Categories
Commentary

The United States Is Mortal

I was struck this morning reading Psalm 9 at the way the psalmist wrote about the nations of the world.

In verses 19-20, he writes:

Arise, Lord, do not let mortals triumph;
    let the nations be judged in your presence.
Strike them with terror, Lord;
    let the nations know they are only mortal.

The psalmist is crying out to God for help and deliverance from his enemies. The surrounding nations are harassing God’s people. Yet the psalmist knows God is a refuge for the afflicted.

The plea for the nations to know their mortality is a plea for the nations to understand that Yahweh is God, not the nations. No king, sultan, pharaoh, emperor, prime minister, or president is mightier than the Mighty One.

The nations here, and throughout the Psalms, is used in contrast to Israel–God’s people. Israel was a geo-political nation defined by borders and a particular piece of real estate in the world. But it was also more than that. It was a nation ruled directly by Yahweh, their true king.

Israel’s central statement of faith (known as the Shema) was a simple declaration of allegiance to God: “Yahweh our God, Yahweh is the only one!” The nations are anyone and everyone whose allegiance is to something other than Yahweh.

As we come to the New Testament, we see that this extends to God’s people in the Church. The Church is God’s new thing–a new people, a new nation.

The Church’s central statement of faith was three simple words: “Jesus is Lord.” In the first century context, that emphatically meant “Caesar is not.” (A profoundly politically statement!)

The Church is not defined by political policies or geographic borders, but by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

No geo-political nation on earth today is ruled by the God of the Bible like Israel was. Not one. Not even the United States.

Yet it’s easy for Christians in the United States to read a prayer like Psalm 9 and pray as if the United States is God’s chosen nation. Many Christians believe the U.S. is exempt from being judged by the Lord. That we are, somehow, not a part of “the nations.”

When a Christian believes this and then comes to Psalm 9, they are likely to pray something like this: “Lord, bless the United States and strike all the other nations with terror. Make all the other nations know that they are mortal.”

But the United States is part of the nations. Like all other nations, it will be judged in God’s presence. The United States is mortal and, one day, it will know it. This is not something our country can escape.

“Wait!” you may say. “What about Psalm 33 and ‘blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord’? Our nation can make the Lord our God!”

Well, the context of Psalm 33 reveals “the nation” is God’s people Israel–not just any nation. The rest of the verse goes like this: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!”

Let me say it again. In the Old Testament, that heritage is Israel, and through the Gospel, we see that the Church is God’s new people, his heirs through the work of Jesus (see Romans 2-4, Ephesians 2, and the entire book of Galatians).

What’s the point here? Failing to understand all of this is one of the first steps toward Christian Nationalism. It leads to an unbiblical view of how the gospel and the kingdom of God intersect with and “converse with” the kingdoms of this world.

God’s Kingdom is distinct from this world. It’s altogether it’s own thing and it will never end. The United States, however? It will fade and in the end, its mortality will be plain for all to see.

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28)

Categories
Disciple-Making Life

Welcome One Another

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Romans 1-9 gets all the love. All the attention. As it should. It’s a dynamic exposition of sin, God’s wrath, justification by faith, and the power of the Spirit. It’s a tour de force from the Apostle Paul.

But today, as I’m finishing up reading through Romans, it struck me how important Romans 14 and the first six verses of chapter 15 are. I was struck a second time when I realized how vital they are for Christians, particularly in the United States, at this particular juncture in history.

To sum it up, Paul first tells his readers that Christians are not to pass judgment in non-essential matters (in his context, he’s referring to the choice to observing festival days or not). In non-essentials, people are free to do what they like (provided, of course, they aren’t being a jerk doing it.) Everyone is accountable to the Lord in these matters.

Second, he writes that believers are not to cause others to stumble. Paul isn’t forbidding women from wearing a bikini, here (that’s an entirely different blog post). Rather, he’s cautioning his readers to watch their actions so that others aren’t tempted to return to a particular lifestyle they had before their conversion.

Then, at the beginning of chapter 15, Paul gets at the root: Don’t live to please yourself. Live to please your neighbor. Welcome one another.

In other words, people–even other Christians–are different than you. We agree on the most fundamental tenants of our faith. But there are other areas where we disagree. Welcome these people. All of these people. Live in harmony with them. Love them. Accommodate them.

Welcome one another. 

Why?

Christ has welcomed you.

Why would Paul say that? Thick guilt trip? No. True freedom from the peripheral entanglements that enslave us? Yes. Jesus has welcomed all sorts of people into his kingdom, and there’s one common denominator. He is God and everyone else is not. That’s quite the difference. That’s quite the welcoming.

If Christ can welcome sinners, like you and me, we can welcome brothers and sisters in Christ who have different affiliations or are in another tribe, whether they are political, social, racial, economic, or otherwise. We can say to them, “I know we don’t see eye to eye on some things, but please come in. You’re family.”

Will there be some things to sort out? Oh my, yes. Will there be some course corrections that need to be made? Definitely. Will there need to be contrite confessions and long-term changes made? On all sides.

But what divides Christians in this country today is no worse than what divided Jews and Gentiles in the first century. Consider that task! The power to change back then and now is found only in the person of Jesus Christ, the One who welcomed rebellious enemies into his fold. It’s easy for us Christians to forget that even (especially!) we need Jesus.

At the end of the day, Jesus did not live for himself. He gave himself away.

Are we willing to do the same?

Categories
Life

A Sermon for Election Day

I wrestle with posting my sermon manuscripts. Why? First of all, often I don’t preach from a manuscript but only an outline or an expanded outline that might just look like scrap notes to others. So often I don’t have one.

There is a deeper reason, however. Sermons are not written communication, but oral. Sermons are meant to be heard with the ears, received with the mind, and chewed on with the heart. In the moment.

Because sermons are oral communication, what I preached yesterday to our congregation, while not dramatically different from my prepared script, is noticeably different. Some things were cut because of time. Some things were not said because I was looking at people’s faces and not my paper. Some things were added because of the looks I saw on people’s faces and I realized they needed something more, or different, than what I had prepared. You could say preaching is oral communication that lives.

When we read a sermon we find online, we are often looking to learn something. An oral communication like a sermon, while certainly helping people to learn things, is primarily meant to move people to worship Someone. Books and blogs can reproduce the content of a sermon, but they cannot reproduce the power of God to draw people to Jesus. It is a gift from God that, in a singular point in time, he moves through human proclamation of his word—whether preached to five people, a hundred, or ten-thousand. Sometimes you can tell he moves and other times you can’t. Most preachers never see or know the impact of their preaching.

Enough. That’s my rant on posting sermon manuscripts. And still, I decided today to post one. Here is my sermon manuscript yesterday from Psalm 2. Though it’s only in written form, I pray it not only edifies your mind but moves you to worship Messiah and take refuge in him.

The Rage of the Nations and the Reign of Messiah
Psalm 2

In two days we will end the most divisive and angry election season we have ever had in this country. You could say we have been witnessing a political circus for the past 9 months or so. But that’s just the surface. What is happening underneath is plotting and scheming of individuals and a nation to be free from all God-interference. We are witnessing a spiritual version of the game “king of the hill.” People and parties are clamoring for first place and God will have none of it.

Listen to Eugene Peterson:

A lot of people reject the word of God; they not only reject it, they turn their rejection into a world power. These people command most of the armies of the world, direct the advances of science, run school systems, preside over governments, and rule in the marketplaces…we [need] an act of imagination that enables us to see that the world of God is large—far larger than the worlds of kings and princes, prime ministers and presidents, far larger than the worlds reported by newspaper and TV.

We need something to enable us to see that our presidential election is not the most important thing. In every election there is the temptation to shrink our world down to the size of our world. Elections are like footnotes. Important, but not the whole story, and we need to remember that.

What will answer our need? Thankfully, God’s world is much bigger and he invites us into it. He answers our need in Messiah—Jesus Messiah.

Psalm 2 helps restore perspective in the midst of an anxious and divisive election. It opens our eyes to a big world, a grand world, where God and his Messiah reign. Let’s read Psalm 2 together.

Two Levels of this Psalm
There’s two levels to this psalm—and every psalm. The first is on the historical level. The background for this psalm is God’s covenant with David. It would be through David’s family that God would establish a royal line who would represent his rule on the earth. The throne would be in Zion—which is another name for Jerusalem. And like today, back then kings had rivals who would do all they could to scheme and plot to take over land and people and industry. God established his king in Zion and the other nations didn’t like this. They hate the king. They hate God. Psalm 2 is a song God’s people sang to remind themselves who their true king is and to declare to the nations that their efforts to subvert the king would be futile. That’s level one.

The second level stretches across redemptive history. As you read this psalm, it become obvious that the king mentioned is no mere human. Some of things said of him could not be true of David. He died after all, and so did all who came after him. But we know that many times the New Testament authors and Jesus himself would quote the Psalms—even this one—and apply it to Jesus. In fact, the word for “Anointed” in v. 2 is mashiach—Messiah. Do you know the Greek word for Messiah? Christos, Christ in English. Let’s look at one place that uses Psalm 2: Acts 4. The believers are praying.

[24] “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, [25] who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,

“‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? [26] The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’—

[27] for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, [28] to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.

The peoples of the world have always plotted against God and his Anointed ones and the apostles saw that this comes to climax in the plot against Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate King. He is the greater David. And when it’s all said and done, there will only be one King of the hill. And our response must be to take our refuge in Messiah. Let’s turn to Psalm 2 and explore what God has to say to us.

We are going to ask three questions of this text today: Why do the nations rage? How will God respond? Where will you seek refuge?

Why do the nations rage?
These opponents are both numerous (nations and peoples) and prestigious (kings and rulers). Most of the people in the world, and most of the important people, don’t want God to reign over them. Here’s what they’re saying about God and his Messiah, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us” (v. 3). If you are a Christian, you see God’s word and his rule as freedom from sin, but the world sees it as shackles. They want to be king of the hill and they will not rest until they have sovereignty. That’s why they are raging. That’s why there are conventions, campaigns, debates, and elections, summits, espionage, and wars. It’s one big global game of king of the hill.

To be included in this raging, you don’t have to marshall a crusade against God. In David’s day, some of the kings who opposed him did not even know Yahweh by name. So this quote in v. 3 isn’t something any king said specifically. This is poetry and in poetry there is license to generalize and describe a mood or tone or feeling. Verse 3 simply gives words to the general disposition of all who are not on God’s side.

All you have to do to fulfill Psalm 2 is speak or live in a way that rejects Jesus’ right to reign over you. You don’t have to speak ill of him by name, write a nasty blog about him, be a criminal, or curse his followers. If you do not submit to the authority of Messiah Jesus—whether you are an elected official or not, whether you speak the words or not—you make war on God.

Now, most people don’t do this consciously or even maliciously. Nobody, candidate or otherwise, wakes up saying, “I wonder how I can subvert the reign of Messiah in my life and in this country today.” Of course they don’t say that. They want you to vote for them! No one talks that way, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

These first three verses expose why our nation is the way it is. Why our world is the way it is. The United States and our political candidates are not immune to the raging. Now you might object and think I’m saying throw the whole political baby out with the election bathwater.

No. Government is a good thing ordained by God—please hear me on that. By God’s grace, this country has created the most ingenious system of government the world has ever seen. So, you should vote. You should love you country. You should care about your country. You should pray for your leaders.

But there is a dark side and I do not want you to be fooled. I love this country but it is not ultimate. To care about your country and this election on one hand and see it for what it really is on the other are not mutually exclusive. You can do both. 

Now, we must ask: what’s God’s response to all this?

How will God respond?
Earlier I said that the problem with elections is that the often shrink our world to the size of our world. The raging of the nations and their leaders tempt us to believe that this is all there is. The thing about Psalm 2 is that it doesn’t leave us in a shrunken world. It opens up to us a big world. A grand world. A God-sized world, much bigger than any nation or ruler can imagine. Psalm 2 expands our vision into the world of Messiah.

Messiah is God’s person in history. Messiah is the person God will use to usher in his kingdom. It began with David and would conclude with the grater David, Jesus.

Look at God’s response in verse 4: “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” Derision means mocking. The NIV says, “The LORD scoffs at them.”

You can take the arrogance of politicians too seriously. God laughs at their pretense and calls it silliness. Everyone is try to be him! Can you imagine?! Do you join him in the laughter? Have you gotten to the place in this election season that you can laugh? Laughter restores perspective. It’s not a laughter like, “haha, I’m better than you!” Not at all. It’s more like the kind of laughter when you play king of the hill with your 14-month old and he thinks he can take you out.

God’s laughter then moves to mocking, scoffing. And then to wrath. “As for me,” God says, “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” God’s response to the human game of king of the hill is to install his own King. King Jesus.

While we are consumed with our politics, something bigger is going on. There’s a more expansive kingdom and a more powerful king exercising his authority in the world. You can’t see it but it’s real.

How is Jesus installed as King? Unlike the leaders of the world, Jesus showed his authority by giving it up and dying on a cross. He is raised up…but as a sacrifice! And by believing in that sacrifice for your sins, you come under his reign. But if that’s the only image of Messiah you have, you have a truncated view. Look at vv. 7-9. This is a very interesting moment when messiah actually speaks–originally the Davidic king, and now Jesus:

“I will tell of the decree: the LORD said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

It is through Jesus’ death that the nations become his, but there’s more. God’s response to the raging of the nations is to wipe them out. Break them. Dash them. He didn’t do it then. He didn’t do it the first time Jesus came. He’s not doing it now. He’s patient. But in the end, there will only be one kingdom.

Revelation picks up on this image. Listen to Revelation 19:15-16:

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.

These images are obviously figurative—but the point is made. Jesus will take vengeance on those who reject him, particularly the nations. Does it make you tremble to think that in the end all nations, even our own nation—which we rightly love and care about—will be wiped out by Jesus? Does it take your breath away that all the leaders in the history of the world will give an account to Jesus on the last day?

Countries and elections matter. They just aren’t ultimate. And they will come to an end. Right now, God is patient with the raging and plotting. He even restrains evil so that most human governments actually do people good. But his patience will come to an end and that leads to our last question.

Where Will You Seek Refuge?
Verses 10-11 transition into the application: “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear; rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled.”

The kings of the earth also need a king. The only thing that will keep them from rejecting Messiah is to worship him. Kiss the Son. Recognize your unworthiness and how worthy he is.

Now, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a president who knew Jesus is king? It would be splendid. But friends, we must remember that it is hard for politicians who kiss the Son to be elected by millions of people who refuse to do so. And It is hard to kiss the Son when you have some measure of power over people. Most leaders in human history have not obeyed these words. That’s why the warning is here.

What happens if they don’t heed the warning? God will be angry with them and they will perish because, it says, his wrath is quickly kindled. Now, you might ask, “Isn’t God slow to anger?” He is. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. But God’s slowness to anger does not mean he never gets angry. He has a long wick, but he does have a wick, and it does burn. And eventually, his patience wears out. And when the wick is done burning, he will not delay.

In some ways, this Psalm is a harsh, terrifying psalm. But it ends incredibly positive. Let’s not miss it. The last line expands the warning but turns it into a benediction: “Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (v. 12).

There are two ways we can respond. Seek refuge from God or in God.

Which will you chose? Will you find refuge in men and women or in Messiah? The rulers of this world see refuge in Messiah as bondage, shackles. They are trying to break free. But when you find your refuge in Jesus you have security and true happiness, true rest from all the raging and plotting and silliness. And the truth is that there is truly no refuge from Messiah. Only in him.

Finally, here’s how you can know if you seek refuge in Messiah.

You will be able to participate in our political process without despair because you know the present world is passing away and that in the end, there will be only one King and one Kingdom.

And on Tuesday night, no matter what happens…

  • you will pursue your joy in Jesus.
  • you will be humble if your candidate wins and respectful if your candidate loses.
  • you’ll be able to pray for your new president and not argue with people on social media.

No matter what happens in the future because of this election, you will have a sense of rest and peace in Messiah because you will have believed God’s word, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”

Categories
Disciple-Making Life

Tax Collectors, Zealots, and Jesus

I have heard from people twice my age that this is the most politically divided the United States has ever been in their lifetime. I believe it. There are probably lots of reasons for this outside of actual issues. Media outlets like CNN and Fox and social media push the envelope in an unprecedented way. Whatever the reason, this nation is divided. Yet division is one thing. In a free nation, division, or I should say difference is welcome and necessary. Intense animosity for the opponent, is altogether another. The beauty of this country is that you are free to disagree with any one of my views and not be imprisoned or executed for it. The tragedy of this country is that you are also free to call me a bigot, narrow-minded, or hateful for disagreeing with your view. That’s where we find ourselves today.

In the Church, however, the story is quite different. Jesus brings a diverse multitude of people into his new people, a new nation. Not a geopolitical nation with physical borders. But a spiritual nation united over time and despite any differences in skin color, language, nationality, and yes, even political opinion. In the Church, Jesus unites what was divided. In the Church, Jesus creates a community of love, grace, and humility.

When Jesus was on the earth, he chose twelve men to follow him around and learn from him. Every one of those men (including Judas who betrayed him) are unique and integral to the gospel story. But two men whom Jesus chose especially stand out in light of our current political climate: Matthew and Simon (not Peter).

Matthew, a Jew, was a tax collector (Matt. 10:3), a Roman government employee. An IRS collection agent, if you will. But a corrupt one. Tax collectors not only demanded you give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but that you also give to Matthew what is Matthew’s. He stole from people. Tax collectors were hated by the general Jewish population.

Simon, also a Jew, was called “the Zealot” (Matt. 10:4)—a fanatical, anti-Rome activist. He was perhaps a violent protestor, militantly opposed to big government. Zealots concealed and carried. They snarled at centurions and were always ready for a brawl. The freedom of Judea was worth it.

Can you imagine having these two men in your small group…this year?

Jesus didn’t accidentally include these two extreme political opposites in his discipleship group. He knew what he was doing. Jesus knew that in his new community, starting with this small band, he would display for the world that allegiance to him and his mission superseded and overshadowed all other allegiances and missions, political or otherwise.

In the community of Jesus, tax collectors and zealots come together in miraculous unity. Only God could do this. Here, tax collectors and zealots learn to appreciate each other’s views, experiences, and passions. Here, they seek to do each other good, not evil. Here, they fight for each other, not against each other. Here, they humble themselves and build each other up. Here, they learn that if you love father or mother or Red or Blue more than him, you are not worthy of him (see Matt. 10:39).

So the Matthews and the Simons are united, but not uniform, of course—they don’t agree on every single issue. Matthew might keep his job and pension. Simon might keep his sword (with a permit, of course). However, their views will, by God’s grace over time, be put in perspective and become balanced. Christ’s glory, not political ideology, becomes supreme. The spread of the gospel becomes their joint venture. Their views are put in check to Jesus’ word and where there is error in one or both views, repentance and conforming to Jesus is required. Where Jesus is silent, there is room for respectful debate, gracious compromise, and the pursuit of just practice for the common good.

The world sees this and shakes its head in disbelief. But this is the way of Jesus. He simultaneously offends and comforts the conservatives and the liberals, calling them to himself. It’s as if he’s saying, Where is your ultimate allegiance? Who is your true love? I am your king. Come find in me what you have always been looking for. 

Categories
Theology

A (Brief) Political Manifesto

I recently attended a political event which was distinctively Christian. It was designed to inform Christians on the current political trends and issues related to family in New York State. I had mixed emotions during the event and as I’ve reflected back on it, not much has changed. But it got me thinking about how faith, the church, and politics intersect. I’ve thought about this before, of course, but this time I had a tangible experience that helped solidify some of my thoughts a bit more. After the event, I had a chance to write a reflection that is a sort of political “manifesto.” I pray it’s helpful to you.

We have been given an unbelievable privilege to live in a democratic republic. I believe Christians should participate in the democratic process. I believe individual Christians should participate and infiltrate the political arena and shine the light of the gospel there as we should in education, business, entertainment, the arts, law, etc.

I believe we should pray for our leaders, whether we agree with them or not. I believe we should submit to the authorities and honor them.

I believe that nearly everything Christians, in general, and pastors, in particular, say and do has political connotations and repercussions because our primary allegiance is to Jesus, not our country or any political party. We serve a different King; we are citizens of another country. We give to Caesar what is his, but ultimately, we give to God what is his, namely us. This is profoundly political in a general sense.

I do not believe pastors should tell their congregations who to vote for. I do not believe churches should run or fund political campaigns or endorse any particular candidate. Rather, church leaders should so teach and lead and equip the congregation so that they understand the Christian worldview and how the gospel changes everything. This will help people make informed, just, and godly political decisions.

I do not believe the kingdom comes through legislation, political power, coercion, or propaganda. We are salt and light. Salt used to preserve is unseen. It only takes a small match to light up a dark room. Our influence is subtle yet constant. Our movement is marginal yet powerful. The church is a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. That is, we are the picture of an alternate city in all our earthly cities. We want justice and shalom for our cities in this world, and sometimes legislation and political action can help. William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery in England is a prime example. But we realize legislation cannot change hearts, and we realize the perfect society will finally come when Jesus returns. So we live together as a picture of that city to come and call others to join us. We desire and look for a new country, and I believe we were made for that country, that city—a city whose gates will never be breached and whose King never needs re-election.