Archive for March, 2012
According to recent reports, charitable giving to churches was up in 2011. The biggest gains were witnessed among the mega-churches in America. The report cites an improving economy as the reason for the uptick. You can view the article HERE.
I remember the day well. I was minding my own business, working away in my study when a package was delivered to my desk. It was long enough ago and not so far removed from my adolescence that surprise packages created all kinds of excitement. I quickly put down what I was working on and picked the unmarked box up with glee. Lacking the years of experience to necessitate fine office equipment like a letter opener, I snatched a pair of scissors from my drawer and went to work on the packing tape which neatly bound the cardboard flaps in place. What could it be, I wondered?
I was so enthusiastic that had the box been filled with those styrofoam packing peanuts I would have made quite a mess. But no packing peanuts. Simply a couple of reams worth of half sheet sized flyers with a cover letter. “Dear Pastor,” it began. As I read on, my enthusiasm rapidly waned as I discovered my package was filled with voter guides provided by Pat Robertson. Brother Pat had taken the liberty to survey all of the candidates in our upcoming state and national elections regarding “key voter issues” then provided the results in a one size fits all document. Claiming to be completely bi-partisan, the voter guides had evaluated, ranked, scored, and graded each candidate. The letter requested that I distribute this generous supply of voter guides to our congregation, and encouraged our church to host voter registration for our membership. All this, of course, in the name of God and country. Soon after that, I became accustomed to campaign managers calling to inform me that political candidates would like to worship with our church on a particular Sunday, and if it would be permissible, “would like to say a few words.”
What role does the church have in political elections? For years, some faith communities have been unabashed in their solicitation of votes for particular candidates, all in the name of maintaining a prophetic voice. Again this week we have seen another firestorm on the boundary of church and state separation as Rev. Dennis Terry’s “Get Out” sermon went viral on the internet. Is it appropriate for churches to endorse candidates? Is it legitimate for pastors to leverage their spiritual influence on voters, calling them to practice their piety at the polls? I have never been one to plumb the depths of politics, and certainly have abstained from preaching partisan politics during election cycles. I don’t think this makes me a coward nor does it make me spineless.
My reason for ardently rejecting such practices is simple. The cross flies higher than the flag.
I think pastors and churches miss the mark of the message of the Kingdom of God by suggesting that government can save us, be it republican or democrat. We do not live in a theocracy, nor does God intend for us to re-create the Old Testament nation of Israel. For pastors to suggest that government leaders can “save” our nation sends a misguided and mistaken message to the Church. I believe that the humanist manifesto is the document that coined the phrase, “No God can save us, we must save ourselves.” Which, in my opinion, is not too far from what I hear declared from pulpits of all sizes and colors in our nation. So maybe the question has less to do with the propriety of church leaders stumping for candidates and more to do with the lack of clarity of our own biblical message. It is the gospel that saves, not the candidate. It is the gospel that promises to bring forth new creations out of the carnage of our broken world, not the government. That is the message of the good news, and what makes an evangelical church evangelical. But alas, we’ve lost that descriptive word to those who vote a certain way.
People are desperate for hope and change, but its not the kind of hope and change that ANY candidate can promise or deliver. The hope and change that saves our lives is the hope and change that saves our souls. It is Jesus who promised to “make all things new.” He is the one who claimed to transform our lives into new creations, putting away the old and to make all things new. No human, regardless of political persuasion can promise or deliver that. And that’s the good news.
Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church represents the latest work of New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson. I have been familiar with Johnson’s work for some time as an author, but had not read much of his previous work. This undertaking aspires to examine the prophetic role of Jesus Christ and to see how the first generation of His followers carried on the prophetic tradition as recorded in the Book of Acts.
Johnson begins by describing prophets as “the human beings who speak to their fellow humans from the perspective of God and, by so speaking, enable others to envision a way of being human more in conformity with God’s own vision for the world.” Humans need the disruptive voice of the prophet to challenge the standards and norms of the world that are developed through the comfort of time and normative acceptable behavior. It is the prophet’s voice that awakens the people from lethargy and calls them to a higher standard to which all will one day give an account.
Johnson does a thorough job of developing the foundation of who prophets were and how they could be identified among their contemporaries. He sharpens the focus of this to the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, following Luke’s narrative of Christ and then the transition through the development of the early church and the Gentile mission to Rome and beyond.
The author makes several helpful observations, the most helpful of which was the nature of how Jesus embodied his prophetic ministry. Johnson points to four characteristics of this embodiment that Jesus would have shared in common with other prophets who preceded Him. First was poverty and the sharing of possessions. Jesus spoke to the poor as one of them. His life was marked by homelessness and unemployment, depending upon the faithfulness of His Father through the people to meet His tangible need for daily bread. For Jesus to have spoken to the poor from the posture of wealth would have been disingenuous. Jesus, however, identified fully with those who struggled daily to find “daily bread.”
The second prophetic characteristic Jesus embodied was itinerancy. Jesus didn’t have a home or a base of operation. Neither did he have a local church to serve who would provide his basic needs. On the other hand, the gospel record depicts Jesus as being constantly on the move. One day he is in the city, the next may find Him on the country side. He went to the people, wherever they were, regardless of how He might be received.
Characteristic three is prayer. One of the observations Jesus’ biographers repeatedly make is that He was a man of prayer. As a result of His prayerfulness, we see Jesus described as a man “led by the Spirit.” Certainly prayer and the Spirit’s leadership go hand in hand, for one does not usually find one without the other. Each significant move in Jesus ministry is marked by prayer, which is consistent with prophetic ministry throughout Old Testament history.
The final marker of prophetic embodiment is servant leadership. Many of the miracles demonstrate Jesus’ servant leadership, such as feeding the 5,000. Jesus’ teaching on subjects like humility and passive resistance also underscore his servant spirit. This characteristic is perhaps most clearly revealed during the last supper when He washed the disciple’s feet. Jesus came to “serve, and not be served,” as those who had gone before Him.
Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church is well written and helpful. Each chapter deals with an aspect of the prophetic Jesus, then details how Jesus’ prophetic ministry was carried forward by the early church. Each chapter concludes with a contemporary challenge for today’s church, citing examples of what the prophetic voice of church might look like in modern culture. It’s not written on a popular level, so this book is best suited for pastors and teachers and those who are serious students of the New Testament. It is a wonderful contribution to New Testament studies and will be proudly placed in my library for future reference.
Here’s a article that I came across the day after I posted some thoughts this week on the profiteering hired hands from John 10. Check it out right here.
The voice of the stranger and the voice of the hired hand both speak into the lives of the sheep for their own purposes. Over and against these two voices is the voice of the good shepherd. What characterizes the voice of the good shepherd? How do we know if we can accurately identify the voice of the good shepherd?
Characteristic One: The voice of the Good Shepherd knows us intimately. According to scholars, sheep would be placed in a communal pen overnight. The next morning, each shepherd would come to the gate of the pen and call his sheep. The sheep would recognize the voice of their shepherd and follow him out of the pen. They didn’t follow any shepherd but the one who intimately knew them, even by name. Though 2,000 years have passed, Jesus still knows us by name. He is intimately aware of our lives, not just the surface stuff.
Characteristic Two: The Good Shepherd leads his sheep to life. He doesn’t drive them. While strangers and profiteers steal, kill, and destroy the sheep, Jesus came to give his sheep and full and satisfying life (John 10:10).
Characteristic Three: The Good Shepherd gives his life for the sheep. Three times in the passage Jesus said that he voluntarily and willingly gives His life for the sheep. No other, especially the hired hand that flees at the first sign of trouble, would dare consider such sacrifice.
Characteristic Four: The Good Shepherd makes room for more. Multiple times in John 10 Jesus refers to sheep in the plural, talking about flocks and the need to create space for more. The Good Shepherd loves each of us, but he also loves all of us. His flock is inclusive. To the first century hearer, this bold statement would have been understood in the context of the Gentile mission. The kingdom was not just available to “children of Abraham.” It was, and continues to be available to all.
Yesterday I posted about the danger of listening to the voice of the stranger. There is little doubt in my mind that all of this talk about the voice of the stranger was a veiled reference to the influence that Satan attempts to have over the lives of Jesus’ sheep. Smart sheep don’t listen to strangers. Neither do they listen to hirelings.
The hired hand was the second voice that Jesus described in his good shepherd discourse. He described the hired hand as one who would be with the sheep during the good times, gladly earning a profit for his interest. But when threats arise the hired hand flees because he is more interested in wages than the sheep.
I’ve always taken a strong stand against televangelists who do the same thing. These ministry profiteers promise prayers and miracles across airwaves in exchange for your generous donation. They incite the viewing sheep with fear mongering regarding government and the soon to come apocalypse in order to keep their listeners connected. They claim to have special insights into the world affairs and positive proof of the President’s real religious affiliation. “Stay tuned” and “keep those cards and letters coming” seem to be the ongoing mantra. These charlatans are like the hired hands in John 10, promising much, delivering little, all the while enhancing their own lifestyles with little or no accountability.
I think the hired hands Jesus referred to in the first century were the Pharisees. The Pharisees of second Temple Judaism were the televangelists of the day, lording their persuasive power over the poor and marginalized, manipulating them for personal profit. They conveyed an image of piety yet were rotten to the core. The bottom line was that they didn’t care one bit about those first century sheep. They were in it for cash. Jesus discouraged his listeners from paying attention to the voice of the stranger, and interestingly enough, placed these religious charlatans in the same category.
That leaves us with the voice of the good shepherd. How do we know how to identify this true voice? Check in tomorrow and I’ll share a few characteristics of the voice of the good shepherd.
In his teaching regarding the “good shepherd,” Jesus described three voices that speak into our lives. The first, of which, was the voice of the stranger. When my children were young, we became aware of the importance of teaching our children about “stranger danger.” As parents we were diligent about telling our kids who to listen to and who to avoid. For example, we taught them that if a car pulled up and asked them to go help look for a lost puppy to run to a safe place. We also taught them not to speak to or acknowledge strangers for the sake of their safety. I think our kids marveled in disbelief that a person offering them a piece of candy could pose a threat, but we drilled it and instilled it into their heads.
Jesus seemed to be doing that same drill and repetition with those who listened to him that day. The voice of the stranger, according to Jesus, was not to be acknowledged because the stranger was up to no good. In fact, the goal of the stranger was to “steal, kill, and destroy” their lives (John 10:10).
It was the strange voice of the serpent in Genesis 3 that caused the downfall of humanity, and ever since that stranger’s voice has been causing pain and disappointment in the world. Jesus’ counsel to the sheep was to not listen to the voice of the stranger, and his advice still stands today. At first the voice may sound appealing, or at least innocent enough. But smart sheep learn to listen to one true voice that leads to life. Tomorrow I’ll continue this series and discuss the second voice that sheep have to contend with, the voice of the hired hand.
The Gospel of John contains some of Jesus’ most profound teaching not the least of which is the discourse on the good shepherd in chapter 10. There are several ways this passage can be addressed, but the one I chose for this weekend’s message centered around the voices that speak into the lives of the sheep. Let me share the text and then I’ll break down how I handled it.
“I tell you the truth, anyone who sneaks over the wall of a sheepfold, rather than going through the gate, must surely be a thief and a robber! But the one who enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep recognize his voice and come to him. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. They won’t follow a stranger; they will run from him because they don’t know his voice.”
Those who heard Jesus use this illustration didn’t understand what he meant, so he explained it to them: “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me were thieves and robbers. But the true sheep did not listen to them. Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep. A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming. He will abandon the sheep because they don’t belong to him and he isn’t their shepherd. And so the wolf attacks them and scatters the flock. The hired hand runs away because he’s working only for the money and doesn’t really care about the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me, just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep. I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.
“The Father loves me because I sacrifice my life so I may take it back again. No one can take my life from me. I sacrifice it voluntarily. For I have the authority to lay it down when I want to and also to take it up again. For this is what my Father has commanded” (John 10:1-18, NLT).
Did you see it? Jesus talked about the stranger, the hired hand, and the good shepherd. Each one has a motive for what they say and what they hope to gain from the sheep. Tomorrow I’ll begin the with voice of the stranger. In the meantime, who are the voices that speak into your life? Do you know what each wants? Do you know how to identify the voice of the good shepherd?
Check out this article from Reuters that discusses the increased number of bank foreclosures on churches in America. You can find the article here from Reuters.com. In the past, banks have exhibited a great deal of leniency with struggling churches, in part I believe, because they didn’t want the negative public relations reaction from communities and because church buildings, frankly, are hard to re-sell. What does this say to you about the economy? How does this article inform church leaders today about how they approach debt?
Jesus’ promise to be the “gate” is still valid today. He offers security for our lives during these turbulent times. How, then, does Jesus provide security? Upon what basis is He able to make such a bold claim? I must confess I had to think about this for a while, but I settled, at least in part, on the fact that He is changeless. It is the immutable, changeless character of God that provides this security. He can make this claim because He is unchanging in His being, His attributes, His purposes, and His promises. Consider the following texts…
“Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth and made the heavens with your hands.
They will perish, but you remain forever; they will wear out like old clothing.
You will change them like a garment and discard them.
But you are always the same; you will live forever.
The children of your people will live in security.
Their children’s children will thrive in your presence” (Psalm 102:25-28, NLT).
“I am the Lord, and I do not change. That is why you descendants of Jacob are not already destroyed” (Malachi 3:6, NLT).
“Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow” (James 1:17, NLT).
“What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us. And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-39, NLT).
A God that is changing is a God that cannot be trusted. Because God is changeless, He can be trusted to keep us secure for this life and the life to come.