Christianity 201

April 9, 2018

Receiving What You Work For

Isaiah 65:23 They will not labor in vain,
    nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the Lord,
    they and their descendants with them. (NIV)

Isaiah 60:11 Your gates will always stand open,
    they will never be shut, day or night,
so that people may bring you the wealth of the nations—
    their kings led in triumphal procession. (NIV)

Today we’re again returning to the website, Theology of Work, part of the Theology of Work Project. Many scripture references are embedded in the commentary today; open a second window with your browser using the Bible sites you prefer, and feel free to click back and forth.

Work’s Ultimate Meaning

Throughout the book, Isaiah encourages Israel with the hope that God will eventually put to right the wrongs the people are suffering in the present. Work, and the fruits of work, are included in this hope. By chapter 40, as the book moves from telling the truth about the present to telling the truth about the future, the sense of hope increases. The material about the suffering servant in chapters 40-59 can hardly be understood except as God’s gift of hope in the future fulfillment of God’s kingdom.

In chapters 60-66, this hope is finally expressed in full. God will gather his people together again (Is. 60:4), vanquish the oppressors (Is. 60:12-17), redeem the rebellious who repent (Is. 64:5-65:10), and establish his just kingdom (Is. 60:3-12). In place of Israel’s faithless leaders, God himself will rule: “You shall know that I, the Lord, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob” (Is. 60:16). The change is so radical that it amounts to a new creation, of parallel power and majesty to God’s first creation of the world. “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (Is. 65:17).

Chapters 60-66 are rich with vivid portraits of the perfect kingdom of God. In fact, a large fraction of New Testament imagery and theology are drawn from these chapters in Isaiah. The final chapters of the New Testament (Revelation 21 and 22) are, in essence, a recapitulation of Isaiah 65-66 in Christian terms.

It may be surprising to some how much of Isaiah 60-66 is related to work and the outcomes of work. The things people work for in life come to complete fruition at last, including:

  • Markets and trading, including the movement of gold and silver (Is. 60:6,9), the bringing of firs, and the opening of gates for trade. “Your gates shall always be open; day and night they shall not be shut, so that nations shall bring you their wealth, with their kings led in procession.” (Is. 60:11)
  • Agricultural and forest products: including frankincense, flocks, rams (Is. 60:6-7), cypress and pine (Is. 6:13)
  • Transportation by land and sea (Is. 60:6, 60:9), and even perhaps by air (Is. 60:8)
  • Justice and peace (Is. 60:17-18, 61:8, 66:16)
  • Social services (Is. 61:1-4)
  • Food and drink (Is. 65:13)
  • Health and long life (Is. 65:20)
  • Construction and housing (Is. 65:21)
  • Prosperity and wealth (Is. 66:12)

All these things have eluded Israel in their faithlessness to God. Indeed, the harder they tried to achieve them, the less the cared to worship God or follow his ways. The result was to lack them even more. But when the book of Isaiah presents Israel’s future hope as the New Creation, all the preceding promises in the book come to the fore. The picture portrayed is that of a future eschatological or final day when the “righteous offspring of the servant” will enjoy all the blessings of the messianic age depicted earlier. Then people will actually receive the things they work for because “they shall not labor in vain” (Is. 65:23). Israel’s sorrow will be turned into joy, and one of the dominant motifs of this coming joy is the enjoyment of the work of their own hands.

January 25, 2018

Redefining Family

by Clarke Dixon

Who feels more like “family” to you, the family you were adopted or born into, or a group of friends? There was an article some time ago which lamented the breakdown of the family. Though I don’t remember much about the article, the author looked at how tv shows were helping to redefine family with “Friends” leading the way.  Many shows portray one’s family members as the last people you would go to for empathy or understanding. However, one’s friends are portrayed as always being there for love and support. With family being redefined in our day how are we supposed to define family? Jesus tells us in Mark 3, and you may be surprised:

31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:31-35

Considering the importance placed on family in Old Testament law, Jesus’ redefinition of family was shocking to the people of that day. It may be just as shocking today. We may find ourselves asking if Jesus should have been a better Christian and taken the opportunity to affirm the importance of family. Instead he redefines his family as those who do the will of God. What are we to make of this?

First, Jesus redefinition of family as those who do God’s will is good news for those with no family, or whose family has abdicated their role. You might lose out on the ideal family, but you never need lose out on a family. This, of course, speaks to the nature of the Church. If one’s experience of church is to just show up, sing a few songs, hear a sermon and go home, then we are missing out on part of what God’s will for the church is. Reading the New Testament, you never get the sense that people just went to church. You get the sense that they are the church, in relationship with God and with each other. While some churches practically demand a quiet sanctuary prior to worship as a sign of reverence, I pastor a very noisy church. I prefer to look at the positive side of this and celebrate the fact that people are relating to each other. Many churches, including ours, are known as being friendly. However, churches need to go beyond just being friendly, to being family.

Second, Jesus’ redefinition of family is good news for world peace. We have family everywhere, and that family transcends political, racial and language boundaries. Moving from Ottawa I do not miss city life. I do, however, miss the diversity we enjoyed at Fourth Avenue Baptist. Each Sunday I could look around and see people from Jamaica, Russia, Iran, England, Northern Ireland, Haiti, Benin, and often other nations besides. My favourite Sundays were the combined services with a primarily Congolese church. We would worship in up to four different languages with our love for decorum before God Almighty mixing wonderfully with their excitement about Jesus. One is reminded of what’s ahead:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . .  Revelation 7:9

Third, Jesus’ redefinition of family is not a rejection of our genetic family, but a call to enter into it with passion. When someone does the will of God as the brother or sister of Jesus, it is good news for one’s family. What is the will of God within family life? We can think of specific instructions for a wife to “respect her husband” (Ephesians 5:3), and for husbands to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Such sacrificial love and mutual respect is good for family life. We can think of instructions for children to “obey your parents” (Ephesians 6:1), and for parents to not “provoke your children to anger” (Ephesians 6:4). Many other passages pointing to God’s will for us are beneficial for family life also. Like, “love one another” (John 13:34), and “do to others you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31). Those things work well in family. Also “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18), and “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4). Sobriety and faithfulness are always good for family. And one more on God’s will:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8

Many a dysfunctional family could use more justice, kindness and members who walk humbly with God. Far from a call to renounce family, God’s will is that we do family well.

Finally, Jesus’ redefinition of family points forward to the wonderful possibility of being God’s child. You may say, “But Pastor, I try to do God’s will and find it impossible to always do it. I always mess up at some point”. Keep reading the Gospel of Mark until you get to that place where Jesus prayed “remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:36). God’s will was that in Jesus’ death and resurrection death should be defeated and we would be reconciled to God. Jesus did the will of the Father and now we have the wonderful opportunity of being adopted into His family, not because of our perfection in keeping His will, but because of His.

Should we be surprised that Jesus redefines family? We should not be surprised for it is an act of love and grace. God calls us into a new kind of family, then calls us and enables us to do His will within our family of origin.

 All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV.

Listen to the audio of Redefining Family at this link.

October 28, 2015

Shall We Condemn God for Bad Behavior?

by Clarke Dixon (click here to read at source)

I was planning on preaching on Deuteronomy 7:7-11, but verse 2 kept getting in my way. It is the kind of verse we Christians love to gloss over but the super-sceptics love to dwell upon. God’s people are almost ready to enter the Promised Land following their desert wanderings, but the question arises as to what should happen to the peoples who are already living in that land. Verse 2 tells us:

. . . and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. (Deuteronomy 7:2)

Ouch, that does not sound much like the “Jesus loves you” that we are used to. In fact it sounds like the kind of thing that would get a nation into deep trouble at the United Nations. It has caused many people to wonder if this God is credible. Can we believe in a God who commands destruction without mercy? Shall we love the LORD or shall we condemn Him as unjust and unworthy of devotion?

First off, let me recommend Paul Copan’s book Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Some of what follows here is written there but with greater depth and clarity. Let us consider the following points:

Strong language is used to make a strong point. Overstatement was a common practice in Biblical times and is found in the Bible. We still do it today, such as when I state that the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to destroy every team that stands between them and the Stanley Cup this year. Obviously I am overconfident, but more obvious is that there really will be no “destroying” going on. The language of destruction is used to make a point about winning. Here in Deuteronomy 7:2 there is a strong point being made: The best chance God’s people have of staying in a close relationship with the LORD is to have nothing to do with the people already living in the land. It would be too easy to write up treaties and be assimilated into those peoples. But then how well could God’s people keep the Law, especially the ten commandments which begin with the call for the people to have no other gods beside the LORD? Indeed the point is not so much the elimination of people, but the utter destruction of an abhorrent religion:

But this is how you must deal with them:break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. 6 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Deuteronomy 7:5-6)

If “destruction” is used to make a strong point, “driven out” better reflects the reality. The Bible itself sometimes asserts that the Canaanites will not be destroyed but rather “driven out.”

When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations–(Deuteronomy 7:1 NIV emphasis mine)

When the Lord your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, “It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to occupy this land” (Deuteronomy 9:4 emphasis mine)

Additionally, not having aircraft or motorized vehicles, ancient wars did not rely on the lightning quick shock and awe attacks of today. There was time for people to flee. In fact the inhabitants of Canaan show up in the Bible after the days of conquest, so they were not utterly destroyed in a genocidal way we might have expected from the command of verse 2. Indeed our passage assumes that God’s people will be rubbing shoulders with the Canaanites in the days to come:

3 Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. (Deuteronomy 7:3-4)

There is no need for commandments about intermarriage if the people are utterly destroyed.

The command to destroy the Canaanites must be read in the context of the entire Bible. There is the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12 that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. There are the laws God had already given that were designed to protect foreigners who may be poor and vulnerable. There is the book of Ruth where a foreigner is welcomed into God’s people and even becomes the great-grandmother of King David. There is the book of Jonah which challenges God’s people to allow or even expect God to love their enemies. There is the entire trajectory of the New Testament, where Jesus dies not just for the Jew; “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16); where the Holy Spirit is given to people from any background; where looking forward “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9) One cannot read the entire Bible without getting the impression that God’s love stretches far and wide.

God had been very patient with the Canaanites, but his patience had run out allowing justice to be rolled out. When we hear about God’s people being told to destroy the Canaanites we might be under the impression that it would be like the nice people of Prince Edward Island being called to wipe out the nice people of New Brunswick. But ancient peoples were not that nice. In fact the rise of ISIS today gives us a glimpse of the kind of evil ancient tribal peoples could be capable of. Not too many of us would be sad to see ISIS destroyed. Actually ISIS displays better morals than the Canaanites for they know better than to sacrifice children in religious rites. The Canaanites had hundreds of years of descent into darkness, now it was time for God to express His justice through judgement. It is: “because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you.” (Deuteronomy 9:4)

God’s command to destroy the Canaanites should be read with this important truth in mind: God owes no person another minute of life. This is something we learn from the flood in Noah’s day which was not genocide, but the just judgement of God. The Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death, and in the flood the payment of those wages were brought forward. More accurately, those wages were no longer held back. God is holy. We are not. That anyone should live to see another day, another hour, another minute, is a sign of God’s grace and mercy. God would be just if even Noah and his family were not spared. They did not deserve life. None of us do. That we experience life at all is a sign of the grace of God.

That God’s people stood ready to enter the Promised Land was a sign of the grace of God. They did not show themselves worthy of the honor:

6 Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people. 7 Remember and do not forget how you provoked the Lord your God to wrath in the wilderness; you have been rebellious against the Lord from the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place. (Deuteronomy 9:6-7)

So why was God being kind to Israelites? It was because of love:

7 It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples.8 It was because the Lord loved you . . . (Deuteronomy 7:7,8a emphasis mine)

Salvation begins, not with people and their righteousness, but with God and His love. Your salvation, and mine, begins not with our righteousness, but with God’s love.

And God was kind to the Israelites because of promise:

8 It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 7:8 emphasis mine)

God had promised Abraham a blessing and that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. This wee bit of justice poured out on the peoples of Canaan was part of a plan that would lead to a whole load of grace being poured out and made available to the whole world. The death and resurrection of Jesus is the single greatest focus of God’s blessing. But it is a long journey from the promise of blessing to Abraham to the fulfillment in Jesus. The destruction of the Canaanites is part and parcel of that journey to blessing.

What kind of God is it that calls for the destruction of people? The same God that was ensuring that we need not face destruction: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) God’s nurture of His people through dark and dangerous places and times is part of the unfolding of His grace so that we will not face condemnation when we turn to Him in repentance.

Shall we condemn God for working out His purposes of salvation? We have no right to condemn God. He has every right to condemn us. But out of love He has made reconciliation possible.

If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. (Romans 8:31-34)

Unless noted otherwise all scripture references are taken from the NRSV.

December 11, 2014

We Are That Voice

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Today’s devotional came recommended; it’s from the blog of a young writer, Aaron J. Smith, Cultural Savage. To read this at source, click the title below, and then take a few minutes to look around his blog. You might even know someone you want to recommend it to.

The Voice In The Wild

There is always a voice.

There is always something shouting in the wilderness, protesting the status quo. There is always a voice declaring the coming kingdom of God, challenging the powers and principalities of this world, and speaking welcome to all that will come. There is always a voice that lives in the margins, away from the centers of power and prestige, among the oppressed, the down trodden, the broken. There is always a voice announcing that Jesus is on his way here.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
`Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:1-8

John was the voice of his time, calling people to make way for Jesus, to embrace him when he showed up, to not hinder his arrival. John was that voice in the wilderness, speaking before the footsteps of Jesus. John was that voice calling people away from sin, self-justification, religious oppression, classism, racism, sexism, calling people away from their small hearts into the big love of the righteous God.

John was the voice before Christ’s first coming. Where is the voice before the Second Advent?

Where is the voice now calling us out of moralistic darkness into the light of a Spirit led life? Where is the voice now crying out against injustice? Where is the voice shouting for equality of all people? Where is the voice now speaking against religious self-justification? Where is the voice now, in this day, among this people?

It should be the church.

It isn’t the church.

We have grown mute, silent in our waiting for the second coming. We have become silent because we have become blind. We don’t see that we now sit at the table with the empires of the world, eating and drinking while others starve and wither away. We don’t see that we are the ones self-justifying our inaction while protesters cry for justice. We don’t see that we have lost our prophetic voice, and instead speak of false peace.

We have lost our voice in the wild.

We have left the wild and settled into the lap of empires and powers of this world.

We have become that which obstructs the coming of our Lord.

Instead of making straight the paths of the Lord, we have become the gate keepers and toll booths along the highway of the king. Instead of calling all to come, repent, and be baptized we sit in judgment on the marginalized and oppressed, speaking out about how they should change and behave. Instead of speaking life death spews forth in our silence.

We have lost our voice.

But is the voice in the wild silent?

No! May it never be.

The voice still resounds for those with ears to hear. The voice still cries out for justice for the blood spilled in the streets. The voice still calls out to God to come and set all things right. It is the voice of the oppressed, the voice of the poor, the trodden down masses, the marginalized. It is the voice of the new civil rights movements. It is the voice shattering the stigma of mental illness. It is the voice of justice judging the wealthy who do nothing to ease the burdens of the poor.

The voice now speaks out, but it is no longer the voice of the church.

Oh that it would be again though. If the church could give up its luxury and corrupt power plays, if the church could get out of bed with politics and corporations, if the church would repent of its racism, sexism, classism, if the church would work towards reconciliation, justice, and peace, if the church would return to the wild, we could again hear the call of God.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”

And I said, “What shall I cry?”

All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”

See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Isaiah 40:1-11

December 22, 2011

Is Your Church Up To Code?

The week leading up to the April tax deadline is always a stressful, hectic week in our household and this past year it proved especially — pardon the pun — taxing, and one particular day had been more stressful than most

As I was driving to bank, I passed a large historic church. At the entrance to the church they had hung a large banner celebrating their 125th anniversary, but my very tired mind didn’t process the details correctly and instead out of the corner of my eye morphed the sign into the type of banner that a manufacturing plant hangs outside to announce that they have met the criteria for the International Standards Organization. As far as I was concerned, the banner said, “I.S.O. 9001 Certified;” until I did a double-take and more carefully noted the church’s anniversary.

That got me wondering though what it would be like if our churches had to meet I.S.O. standards. What if there was an independent body out their testing to see if we’re meeting our objectives, conveying our message accurately, using only the best “materials,” getting our “product” to the community efficiently, etc.?  What if they tested the purity of our hearts, the soundness of our doctrine, the motives behind our actions? Would your church be able to meet a world standard of performance? Would mine?

And what about the extent to which the church is made up of individual people.  What if they tested my life and work? Would I be awarded a banner to hang outside my home saying that I meet the standard of what it means to be a representative of Jesus Christ?

I believe that God calls his Church to excellence. We should aim for nothing but the best, regardless of whether or not we are a church of 200 or 300 or 400, or a church of “two or three gathered together.”

This is one of three “think” pieces today at C201

September 23, 2010

We Are The Redeemed, We Are The Ones Who Are Free

This song by Steve Fee’s band is a little hard-edged compared to other worship songs here, but I really do love the power of this song. This isn’t an original video, but I really like the “in your face” lyrics; in fact, this is exactly the CGI I would do for this song.

Yeah we shine we shine the light of God
And when we speak we speak with words of love
And when we dance we may get a little wild
‘Cause we’re the people of God
Yeah the people of God

And when we sing we sing the angels’ songs
The ones they’re singing around the throne
Yeah yeah we worship the King
With ev’rything that we are
‘Cause we’re the people of God
Yeah the people of God yeah
The people of God yeah

We are the redeemed
We are the ones who are free
And we belong to Jesus
We are now alive
And in this world we will shine
And we belong to Jesus

And now is the time for the people to rise
Lift up a shout ev’rybody cry out
Raise your voice shout out a noise
Dance a dance of joy

Where the Spirit of God is freedom reigns
So come on come on
Throw off your prison chains
We’re liberated by a King
Only freedom remains
For the people of God yeah
The people of God yeah

We’re living in a kingdom that will never end
We’re living in the power that defeated sin
So come on ev’rybody
Let your praise begin
Jesus is alive and He’s coming again

(Yeah we’re) going into all the world
We’re carrying the light of Jesus
And we shine we shine in the darkest place
We shine

© 2007 Louie Giglio | Steve Fee

June 15, 2010

If I Could Sit With You

This is from the blog, 300 Words a Day by Jon Swanson

If I could sit with you, I would tell you that sometimes we can hear God talking and sometimes we can’t. I would tell you that when we hear him talking, you don’t actually hear anything with your ears. I would tell you that you hear it anyway, that is probably isn’t an essay, it’s probably just a couple words. But you know when it’s God.

If I could sit with you, you would ask me how you know for sure. Because, you would say, all the time you have thoughts that you think could be God talking, but you want to be sure they aren’t wishful thinking. Especially when those thoughts are telling you how stupid you are. Especially when those thoughts are too convenient and fun.

Then I would tell you about a shepherd, one that never calls sheep stupid.

Think about a shepherd who spends time around his sheep, talking enough that they know his voice enough to recognize it. They have heard that voice talking to the sheep around them. They have heard that voice talking to assistant shepherds. They have heard that voice talking to them, calling them by name.

How would a sheep be confident about the voice of the shepherd? By knowing that there are strangers who wander by. By knowing that there are hired hands who don’t really care. By knowing that it is important to listen. By spending as much time listening to that voice as possible, listening for tone of voice, for topics, for style of talking, for consistent concern with sheep welfare.

Then I would ask how much time you and I spend actually listening, reading letters, reading stories, being open to hear. We may not hear much, but we will hear more clearly than if we never listen.