Choosing Our Own Adventures

When I was a kid, I remember reading the “choose your own adventure” books by R.A. Montgomery. If you missed out, they went like this: You were the main character of the story, as a deep sea diver looking for Atlantis, or a mountain climber looking for the elusive Abominable Snowman, or a space explorer–you get the idea. At pivotal points in the story, you had the opportunity to choose. To follow a guide, to stay and fight, or try and escape. Depending on what you chose, you either found the lost city, or worse, fell to a certain death. The beauty of these books was that some of them, while only a little over one hundred pages long, had something like over forty possible endings.

Have you ever thought about what your life could have been, had you not made certain choices?

Life is a series of choices.  But sometimes we feel we are not free to make the choices we want to make.

For the last several weeks, at our church we’ve been looking at a letter from a man named Paul, who ended up writing the majority of the New Testament letters.  Something happened in his life that apparently brought him to a place of freedom.  He later writes in this letter, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1)

In this letter, Paul seemed to be free from a lot of things that consume our thinking: free from others’ opinions of him, free from pleasing others, and now, free from what he once was. Paul seems to want to make his readers know this truth:

God loves us as we are…
and wants to set us free from what we were.

There is an honest tension here.  When you read the Bible honestly, you see that it is an invitation from God to move a person, and a people—from what they were into what they were meant to be.  Now the difficult part is this:  When someone comes to us and says, I want to move you from where you are to where you need to be, we resist.  We might think they are trying to sell us something. Or, we can interpret that as a message that they don’t accept us as we are. 

But that isn’t what God is saying.  He loves us with an everlasting love.

While we were still apart from God—enemies of God—Jesus came for us.  He so loved the world He sent His only son for us.  His love is beyond words—it is a sacrificial love—as Jesus laid down his life so that we might be set free.  God doesn’t wait until we clean up our lives before accepting us and loving us. He loves us as we are.

AND YET—there is something greater he is inviting us into.  He wants to set us free from the things that still enslave us.  Maybe it is regret from our past, or ongoing struggles in our present.  This is why he says, “Follow me.”  Not just once, but for the rest of our lives.

This is important for us to grasp. If we don’t get this–the invitation from God to learn from Jesus, be changed by him, and join in his work (see Bobby Harrington’s definition at–our faith will stay stagnant.  Jesus can remain only a Savior who you turn to when you do something wrong.  Nothing else. 

Paul had a greater vision of who Jesus was.  Where did that come from? Let’s look at his remarkable conversion, found in the book of Acts, chapter 9:

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

In short, Paul had an experience seeing the risen Jesus Christ.  Ever wondered what would have happened if he had decided this was just a dream?  That he was hallucinating?  Like the “choose your own adventure” books:

If Paul thinks it is a dream, go to page 23.  If Paul believes it is real, turn to page 24. 

Obviously, Paul believed that what he saw and heard on that day—on the road to Damascus—was real.  And true.  And that Jesus was worth reorienting his entire life around.

He didn’t just say, “Wow, Jesus took care of all the bad things I used to do.”  He goes and spends time with Peter, the man who spent three years walking with Jesus.  Paul learns from him the eyewitness accounts of what Jesus did, some of which we get to read in the gospels. 

Then, get this, he goes to Damascus—the very place he was headed when the risen Jesus showed up.  Damascus—the place where he was known to be an enemy of the gospel.  And he begins to preach that Jesus is God’s Son—alive, risen—and worth following.  Forget what is behind, Paul says.  Follow Jesus.

And so what Paul once was changes.   He knows what was being said about him now:

They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”  And they praised God because of me.   Galatians 1:23-24

What would be said about you?  The man—the woman—who used to…now is…. 

I’m a part of a group of pastors that meet together monthly. At a recent gathering, one of the pastors asked this question: How do you know when you are lined up with the heart of God? After various responses, this is what I said: “When instead of anger I find myself responding with gentleness and compassion.  When instead of despair I find myself holding on to hope.  When instead of just trying to make people happy I find myself speaking the truth in love.” In other words, when I see a change taking place: from what I once was, to what God is inviting me to be.

So how do we get there?  

How do we really embark on this journey of being changed by God?
The journey to discovering God’s love, and where we need to be set free cannot always be done alone. Most churches offer all kinds of opportunities: small groups, mentors, classes. But I remember my earliest part of my own growth was with a group of my peers in high school. We just got together and studied a book together. We weren’t part of one church, but were classmates trying to figure out how to follow Jesus as 17-year olds. We were in the midst of making decisions for our future, and trying to figure out how to turn to Jesus to help with the struggles we had.

What about you? Can you think of one thing you are struggling with right now, that a year from now you’d like to be able to say, “That’s who I used to be.  But Jesus has changed that.”

Spoiler alert: in book #2 of the choose your own adventure series, Journey Under the Sea, you are a deep sea adventurer, seeking the lost city of Atlantis. You dive down deep into the ocean, go through a grotto, and discover a strange group of people, with a different language. They tell you (through an interpreter) that they are enslaved to a wicked king. You have to make some difficult choices. They ask for your help. If you help, if you then ask for their help, you end up leading a revolt to overthrow the evil king. And the book ends with, “You and the people are free.”

In some ways, that adventure is like what it’s like to join a church.  You are seeking.  You find a group of people that is also looking to be set free.  This group of people–church people–at first seem different, with a different language and everything. You have to make hard choices to join them.  But in the end, you, and the people, find yourself living free. 

God loves us as we are, but wants to set us free from what we once were.


Esther Mae Jones and The Greyhound Bus Ride

Over twenty years ago now, when I was a seminary student in New Jersey, my girlfriend (now my wife!) lived in Virginia.  To go and see her, I often took a Greyhound bus.  On one particular trip, I sat next to a woman who introduced herself as Evangelist Esther Mae Jones.  I remember her to be a small fiery African American woman, with graying hair, wire rimmed glasses, with a lunch neatly placed on her lap.  We chatted for a bit, and I told her where I was going.  “To see my girlfriend,” I said.  “You’re going to marry that woman,” she said.  We had been dating about nine months at that point, so I wasn’t sure what to make of the prediction. 

But she was right.  We’ve been married twenty one years now.

We talked some more.  I told her I was a seminary student.  She had all sorts of warnings for me about that.  Not to let my education get in the way of what God might want to do, not to get distracted by all kinds of theories and teachings.  Then she got to teaching herself.  She told me to write these things down.  “Do it!” she said.  I remember getting out a yellow post-it pad, and began writing.  She watched me to make sure I got these things right.

“The only thing that God cannot do is fail.”

“Let God do it for you.”

We need to hear those wise words from Esther Mae Jones.  God cannot fail.  And He will do it for you.

I think Esther Mae Jones and the apostle Paul would have been friends.  Especially that last part:  Let God do it for you.  Because that is another way of saying what Paul said to the churches in Galatia.

He writes,

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!

Strong words for Paul.  He is extremely concerned that some folks have come into the very place where Paul preached freedom for people, telling them they needed to do some other things to really be accepted into God’s family. 

I was listening to another sermon on this, and was reminded that  Paul is a man who claims to have seen a resurrected Jesus Christ.  We have to decide if he is deluded, if he hallucinated, or is a real eyewitness of truth.  For this man goes on to write more letters, and his letter helped shape this movement of following Jesus.  He went on to suffer hardship for this message:  beatings, shipwrecks, imprisonment.  Ultimately, according to at least two traditions:  he was beheaded by the emperor Nero. 

At the end of the day, we need to decide if he’s telling the truth.

Paul is frustrated that the Galatians are “trading in” the greatest news for a different gospel.  The greatest news is that Jesus has secured their salvation through the cross as a free gift from God. It’s Jesus and nothing else.  That’s a lot of church words, but I’ll explain more in a future post. 

Why were they doing that?  Why were they trading that good news in?

Paul says some others have come in to “trouble and distort” the gospel that was preached to them.  The word “trouble” means to stir or shake up.  I thought about the things that “stir” or “shake” our belief that God is for us and with us.  First and foremost, pain and suffering.  When we experience pain and suffering, we often attempt to control our situation, and can often fall into impatience, hijacking perhaps what God wants to do in His timing.

Think about that:  you believe something being taught to you.  You receive it, embrace it.  It becomes a part of who you are.  You experience joy because of it.  A sense that it is right and true and good.  You feel hope.  And then something bad happens.  Sickness, an accident.  You lose something or someone.  And then someone comes and tells you, “Well, that’s because you were believing that message; let me tell you how to get out of that predicament.”

And the message they try and sell you isn’t all wrong.  In fact, parts of it sound like the other message.  It just distorts some things.

The word “distort” brings to mind one of those carnival mirrors.  It distorts the picture of who we are.   So too does a “gospel” that says you have to do all of these things to stay right with God.  

The basic “distortion” Paul was wanting to point out was any message that proclaimed:   “Jesus and…”  In Paul’s day, it was believe in Jesus, AND Obey these rituals.  Believe in Jesus AND Obey these days and seasons.  Believe in Jesus AND Obey these dietary laws.

We hear some of that in the New Testament and can dismiss those things because they’re not a part of our culture.  But what about this…

Well, the way you really show your devotion to Jesus is through serving here.  

The way you really show that you’re serious about your faith is if you volunteer.  

Or give money. 

Or go to this class, this program, this retreat, embrace this discipline, that discipline, on and on and on.

I wonder sometimes if some of you have feel that way when you go to church.  I don’t think it is the intent of some churches to do that.  I know my hope is to create a space for people to discover the person of Jesus, and become a life long follower of His.  To know His grace and love.  I believe when we begin to do that, we’ll join Him in His already existing mission of transformation of our neighborhood, our city, and the world.  But I wonder if sometimes people hear something different. 

There’s a subtle difference between a message that says, “We’re offering these things because it might be a pathway for you to grow in this relationship with Jesus;” and, “You need to do these things to really be accepted by Jesus, and be a part of us.”

Paul feels very strongly about this.  He says that if anyone–even an angel from heaven–is preaching something like that latter message, that they should be cursed.

This word curse is the Greek word  anathema. The first definition I came across in a dictionary was  “a votive offering set up in a temple.” “Devoted to the divinity”–either consecrated or accursed. In other words, Paul was saying, “Let them be devoted to God–for Him to deal with them.”  By the way, Paul says he would wish himself were accursed from Christ for the sake of his brothers in Romans 9:3.

So this is a serious message:  We do not need to turn to earning God’s love or favor; it is by grace we have been saved.

Examine your heart and mind on this:  How many of you are hearing that message and saying “Yes Yes I know.  But I have to do this too…”

Paul would cry out and say “No!”  If you begin to believe that, you begin to leave Jesus behind, in essence saying He is not enough.  He says he’s astonished that the Galatians are “deserting” the one who called them live in grace…God’s free gift.

Jesus is enough.  He is more than enough.  At the core of our faith is a belief that He came to be with us and for us.  To have a relationship with us–we do that through prayer, through studying His words, through learning from one another.  Don’t abandon that relationship by believing you have to do something more to earn His acceptance and love.

I was thinking this: 

“The good news is so good that we try to be good, or do good, to stay good. But we don’t have to.”

Esther Mae Jones would say:  Let God do it for you.

God loves you.  Let Him do this for you.  He has set you free.

Free from others’ opinions of us…

I was in fourth grade when I first started wearing glasses.  I was in fourth grade when the girl I had a crush on said to me, “I don’t like your glasses.”  I remember saying, my 10 year old heart hurting, “Well don’t look at them then!”  It sounded like I was confident in that moment, but I wasn’t. 

The fact is that we can remember people’s words and people’s opinions, especially when those opinions have something to do with us:  what we look like, what we wear, what we do for a living, what we said.  So my story of my 4th grade crush crushing my heart with a few words might be a silly example.  But people’s words hurt, and people’s opinions hurt.  (Otherwise I wouldn’t remember it nearly forty years later!) 

But what would it look like to not be worried so much about others’ opinions of us.  If there was a security in our identity—

The author Henri Nouwen says we have a tendency to believe three lies about our identity.

I am what I have,

I am what I do,

and I am what other people say or think about me.   

Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life

There is a book we are studying at my church, a letter written to a group of churches in Galatia (modern day Turkey). This letter to the Galatians addresses these lies in different ways. 

The man who wrote the letter was first known as Saul.  We are introduced to him in the New Testament in the book of Acts, and discover that he once persecuted followers of Jesus.  But in the 9th chapter of Acts, Saul becomes Paul, when he has an encounter with the risen-from-the dead Jesus.

Author and pastor Eugene Peterson puts who Paul was this way: 

 “Paul believed the lie that God was against everyone who deviated from a certain path.  He believed the lie and so was against everyone who didn’t follow the path.  As he lived out this lie, he became obsessed.  Paul’s idea of God was that he was an angry bachelor uncle, impatient with the antics of romping and undisciplined children.  Paul’s response, along with many others, was to shut up the children and make them sit in a corner until they learned to behave in such a way that they wouldn’t disturb the old man, and if they wouldn’t shut up, send them off to boarding school.” Eugene Peterson, Traveling Light

So, if this wasn’t what God was like—an angry bachelor uncle—what was God like?  Peterson goes on…

 “God was not against but for. This truth about God came to Paul in the person of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ showed him that he had had it all wrong, that what he had followed was a ‘gospel contrary.’ He convinced him that God is on our side; he persuaded him that sin is not God’s excuse to get rid of us, but the occasion for entering our lives and setting us free.” Eugene Peterson, Traveling Light  

Sure enough, this idea of being “set free” shows up in Paul’s first sermon in Acts,  preached to one of the churches in the region of Galatia.

 “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”Acts 13:38-39 ESV

Paul preached to the churches in Galatia:  we’ve been set free. 

We have to understand that this is a radical claim.  And Paul heard that others had come up to stir up division in the churches, and they did it by trying to disparage the character of Paul.  Saying that Paul had just gotten this idea of being set free from some other teachers, and he was passing it off as his own.

That is why Paul begins the introduction to his letter to the Galatians by emphatically stating:  I’m an apostle:  One sent by God—but I’m sent not by men, but by God Himself. 

Now when we hear someone say those kinds of things now—God sent me, God told me—we get skeptical.  And rightly so.  And the only way we can test to see if this is true is by seeing if what is being taught and said holds up.  Does this gospel of freedom stand the test of time.  Does it produce what it is meant to produce?  Is the one delivering the message trustworthy?  Does their life match up with what is being taught?

In another letter to a church, Paul talked about how he shared his life and message deeply with others, and when he heard that others were saying negative things about him, his only defense was this:  “Remember how we were like a mother to you—gentle among you.  Remember how we were like a father to you, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy…”  [see I Thessalonians 2:7 and following) In other words, remember how I lived among you.

Paul is simply saying:  look at what others are saying about me.  Then remember how I lived among you.

We should probably do this with the people who lead us and teach us.  Does the teaching stand the test of time?  Is it proven somewhere?  Can we test it somehow?  And, does the person doing the teaching—do they live in such a way that seems trustworthy? 

Paul knew there were critics, and seemed to expect them.  He knew that what he was saying would not just “ruffle feathers,” but make people vehemently angry.

Back to the boy in the glasses.  When I think back to those years, I see a young boy that desperately wanted to be liked.  And that is still within me today.  But over time, I’ve discovered that it’s a greater thing to be loved:  by my wife of 21 years, by my children, and most of all, by the God who says “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”  Not everyone will like me..  I will probably always be misunderstood, misinterpreted, accused of things, and more.  People won’t like me for a variety of reasons.  But I cling to the fact that I am loved.  I share that with you because I believe someone else needs to hear that today.  You’re working so hard to manage everyone’s expectations of you, trying to fit in, trying to be liked—you need to hear, as I do, that you’re loved.

I think that is what Paul is saying in Galatians.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll hear him say it more and more.  He knows people are saying that his message and teaching—he just stole it from other people, he’s just saying what other people told him to say.  To all of that Paul insists that he is sent from God, and comes out of the love of God.

Now:  on to why I wanted to study this book, this letter written centuries ago.  Noticed how divided we are in our world today.  By race, by class, by political affiliation.  Even within the church—the followers of Jesus have divided themselves by how we think about baptism, the Lord’s supper, music, what we wear, how it is people come to know Christ.  What happened in Genesis when God created the heavens and earth; what will happen when Jesus returns.  With so much division and hatred everywhere, it is a dark time. 

Underneath the book of Galatians is division.  Between Jewish Christians and non-Jewish Christians—different races, different ethnic groups.  There was fighting, arguing, and division. 

One group saying to another, “to really be a follower of Christ you have to be like us.”  [Any of that sound familiar…anywhere?]

To all of that Paul says rubbish.  Hogwash.  Fill in your strong-word-of-choice.

And we’ll discover that he is well aware of the division, and what others are saying about him.  He knows who called him, he knows who rescued him, and he knows who gave him this commission to preach good news.  And he knows that the gospel:  that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, came to rescue us from our sins through his death on the cross, and was raised back to life as a promise of our new life here and in the life to come.  We receive all of this as a gift—it is God’s grace.  We don’t earn it, we don’t have to work or add to it. 

That should unify us all.  Nothing more, nothing less. 

“According to Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection mean that this God is now building a new family, a single family, a family with no divisions, no separate races, no one-table-for-Jews-and-another-for-Gentiles nonsense. Jews believed that when the Messiah came he would be Lord of all the world; so, Paul argues, he’d have to have just one family. ” NT Wright, Galatians For Everyone

We are a new family.  One family.  Gathered around one table.  Unified by one true gospel. 

God came to be with us, so that he could be for us. 

Remember Eugene Peterson’s words again:

“Sin is not God’s excuse to get rid of us.  It is the occasion of entering our lives and setting us free.”

Jesus gave himself for our sins.  This is the gospel.  We don’t earn anything.  We are free. 

Free first from what others say and think.

Free from others’ perception of us.

Free at last from the sin that used to hold us, and free to live a new life because of Jesus.  

In the words of the honorable Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we are:

Free at Last. Free at Last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.


There is one question come Christmas time that I’ve found can make the vast majority of us grumble, or at least begin to run off a to-do list several pages long.  It’s a question that can make the cheeriest, Christmas-carol loving celebrator turn Grinchy. It’s this question:  “So, are you ready for Christmas?”

Ask that question, and most people will roll their eyes, and verbally scroll down their list of chores and things to do, or launch into tales of journeys to find that year’s elusive hot gift—remember Cabbage Patch kids?—more recently American Girl dolls? What is it this year?  I did a Google search, and here is one result:

Once in a while, you come across that organized friend—you know, the one who did their shopping months ago, getting the best deals–even 30% lower than your Black Friday bargain–and sending out Christmas cards early because they planned ahead and took the family picture on their summer vacation to Bora-Bora. 

You end the conversation as quickly as possible with that friend.

Our lives are already busy.  Our regular responsibilities often keep us running from one place to another.

And then Christmas comes and can make it feel worse.

What I think is sad about Christmas is that we feel pressure to add to our already busy lives this extra activity.  And, in the midst of that, we can easily lose the joy.  There is shopping to do, cards to send out, family pictures, family tradition to uphold, family picture to take—”Will everyone just stand still and smile for one moment?”—there are stocking stuffers, should I get the guy in the cubicle next to me a gift?

So most of us groan when someone asks us the question:  “Are you ready for Christmas?”

What if in the midst of our hectic running around, trying to make Christmas perfect—what if God had a message for us?  What if God wanted to tell us something?

What if He was saying something like this:  “I know you feel busy.   I know you have a lot to do.  But in the midst of your duties, I want to tell you something important.  Listen.”

Are you ready for God?

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to look at a few groups of eyewitnesses–eyewitnesses of the majesty of God coming to earth.  Two of them were just going about their lives when God came to tell them something.  Their names were Zechariah and Elizabeth.

Luke’s gospel begins by talking about eyewitnesses.  He opens his account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus like this:

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”

So the story begins with eyewitnesses to the story of God choosing people to tell His story to the world.

Here is the story:

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute.23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

Luke anchors his gospel in names and places.  Real names, real places.  Our faith is rooted in history.  Pastor and Bible teacher Alistair Begg says we would be wise to remember that the gospels revolve around three words:  history, divinity, and mystery.

Some history: Herod.  One of the most wicked kings history has ever known.  Killed his wife Marianne when he suspected she was plotting against him.  Also had three of his sons convicted in court of plotting against him, and they were sentenced to death by strangling.  Herod’s reputation was such that the Roman Emperor Augustus was quoted as saying, “It would be a better thing to be one of Herod’s pigs than one of his sons.”

Into this region dominated by tyranny and wickedness, God came.

Luke’s gospel begins by subtly confronting the idea that good people should only have good things happen to them.  We’re introduced to a couple who have done right, but are holding onto the sadness of having no children.  But their names–Zechariah and Elizabeth–had meaning.

Zechariah’s name=The Lord Remembers.

Elizabeth=My God is An Absolutely Faithful One, OR, My God is An Oath

Zechariah and Elizabeth’s names in themselves are a sermon.  The Lord Remembers.  The Lord is absolutely faithful.

But the sadness of Elizabeth being barren goes way beyond what we might think.  Part of the culture that Elizabeth was in measured her worth by whether or not she could have children.  Because having someone preserve the family line was the only way for someone to leave a legacy–for the family to live on.  For people who may not believe in everlasting life, life continued through one’s children.

Can you picture what that might have meant for Elizabeth?  Waiting, trying, month after month, but never experiencing the joy of having a child?  Perhaps seeing the other women in the village whisper, cast judging looks?  Important to recognize that there were those that believed that barrenness was the result of some sin–that Elizabeth couldn’t have children because God was punishing her.

And yet, Zechariah and Elizabeth remain faithful–to each other, and apparently to God, because they are described as righteous and blameless in obeying God.

Zechariah is going about his duties as priest.  God sends an angel.  Tells him his prayer has been answered.  And that Elizabeth would bear him a son.  Zechariah asks a question, and Gabriel tells him he will be silent until his son comes.

There is irony here.  Bible scholars tell us that there were some 400 years of “silence,” the time between the last book of the Hebrew Bible, Malachi, and the beginning of the time of the gospels. 

The angel Gabriel comes to proclaim that God is doing something new.  Zechariah’s response:  “How can I be sure?”  Response:  silence.

Can we blame him?  When we haven’t heard from God in some time, isn’t our natural response to question whether it is really Him speaking?

I thought a bit about this whole silence thing.  A priest who can’t talk.  That’s a miracle if I ever saw one!  Perhaps attendance at services tripled during that week Zechariah was on duty.  Can you imagine the talk that went around during that time of Zechariah’s silence?  “Shortest services, ever,” they said.  “He can’t talk!  We’re out of there in ten minutes, tops.” 

Enough about Zechariah’s silence.  There is someone else affected by all this.

Elizabeth:  “God has taken away my reproach among people.”  The shame of her barrenness is no more.   

NT Wright writes, “The story is about much more than Zechariah’s joy at having a son at last, or Elisabeth’s exultation in being freed from the scorn of the mothers in the village. It is about the great fulfilment of God’s promises and purposes. But the needs, hopes and fears of ordinary people are not forgotten in this larger story, precisely because of who Israel’s God is—the God of lavish, self-giving love, as Luke will tell us in so many ways throughout his gospel. When this God acts on the large scale, he takes care of smaller human concerns as well. The drama which now takes centre stage is truly the story of God, the world, and every ordinary human being who has ever lived in it.”  NT Wright. Luke for Everyone

Such is the grace of God.  God’s purposes are ultimately fulfilled, and along the way, the human concerns of Zechariah and Elizabeth are answered and folded into God’s story.  

The whole story reminds us how important it is to God to prepare the way. The child Zechariah and Elizabeth will raise is not God’s Son and anointed king, the Messiah—he is the forerunner, the one who announces that God has come to save the world.  He is, in the words of Isaiah the prophet, the one who is a voice calling out in the wilderness—prepare the way for the Lord.

What I noticed:  In these two characters of Zechariah and Elizabeth:  Zechariah represents the priesthood.  The system of temple sacrifices.  That goes silent.

Elizabeth represents those that have been kept on the margins.  Ridiculed, living in shame.  As God’s plan unfolds, she is moved from the shadows to the center.

As Jesus began his ministry, that kind of thing happened much more.  Remember the woman, suffering on the margins of society because of her illness—who spend everything she had on doctors who made her worse.  She had the courage and faith to simply touch the hem of Jesus’ robe, and was healed.  And Jesus called out, “Who touched me.”  And the woman has been healed, and her shame is taken away.  She is known.

Elizabeth moves from the reproach and shame in her culture of being barren to bearing John the Baptist, the prophet who would bring many back to faith in God.

Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story is a glimpse into the gospel story.

The religious structures and systems will be brought down at the birth of Jesus.

The ones living in darkness and shame—they have seen a great light.

In the darkness, into an evil time, while people were going about their regular lives—God came.

Are you ready?

This season we call Christmas is about God fulfilling His promises.  To be the God who rescues and redeems.  Who doesn’t forget our pain.  Who never leaves us alone.

The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth is for all of us, just going about our already busy lives, who perhaps have given up on the idea that God might want to do something different.  Who might have stopped believing He would answer our prayers.  That all God really wanted from us was our duty, and not to complain about it.  To take our lot in life and just be happy we didn’t have it worse.

Into that, God says, “Watch this.”  Your prayers have been answered.  Your shame is taken away.”

You weren’t ready for that, were you?

Elton John, a young sprig, cedar fruit, birds of every kind, and the church.

I didn’t think I was ready.  And most days, I still don’t know if I am.

The year was 1998.  The song that lasted the longest that year at #1 on the Billboard music charts was Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind.” The fashion was…well, if you Google “Fashion in 1998” the first hit will be an article in Glamour Magazine (if you didn’t get your copy in the mail) that is entitled:  “9 Fashion Trends from 1998 that are Just as Relevant in 2018.”  Take out your pens and pencils.  If you’re wearing “logo wear,” “microfloral dresses,” or small, symmetrical sunglasses, you’re trending.

Back to 1998…

In 1998 I graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary.  I had passed a series of ordination exams for the Presbyterian Church.  And I had interviewed in a variety of places, including Columbia, Missouri; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; San Antonio, Texas; and Chattanooga, Tennessee.  It was this campus ministry in Chattanooga that I felt God’s call.  And the leaders there called my wife and me, married a little over a year, to pastor this ministry that met on sixty folding chairs in a living room one block off of the University Tennessee-Chattanooga campus.

I wonder: What makes three years of studying Bible, Greek, Hebrew, church history, a handful of preaching classes, youth ministry classes, plus passing a few exams—what makes all of that make someone ready to lead a group of people?  What makes all of that qualify someone to teach the Word of God to a group of 18-22 year olds.  A group that over the next sixteen years would grow to over 400 people in worship and small group meetings.

I was twenty eight years old when I began serving in that ministry.  I was, in the words of the prophet Ezekiel—a tender young sprig.  I had only been a believer in Jesus for 12 years at that point.  And now leading a group of people in what it means to follow Jesus.

How many of us have found that God works just like that?  That the periods of growth in our lives come when we think we are not quite ready.

Can you think back on those times in your life when you were young at something or inexperienced at something—it all felt new and tender and vulnerable—and God, or a boss, or a coach, or someone else said, “I want you to go here and start this.  I want you to lead this.  I want you to serve here.”

I’m told that when you are wanting to transplant a vine, or a tree, you look for a new branch—one article I read said a branch less than a year old would work best.

Which brings me to this passage in Ezekiel 17:

22 Thus says the Lord God: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. 24 And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.”

Now all of this about a tender sprig growing into a strong cedar–what this text in Ezekiel 17 was about is a very specific situation.

What God was saying through Ezekiel then was about Israel, and the kingdom of Babylon that had put them in exile.  God’s people had experienced the king of Babylon coming to Jerusalem and snapping off a portion of God’s people like a sprig from a tree and taking them to a foreign land.  Here, God says He Himself will take a sprig…but instead of that sprig withering away, it will grow.

One of the things I love about God’s Word is that these words—written to a particular people, in a particular situation, for a particular purpose—these words are living and active—and the meaning then still has meaning now for us.

Jesus knew this.  He knew the Word of God, and many of the people he spoke to knew these Scriptures as well.  So when Jesus said the kingdom of God was like a mustard seed—would grow to the largest of garden plants so that birds of every kind would nest in its shade—when Jesus spoke those words and said “birds of every kind nesting in its shade,” do we think this was a coincidence?  One of the things we need to know about Jesus—that when he spoke, not a word was wasted.  Do we think for a moment that he wasn’t wanting to call others’ minds to these days of Ezekiel—so that when Jesus said “birds of every kind will nest in its shade,” those that knew Ezekiel’s prophecy would know that Jesus was talking about a kingdom–and a kingdom people.  A kingdom that reflects every kind of bird finding shelter under a strong tree.

What is God’s kingdom?  I think one of the best definitions I’ve ever heard was from Dallas Willard:  Where God’s will is being done.

“The Kingdom of God: It is present wherever what God wants done is done.”  (see more here)

Contrast that with our kingdom:  Where we strive to make what we want done done.  How much of our time and energy are spent trying to make our own kingdom grow?  Trying to arrange our lives in order to make our will be done as much as possible.  How is that working out for us?

Is it any wonder Jesus taught us to pray, “YOUR (God’s) kingdom come, YOUR (God’s) will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”?

Jesus in his parables sought to point out that God has always been about making His kingdom grow—by making His kingdom people grow.  So he used parables about seeds growing to large garden plants, nets and fish, weeds and wheat, and much more.

Back to Ezekiel, who has a parable of his own.

That strong tree begins with inauspicious beginnings.  A tender shoot.  But the Master Gardener, God Himself, is the one who takes the sprig.  NOTE: If you read all of Ezekiel 17, you’ll notice that kings are the ones who try and plant their own sprigs.  But here, God is the one who cuts and plants.  He knows what He is doing.  That might be the first principle for us desiring to make shade for others—let God do the planting.  Let God do the planting.  This sprig has been planted by God in a particular place—it grows.  With branches that spread out.  And it bears fruit— I had to look that up:  Does cedar really produce fruit?  I hadn’t seen it recently at a grocery store.  Well, I guess a cedar does bear fruit.  A dark blue berry that is usually eaten by squirrels and birds.  But Native Americans used it as an herbal remedy for arthritis and nausea.  Don’t try this at home.  In any case, the tender sprig becomes a strong cedar, spreading out its branches, bearing fruit, making shade for birds of every sort.

The church where I serve has been in the city of Sacramento for 150 years.  Fifty years ago, the elders and leadership of this church moved from a beautiful space at 36th and J Streets to plant something new here on Carlson and H Street.  Before that, 14th and O Street, where the first church was built at a cost of $500 with labor donated, and then rebuilt on 15th and O for $10,000.

Fremont Presbyterian 15th and O

Each of those moves in our history were inspired by God to grow something new, to give something new, to go somewhere new, to be something new.

Aren’t the words of Ezekiel for us as well?  That we are planted here to grow branches, bear fruit, so that birds of every kind—people of every culture, race, and language—can gather and find a home?

Will we continue to grow, to deepen our roots in this community and city?  Will we be a strong cedar, under which birds of every kind—people of every race, language, and culture—can gather and find shelter and hope?

As only God’s Word can do:  when you look at these verses through the lens of the gospels—the story of Jesus—we find remarkable parallels.

A man, a young shoot from the family line of King David.  Who the night before his death said, “Let this cup pass from me…but not my will be done, but yours be done.”  He was a man cut down in the prime of his life—tradition has it at age thirty-three.  A tender sprig placed up on the hard wood of a cross.  Lifted up and planted down upon a mountain in Israel.  A shameful death.  But that death has brought life.  Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection continues to grow in its depth, spreading out to all nations—as people from every nation, every culture, every language are finding forgiveness and grace.

The words spoken by the prophet Ezekiel are coming true:  All the trees of the field will know that I am the Lord.  May we join in God’s kingdom work by making shade for all peoples.  Amen.

Stop Throwing Shade–Start Making It

We live in a world abounding with people throwing shade.  That is, people publicly expressing contempt and scalding critique for others.  It isn’t just, “I disagree with this person.”  It goes into those areas of contempt and bitterness and rage.  We see it on the news, on social media, in music, in film.  It’s everywhere.

What about instead of “throwing shade,” we began to make shade?  A good kind of shade.  Shade, like from a tree, on a hot day.  That cools you, protects you, shelters you.

As a follower of Jesus, I want to grow in my relationship with Jesus–meaning I want to learn how he lived, how he spoke, and model my life after his. Over the years, I find myself walking through different stages.  And, that I often re-enter these stages as God is showing me something new.  We can talk about the seed stage—where we are asking questions, having doubts, not sure of what we believe.  But there is something there, waiting to sprout.  We can talk about the sapling stage:  where the small seed of faith begins to emerge from the soil of our lives, and we surround ourselves with the things we need to grow:  community, the Word of God, an understanding that we will face pruning and trials, and more.

As we grow, we enter a new stage:  When we make shade. Jesus talks about God’s kingdom being like a mustard seed—that grows until the birds make their nests in its shade.  The church where I have served the last four years has been in the city of Sacramento for 150 years.  Those those years, we have made shade for others—in ministry with an elementary school and a people group in Ethiopia, with college students at nearby Sacramento State, and some more recent partnership with people in Haiti and Jamaica.    Our Fremont Nursery School has a longstanding reputation in our community to care for children well.  We are making shade for others.

There is a community side to making shade for others.

Yet there is also a personal side to making shade.

This is the stage in which we have grown—have understood that God has given us a story, a journey, and certain experiences in our lives.  God has given us gifts, and we find that others are being blessed by our gifts, and our story.  People may be gathering in and around us.  It may be formal or informal.  It may be in having a cup of coffee in your home with a struggling neighbor or friend.  It may be in a work setting, or a volunteer setting, where you are finding yourself leading others.  But you begin to notice that the gifts that God has given you, the story God has given you is a source of encouragement, hope, rest and comfort for others. Making shade is also challenging others to grow as well.  Like the branches of a tree that are growing, reaching out from their center, so too followers of Jesus can grow and reach out from their center of faith to bless others.

I think what we will discover when we look closely that Scripture paints a picture of what God desires for a people who call on His Name.  That they would grow—and that when they grow—not in numbers necessarily, but in depth, influence—becoming more like Jesus each and every day—when God’s people grow, they affect others.

Look at Psalm 80.

Psalm 80:8-11

You brought a vine out of Egypt;

you drove out the nations and planted it.

   You cleared the ground for it;

it took deep root and filled the land.

10   The mountains were covered with its shade,

the mighty cedars with its branches.

11   It sent out its branches to the sea

and its shoots to the River.

This is the story of Israel.  The book of Exodus especially chronicles the part of the story in Psalm 80.

A nation of people who escaped 400 years of slavery in Egypt.  God rescued them.  God brought them through 40 years of wandering in the wilderness to a Promised Land.  After tumultuous times, they enjoyed a golden age of their nation under the reign of King David.

There are also hints to the story of Jesus.  In a few weeks, we celebrate his birth believing he was, and is,  God come to us in the flesh.

He and his family had to escape to Egypt.  When he returned to his homeland, he said, “I am the vine.”  We are the branches.  If we stay with him, we will bear much fruit.  We will be agents of healing and reconciliation, speak good news to others, and proclaim that God is here.

There are even more echoes from Psalm 80:8-11: on a hill called Calvary, Jesus spread out his arms on a tree.  The land became dark.  Who knew that the shade of that day would bring forgiveness and new life for all who would call upon the name of Jesus?

Israel’s story, and the story of Jesus—is our story.

The Exodus was Israel’s rescue story.

What’s your rescue story? Where has God rescued you?

God cleared the ground and planted Israel.

God has planted you somewhere.  Even prepared the conditions for you to thrive and grow.

We’ve been rescued and planted.  Planted for a purpose.

I wonder how many of us have lost sight of that purpose? Are you disillusioned with your faith?

Have you tired of the same old routine?  Attending church, attending to your own relationship with Christ, trying to supplement with Bible study, prayer, and church events like spiritual multi-vitamins?  Hear me:  there is nothing wrong with those things.  It is how we grow.  But eventually we need to understand that our growth has a purpose.

Where are you providing shade for others?

Remember who you are called to be.

God has always intended that His salvation for a people, would make a people.  And that that people would extend the reign of God to all peoples.

God brought salvation to a people, to make a people, to bring salvation, to all peoples. 

Examples abound in the Bible:  God says to Abraham:  You will be blessed, to be a blessing for all nations. (Genesis 12)

And in the prophet Isaiah:

“It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant
To raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel;
I will also make You a light of the nations
So that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6

[By the same token, it is too small a thing for us to exist for ourselves, or even for the church.  This is too small a vision for our lives.]

Jesus says:  You shall be my witnesses…even to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  Go and make disciples of all nations…(Matthew 28:19)

The list above is not exhaustive, but represents a familiar refrain.  God brought salvation to a people, to make a people, who would bring salvation to all peoples.

A friend named Oldson Duclos preached at our church a few weeks back, and spoke of “Common people doing uncommon things for the common good.”  I love that.

Even though we know these Scriptures, I think we have lost this idea in the evangelical church.  Somewhere along the line, we made the gospel into a message of individual salvation.  And that the task once we had a knowledge of our salvation was just to “stay saved.”  We somewhere lost the message of growing in Christ.  And we lost the message of growing together to become a people who bring salvation to all peoples.

But the trajectory we are on, if we can trust the Scriptures, is that there will one day be wholeness, peace, and new creation, and all peoples will bear witness to it.

Hear this from Revelation 7:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:9-12)

Have you ever wondered:  How did that multitude get there?  From every nation, all tribes, peoples, languages?  Then ask yourself:  How did you get to where you are?  How did you get to your place of faith?  (I’m guessing someone else had something to do with it!)

God brought salvation to a people, to make a people, who would bring salvation to all peoples.  We’ve been invited to grow into a people, whose branches will spread out into the world.  And as we grow, we’ll be making shade, instead of throwing it.







What Toto’s “Africa” taught me.

I hate Toto’s song, “Africa.”  But it has taught me that you never know what you’ll be known for.

If you were used to this blog being somewhat of a tiny source of wisdom or biblical insight, just skip this one. This is just purely for fun.  There is one Bible thing at the end.

For sixteen years of my life, I was a college ministry pastor in Tennessee.  We used to serve lunch every Tuesday for college students, and one particular day, I got into a conversation with a young man who was a leader in our ministry who happened to run sound. This will be an important detail later.

For some reason I’ve always hated this song. I don’t know if it hearkens back to the days of 1980s high school dances, where it was one of those horrible songs that wasn’t quite a fast song, wasn’t quite a slow song. In other words, it wasn’t dance-able.  Please try and stifle the laughter if you are trying to imagine me dancing.

What I recall about the conversation with this young student was this:  He was trying to make a case for how “deep” the lyrics were, something probably about existential angst and what-not.  He was 18, maybe 19.  You remember those years right?  To his argument about how deep the lyrics were, I simply laughed.  I made the case that if you listen to the lyrics, they make no sense.  Just Google “Toto Africa lyrics.”  Read them carefully.

I’ll wait…

See what I mean?

The guy is obviously confused.  For one, he thinks the girl arriving on the 12:30 flight is “salvation.”  Good luck.

Or, is the guy saying that the stars guide him toward some sort of cosmic salvation?  Good luck with that.  Is he into horoscopes?

He interrupts an old man.  He says something about “it waiting there for you.”  What is this “it”?

I know what some of you are thinking.  Ah, this is art.  The lyrics can be interpreted on many different layers, and is open to your interpretation.  Blah blah blah.  I just want something in music that is understandable (and perhaps danceable…stop laughing.)

Let’s keep going.

After the chorus where the guy seems to go all macho and say he could overcome 100 men to stay with the girl, and he takes it upon himself to bless the rains in Africa, we come to the second verse.

Enter the wild dogs.

They are longing for solitary company.  So Dr. Dolittle/songwriter can now understand wild dogs and their cries.  Wild dog whisperer. Awesome.


The writer says he must do what is right. As sure as a mountain rises above a plain.  But wait, as sure as an African mountain rises like a mythical Greek mountain of the gods above an African national park/ecosystem.  Not sure of the metaphor here.  (But I’m thinking someone is going to spend some time on this and come up with something that sounds like a 18 year old college student with existential angst).


Just when you were picturing a mountain like another mountain over a plain, the song gets dangerous.  “I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing I’ve become.”  Ok, wait.

Let’s just say this.  If one of my daughters were to come home and say, “Hey Dad, I just met this guy, and he said to me, “I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing I’ve become,” I’m telling her, “Run.  Run far away.  Never look back.  As sure as a real mountain like another mythical mountain rises above a real plain, you should run far away from that guy.”  To which my daughter texts her friends and says, “I think my dad is losing it.”

So the song finishes with chorus, chorus, blah, blah, blah.

A friend recently posted that in three different interviews, the writer of the song gave three different answers about what the song was really about.  Hmmm.  You think?

At this point, some of you may remember something about the conversation with the student, who was the sound guy at our college ministry.  Yeah, about that.  So, after the aforementioned argument/heated conversation, said sound guy decided to take it upon himself to play Toto’s Africa after each one of our worship services.  I would say a blessing over the students, “The Lord bless you and keep you…”  And then it would kick in.

Do do do do-do do duuuu.

“I bless the rains down in Africa.”

This happened, it felt like, for something like…I don’t know…10 years?  Maybe more?

Now, what is funny/torturing-to-my-soul, is that some bands have come out with remixes of the song–Weezer, for one.  Every time someone remixes it, a former student will send it to me, or post it on our Facebook alumni page.  Ha ha.

Or if they hear it at their kid’s junior high dance.  Or if they hear it by chance.  Or if it came on in the car.  Or if they were running far.

To which I want to say, a la Dr. Seuss:  “I do not like Toto’s Africa.  I do not like it here or there.  I do not like it anywhere.”

I thought I escaped this when I moved to a new ministry position in California.  And I told my teenage son the story.  And he told one of the guys in the youth group…who happens to run sound.

I was especially not-gratified to hear that the ministry I used to serve–The House, Chattanooga, Tennessee–still plays Toto’s Africa after their services sometimes.  One of my dear friends who still works there overheard a conversation between two students walking out of the service.

“Isn’t this song like really, REALLY old?”

“Yeah.  Wonder why they play it?”

Yes, anonymous young college student.  I wonder why anyone plays it.

So the title of this blog was what Toto’s Africa Taught Me.  Some of you may be wondering what the answer is.  What did Toto’s Africa teach me?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.

What did getting in an argument with the sound guy teach me?  Lots of things.  A whole lot of things.

Oh, and you’ll never know what you’ll be known for.

P.S.  Proverbs 6 speaks of six things the Lord hates.  I always thought six sounded incomplete.  Seven is a number of completion.  I have an idea, Lord, for your number 7 thing to hate.

Proverbs 6:16-19

There are six things the Lord hates,
    seven that are detestable to him:
17         haughty eyes,
        a lying tongue,
        hands that shed innocent blood,
18         a heart that devises wicked schemes,
        feet that are quick to rush into evil,
19         a false witness who pours out lies
        and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.

20 And a song you can’t dance to, and can’t understand.

I wore a tuxedo to church.

I really did.  Just a few days ago.

It was one of those late at night ideas when I was thinking about how to communicate the truth of what God has done for us.  In a way that is visible.   But I’m getting ahead of myself…

I have been preaching out of passages in the prophet Isaiah for a few weeks now.  This past week, it was Isaiah 61:1-11.

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
   to proclaim liberty to the captives…
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
      2     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor   (Isaiah 61:1-2)

Jesus read this at the beginning of his ministry (see Luke 4).  Implicit in this is that God’s Spirit is empowering him.  God has called him to these tasks.  Proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.  Jesus lived as one living for something else…rather, someone else.

As Christians, our story starts and ends with Jesus.  We learn from watching Him live out that mission—and our mission is shaped by His.  We are to be those that bring good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, set free those bound in prison, and proclaim God’s grace to all who will listen.  His way of being—slow to anger, abounding in love, abounding in forgiveness—his ways become our ways. Jesus ended the reading in the synagogue right there.  But the passage goes on:

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3  to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
   the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
   that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
4  They shall build up the ancient ruins;
they shall raise up the former devastations;
   they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.  (Isaiah 61:2-4)

This is where the tuxedo comes in.  A transformation takes place:  God changes their clothing from one of mourning to celebration.  Over a garment of despair, a garment of praise.

When I wore my tux to church that day, it was amazing the reactions I got.  I saw people whispering amongst themselves, and they were all trying to guess where I was going after church.  “Must be a wedding,” some of them told me.  One joked that I must not have had anything else clean to wear.

But then here is this abrupt shift of metaphor from the outfitting for a wedding to the tending of a garden.  From the haberdashery to the arboretum.

The changing of clothing from despair to praise is for a purpose:  So that they might be oaks. Oaks not for themselves.  A planting for the display of God’s splendor.  I continue to marvel at the fact that God chooses to make Himself known through His people.

I talked to our junior high group a couple of weeks ago about God being just.  And I shared with them a talk I heard by Gary Haugen, the founder of the International Justice Mission.  Haugen said, “God’s only plan for showing the world that He is a just God, God’s only plan for this…is us!”

In a similar fashion, I see here that God’s plan for showing the world what kind of God He is…is us!  We are a planting for God’s glory.

Why God’s glory?  Is God an egomaniac, seeking words of affirmation like an insecure teenager going to their first dance?

God’s glory is seen in a human being fully alive,  said the church father Irenaeus.  Perhaps translated more properly:  “Life in a human is the glory of God; the life of a human is the vision of God.” [cited here]

And the vision of God we see is a being that is with and for us.  He created us in His image.  He became one of us in Jesus Christ; willing to sacrifice Himself for our salvation.  Glory of God is for another.

Another reason why God’s glory is worth pursuing:  Because the glory of human beings is fleeting.  It leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths.  When we see a human being seeking their own glory, don’t we reel back at that display?

But the glory of God is with us, and for us.*

So we shall be glad to be a planting for God’s glory.

God has planted us as a church on a particular corner in a particular city.  As a group of people.  Not just a building, but a people.

There was a question that was asked amongst us last week:  “When people drive by this church, what do they think of?  How are we known in this community?”  People first get to know us by things that we do.  Events we hold for the community.  They are open doors to greet and welcome people into our midst.  But this passage is a challenge for us to ask ourselves, “What are we displaying?”

We are to be a display of God’s glory and splendor.  Somehow, in the way that we live, the way that we speak, what we do—is supposed to be for the praise of God—people should see the character and heart of God in us.

And, we become the rebuilders and restorers.  Of beauty.  Of fruitful and fair commerce.  We become those that engage in righteous practices in law and government.  We create art and culture that is honoring to God and others.  We become teachers that treat each person with dignity as they are made in the image of God.

Isaiah has more to say…

Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
6  but you shall be called the priests of the Lord;
they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
   you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
and in their glory you shall boast.
7  Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
   therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
they shall have everlasting joy.
For I the Lord love justice;
I hate robbery and wrong;
   I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9  Their offspring shall be known among the nations,
and their descendants in the midst of the peoples;
   all who see them shall acknowledge them,
that they are an offspring the Lord has blessed.  (Isaiah 61:5-9)

We will be called priests and ministers.  That does not mean that all of us will do the things that we think ministers do.  That is, work one day a week and talk about the Bible.

Instead, the image is that our way of living will be like a clothing—that when we are seen in the world, people will say, “They represent God.”

Tucked into this is a message of good news:  Instead of shame and dishonor, God will bless.  Shame can traumatize all of us.  Most of us hear this promise of God–that we shall represent Him–and say in our minds, “Not me.  I couldn’t possibly be someone who represents God.  Look at what I’ve done.  Look at what I’m still doing.”

Listen:  the Bible is NOT full of stories of men and women who completely overcame their brokenness and THEN God used them.  It is full of stories that God showed His power and might through their brokenness, and in spite of their brokenness.

God will make the wrong things right.  He hates robbery and wrong, He loves justice. And, this passage seems to be telling us–we will be the children of God that help enact that justice.

I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
my soul shall exult in my God,
   for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
   as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11     For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
   so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations.             (Isaiah 61:10-11)

At our church, we’ve been using this imagery of a tree to talk about our relationship with God.  Seed, sapling, providing shade for others, and then a sower.  The sapling stage of our life is when the seed of faith has broken through the soil, but our relationship is still in need of certain things to help us grow strong.  In those sapling stages of our life:  God tenderly begins to tell us this:  We begin to discover that our life with God isn’t just for our own happiness.  There is pruning that takes place that isn’t pleasant.  But in the end, we emerge a stronger tree—a more righteous oak.

In this sapling stage we begin to understand this:  that while God is for us, life isn’t about us.  We begin to understand that our lives can be a song of praise to God.

In this passage is this idea of us all needing to surround ourselves with praise.   “I will rejoice…my soul shall exult…praise shall sprout up before all nations.”

Why praise?  When we call upon the name of God, the promises of God, something happens within us.  There are scores of medical studies that show that having a positive attitude, positive thoughts, can help immensely in the battle against disease, illness, even cancer.  Do we think that singing praise to God would have the same effect?

Beyond those positive effects, we praise because God is worthy of it.

For the last several weeks, we’ve been talking about the conditions that are needed for us all when we are at the early stages of our faith—this sapling stage of faith.

  • We need the water of community.
  • We need to be deeply rooted, planted straight, strong, level.
  • We need to rest and trust in God’s grace in times of weakness.
  • We need the word of God, to be reminded of His promises to us.
  • We need praise.

In the end, this beautiful passage in Isaiah 61 tells us this:  We get new clothes.  A new identity.  A new life.

God gets a song.  (Sounds like a bad deal for God doesn’t it?)  We get a new identity, a completely transformed life—God gets a song?  But that song is our life, fully lived out for Him.

We need to worship.  We need to be reminded that seeking our own glory leads to emptiness, seeking God’s glory leads to abundance.

When we take all of the main parts of Isaiah 61, we have the fullness of the gospel message.

  • Someone once came, preaching good news to the poor, free those in prison. God did those things in the person of Jesus.
  • When we follow Him, listen to His Words—we are changed.  Changed for a purpose.  We become rebuilders and restorers.
  • People will see God because of us.  Not only because of how we talk, but how we live, and what we do, and how we do it.
  • So we gather in rejoicing in praise.  We need this rejoicing and praise.  And every nation, every race, every language will see justice and God’s glory.

It wouldn’t be practical to wear tuxedos and gowns every day.  After a while, people would stop paying attention anyway.  But I pray our lives would reflect the love, peace, mercy, justice and grace of God.  And we would stand like oaks of righteousness, displaying God’s splendor to the world.


*I am grateful to Scot McKnight and his book, “One.Life:  Jesus Calls, We Follow” for this insight about God being with and for us.

When the Trees Go To…Worship?


Photo taken from here (a worthwhile post to read , fellow pastors!)

For those familiar with the Lord of the Rings books and movies, the title of this post might surprise you.  You might have been expecting, “When the Trees Go to War.”   There is a scene in the 2002 movie of J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Two Towers.”  The Ents are an ancient race of trees, who go to war with the wizard Saruman, who destroyed trees to build provide fuel for the fires of war.

In teaching out of Isaiah 55:1-13 this past week, I was struck by an image of trees, mountains, and hills clapping their hands and singing.  War is in the background of this picture, but it is now in the past.  Here, the trees, and mountains and hills…go to worship.

But first, let’s start at the beginning.

It’s a beautiful passage, really.

Invitation to a Feast.

God speaks through the prophet Isaiah, inviting people to come to a feast.  “Come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price!…delight yourself in rich food.”  This is an invitation to come to a feast without cost, and it is clear that those without money–the poor–are invited as well.  This is a gift.  Isaiah points out in the opening verses of chapter 55 that so much of what we all work for costs money.  We work to make money to buy lots of things.  And we find that none of those things last.  God says something remarkable through this passage:  that if we will do one thing, we will feast abundantly and live.

Invitation to Listen.

The feast is a different one.  Instead of just eating food and drinking water, wine, and milk, we are invited to listen to the words of God.  (Isaiah 55:2-3)

One of the things I’ve noticed about the life of trying to follow Jesus is that no one really has taught much about how we do that–listen to God.  I’ve only really read one book that addresses that topic in earnest:  Hearing God by Dallas Willard.  That was a vital book for me.  I have learned to try and listen to God speak through the stories, histories, laws, prophets’ words, songs and psalms, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, parables, and letters found in the Bible.  Sometimes, when it is a familiar passage, I find myself saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…I know this one.”  Occasionally when I do that, I get this gentle nudge telling me, “Slow down.  Read that again.”  When I do, I find new meaning in the words.

I’ve also learned to listen to others who teach me:  pastors through their podcasts, speakers at conferences, TED talks, reading blogs, articles, etc.  Have you ever had that experience of listening to someone, and feeling like they are speaking right to you?  I pay attention when that happens.  I usually don’t fully trust that, so I find that if God really wants to say something to me, I get the message another way.

God can use the circumstances in our lives to speak to us. God can use friends and community around us to speak to us.

I know some of this sounds pretty touchy-feely for some of you.  Let me say up front that I believe that we need to “test” these things with each other, and hold it up against what the Scriptures are saying.  I also know people have all kinds of different interpretations about what the Bible is saying–and unfortunately, the Bible has been used to endorse all kinds of wickedness.  But I’ll continue to trust that God chose to reveal His character through these ancient writings, and trust that God wants us to be in community centered on those writings so we don’t go off the deep end.

Invitation to a Different God

The next part of the passage is an invitation for the “wicked and unrighteous” to find the compassion, mercy, and forgiveness of God (Isaiah 55:6-9).  As I was studying this, I remembered that at the time of this writing, Isaiah was speaking to a people either still in exile, or just coming out of exile.  Exile was often seen as the punishment from God for not listening to God.  I don’t know what you picture God is like.  One common conception is that God always is looking to punish those that do wrong. “Cosmic policeman,” some might say.  To be clear, I believe God will make the wrong things right one day.  But here, God says that even those that are wicked and unrighteous will find themselves abundantly pardoned.  God’s ways are not our ways.  God’s thoughts are not our thoughts.  God is different than what we expect. That becomes abundantly clear to me when I think about people that have said something hurtful to me or maligned me in some way.  To be honest, do I think pleasant thoughts all the time about those people?  No.  But my heart is softened when I read this passage in Isaiah, and understand that God thinks about people differently than I do, and deals with us differently that we would deal with each other.

Invitation to Trust

The next part of the passage speaks of how God has ordained creation (Isaiah 55:10-11).  Snow and rain comes down to earth (some places more than others, right, Sacramento-people?), seeds respond to that water and burst to life through the ground.  In the same way that process is locked into the created order, so too does God’s word accomplish its purpose.  God speaks–it happens.  We read that in the beginning of the Bible:  “Let there be light!”  And there was light. We can trust this.

That’s why I think it is important for us in our journey of knowing God to study what God says.  I’m not saying that because it’s my job.  It’s because I know that I need to listen to messages from a true source, because it is getting hard to know what messages are true out there.  The things that call out to me that are promising me happiness and pleasure aren’t always true.  The things I think about myself aren’t always true.

Invitation to Worship

The last part of this passage (Isaiah 55:12-13) speaks to the beautiful restoration that God will accomplish.  God’s people were once led out of their home in humiliation–now they will go out in joy and be led forth in peace.  And the trees, mountains, and hills–they all go to worship, singing, clapping their hands.

There is a transformation that takes place:  thorns become cypresses; briers become myrtles.  I was reminded that in the Garden of Eden, we first learn about thorns when Adam and Eve first don’t listen to God, but listen to the evil serpent.  Thorns will infest the ground and make work hard.  But here in Isaiah, thorns are replaced by strong trees.  Briers are replaced by the beautiful myrtle–a symbol, I’m told, of life, fertility, and marriage.

It’s the trajectory we’re on, according to what God says in the Bible.  The curses will be reversed.  All creation will be renewed in a new heaven and new earth.  People from every nation, tribe and tongue will sit down at a wedding feast.  And we’ll be going to worship with the trees.


Making Gardens out of Deserts

One of the members of our church wrote to me of a friendship he has with a man, who has an eye for seeing God at work in the most unusual places.  This past summer, in the sweltering heat of late July and early August, he came across this on Interstate 5. Highway Tomato Plant

For those of you not local to Sacramento, it doesn’t rain here during the summer.  At all.  I’ve read that in order for tomato plants to bear fruit, they need approximately one inch of rain per week.  How on earth did this little tomato plant make it?

Well, I happen to believe that God loves to do this kind of thing.  Plant reminders of gardens in the midst of hard, dry places.

God loves to take deserts and make gardens.

This past week, I spoke about a passage in Isaiah 35.  It’s written, depending on what biblical scholar you read, either to a group of people about to face exile, or having already been exiled.  I read somewhere that in the days of when Isaiah was written, foreign armies would completely destroy a conquered land, stripping it bare.  Imagine that happening to your city.  One of the things that makes Sacramento unique is its trees.  It’s known as the “City of Trees,” falling in the Top 10 cities worldwide of trees per capita.  (See article here) Imagine a foreign army coming in and stripping Sacramento of all its trees.  You return home, expecting to see what you remember–trees of all shapes and sizes, lining streets and parks.  Instead, you see devastation. If you were returning home to a barren land, what would you do?

While we might not ever experience that kind of exile, we might have faced different kinds of exiles.  We might have gone away from community, friendships, or God.  We might be exiled from work due to downsizing or early retirement.  A broken marriage puts you into the foreign land of dating again.

Our times of exile can lead to new beginnings. 

Exile can lead to a beginning again.  A starting over.  A new time to plant.

The imagery of Isaiah 35 is that God will do something amazing to in the hard dry places.  Like a blooming crocus amidst burning sands.  Like the majesty of biblical places Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon.  These would all be images that Isaiah’s hearers (and later, readers) would know to mean majesty, beauty, flourishing.  Carmel, for example, literally means:  “garden-land.”


What are those places for you?  What are the places that bring to mind lush greenery, fertile farmland, and abundance?

The imagery that caught my eye, though, was in verses 6-7:

Water will gush forth in the wilderness
    and streams in the desert.
 The burning sand will become a pool,
    the thirsty ground bubbling springs.

A stream in the desert.  Isaiah talks of water flowing through once dry and dusty places.

zion-national-park-stream in desert

I’ve never been there, but the image above is from Zion National Park in Utah.  People who have been there have told me how marvelous it is, how breathtaking its beauty is.  I love the image here because it is a flowing stream through hard, dry, and rocky place.  But perched along the banks are these tender trees, being fed, I’m sure, by the water of the stream.

We are like those trees.  We need water.  For me, that water represents a community.  Let me explain.

How is a community like water?

A community of people that accepts you, loves you, serves you—is like quenching the thirst of our souls.  When the hard dry places of life hit us—walking into a place where we are known and loved—is like a cup of cold fresh water.

Community is also what sustains us.  We need it to survive.   Sometimes it is underground.  Supporting us.  In times of sorrow and sickness, community is what sustains us.

I’m reading a book right now by Bill Hull, about discipleship (The Complete Book of Discipleship).  Simply put, discipleship is that journey of learning from Jesus, being changed by Jesus, and being a part of what He is doing in the world.*  Hull writes that one of the conditions needed for robust discipleship is a healthy community.   A community that exudes trust, grace, humility.  Affirms one another.  And is committed to growth together.  A life following Jesus is not meant to be walked alone.  Maturity is a community project, Hull says. So a community can be that stream of water that nourishes us during those hard and dry times in our lives.  A community can be that source of growth in our lives, reminding us of what could be when we feel devastated.

It is the intention of God to grow us.  To surround us with each other, so that we might be water for each other’s dry and dusty souls. 


*I love that definition from Bobby Harrington, Executive Director of