalonians 4:17:
“After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.“
I know the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16.
I remember Jesus’ promise to his disciples in John 14:3:
“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.“
I believe that each of these familiar passages and images can be reconciled with a New Creation understanding of eternity. 2 Peter 3:12 describes a purifying fire that melts the elements, but v13 continues that “we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”
One of the most poignant images of this new heaven and earth is found in Revelation 21. In verse 10 the faithful Christians are not taken up to heaven. Rather, John saw “the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out heaven from God.” God relocates his dwelling place from “Heaven” to the midst of his “New Creation”.
I’m really not super passionate about this topic as I understand that God reveals himself to us in terms and images that we can understand. It’s quite possible that His plans for our eternity are simply beyond our understanding and all these images are the most we can grasp.
However, I am convinced that our understanding of eternity influences the way we live in the present.
Here’s one application of that principle.
1 Corinthians 5:17 reads,
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
When we are “in Christ” we exhibit God’s new creation. We provide a glimpse of eternity. We taste the blessings of eternity in our lives.
This amazes me.
My life doesn’t always (seldom?) actually feels like a glimpse of eternity. But neither does my life feel like it’s held in bondage by darkness.
Christians don’t always do a great job of demonstrating what New Creation looks like. But we can demonstrate grace. We can provide examples of forgiveness. We can work to bring peace. We can wipe away tears and ease pain. We can because God’s Spirit lives within us. We can because we represent the kingdom of God which is so much bigger than the kingdoms of this world.
Verses 18-6:1 describe how we, as representatives of New Creation, now have responsibilities as as Christ’s ambassadors carrying out a ministry of reconciliation. Reconciling the world to God. Communicating to the world that because of Jesus, God no longer counts people’s sins against them!
If we are “in Christ” we are a beachhead of New Creation in the midst of a Fallen Creation.
Let’s live like we mean it. Let’s live as though eternity will be a good thing. Let’s live as though we represent God’s best. Let’s live like we know where we’re going.
BONUS TRACK: Coincidentally, a friend of mine wrote a similar post today HERE. In this blog Rex describes how our understanding of New Creation impacts our attitude toward race relations in the present.