Wednesday, October 26, 2022

The Place Where We Are

On Sunday I preached on the Lord’s Prayer and mentioned how, for me, the words “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” challenge us to see every interaction and every moment as an opportunity for the Kingdom to show up. They make us ask, throughout the day, ‘What could I do right here, right now, to help the people around me experience the power and wonder of God’s kingdom and God’s dreams for our lives?’

A few weeks back I read the book of Esther in the Wesley Study Bible, which is full of notes and comments about different passages of scripture from John Wesley’s preaching and writings, and I was struck by Wesley’s remark on the most famous verse in the book: Esther 4:14. The ruthless, narcissistic royal official, Haman, has convinced King Ahasuerus to sign off on a plan to annihilate the Jews living in the kingdom of Persia. Queen Esther, secretly a Jew herself, is pressed by her uncle, Mordecai, to plead for her people before the king. But Esther’s reluctant to go to Ahasuerus—and with good reason:

“All the royal officials and the people of the royal provinces know that one law applies to every man or woman who approaches the king in the inner courtyard and who has not been summonedthe death penalty. Only if the king extends the gold scepter will that person live. I have not been summoned to appear before the king for the last 30 days.” (4:11)

If Esther approaches the king to beg for the Jews to be spared, she may simply end up the first Jew to die in the coming holocaust.

But Mordecai is unmoved, and here comes to famous line:

“If you keep silent at this time, liberation and deliverance will come to the Jewish people from another place, but you and your father's house will be destroyed. Who knows, perhaps you have come to your royal position for such a time as this." (4:14)

Who knows? Maybe this is the reason you were chosen as queen of Persia, out of all the beautiful young women in the running. Maybe you ascended to the throne just for this moment, “for such a time as this.”

Wesley’s comment here was simple but, I think, vital: “We should every one of us consider, for what end God has put us in the place where we are?”

Why does God have you in the place where you are? In the community you’re in, in the workplace, the congregation, the club, the class that you’re in? I don’t believe that the Lord orchestrates all of our activities and involvements in life, but I do believe the Lord has a purpose for us, wherever we are. Have you stopped to wonder what that purpose might be?

After all, in each of those circumstances, you have the chance to make God’s Kingdom come and God’s will be done, right here on earth, just like it is in heaven. So what purpose does God have for you, right where you are? What opportunity has God given you, here and now, to show someone the grace, fellowship, peace, and love of the Kingdom?

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Not Politics, But Hope

You may know the story of Naaman, the Syrian general suffering from leprosy who traveled to Israel to find Elisha and, hopefully, healing.

But do you remember the rocky start that Naaman got off to on his trip to see the prophet?

Naaman had heard, from an Israelite slave in his home, that there was a prophet in her land who could bring healing to this painful, isolating condition that had likely left his life in ruins. So, the general, who I assume had exhausted every hope of recovery in his own land, decided to give strange, foreign prophets a try.

So far, so good.

The trouble began when Naaman’s lord, the king of Syria, sent a letter to the king of Israel. It read, “With this letter I present my servant Naaman. I want you to heal him of his leprosy.” (2 Kings 5:6 NLT) The letter didn’t have the desired effect:

When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes in dismay and said, “Am I God, that I can give life and take it away? Why is this man asking me to heal someone with leprosy? I can see that he’s just trying to pick a fight with me.” (5:7)

When the king of Israel read that letter, he assumed the Syrian king was engaged in deceitful geopolitical maneuvering, trying to spark an international incident. Obviously, he thought, this was a ploy to start a war. The king’s kneejerk reaction was to label this as politics and attribute insidious motives to the king of Syria.

But he was wrong.

The reality was, the other king was simply staring at some of the world’s brokenness and asking God’s people to confront that brokenness with the goodness and power of the Lord. He’s hoping that Israel can accomplish the healing that the world’s pain cries out for, that God’s people can make his servant Naaman clean again. This wasn’t politics at all—Israel’s king was looking at the world through the wrong lens entirely. This was hope: that hurts can be healed, that ruins can be restored, that miracles from God can still be performed.

Every now and then, there’s something in the news that many preachers feel compelled to address (with fear and trembling) from the pulpit.

Moments that capture the eyes of the nation.

Movements that unite some in a common cause and unite others against them.

Let me suggest that, when you hear these things named in church on Sunday morning, maybe the preacher isn’t talking about “politics” instead of the Bible. Maybe the preacher isn’t just trying to be “relevant.” Maybe your preacher brings this up because the Bible is relevant to how Jesus’s people respond to these moments and movements.

Like the king of Israel, our kneejerk reaction may be to label this as politics and attribute insidious motives to the preacher. But maybe the reality is, he or she is simply staring at some of the world’s brokenness and asking God’s people to confront that brokenness with the goodness and power of the Lord.

Maybe this isn't politics. Maybe it's hope.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Who Is Rich?

There are a handful of really unnerving stories about rich people in the gospel of Luke.

In chapter 12, Jesus tells a parable about a rich man whose crops have an incredibly fruitful yield one season, and he decides to build bigger barns, store the surplus, and “eat, drink and be merry” (12:16-19). But that very night he dies, and the Lord asks him, “Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?” Then Jesus makes an ominous declaration: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” (12:20-21)

In chapter 16, we get another parable. This time, a rich man lives a life of comfort and indulgence, while a poor man named Lazarus wastes away outside the gate to his home. Both men die, and Lazarus is carried to a paradise with Abraham, while the rich man is taken to Hades, where he’s tormented. Abraham tells the rich man, “in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.” (16:25) Jesus, apparently, doesn’t think any explanation is necessary this time.

Chapter 18 recounts the story of the “very wealthy” ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life. He has meticulously followed the law all his life, but he still lacks one thing. Jesus tells him, “Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Instead, the man walks away, prompting Jesus to say, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!” (18:22-24)

I am not what most people would call “rich” or “very wealthy.” By modern American standards, I’m solidly “middle class.” And so, it’s easy for me to read these stories with some detachment: Jesus is clearly talking about someone else here, someone in higher income bracket than my own.

And yet.

And yet the average middle class American today is surrounded by luxuries and comforts beyond these rich men’s wildest dreams. I’m not talking about anything extravagant here.

Vacuum cleaners.

Mosquito repellant.

Ice makers.


The Weather Channel.

I read about these men and think, ‘but I’m not rich.’ Meanwhile these men would take one look at my life and say to themselves ‘I’m not rich’. Maybe I’m wealthier than I think.

When we’re reading the New Testament, we probably shouldn’t think of “rich” in terms of status, someone fit for Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Instead, think of “rich” in terms of the potential for instant gratification and unlimited purchasing possibilities. That describes the rich in Jesus’s day, but it describes middle class America in 2022 even more.

I need to realize just how much Jesus’s words apply to me.

I need to recognize how the temptations these men faced—storing up things for themselves, living in comfort while others lack life’s basic necessities, desiring my possessions more than I desire my Savior—these are all temptations that I face, too.

I need to take seriously Jesus’s call to be rich toward God, store up treasure in heaven, and give to those in need.

Because I’m wealthier than I think.

Wednesday, October 05, 2022

The Battle for Faithfulness Is Won or Lost in an Instant

photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

We’ve been studying Proverbs in Sunday school lately, and a few weeks back we were talking about all the teachings in the book that have to do with curbing our reactivity.

For instance, Proverbs 15:28:

The righteous heart reflects before answering,
    but the wicked mouth blurts out evil.

Do you know someone (maybe it's you!) with a wicked habit of just blurting things out, without pausing to consider how their words might be harsh, hurtful, or inappropriate? "Before answering" indicates that this proverbs is about how we respond to others. Righteousness means resisting that sort of unbridled reaction to the words and actions of others.

Or, think about Proverbs 14:17:

A quick-tempered person does foolish things,
    and the one who devises evil schemes is hated.

Other sayings, like Proverbs 15:18 or 22:24, describe a “hot-tempered” person, but 14:17 (and 14:29) singles out the quick-tempered, those with short fuses, who rapidly react to any provocation with anger. That kind of reactivity results in foolish acts. I’m sure we’ve all experienced that.

Proverbs like these made me realize something. The battle for faithfulness is often won or lost in the instant between someone else’s words or actions and my response. And the briefer that moment is, the more likely that my worst impulses will carry the day. If I’m quick-tempered, if I blurt something out without first pausing to reflect, foolishness and evil will inevitably result. But if I can just restrain my reactivity for a second, that creates an opportunity for my better judgment, my convictions, and the Holy Spirit to have some input. Then there’s a chance that I’ll overlook an insult (12:16) and offer a gentle answer (15:1), or even bless those who curse me (Luke 6:28).

All that to say, one of the greatest victories a Christian can win on the road to holiness and loving a neighbor is developing the ability to bite your tongue. If you can just restrain the knee-jerk reaction, a world of holy possibilities opens up. Sure, after a pause you may still offer a (now carefully considered) vicious retort. The goal is to blurt out kindness, understanding, encouragement, and forgiveness, for such things to become your knee-jerk reaction, but developing new habits like these takes time and a lot of practice. And learning a new way, retraining your tongue to respond with grace and gentleness, is only possible after reactivity is taken out of the equation.

So, practice biting your tongue today. Stretch out that instant before your response. It might not sound like much, but that’s a real victory. Reactivity breeds sinful speech: we’ve all been on the receiving end of it, and we’ve all perpetrated it. But if we focus our efforts on that instant when our reactions erupt, maybe we can open the door to a different kind of speech, that’s “gracious, seasoned with salt.” (Col 4:6) Maybe we can begin to bless the people around us with the thoughtful responses of a righteous heart.