A Kingdom Forever


“…and Jesse the father of David, the king.” – Matthew 1.6, from the geneology of Jesus

Whenever a conversation about Jesus turns to the idea of kingdom there are sticking points. A kingdom. It sounds antiquated. It sounds unhip and irrelevant. We are after all a nation of individuals ruled by an elected official, one able to be the head for only eight years at best, an official who must fight for his seat every four years and may even be dethroned if we so choose, by the conviction of the people. We are not easily ruled. No one loves being told what to do. We rage against imposition, honk our horns at intersections, we must be contractually bound in order to do something not directly in our interests. But maybe we resist the tyranny of God most of all.

We have a collection of reinterpretations about what it means for God to have power. We like to qualify – he has power, but not the unpleasant sort. He has power to do those things that make sense to me and the power to bring my conflicts to a preferable resolution. He has the power to make me safe and comfortable. He has the power to provide real money and friends and a spouse and proper children. These are all the sorts of things we would dream for our kings. We would pile them up, our wish lists, right next to the Manger. We would be content with that sort of ruler – who lives to rule us maybe but really lives to rule a Vichy.

And yet: King of Kings, Lord of Lords(Rev 19.16).

He is not only the King, he is King over other kings. The bible says that the King of Kings LAUGHS at the machinations of other rulers(Ps.2:4), he laughs at their presumptive chatter, and their small power. His kingship is full of power. Every knee will bow the Scriptures tell us. Jesus is Lord. The Cross is a coronation, the resurrection a celebration of his regency. And so we have to say this about God’s forever kingdom: its power has no end.

This Kingdom will not stop at the power of hell just as it will not halt at the proclamations of other rulers or heads of state. The power of this Kingdom does not respect the typical barriers. It doesn’t even end at the point of human volition – working in our hearts despite our best efforts, convicting us of sin, crushing our affection for other gods, awakening us to new life in Christ. And this is of course why the idea of Christianity as mere philosophy is laughable. The aroma of life for believers and the aroma of death to unbelievers(2 Cor 2.15-16), this Kingdom belongs as much to the Coliseum as it does the Academy. It cannot be shaken(Heb 12.28-29).

Jesus brings a kingdom with him at Advent; a kingdom with power over hell, power over sin and death. Power over the grave. And maybe most importantly the power – good Lord – the power to bring peace. Peace like the greatest healing in your most broken places, peace like the end of shame and the end of sin. Peace like a warm home with many rooms(Jn 14.2). Peace like a king that cultivates his own fields(Eccl 5.9). Peace that only a King of Kings has the clout to bring. May he reign in your heart and in mine.


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Jesus comes calling

“…for which we were called with a holy calling…” -2 Timothy 1.9

Your life and mine are a whirlwind. In the confusion you have learned to think on your feet. Hold the baby with one arm and prop a bottle while you sleep. You can distract a toddler for six minutes. A string of all-nighters and 20-minute naps could save your grade. But no matter the quality of your high-wire act you will eventually be caught off balance. No matter your scheme or distraction life will find you and bring you to heel. Maybe it will be boredom or intense depression. Maybe a powerful loss so significant and bewildering that you will think you’ve become Job himself. At some point you will find yourself called, it seems, to little more than filling your days.

I was in a funeral home once several years ago. It was a small place that also functioned as a florist. They had plastic carnations and… Gardenias if that’s a thing. And they had casket toppers – I’m sure that’s not what they’re called. But the toppers were sentimental, some were so sweet that one wonders if their creators themselves believed what they were writing. These were the last couple of words draping a casket; the definitive last word as the casket descends into the ground. The grave: evil and brokenness have all the best visual aids. So this little funeral shop pushes, in its own little way, against the great marauding tide of death. Even untimely, horrific, mouth-stopping death. The weapons of their fight were plastic. The words they offered weren’t going to hinder anything at all. But there was one topper that caught my attention. It was some hasty assemblage of white flowers bordered in red. And spelled out in script next to a red children’s phone, the receiver was off the hook, were the words “Jesus Called” of all things. I’ll admit I laughed, because it seemed so corny, so cheesy that the silly phone and the silly phrase had anything to do with a funeral.

He called, maybe some father said to his children as they walked away from an emergency room. He called and your mother went to be with Jesus. The Great Caller. The phone that rings nearly always unexpected, nearly always unwanted.

Jesus called, dear.

Like one of those tuxedo t-shirts being worn at a wedding, the whole thing was unsophisticated, uncouth. But lately I’ve thought about it a different way. Against great and mighty death, and lets add all sorts of other death too – like the death of a marriage or the death of a dream – against great and mighty death God needs only to speak. And he has spoken. And perhaps we would be wise to remember the corny instruments he used once upon a time to speak and undo death. A silly child born in a manger to a teenaged mother, a carpenter’s son on a donkey, even the greatest humiliation of all – thief on a cross, stealing a title that belonged to Caesar alone. The ridiculous implements of God. He calls, merely calls. As simply put in the Scriptures as a child’s phone on a casket.

The writer of 2 Timothy was chained and humiliated and on his way to a casket of his own. The Apostle wrote to his protégé Timothy words of pastoral encouragement and indomitable hope. Despite all indications to the contrary he calls Timothy to remember that they have been called by God. They have a calling that Paul even calls ‘holy’ or ‘set apart’. This calling, Paul says, is not invalidated by circumstance or humiliation or our fears. The skeptic hearing Paul’s words is likely to wonder: what business Paul has talking about a holy calling when it seems that his holy calling is to die a holy death in jail with the penniless.

And this is really the question of the text: how can Paul point to a holy calling in a time like this. How can you point to a holy calling? Your children are rebellious, your 401(k) lost money, your career is sputtering, your lawn is a mess, your mole is cancerous, your hair is graying if there’s much of it left at all, your spouse has a wandering eye or your spouse hasn’t shown up yet. Who are you to talk about God’s holy calling in your life?

If we care to look plainly at this text from 2 Timothy we will see that the holy calling of God perseveres. The call of God says that while we may be under the thumb of distress or pain or boredom we are still not any less than holy, called. We are no less set apart by God. That’s what holy means really. Moses removed his shoes before speaking with God on Mt. Horeb because his shoes had gone places herding sheep. And you too, you’ve gone places. But the great message of the Cross is that the unholy have a holy calling. That the unholy have been made holy, shoes and all, warts and all. Unbelief and all. Weariness and blindness and the death of some great dream. All of it clings to you, to your heart no less than your feet. If the good news is to be believed you have a holy calling powerful enough to stand against death, powerful enough to cover your casket if it comes to that. Powerful enough to set you apart in this blustery world as God’s man or woman, believing the gospel without fear, loved and held tight.

Much more tomorrow morning.

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Generous Thanks

This fall we spent several weeks studying Christ’s mindset makes God’s people sacrificially generous. In Philippians chapter 2 Paul commends his ministry partner Epaphroditus, whose ministry was entirely behind the scenes and massively difficult. Epaphroditus carried a gift of money from Philippi in Greece to Paul who was under arrest in Rome. The Philippians’ gift sustained Paul and allowed him to continue ministering in the capital city of the empire, his influence carrying even into the Emperor’s household.

Ephaphroditus’ journey consisted of a 360 mile hike (the distance from Dublin, OH to Chicago, IL), followed by a minimum 2 day boat ride from Greece to Italy and then another 370 mile hike. It might well have been a one-way trip, as Epaphroditus was carrying cash from Christians to a Christian and terminating at a prison where the recipient was imprisoned for being a Christian. His service could well have landed him in prison too. What did happen is that he got sick, and homesick, and once recovered Paul sent him Greece-ward with a command to the Philippian church: honor people like this!

I invited our congregation to apply Paul’s command by writing thank you notes to people who we saw serving behind the scenes. It was a simple enough task: avoid thanking paid staff, focus on volunteer servants, honor them. I received over 200 handwritten notes and emails. Many were sealed but I opened a few of them to compile a composite representation of thanks for our Thanksgiving Sunday worship service.

Reading the few notes I did was massively encouraging to me, and humbling too. Keeping in mind that I read just a sample of the notes, I was struck by:

  • Our congregation’s readiness to express thanks for humble service such as volunteering in the office, working in the nursery, running the sound system for worship, and volunteering to work with middle and high school students.
  • I was humbled in reading the notes to see how Christ-centered they were. Many of the note writers took time to identify gifts they saw in their recipient and to tell them how their behind the scenes service blessed them personally.
  • I felt like the wicker basket holding the notes was an offering basket, just like the one we use to collect funds on Sundays. Except this one held people’s gifts of time, talent, passion, skill, willingness to serve out of the way and without promise of recognition.
  • I also realized that probably some servants got overlooked, not intentionally but overlooked nonetheless. This made me grateful that Jesus is greater and more faithful than our best but feeble attempts to say thank you.  I look forward to when these still-anonymous servants have every reason to wait and expect to hear Jesus’ “well done, good and faithful servant.”

Until then, thank you.

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The Road To Jerusalem: A sermon primer

“But many who are first will be last, and the last first. And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”

(Mark 10:31-32 ESV)

What a walk that must have been, the way to Jerusalem, the way to Jesus’ death and – it seems the disciples have now realized – to their own dying as well. How difficult watching the road, making the arduous trek, watching the sun rise and set. How difficult watching children play, women carrying their loads, shooing away the dogs nipping at their heels. The thought must have occurred to them: really? Die now? Dying in these long relatively peaceful days? Dying with your respected title and the love of a devoted mass? This is the promised land, the golden hills. Could we really be walking up only to lose it all? It was a sorrowful walk I think. And the question should be asked: if this is the life of men so close to Jesus and so entrenched in his mission, what do we make of our expectations of ease and relative safety? I don’t mean to belittle those hopes but to examine them. Hopes I have, too.

It’s difficult for me to pass by a beautifully manicured soccer field without imagining Audrey and Emmaline running after a soccer ball. Audrey scores several goals and wears one of those cute headbands. Maybe Emmaline’s a keeper like her dad was. But this is the walk his disciples take. And this is the traveling music they hear: Jesus’ book on tape about the death and the resurrection. Even the flogging. Jesus, this is the worst walk EVER.

And what was so frightening and dismaying for the disciples? That wealth could hinder them from the laying hold of the Kingdom of God. That Jesus intended to disabuse them of the notion that somehow worldly wealth is the final word. Wealth is only a passing fad. Wealth is as impotent as your BMI in escaping the suffering of this life, and even more powerless to usher you into the kind of eternal life that Jesus offers. These are heavy truths that when we acknowledge them at all it is with the hope that Jesus is speaking metaphorically. Surely we can’t be expected to live like these primitives, the disciples in their sandals and cloaks, unkempt, walking on foot telling an old-time gospel for old-time people. Surely we’ve moved beyond this kind of fanaticism that throws away the things of life only because they haven’t experienced the delight of finely cooked Kobe or calfskin gloves on a steering wheel, or the peace and quiet of a house by the lake. I mean, who wouldn’t give up those middle eastern lives to be traveling evangelists? But this won’t do at all if we are to take Jesus’ words here seriously. Jesus means to say that only the last are first.

The greater question: why, if we intend to live centered in the Christ – the very person of suffering and dying and sacrifice, why do imagine that we are not to live like Christs ourselves? Why do we assign the role of suffering in Christ to the missionary in Turkey or Germany or Haiti? Why do we assign the role of suffering to the poor in our world? Why do we assign the role of suffering to those unfortunate few that find themselves chosen for some medical catastrophe or the burst of their housing bubble. By what disfigurement of living Christ-centered lives have we excused ourselves from living like the Christ? Who is Jesus without the Cross? Or abandonment or tears or opposition or loss? Who is this Christ that we’ve created for ourselves, who demands less of us than the Jesus of the Bible? This is the question we have to ask ourselves. This is the question the world asks of us. Are you serious about Christ and the Cross?

The Christ and the Cross make us first; first in healing, first in true possessions, first in rest and hope and love. First in all the ways that truly matter and in all the ways our possessions have failed to deliver, Christ has made us whole. He asks that we lay down our possessions, to lay hold of the Cross and gain, by His marvelous and unsearchable mystery, true wealth.


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To Have And To Hold

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. –Luke 18.1

This world’s currency is whatever you bring with you to the boardroom, to the singles gathering, to your parents’ house on holiday, to your classroom or whatever place in order to be heard. Being heard, being recognized and legitimized, this is the first great respect a person can pay another person. Marriage, for the mess we often make of it, is to be a partnership of listeners, one person looking at the other and saying – I want to hear what you have to say. The beauty of marriage begins with one person saying something to the other before God and witnesses, and being heard, and hearing the other, and sealing the conversation with a ring. They do not speak in unison. One, then the other. It is great and honoring thing to be heard, even more when we feel so short of voice.

Jesus tells a parable of a widow afflicted by some person that we presume is in the seat of power in comparison with her low position. She needs a judge to intercede for her. She is the weak and powerless and the afflicted. She is, probably just as the poor or marginalized are in our world, silent and anonymous. And so she comes to the judge and pleads because he is the local judge but he refuses initially. There is no case, at least no case worth the trouble, and this woman is of no consequence to him. In that culture it would have been his moral obligation to listen to her pleading which is why Jesus takes pains  to tell the audience that he is not even a God-fearer. He’s just some person that doesn’t care to be bothered if he can help it. It’s a bothersome world, after all. How would we live if we had to listen to whatever noise sought us out?

This trampling of human dignity is precisely where Jesus decides to stake out the dimensions of the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God has a King who listens. This King does not miss the petitions of his people. And he alone can answer the problem at the heart of every real prayer we offer: injustice. Injustice is a very old term, as old as human interaction. At the heart of the term is a person looking over the lines of some created thing: a piece of pottery or the tongue and groove of some work of craft. Or some wayward child. The craftsman looks over the thing and says it is not right. It is not whole. Our prayers spring from the same evaluation, the knowledge that something is missing and the result is a crooked life and a crooked heart. We need. Of course we do. That’s why we pray. Need is a part of the human condition. Shelter or food or a kind word from a loved one. The Bible here presumes to tell us that there is an answer to that very basic experience human activity, that neediness, and that the answer comes from God. Ask then, the parable says, and do not lose heart.

And so the basic question that anyone evaluating the claims of Christianity must ask is this: if I entrust my wounded-ness to God, if I speak it into being by offering it to Him in prayer, will my words have any effect? This is a deep and dark and meaningful a question as any person can ask. And it is not a question with a one-time answer either. We are all of us asking it daily, trusting and then not trusting. Holding out for God our very hearts and then taking them back. Thankfully God has a word in this parable for us half-hearted praying people.

Luke 18.1-8 has one very important detail that should serve to hold us when we feel weary from our experience of need and all our prayers for healing of one type or another. One detail that tells us to have every confidence when we speak, that our words need not get caught in our throat or buried in platitudes or perfectionism.

We are free to need and petition without losing our dignity or our hope in God because before we uttered a single word God already promised to have and to hold us. Those first words change ours from hopeless babble to holy verse. We speak and God hears us.

Much more Sunday morning.


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Why Jesus Wants To Mess With Your Life

No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.     –Luke 16.13

Most of us live in places where a home association of one sort or another polices our property. They make sure that, in some cases, we aren’t free to pursue that great dream to paint the faces of our family on the side of our house. They suggest better places for our ceramic lawn ornaments. We love the way they force our neighbors into compliance. Why do we want them around? Because we want things to be beautiful. We want things to look like the cover of Pottery Barn or the seemly landscape of a laundry detergent ad. That desire isn’t much different in the landscape of our lives. When we look over that landscape we hope to see the beauty of financial stability and the unfailing love of a spouse, we want to see academically proficient children and maybe even a more consistent golf game. We hope, when we see the lay of the land, that we are safe and well. These are things that we call wealth and the bible has a very old name for them: mammon. The stuff of life. Imagine though that along the way with these things we call life there was something ghastly. Imagine that the thing was the most offensive lawn art you can imagine. Imagine that in the place where you’ve nurtured your wealth you find the Cross right there messing with your color scheme, knocking over things. A big, ugly, unmistakable cross. The Feng Shui is all off.

There’s a certain violent reaction to this sort of intrusion. These are the worlds we’ve made. The investment of blood, sweat, tears, prayer, manipulation, savvy. The sacrifices necessary to build a life in a world like this one can’t be overstated. Most days we do our best to make just one thing in our lives beautiful. And then the Cross shows up and signifies what exactly? That we can’t care about these things any more? That we can’t love our kids? That we can’t have nice cars or vacations at the beach? That we can’t be safe and well? What exactly does it mean, this intrusion?

It means this: that for the follower of Christ there is a landscape of good things to enjoy but only one true mammon and that mammon is Christ. It means that we must be content to have the blight of the Cross overwhelming every other motif. It means we have to understand that you can’t unsee it, the truth that Jesus brings. You will see it in every account of your life, every photo of your home from any angle. The Cross will be there, getting in the way. And this is the beauty of it: that without it there, everything else is worthless. Our good ceases to be good without the Cross. Every other wealth becomes a daydream that vanishes at the first sign of suffering and loss. And as Luke tells us, we should expect all these other goods to be imperfect and temporal. According to Luke 16 the Cross promises one thing that all these other good cannot give us: an eternal dwelling. The beauty of that expression, the unfathomable goodness of the ultimate home is worth the mess it makes of things. In fact the only way to dwell in that eternal home is to welcome the mess it makes of things.

When Jesus tells us in Luke 16 that we cannot worship both God and mammon, he is rescuing us from that common and tragic mistake, that we would be content for beautiful things to crowd out the One who makes all things beautiful.

Much more this Sunday.


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On Prayer

5 And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves,  6 for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’;  7 and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’?  8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.  9 And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.  11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent;  12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” -Luke 11

When we pray, we ask threadbare but hoping. We ask as forgiven people, washed people. We ask while holding on to our hat because we ask from the God who is himself bound not by our prayers but bound by himself. And maybe this is a bit of discomfort for us, that we have a teammate so frequently playing by his own rules. He will not be cornered and made to serve our prayers. He is more than that, more CS Lewis’ Aslan than Wilkinson’s answerer of Jabez. He is more irascible and powerful and good.

My daughter has a casual relationship with our dog, Griffen. She loves him. Along with Elmo it is frequently one of the first things she wants to talk about, the doggie. She follows him, lays on him, hugs his neck, tells him no from time to time, enlists him in her games though he is uninterested. She tugs his ears sometimes and rubs them because they’re soft and different than hers. She mumbles to him unintelligibly and he will often lay on the floor in her play room and listen. But for every ten of those moments there is one that reminds her that he is not daddy or mommy, he is the dog. When she stands at the back door and I open it and Griffen runs by for food and his tail alone knocks her back. Or when he lies on the floor while she lays blocks on him and he jumps up to bark at a passerby with the deep ‘big dog’ bark. Or the time she followed him into his little hiding place next to the house behind a hedge and he barked at her. There is, at all of these moments, a look of surprise not necessarily fear but of sobriety. It says I need to be careful. I need to treat Griffen like a dog, not like a stuffed dog.

A man comes at midnight to wake his friend for some need. He asks for loaves of bread and maybe he also wants an extra blanket. Maybe the thing he’s really bringing with him is the world he lives in and some story about a thing that keeps him up at nights. This man and the world he brings with him are delicate and brittle like newly spun glass. Brittle and hopeless next to the ferocity of our worlds. And the words the man brings are embarrassing – who would come at such a time, in such a place? Who would dare to ask at the deep of night? It is a humiliation to ask this way, banging at the door of a person that has everything you want. Is there anything worse than this? More humbling?

And the temptation of a person is to say that I would be willing to answer the door you see. I am that kind of friend who would do such a thing at such an hour. I would do this because I love my friends and am gracious and good. But that is, like so many of Jesus’ teachings, not the way the parable unfolds at all. We are not called in this one to be accessible to our pleading havenots. We are called to open our eyes and see something else altogether. That we, in fact, are the importunate friends. We are the knockers of doors. We are the threadbare and lonely and helpless. We are the children that play at being big dogs until we tremble at the God more powerful, less docile than we think Him to be. We are the weak, needy ones. And on one side of things it can be a difficult truth to bear. That we must knock at all.

For what reason are we to be seekers and plaintiffs? Because one stands before us to give what we need need most in our own brittle worlds, but he must first make plaintiffs out of us, for what we need to receive we cannot receive without first undergoing some holy and mysterious change. We must be made into empty-handed people. And this is the reason for the prayer Jesus offers, which tells us much about God, but also tells us much about us. This is precisely the opposite of every door-to-door salesman’s schtick. You knock at this door because you have nothing at all to offer.

And yet, you are not turned away when you knock.

Hear the rest of a very good text for us on Sunday. Hope to see you there.


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