Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Jericho and Us

Some excerpts from a recent sermon I wrote on Joshua 6:15-21 (the story of Jericho)...

Jericho has set itself up against God, against its Lord and King. How may our world do the same? When we look at the culture in which we live, we can see ways in which its values stand in contrast to the Lordship of Christ. Advertisements, for example, target human desires, and so they can be indicative of deeper beliefs. Think of the self-promoting culture that gravitates towards Youtube’s slogan “Broadcast yourself.” Or the entitlement inherent in Burger King’s “Have it your way.” Or the appetite-driven bent of Sprite’s “Obey your thirst.” There’s a dangerous sense of pride and control with other words like American Express’ “My life. My card.” All these things can be used in good ways, but the mentality that they can target is dangerous. Implicitly and explicitly, there is much around us that sets itself up against God, and would draw us to conform to the same values. As followers of Jesus—the Lord of all—we take a stand against any other things that set themselves up against His Lordship. How do we do this, if we aren’t to physically storm cities as Israel did?


We read in Ephesians, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Ephesians 6:10-12, NIV)

And later we are told to take the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” This mission involves absorbing violence as well—we are to forgive and not repay evil for evil. God may and will judge justly, and we are told not to take revenge. And yet we are to enter combat as much as Israel did in the battle at Jericho. We are not fighting for our own rights, but for God’s glory and for the lives of people. The devil would have people in bondage and death, but as we make disciples we share the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is Lord.

We sometimes talk about making Jesus Lord of our lives. This is a misnomer. We can’t make Jesus anything. We can only acknowledge Who He is—and even if no human acknowledged Him, He would still be Lord. The people of Jericho didn’t repent and turn to God, but they still belonged to Him. The question is whether we will humble ourselves and conform our lives to this truth now—sharing the gospel so others may also bow the knee in humble repentance before their Lord and our Lord—or whether we along with all others must ultimately do so anyway despite all resistance when Christ comes again.

And now is the time of forgiveness. Now is the time of Rahab, becoming a traitor to her city of Jericho and re-aligning herself with God as she hid the spies. God has provided abundantly for us to find mercy before Him—the marks on Jesus’ hands and feet testify to the deep, deep love of Jesus. Our Lord, our Sovereign, actually humbled Himself to take the wrath we deserved for our rebellion. He took it upon Himself! The One we bow the knee to is both our Lord, our Judge, and our Savior. So we are called to come before Him for forgiveness and new life, and we are to go into the world and call others to Him.


And this is not an impossible task even though the walls may rise high and the cities be shut tightly in opposition, for He is with us to the end of the age! Every tower and city will fall; whether in repentance like Rahab, or in destruction like the rest of Jericho. And as we go, we remember how we ready ourselves for this mission. In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul writes: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5, NIV)


Sometimes we shy away from witnessing, from sharing what we believe, as it may offend. But really, the most violent thing we could do would be to fail to preach the gospel to a dying world, to fail to preach Christ as Lord in a place that serves idols that only give death. In Christ is life and hope; how can we not share this?

Our calling? Having bowed before Christ and continuing to surrender our lives to Him (for we still set ourselves stubbornly against God so often), having received adoption in place of condemnation, and forgiveness in place of punishment, we are given a commission to go and make disciples, that others may glorify their Lord and ours. That others may experience the grace of the Lord Jesus. And so we fight, we give ourselves, for God’s glory and His gospel.


And our Lord—to whom all authority in heaven and on earth has been given—sends us out to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything” He has commanded us. And just as Israel could not be confident in themselves but in God when they went against Jericho, we also can be confident that Jesus is with us. The One who died for us also is also with us every day.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Barabbas - in Angola and in the Church

Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.” But the whole crowd shouted, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!” (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.) Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.” But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will. (Luke 23:13-25, NIV)

At Angola, we saw men who had committed terrible crimes, who had hurt and killed others, and who had in so doing rebelled against God—like Barabbas. The bars that closed behind us were daily reminders of this, as was the barbed wire along the prison fences. Victims surely still bear marks of their crimes. Tears still shed, lives fragmented, wounds that people would never fully recover from until the new heaven and new earth. No doubt many of these men had done horrible things. Men in prison for life. One man I met, with tattoos indicating a life that had been given to the service of the devil as a Satanist. Recollections of a life once lived.

Not too unlike Barabbas—one who had been imprisoned for “insurrection and murder.”

But these men have been given new lives. Their old lives have been exchanged for the life of Jesus—who took their place. And at Angola, we were overwhelmed with evidences that these men had been pardoned like Barabbas, and given a new life in Jesus Christ.

Lives permeated with humility. Sitting beside men who have tattoos up their arms or on their necks, some built like The Rock—yet not hardened our callous, but listening attentively, asking insightful questions about ministry, and how to minister to those around them. Gentleness of speech, one man beside me offering brownies to others around him. A rap by several of the inmates with a chorus that ran “Bow! Bow! Bow! Bow”—declaring the Lordship of Christ in Philippians 2. One older man saying that they prayed more for us as the next generation than they did for themselves. A man who had been a right-hand hit man for a Columbian drug lord, who had—while in 20 years solitary confinement—become a believer and begun to paint beautiful pictures. A classmate sharing how he had been able to reach out pastorally to a guard who regularly spoke roughly to the inmates. Hearing of men from Angola being witnesses to the mercy of God within other prisons. Goodbye hugs, genuine words that we will be missed. Gentleness worked by the gracious, Fatherly hand of God. There is life here.

But these men did more than show us something special happening at Angola. The truths we saw at this prison reach far beyond the prison bars and barbed wire. They showed us the story and calling of every Christian. Jesus and Barabbas as an image of the gospel. Jesus is innocent, but He suffered and died for us—for us who had rebelled against God and hated others (having been murderers and insurrectionists like Barabbas). And so we are also given new life, and called to live for our God in response. As we read in Peter’s Pentacost speech, “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”(Acts 2:36, NIV) And the right response? “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. (Acts 2:38, NIV)

At the same time, we are called to remember our brothers and sisters in prison—they are having struggles and temptations and difficulties that are unique to them. May they continually remember their freedom, pardon, and calling in Christ, even when behind bars for a time. Let’s remember them in prayer, even as we also remember the common pattern of their story and ours.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Angola State Penitentiary

From October 10th – 13th, I had the opportunity to visit Angola State Penitentiary, in Baton Rouge, LA. We were a group of 11 students from Calvin Theological Seminary, two professors, and one other guest, and we spent our time at Angola learning its history, sitting in with students (inmates) who are studying at the seminary program within the prison, learning about the life and ministry within the prison, and worshiping with the men there at their nightly chapel services. Angola used to be the bloodiest maximum security prison in the states, but has undergone miraculous transformation—only explainable as the work of God. Violence dropped drastically, and many of the men (the majority of whom are serving a life sentence) have become Christians. We had the privilege of getting to know some of these men, attending their chapel services and learning alongside them in their seminary classroom (an extension program of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary). God has paradoxically given great freedom to these men even within the confines of prison, and though they are surely experiencing the very real pain of separation from families and their freedom, it was amazing to see the powerful effects of the gospel permeating the prison and transforming these men’s lives. Our experience in Angola was one of many tensions, and it is a taste of this experience that I seek to share here...

A classroom, students finding their seats, hellos exchanged, handshakes, hugs, introductions. Lecturer adjusts his mic and talking subsides as he greets the class. Good morning! Today we will be focusing on theories of change—how does God use us as ministers to help others change? Attentive alertness—some more, some less—and questions for clarification and insight. “What about this passage, and how that affects our understanding?” “Isn’t all true change in a person miraculous?” Small groups for five to ten minutes. We gather in our corner—five together here. Back and forth on how change comes about. Some are more quiet, listening, attentive. Thinkers? A few laughs and a broadening perspective as we converse. Bring it back to the whole class—more insights. Professor clarifies and guides a continuing discussion, give-and-take. Some listening to every word, leaning back, pencil thoughtfully perched between fingertips. Some intently leaning forward, taking in every word of the lecture. Others work on assignments, half-listening as they write for another class...

Through the hall we hear “Count!” and the lecture stops. “We’ll pick up after.” Inmates, hearing their groups called, leave the class and line up for their count. All here. Perhaps a re-count if the number is off. We stay seated; Angola seminary students stand and line up to be confirmed present. All accounted for. Students, inmates return a few at a time, tattoos on arms and neck, white T-shirts and blue jeans with some variety, memories of convictions. Conversation resumes. The lecture picks up again. Preaching on dying and rising with Christ...

Worshiping alongside a hundred men, amidst the pain in their own lives, the remembrance of life sentences. But they have a greater hope and a new life. But we have new life. Worshiping alongside these hundred men, brothers, the victims of crimes seem a world away—but are there. Bodies in the ground, tears still shed, lives still fragmented. These bars seem out of place around the church, but stand to remind of pain that cuts deep. Forgiven. What does this mean? Transformed. New life. Blood was spilled, that brought these men here. Blood also spilled—one man’s blood—to bring them to life even within these bars (to bring us to life—each one who recognizes that we are not so different from any other after all). Tears were shed by the Lord of all. Sweat like drops of blood by the Son of God. Jesus Barabbas for Jesus the Christ. Justice served on our behalf—by the One against Whom we rebelled. Not a passing over, but a taking upon Himself of all the wrath for this violence. And so He purchases men for God. A scandal. But this is where justice and love and mercy meet.

And so in Angola, we saw the gospel. We saw men purchased for God. We saw our brothers, scandalously forgiven just as we have been. Justice was served, the Christ crucified. And here within these bars we saw evidence of the empty tomb. Christ is risen.

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. (Matthew 5:21–22, NIV)

17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”... 26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (Matthew 27:17, 26, NIV)

23 But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will. (Luke 23:23-25, NIV)

9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." (Luke 18:9-14, NIV)

Isn’t this the story of each and every person who claims Christ as Lord and Savior? Are we so different from our brothers in Angola? And it is the same gospel of grace—God’s forgiveness and bringing us to life in Christ, despite our unworthiness—that is our hope as well.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Coming Home

Today, let's look at the parable of the prodigal son - or rather, Jesus' story of a father and his two sons.

11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them...


21 “...The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate...


28 “...The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31 “ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ ” [The Holy Bible: New International Version, electronic ed., Lk 15: 11–12, 21-23, 28-32 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).]

(I have only included selections from the parable of the prodigal son here; the entire story is found in Luke 15:11-32, with all of Luke 15 as relevant context too.)

In this parable, the older son may seem at first like the responsible one, the good son. And he surely sees himself this way in latter part of the story. But there are at least two red flags that tell us otherwise. At the time of the younger brother demanding his inheritance and leaving their father, the older brother should be stepping forward, seeking to reconcile younger son to the father. (see Kenneth Bailey, Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, 168). However, we read no word of the older brother, no interposed words of attempted reconciliation. This silence seems to be significant, seems to speak loudly of something wrong in the relationship of the older son to his own brother and father. Also, later on we read the older son’s complaint to his father: “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders...” (v. 29) Instead of being grateful for the relationship he can have with his father, he views his father (who, we see from verses 28 and 31, desires to be with his son) as a taskmaster.

The younger son wanted out, wanted to be gone and do his own thing; the older son thought of father as a taskmaster. So we see that neither had a good relationship with his father. In this way, both sons were far away from home—whether in that distant country in direct rebellion, or out in the field, “slaving” for the father and never disobeying his orders. They both needed to come home to their Father.

C.S. Lewis has a novel called The Great Divorce. In it, he writes about a bus which brings people from hell to visit heaven, and it is the story of why the people in hell have rejected heaven and ultimately God Himself. In one particular conversation, a man on the bus from hell (referred to as the “Big Ghost”) sees a past acquaintance who is in heaven. At this point in the conversation, we have found out that the acquaintance who is now in heaven had apparently committed a murder at one time. The “Big Ghost” from hell is surprised to see this man who had committed a murder, in heaven—while he has found himself in hell:

'Personally,' said the Big Ghost ... ‘I'd have thought you and I ought to be the other way round. That's my personal opinion.'
'Very likely we soon shall be,' said the other. 'If you'll stop thinking about it.'
'Look at me, now,' said the Ghost, slapping its chest...'I gone straight all my life. I don't say I was a religious man and I don't say I had no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life, see? I done my best by everyone, that's the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn't mine by rights... That's the sort I was and I don't care who knows it.'
'It would be much better not to go on about that now.' [said the other]
'Who's going on? I'm not arguing. I'm just telling you the sort of chap I was, see? I'm asking for nothing but my rights. You may think that you can put me down because you're dressed up like that...and I'm only a poor man. But I got to have my rights same as you, see?'
'Oh no. It's not so bad as that. I haven't got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You'll get something far better. Never fear.'
'That's just what I say. I haven't got my rights. I always done my best and I never done anything wrong. And what I don't see is why I should be put below a ... murderer like you.'
'Who knows whether you will be? Only be happy and come with me.'
'What do you keep on arguing for? I'm only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I'm not asking for anybody's bleeding charity.'
'Then do. At once. Ask for the
Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.' [Selections from C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, 28, quoted here. Emphasis added]

In the parable of the prodigal son, the older brother doesn’t seem to want charity, doesn’t look for grace for himself or his brother, and doesn’t appear to value the father’s love. The younger receives it undeservedly—as the older brother is also called to do. And C.S. Lewis above speaks of Christ and the charity—the grace—that can be had only freely (never bought or earned or toiled for) through His death.

The invitation to come home, to be a child of God, is open to all—to those who are actively rebelling, to those at the end of their resources, to those who recognize an emptiness in their lives like the younger brothers’ hunger early in the parable, to those beginning to come back to God but not sure of how He will receive them, to those like the older brother, working for God but still not having a relationship with Him (or others) defined by His grace and love. The invitation is open to all to trust in Jesus and come home, and be received with God’s love because of Jesus.

We read in Galatians of the futility of our own works to make us acceptable to God. Only faith, confidence, trust in Jesus allowed us to be accepted back when we come home to our Father. Here we read Galatians 3:10-11, and then verses 26-28:

10 All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.” ... 26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [The Holy Bible: New International Version, electronic ed., Ga 3:10-11, 26–28 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).]

Finally, we can also remember that this way home, this path along which we can return to God, is only through Jesus.

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. 2 He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. [The Holy Bible: New International Version, electronic ed., 1 Jn 2:1–2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996).]

The way back home, back to our Father—when we or others wander far from home—has been paved by Jesus Christ. It is only because He bore all the guilt and blame for our rebellion, and allowed for us to be forgiven—this is how we can be welcomed home.