Category Archives: Prophecy

Letter 39: A Fourth of July Oration

soapbox_t614

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Philippians 3:20 (NRSV)

On August 24, 410 A.D., an army of Visigoths under Alaric I, sacked Rome.  Few events have portended so much.  Rome’s citizens were left with only their lives with the Visigoths were through.  Rome had sat inviolate for over a thousand years.  Her armies had brought stability, order and security throughout the Mediterranean world.  Now all that was gone.  Writing from Bethlehem, the translator St. Jerome declared “The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken.”  In his wake, Alaric left a new world of fear and uncertainty.

Many questioned the Empire’s switch to Christianity.  Could the old gods be angry?  Still others saw the collapsing world around them, and looked for someone, anyone really, who could offer them the old security.  From across the Mediterranean came a firm voice that offered a final coda from the ancient world to stand as a bulwark against the rising tide of barbarism.  Addressing the crisis of his time, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, gave the world his magnum opus, De Civitate Dei, The City of God.

Now the great crisis of the Fifth Century will seem far removed from our own day, and a subject entirely inappropriate for a commemoration of Independence Day.  Yet, its lessons stand as an important reminder to us of our obligations as citizens, and concerning the nature and role of government.  On this day we celebrate our freedom.  Let us remember what a frail things freedom is, that we would use it well.

As Augustine saw it, the world was a dangerous place.  As Christians, Augustine reminded his readers that they were first and foremost, the people of God, and ultimately the citizens of His City.  He was quite aware, however, that we had yet to possess this city.  For now, he wrote, we live in the City of Man, which is at war with the City of God.  As such, we are by nature aliens and strangers in this world.  Our hope lies elsewhere.

Jeremiah 29 records a letter the prophet sent to the Jews taken into exile by the Babylonians.  Israel had linked its religious identity with their political identity.  To be a revived people of God, they must then become a revived nation.  But here they were in exile, in a strange land, with strange customs, subject to other authority.

Jeremiah disabuses them of these hopes.  They will remain in exile for seventy years.  Instead of pining for a lost nation, and hoping for what cannot be, he urges them to settle in to their new surroundings, lay down roots, raise families, and flourish where they are.  Jeremiah goes further, urging the exiles to pray for the welfare of the cities where they now reside, and intercede with the Lord on its behalf. (Jer. 29:7)

He makes the point that their identity as God’s people is not dependent on whether there is a Jewish nation.  They can be God’s people where they are, if they embrace the tension this creates.  He urges us to engage our neighbors, from a position of exile.  Here furthermore grounds these efforts in the hope and knowledge that God remains in control, and that He has a plan that is unfolding. (v. 10-11)

The tension should inform our lives as citizens.  Too often, we head to one extreme of another.  We can withdraw, deciding that the world is too evil, and await the coming Kingdom.  Or we can wrap the Cross with an American flag, and confuse our home with our salvation.

God does use purely secular authorities.  Isaiah 45 sings of the Persian emperor Cyrus as God’s instrument.  Similarly, God explains how he used the Babylonians to carry out His work.  Indeed, it is Caesar’s need for more taxes that brings the pregnant virgin to Bethlehem to fulfil prophecy.  As the Psalmist says, even man’s wrath praises Him.  (Ps. 76:10)

So how are we to live our lives here?  We live here, but the ground of our being lies elsewhere.

At least we should follow Jeremiah’s instructions, to build a life here, to not hold back, but we should also hold up a mirror, shining God’s light on this darkened world.  We should be prophetic voices, reminding the world of God’s justice, and seeking to bring our world as close to that vision as we can, even while realizing that we shall always fall short.

But we do not despair, in this, the country of our exile. For all the celebrations and gnashing of teeth, we too often lose sight of this tremendous truth, that we are citizens of heaven, and from thence comes our salvation.

stumpspeakingdetail

Leave a comment

Filed under elections, holidays, politics, Prophecy

Letter 30: Preaching Angry

I am preaching tomorrow from John 11. I’m not supposed to say anything about it, les people decide to stay home because Pastor’s not preaching. But I’d be reticent to say much of anything even if it had no bearing on attendance. I’m preaching angry Sunday.

It’s not typical for me, and certainly anything but typical for our church. But the words need to be said, and it scares me. They’ve been pounding about in my head and my heart ever since I first read them two weeks ago. I’ve thought twice about delivering them, and then thought about them some more. But they will not go away.

I’m scared that the people will not understand, or worse, that they will go sailing past the congregation, who will smile nicely, nod their heads, tell me how powerful the Word was this Sunday, and continue as if I hadn’t said a word.

On only two other occasions have I felt something in me struggling to come out, that I had to get out, lie I had to speak before the force shook me off my feet. It was painful. Just getting the word out was terrifying. But I had to. I think this is what some of the Old Testament prophets must have experienced, only I’m not prophet. Far from it.

This time, though, I am confronting a congregation I wish to call to task. Many times over the past months, people have told me that they want to see signs and wonders, that we should be seeking these things. Something in me recoils at hearing this. We misplace our emphasis from the giver to the gifts.

But this is not easy to say, especially given some of things I am told we will be doing during the service. So I am nervous.

O Lord, speak through my words to Your People. Speak clearly, speak directly. May they hear what you have pressed so firmly upon me. May I not get in the way. May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight o Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.HW1872P1024B130

Leave a comment

Filed under prayer, preaching, Prophecy

Letter 22: How Would Jesus Drive

Chesterton once observed that, “The only Christian doctrine for which there is empirical evidence is that of original sin.” One needed only to pick up the newspaper and read. Of course, these days, very few people actually read a physical newspaper, but you can readily substitute television or news-feeds. Or, you can simply go for a drive during rush hour.

Over the years I have heard a number of discussions on Christianity, all attempting to answer the question, “What would Jesus drive?” That is not my concern. My question is much more practical and relevant: “How would Jesus drive?”

Driving to work last week, I was reminded of a passage from Ezekiel:

The Lord God says to you, My flock: I am going to judge between one sheep and another, between the rams and male goats. Isn’t it enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of the pasture with your feet? Or isn’t it enough that you drink the clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Yet My flock has to feed on what your feet have trampled, and drink what your feet have muddied. Ezekiel 34:17-19 (HCSB)

Do you see rush hour traffic in this description?

I could offer an answer to the question I posed, but I think it better to leave you to answer it.

“Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey.” Ezekiel 34:20-22a (ESV)china-traffic_2356349b

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity, growth, Prophecy, virtue

Letter 11: The Gift of of Being a Church Janitor – A Defense of Cessationism

janitor_m

I am interrupting my reflections on worship to spend a few moments responding to the sermon I heard this past Sunday. It was on the Person of the Holy Spirit. In general, it was an excellent summary of the Third Person of the Trinity, focused mostly on what the Holy Spirit does in the life of the Believer. Our preacher, like many in our congregation came from a Cessationist background, which he bluntly described as teaching the “Father, Son, and Holy Bible.” While this is probably a fair reflection of many churches in this country, I believe it does a disservice to those churches, as it is a reflection more of the poverty of their theological education, than their actual teachings and tradition. So, while not holding to every tenet of Cessationism, I thought it worthwhile to put forward a defense of Cessationism’s teachings on the Holy Spirit.

Cessationism was adopted by the Church fairly early on in response to a series of heresies that lay great emphasis on the immediate workings of God though the Holy Spirit on the believer, in such a fashion as to trump or contradict the teachings of the Church. This has actually been a continual issue within the Church, down to the present day. How does one respond to the person who claims to have heard directly from God?

Cessationism took as its starting point the decision to establish the canon of Scripture. This, too, was in response to several heresies. The Church took the position that the greater revelations of God were contained within the bounds of the canon. There was no need for further revelation, as we could now turn to Scripture. The Church took to heart Jesus’s warning at the end of Revelation that nothing should be added or removed from the written Word of God.

While those who emphasize the role of the Holy Spirit argue that the Church from this point denied the various gifts and the associated signs and wonders, this flies in the face of history. Certainly any history of the medieval church is full of tales of miraculous healings. Moreover, there were numerous men and women who rose up to speak with a prophetic voice. Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Savarnarola, John Wesley, Martin Luther King, Jr., amongst others, come to mind as examples of the continuation of prophecy in the Church, as they spoke God’s word to the Church and the times.

In the main, the Church has seen the Spirit’s presence and work as a much more subtle effort. The Spirit works through Scripture, for example, bringing it to mind, and applying it to our lives as we read or hear it proclaimed. The Spirit serves as God’s approval and empowerment of our work to advance His Kingdom. The Spirit is a tangible reminder to us of our salvation. The Spirit’s presence enlivens our souls, quickens our hearts, and by God’s grace empowers to become the people God has called us to be. As often as not, it does this work over time.

What a Cessationist would not do is focus on the gifts. Once you’ve dug through the underlying theology, it clear that Cessationists believe that the Spirit is very much active in the world today, and is a necessary player in all Christian endeavors. The difference, in part, is in emphasis. The gifts are adjuncts to the Church’s mission. Luke describes the gifts as the power needed to carry out our role as heralds and witnesses. (Luke 24:47-49; Acts 1: 4, 6-8) Without actually carrying out the work of the church, the gifts have no value.

A related concern is that as presented, Spirit-Seeking churches tend to dwell on only a few gifts, namely prophecy, healing, and tongues. They may admit to others, but say very little about them, which can lead to a lopsided church, which struggles to minister fully. While Cessationists may give short shrift to prophets, they do recognize a much broader range of gifts and ministries. We are encouraged to pray for the gift of tongues or prophecy, but does anyone pray to receive the gift of serving as a Nursery worker or church janitor? The Church needs all of them.

Our focus, then should be on the mission, trusting that God will bless our efforts with his power. Too often we stop short of this. We are called to be the people of God, making disciples of all people, and teaching them everything taught by Christ, much as we ourselves are to be transformed by them. That is the true measure of our faith. Many will speak that day of the miracles they wrought and the prophecies delivered, and the tongues spoken, to whom Christ will deliver the final verdict: “I never knew you; depart from me, ye that work iniquity [disregarding my commands].” (Matt. 7:22-23).

May that not be the verdict on us.

1 Comment

Filed under Christianity, Holy Spirit, Prophecy, Spiritual Gifts

Letter 8: Like a Thief in the Night: Some Thoughts on the End Times

Last night, the subject of the End Times came up in the small group that I lead with my wife. Several people vigorously affirmed that we were indeed in the End Times. That all signs point to this, said they, and we should prepare for a dystopian world worthy of any science fiction tale or zombie story. Listening to their excited talk brought back memories of my childhood and the day my mother discovered Hal Lindsey.
She had only recently come to Christ, and a good friend handed her a book she just had to read. The Late, Great Planet Earth, dates from 1969, and lays out the basic framework of Lindsey’s thinking. Biblical prophecies point to current events that will usher in the Apocalypse. From his reading of Scripture, he deduced that particular countries or regions were spelled out as playing parts in this drama. All of these regions would be arrayed against the nation of Israel. Lindsey’s particular focus was on Western Europe, where the growing Common Market, as the EU was then known, was becoming a new Roman Empire. Of special significance were its number of members, 10 at the time he wrote the book, and 12 at the time my mother encountered him, a very biblical number.
He followed that book up with The 1980’s: Countdown to Armageddon, which my mother also read. He now thought that the end was very nigh, with the decline of American culture and power. This was crucial, because America defends Israel, and thus delays the Apocalypse. On monthly audio tapes which were eagerly passed from hand to hand, he grew more specific. 1984 was the year.
I was fascinated, though then still outside the faith. There was this secret drama of cosmic importance, with vast and dark powers, evil to defeat, and the shining hope that out of this disaster Paradise would return to Earth. And only “we” knew it.
That, of course, was the real pull, the secret knowledge of how the world really works.
But 1984 passed, and we were all still here. And the more I thought about it, the more outlandish Lindsey’s claims appeared. The Common Market could not be Rome, in part because it included nations never under Rome’s dominion (Ireland, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland), and did not include nations that were a part of the empire (Switzerland, the Balkans, Syria, Egypt, and all of North Africa). I spent more time reading the Book of Revelation, and found myself mostly confused.
The church we were attending at the time, was a firm believer in Dispensationalism, the belief that the seven churches of Revelation symbolize seven periods, or dispensations of God that culminate in the End Times. I remember well the wall charts, linking human history to various Bible passages, and warning of evil times to come. The Scripture verses held the keys to understanding the times. We just had to pay attention and get ready.
I was reminded of the wall charts when I first really read Marx in college. I have no idea if the founder of Communism ever encountered John Nelson Darby who first popularized Dispensationalism in the 1830’s, but the Marxist vision of history bears a more than passing resemblance to those wall charts. Even the images are similar: a great tribulation, and the culmination in a new Paradise, only this time without God.
And Marx fell prey to the same issue that bedevils Dispensationalists like Lindsey: What happens when your reading of events turns out to be wrong? In the case of Marx, Lenin just added another period. In Lindsey’s case, he just subdivided the dispensations further, and generally declined to say anything further about the unfulfilled predictions. He is still out there, on TV and the Internet, and still writing books, having missed the Apocalypse several times now.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I am not a dispensationalist. Indeed, when it comes to things End Times, I am agnostic. When asked when these thing will be, Jesus stated that no one knows, not even him. Only the Father knows. That settles it for me. If Jesus Himself did not know these things and would venture no opinion on them, who am I to attempt it?
Reading Revelation these days, there are still many passages that puzzle me. Portions of it clearly describe Christ’s first coming, some clearly speak of a time in the future. In between, it would appear that the Earth gets destroyed several times over. I have read some of the differing explanations offered by the Church throughout its history, and I content myself with the knowledge that in the end, it all turns out okay. Hardly a deep theological statement, I fear.
What is the benefit is of our fascination with eschatology? Does it help me become a better Christian? Do I take on more of the character of Christ for knowing where the Antichrist will come from? In dividing the sheep from the goats on the great and terrible Day of the Lord, Jesus was more concerned with our efforts to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and generally befriend the friendless, not that we can identify the Mark of the Beast. In the end, it strikes me more as a wonderful diversion from the business of the Kingdom, to clothe us with the similitude of wisdom and holiness, as befits the Lightbearer.
So the world may end tomorrow, or it may not. However it comes, at the end of my life’s journey, I hope to hear the words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter into your Master’s happiness,” and make safe landfall at last. Until then, my pilgrimage continues.DIVINECAL11X17

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity, Prophecy