racism is a strong biblical theme, systemic as well as personal

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

Ephesians 3:6

God called Abraham to become the father of all nations. Abraham and his progeny were to be blessed to be a blessing. But what do we read in Scripture. Israel saw this blessing to be hoarded by themselves, and shunned outsiders. There was certainly strong disapproval of others, which turned into hate. Instead they were supposed to be a light to the nations around them, ultimately to the world. A light of the revelation of God in terms of who God is, and God’s intentions for humanity. But we know that Israel utterly failed.

So Jesus comes as the one who would be the true Israelite and fulfill God’s calling. And of course he did in ways that were unanticipated, not the least of which fully including believing Gentiles, including those hated Samaritans as full members of God’s family.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Ephesians 2:14-18

God in Christ through the good news in the cross breaks barriers, starting with Jews and Gentiles. The Jews hated the Gentiles, and vice versa. Tragically the church has hated Jews for centuries. And there’s all kind of bitter ethnic rivalries that we’ve seen played out in history in recent times right up to the present day.

Sin is pervasive in everything. So that means it’s not only personal, in each person’s heart. But it’s also societal, indeed systemic, rooted in the world system. And that plays out in the history of racism in the United States, and specifically what is easily most pronounced in that, the brutal enslaving of Africans, and all that has followed. This is something the gospel addresses, but not just in terms of changing hearts. But also in uncovering the sin of systemic racism in our institutions. And rooting it out.

The gospel’s full impact won’t be realized until Christ returns. But it is pure blindness not to want King Jesus’s agenda to begin to be fulfilled now. In the midst of the nations and governing authorities who are subject to him, to be judged by him.

We seek to follow in the way of love, yes love even for our enemies as Jesus taught us. Part of the heart of the gospel, and what we’re to be up to in prayer and patient love, beginning with each other, but meant for everyone else as well. In and through Jesus.

in the midst of temptations and testings

Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[b]

Matthew 4:1-4

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation[c] has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful;he will not let you be tempted[d] beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted,[e] he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

1 Corinthians 10:11-13

Interestingly the Greek word translated tempted can also mean tested. What we can take out of just this simple thought is that what could be harmful to us could also be for our good.

Israel’s response in the wilderness wasn’t good. They faced a trial no doubt. But instead of trusting in the God who had delivered them and was providing for all of their needs, they grumbled and sinned against God. God’s judgment fell on them. One might say that due to their sin they fell out of God’s protection. These certainly failed the test.

Jesus entered the wilderness, led there by God just as Israel had been. But in his case he overcame. Unlike Israel, he was without food, yet he did not give into the tempter’s suggestion to make bread from stones, but rather submitted himself fully to his Father, citing Scripture.

The whole question for us is whether or not we’re going to trust God fully. And to do so means to believe not only in God, but in his word. Yes, the Word, Jesus, but also the written word, just as Jesus did. This means that no matter what our experience or even what we’re facing, we seek to live according to God’s word, and not by our own impulses or even deliberations.

How can we even know we’re in such a place? It’s when we consider our situation or something we’re facing a trial, and find ourselves prone to panic so that we take up our own devices rather than trusting in God. So we either will give into the temptation, or else we’ll find God’s help. One of the two.

In the end Israel was judged. Jesus was helped. The difference? Jesus of course trusted the Father, whereas Israel did not.

Jesus in the wilderness succeeded where Israel failed. We’re to learn from what he did. But we’re also to rest in the truth that what he did even there was for us. He succeeded where we fail so that he can help us live in the same way he did amidst trials. In complete trust in the Father. In and through him.

trying to make sense of it all

When it comes right down to it, often life both in the short-haul, and frankly in the long-haul has some head scratchers. It doesn’t take long, or much effort to observe that. We’re left with gaping holes, and no explanation for some things. In fact life itself can seem quite counterintuitive to our sense of how it should be. Maybe like in the Job story where Job himself is never told the full scoop, and in the end to simply trust a God too awesome for him to understand.

We like to read novels, or watch films with many unpredictable twists and turns, and with enigmas that leave us wondering, and turning the pages. Life is simply not like the nice, and even to some extent good Hallmark films. We’re sometimes, maybe even often left wondering.

Scripture in a true sense is story, yes true story, but story. Humankind is made as the crown of creation, and yet is not true to their Creator, and therefore the brokenness that follows. God calls Israel to a mission to redeem and restore humanity, essentially to bring in God’s reign to an earth which wants nothing of it. Jesus is the fulfillment of that calling, which today is known and witnessed to in the church.

We all have a story to tell. It may be quite broken and disheveled, but it has its harmony and beauty as well. Somehow in and through Jesus, our story is taken into God’s story. To wonder about that, we need to look no further than the pages of scripture. Somehow something good will come out of the trouble we face in this life.

For me, having lived as long as I have (now over sixty), and continuing to see what I see, I don’t worry much about trying to make sense of everything, or even anything. I try to stay focused as much as possible on the big story, God’s story in Jesus. I want God to deal with all the scattered, broken, or lost pieces of life, according to his will. And go on.

So the story I want to focus on, and tell people about is God’s story in Jesus. And yet sharing my own story, and how it fits into that larger story. By faith we tell others God’s story, and the good news in King Jesus which is at the heart of that. And we wait to tell our own story, if and when that seems appropriate. As a witness to the larger story, to God’s faithfulness and love in his redemptive reign in Jesus.

the great need in the world today (and everyday, forever)

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Romans 1

There is much that’s needed in the world. After all, God put humankind on earth to be stewards of it, caretakers, as well as to enjoy it, and live off of it (Genesis 1-2). There is much that needs to be done for sure, on different levels.

But our greatest need is the gospel, the good news in Jesus. That good news is about our salvation, personally, for sure, but it’s about the salvation and new creation of the entire world, and on every level, the beginning of that to be seen through Jesus in the church, and its completion when Jesus returns and heaven and earth become one in him.

The good news is Jesus himself, in his becoming one of us in the Incarnation, his life and teachings, his death and resurrection, all of this fulfilling God’s call to Israel for the world. His ascension and the oupouring of the Holy Spirit. And the promise of his return. All of that is the good news in Jesus, and to understand it, we have to be reading the Bible from cover to cover. But all we need to enter into it is the faith of a little child. Simply trusting in God’s word to us, that if we believe in Jesus in the sense of submissive trust, we will be saved, and begin to recover our true humanity and calling in him.

Although I made that commitment years ago, I still need that good news in Jesus every day. God’s grace in God’s unfailing love to us in Jesus is present with us always, no matter what we’re facing, no matter what actually happens. Even no matter what we do, but to help us get back on track. The truly one good news that will last forever, in and through Jesus.

a good picture of the God of the Bible who comes to us in Jesus

Psalm 106 is a good picture of the God of the Bible who comes to us in Jesus. Glenn Paauw’s book, Saving the Bible From Ourselves: Learning to Read & Live the Bible Well helps us see the importance of reading scripture and considering its entire historical narrative before we start claiming its promises. That might be a bit overstated, but I think the point he makes in the book is an excellent one, and sorely needed.

I ran across the sentence perhaps in that very book, which makes the point that God’s wrath in judgment is directed against human machinations, and even against humans themselves, whose actions make not only a mess of things in this world, but bring much harm to others. Of course God is the God of mercy as well. And not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (1 Peter). Not desiring the death of the wicked, but that they might repent and live (Ezekiel). That’s the God of the Bible who comes to us in Jesus. The God who is to be feared, who is holy, righteous, just and good, essentially love, that love not cancelling out the rest, all else actually being an expression of that.

God is not the God so many seem to want to see as the soft, cuddly teddy bear who simply affirms all we do, the point a Christian brother (who happens to be Eastern Orthodox) was making yesterday. God is a God to be feared, as he would say, and yet all of what God is in all its awe and wonder is encapsulated in love. God is love. That comes across to us in Jesus, but beware of watering down what the Bible makes plain, even in the account of Jesus, including Jesus’s own words.

Psalm 106 in its entirety is an account of the picture scripture gives us of the God who comes to us in Jesus.

Praise the LORD.

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever.

Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD
or fully declare his praise?
Blessed are those who act justly,
who always do what is right.

Remember me, LORD, when you show favor to your people,
come to my aid when you save them,
that I may enjoy the prosperity of your chosen ones,
that I may share in the joy of your nation
and join your inheritance in giving praise.

We have sinned, even as our ancestors did;
we have done wrong and acted wickedly.
When our ancestors were in Egypt,
they gave no thought to your miracles;
they did not remember your many kindnesses,
and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea.
Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,
to make his mighty power known.
He rebuked the Red Sea, and it dried up;
he led them through the depths as through a desert.
He saved them from the hand of the foe;
from the hand of the enemy he redeemed them.
The waters covered their adversaries;
not one of them survived.
Then they believed his promises
and sang his praise.

But they soon forgot what he had done
and did not wait for his plan to unfold.
In the desert they gave in to their craving;
in the wilderness they put God to the test.
So he gave them what they asked for,
but sent a wasting disease among them.

In the camp they grew envious of Moses
and of Aaron, who was consecrated to the LORD.
The earth opened up and swallowed Dathan;
it buried the company of Abiram.
Fire blazed among their followers;
a flame consumed the wicked.
At Horeb they made a calf
and worshiped an idol cast from metal.
They exchanged their glorious God
for an image of a bull, which eats grass.
They forgot the God who saved them,
who had done great things in Egypt,
miracles in the land of Ham
and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.
So he said he would destroy them—
had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him
to keep his wrath from destroying them.

Then they despised the pleasant land;
they did not believe his promise.
They grumbled in their tents
and did not obey the LORD.
So he swore to them with uplifted hand
that he would make them fall in the wilderness,
make their descendants fall among the nations
and scatter them throughout the lands.

They yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor
and ate sacrifices offered to lifeless gods;
they aroused the LORD’s anger by their wicked deeds,
and a plague broke out among them.
But Phinehas stood up and intervened,
and the plague was checked.
This was credited to him as righteousness
for endless generations to come.
By the waters of Meribah they angered the LORD,
and trouble came to Moses because of them;
for they rebelled against the Spirit of God,
and rash words came from Moses’ lips.

They did not destroy the peoples
as the LORD had commanded them,
but they mingled with the nations
and adopted their customs.
They worshiped their idols,
which became a snare to them.
They sacrificed their sons
and their daughters to false gods.
They shed innocent blood,
the blood of their sons and daughters,
whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan,
and the land was desecrated by their blood.
They defiled themselves by what they did;
by their deeds they prostituted themselves.

Therefore the LORD was angry with his people
and abhorred his inheritance.
He gave them into the hands of the nations,
and their foes ruled over them.
Their enemies oppressed them
and subjected them to their power.
Many times he delivered them,
but they were bent on rebellion
and they wasted away in their sin.
Yet he took note of their distress
when he heard their cry;
for their sake he remembered his covenant
and out of his great love he relented.
He caused all who held them captive
to show them mercy.

Save us, LORD our God,
and gather us from the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
and glory in your praise.

Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.

Let all the people say, “Amen!”

Praise the LORD.

a gospel bigger than I, me, mine, and even us- the only gospel there is

When we open our Bibles, the beginnning is Genesis, for a reason, and the end is the Revelation for a reason, and everything in between counts, every book and for that matter, every line, has its reason and place in the whole.

It is daunting, and takes commitment over time, but we all need to be in the entire Bible, as challenging on many levels as that is, and read it through again and again. When we do, we’ll come to see that the story of Israel picked by God to be a blessing to the world is a central theme. And how that is fulfilled through them, but mainly in anticipation of the true fulfillment in Jesus.

While this is certainly for each person in our relationship to God, it is for every other person, as well, and for the entire world. It’s a good news in and through Jesus which affects everything and is therefore worldly in that sense, or one could say earthly. But in another sense it can’t be worldly at all since it can’t participate, except insofar as it influences the change of worldy structures. This is the case, because the difference is in and through Jesus, and God’s redemption, salvation, and kingdom come in him.

Only when Jesus returns will all things be changed, the god of this age gone; the world, the flesh and the devil being a thing of the past. But until then, we witness not only to a gospel for each individual, but a gospel which is to begin to demonstrate the alternative to what is necessarily in place, in this present evil age and world.

And so we live in the in between times when God’s grace and kingdom in Jesus is beginning to break in through the gospel into the church, and out from that into the world. As we look forward to the end of this age which will bring in the fullness of what has begun now in Jesus, when he returns.

toward a more just society

In many nations in the world, the idea that people can have any influence in what government there is, is no more than a dream. Although in western-styled of influenced countries, there ordinarily is some element of demoocracy.

Israel was a theocratic nation, the church following under the rule of Christ. So that the society within each can’t exactly be compared in terms of other societies in the world. Israel of old, when one looks at the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy) has laws to bring about a more just society, with an emphasis of providing for the poor beyond what the poor can provide for themselves. The church is different in that it is scattered throughout the world, but in its enclaves, it too is to have an emphasis on helping the poor, especially its own poor. The law (Torah) given to Israel and fulfilled now in the church is to be a light to the nations, pointing them to Christ, and to God’s will in Christ, a light to help them, but which in the end will judge them.

For too many Christians, the short passage on the state in Romans 13 is the sum total of what the state should be doing. That idea works well in an individualistic framework which is the heritage of the Enlightenment as in individual liberty, so that whatever good done within a nation, they suppose, should be done only out of the goodness of one’s own heart, and not something imposed by the state, forcing people to do what they don’t want to do, so that whatever good is done is actually not even accepted by God, they think.

Such a notion is far from the vision we find in the Bible even for this present life. The state should encourage and make room for the help from individuals, which should include allowing them to do so in terms of their faith. The state itself (and I think Miroslav Volf is right on in this if I understand him correctly, and a great gift in his thinking for the church and for the world) should not sanction any one faith, at least not as the faith people must embrace, even if the state is more influenced in its actions by some particular faith. It should make room for everyone, precisely because it is not a Theocracy, not a state directly ruled by God. Imagine if all the countries in the world thought they were states ruled by God. The vision in the Revelation sees that day coming under Christ’s rule, but not so now. Already there is and has been a big problem toward justifying state actions on the basis of that kind of thinking.

So the goal of nation states now should be to arrive at a consensus as to what is good not only for the indivividual, but also for society as a whole. In the case of America, I think the foundations of the Enlightenment along with scripture, that odd mix, actually have some value in the make up of this nation, which was the first and in its way, the only nation to go precisely that direction. The problem comes when we lionize any such state. We can appreciate the unique contribution America has made without thinking that it is the only way a nation state can do well in this world.

What we have to hold on to as Christians is the light given to us in scripture and the gospel, and carried out in the tradition of the church on how under God we are to live with each other. In that context it is not at all about individual liberty, even though each one is to follow Christ. But to do so in the context of one body, or the whole. Instead it is about loving one’s neighbor as one’s self, in the context of loving God with all of one’s heart, soul, strength and mind. And there is present in the church the dynamic of the Spirit in Christ to make this work, especially in terms of the fruit of the Spirit in helping us to live well in community, along with the gifts meant to help each other grow toward the flourishing of true humanity in Christ.

Nation states in the world can’t have that same dynamic, but they can learn from the church, and incorporate something of that in just laws which hold people accountable, and punish evil, while encouraging good. Nations will be judged on how they took care of the poor and helpless in their societies. Consider the sin of Sodom.

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.

Ezekiel 16:49-50

Of course how a better society is achieved is hotly debated here in the United States. But make no mistake about it, there does need to be work done towad a better society, which has to include not only the possibility for some prospering, but help for those who do not, to the point of not even surviving, or lacking what is necessary for the basics of life.

We long for true justice to come in the coming of King Jesus, andd we seek to live out more and more of that same justice in our own midst as God’s people in him. And we long for something of that to be inculcated in the societies in which we live, as we pray for those in positions of governmental authority, that a peace might be in place in which we can live as a witness to the one through whom the lasting peace in shalom will come. A peace which necessarily in biblical terms includes justice, what is right in God’s eyes. Even as we await the day when that justice will forever be the rule of the day in God’s love in and through King Jesus.


the telling circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth

Mary was pregnant, but she and Joseph had not yet come together as husband and wife. Everyone knew what that meant, and people were talking. And now they have to make the long journey (around 93 miles, 150 kilometers), four days to a week, from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census. To say the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth were not easy is an understatement. And when they at last arrive to Bethlehem, there is no room for them in normal living quarters. But there is a stable where they can lodge. And it is there that Mary gives birth to Jesus.  And places him in a manger, that is, a feeding trough.  And so we see the humble circumstances surrounding the birth of our Lord. A sure sign of what was to come.

The world wants glitter, glamour, the spectacular. Life on its terms, which actually ends up being on the serpent’s terms. With the knowledge of good and evil accessed apart from God. With God out of the picture, and other gods to serve their agenda, and in the process be served. There again is no room for the birth of one who would shake up and even dismantle the status quo.

But that is precisely what the coming of Jesus ends up doing. Nothing at all is the way at least the populous would have imagined it. Jesus grows up in a family that is hardly royal, and learns a trade from his father, Joseph, which he carries on until he is nearly thirty, not that young in those days. And we know the rest of the story. He does not fulfill the expectations of Messiah at all, except for miraculous signs he does which point that way. He proclaims God’s kingdom having come in him, and yet there is nothing of the trappings expected, yes long awaited for such a kingdom.

And at last after three amazing years of ministry Jesus meets the end of all failed, would be Messiahs. The terrible death of crucifixion. Apart from Simeon’s prophecy, it seems that no one would have suspected that this very death would be the means from God to bring life, to bring in the kingdom over which the resurrected Jesus would reign, first from heaven, seated at the place of ultimate authority and power at the right hand of the Father, and later when Jesus would return/reappear, when heaven and earth is made one in him. In final judgment and salvation, to bring in true justice and peace.

So this wonderful birth we celebrate is the beginning of the great end God has for the story of the world. The one story that gives us the needed hope before the completion of the fulfillment of God’s promises through Israel in Jesus for the world. Yes, it is this way, the way of Jesus to the very end, and forever.

the Word made flesh

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The importance of scripture cannot be overrated. It is God’s written word, no less, in all its beauty and brokenness. It tells the story of God and God’s interaction through creation and new creation with humankind, in the mess that is. Israel fulfills its calling from God in and through Jesus.

We hide in all kinds of ways, but God pursues and overtakes us in Jesus. God became human, one of us. To restore in us the humanity God created in his image. The incarnation at its heart is God’s final word spoken to humanity, and it’s relational at its core. Forgiveness of sin in and through the death of Jesus is for reconciliation and communion in love, with God and in that, with each other.

We do well to want to live in and from that to live out this new life in and through Jesus. It is a distinct kind of life from him into which we enter by faith. One that is human at its core in the uniqueness that each of us is from God. And a redemptive life in which all the sin, failure and brokenness of our lives is somehow redeemed in and through Jesus, in and through his death and resurrection, and by the Spirit. Redeemed in the sense of not only forgiven, but somehow used for the good of others and for God’s glory. We begin to experience and live in the love of the Father. A love in which we share as family in and through Jesus, and a love which reaches out to everyone in the world.

N. T. Wright on the gospels telling the story of how God became king* in Jesus

All four gospels are telling the story of how God became king in and through this story of Jesus of Nazareth. This central theme is stated in a thoroughly integrated way, again in all four gospels (though not at all in the so-called gospels that were produced later within the Gnostic and similar movements). This integrated theme, with the kingdom and the cross as the main coordinates, flanked by the question of Jesus’s divine identity, on the one hand, and the resurrection and ascension, on the other, is one that most Christians, right across the Western tradition, have failed even to glimpse, let alone to preach. The story Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John tell is the story of how God became king—in and through Jesus both in his public career and in his death.

N. T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels

*In the sense of God’s kingdom come to earth through Israel, Jesus as Messiah being the fulfillment of that.