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Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Thundering God

Instead of attempting to locate in contemporary (or future) times every movement, every action, and every symbol we encounter in the last book of the Bible, the Revelation to John, we would be wise to let the imagery create a vision of God in our minds. Bible readers miss an encounter with the Almighty in Revelation because they spend too much time trying to figure it out and not enough time appreciating it and experiencing it.

Last weekend, our area had a lot of rain. My boys and I stood in the garage and stared at the thick, dark clouds. We listened to gentle rumblings of thunder. We counted the seconds until the flashes of lightening. The thunder storms brought a lot of rainfall, but in terms of percussion, they were mild. There were no claps of thunder that shook the house. The lightening flashes were several miles away.

Still, my younger son put his little hands over his ears and ran inside. There was no real danger, but his three-year-old mind (and heart) intuited the power of nature and he was appropriately frightened. He would only stay outside if I was holding him. He could sense the vastness and the power of God. Do we become so sophisticated that we lose a sense of the majesty and the glory that God possesses? Do scientists of various sorts know so much, they are no longer awed by God? Are people in their countless ways of succumbing to busyness not have time to be filled with wonder at God’s might?

John wrote down the seven messages for the seven churches (chapters 2-3) given to him by the awesome presence of the resurrected Jesus (described in Revelation 1:12-20). His heart was overwhelmed because Jesus came in all his glory. Poor John could barely stand and this was just the beginning. He next heard a voice “speaking to [him] like a trumpet” (4:1). That mighty voice blasted, and John was summoned in a vision up to Heaven. Once there, he was taken into the throne room of God.

Hundreds of pages could be devoted to each of the sites John beheld in that throne room. I will touch on just one of those images. “Coming from the throne,” John writes “are flashes of lightening, and rumblings and peals of thunder” (Revelation 4:5). It brings to mind the prophet Moses wielding the power of God against Pharaoh: “Moses stretched out his staff toward Heaven, and the Lord sent thunder and hail and fire down on the earth” (Exodus 9:23). Also, the words of Isaiah are remembered: “You will be visited by the Lord of hosts with thunder and earthquake and great noise, with a whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire” (Isaiah 29:6).

To try to interpret such a picture as this thundering God into some theological system is an effort in futility. I appreciate the work of theologians, even the dispensationalists who think they have Revelation figured out. I appreciate how seriously they take scripture and the practice of the Christian faith. But though I appreciate theology and myself study theology a bit, I read of the thunder that roars from the throne and I am reminded that no one has Revelation figured out. It’s not a secret; it is God revealed and the thundering God is too much for us.

But, we want our God to be that awesome and God is. We want the God we worship to have authority over all things and God does. It is appropriate to fear God; at the same time we rejoice in the love of God. His love is such that He sent his only son to die for us. The Risen Christ picked John up when he had fallen in a puddle of fear (Revelation 1:17). John was terrified, but his Lord and put a hand on him and said, “Do not be afraid.” Our terrifying God says that to us – “Do not be afraid.” God is the thunderstorm, but God is also the daddy holding each one of us in his arms so we don’t have to fear the storm.

In Revelation then, we see that God is to be feared. At the same time, God is to be trusted because God’s love is real. So, don’t take God too lightly. But don’t live in dread of God either. Live in confidence that all who are in Christ are adopted as children of God. We will all one day be summoned to that incredible and terrifying place, the throne room, but once we are there we will be filled with joy as we are filled with God’s love.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Word

John's Gospel begins "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the Word was God." A few verses later it says, "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (1:14). And in Ephesians it says the "sword of the Spirit" is "the word of God" (6:17). Finally, in Revelation, the risen, glorified Jesus appears to John, a Christian in exile on Patmos Island. The Resurrected One is said to have a sharp, two-edged sword coming from his mouth (Revelation 1:16).

Jesus is the word, and the word is sharp, cutting, pruning, and also judging. In Revelation 1, Jesus is described in spectacular images. Then in chapters 2-3, there are 7 messages to 7 churches located in Asia Minor. At the beginning of each message, Jesus restates and self-identifies some aspect of the spectacular description from chapter 1. To Ephesus, he is the one who holds the seven stars in his hand (1:6 / 2:1); to Smyrna he says, "these are the words of the first and the last" (1:17 / 2:8). This parallel of self-identification to a description from chapter 1 begins each message to each individual church.

To Pergamum Jesus says, "there are the words of him who has the sharp, two-edged sword" (1:16 / 2:12). Why is Pergamum the church that receives the depiction of Jesus related to him being a man of penetrating words? Maybe it is because words were so important in that city and the city was proud of its collection of words and its ownership of words. One of the greatest libraries of ancient times was in Pergamum. It rivaled the great library Alexandria. Book production was so prolific there that the name of the city is where the word "parchment" comes from. Denizens of the city may of thought all words worth remembering begin in their town.

The problem in this city of knowledge and city of words is the Roman Emperor was worshiped, and Christians were persecuted. They may have felt superior for their knowledge, but they were oblivious to the source of transcendent knowledge and eternal truth. They worshiped a false God and tried to silence the truth of the real God preached by followers of Jesus.

As I read that Jesus threatened to make war with the "sword of [his] mouth" (v.16), I wondered if the same ominous divine threat hangs over centers of human knowledge today? I find it necessary to state and restate that I am an advocate of education. I have 22 years of formal education. I am believer in study and in human beings knowing as much as they can and as many words as can be known. Many of my friends are people with PhD's (in a number of different fields). They are humble people who bow before Jesus and who try to excel in scholarship in order to bring honor to the Lord.

Are we in danger of (or in need of) the cutting, pruning, convicting word of God? I think so, because when Jesus speaks, the words are truth. His truth will purify our pursuit of knowledge and learning. The main sin at Pergamum was the tolerance of false teaching (Balaam, v.14 and the Nicolaitans, v.15). Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life, was set alongside other gods and philosophies.

We cannot set Jesus alongside the humanism of our day. We strive for knowledge knowing in humility that He is the source of transcendent knowledge. We reach for the stars and at the same time stay on bended knee doing our obeisance before the King of Kings. Our ambition must be held in check by humility.

If we can keep Jesus first and listen to Him over and above all other voices, then our perspective will be in order. We will get to hear our Lord say to us what was said to the Pergamum believers who persevered - "To everyone who conquers I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it."

Do we want a new name, given by the Lord Jesus? I guess that depends on whether or not we trust His knowledge and his words.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Jesus and the Unclean woman

Imagine this. You are a 14-year-old girl. You’ve never been to school. You were married to a man at age 13, and became pregnant 6 months later. Now you are in labor. Labor has already lasted three days. At midday, on the fourth day of labor, you pass a still-born child. Relieved, you think the madness and torture is over. But on the fifth day, you discover to your horror that you have no control over your bodily functions. No matter how much you wash, no matter why you try, you have no control. You cannot get rid of the odor.

Your husband is disgusted. He cannot stand you. Your presence is unendurable. You were supposed to become the mother of his firstborn son. Instead, this has happened. It must be some punishment for something you have done. So, he throws you out of the house.

Your parents take you in, but they can’t stand the sight or smell of you any more than he could. They make you stay in a shack at the edge of the family compound. Your condition does not improve. With no control over your body, you always reek. You are put out again, this time to fend for yourself.

You are 14. You illiterate and have no skills. You just want to die.[i]

Here’s what the girl in that unbelievably desperate situation doesn’t know. There are approximately 3 to 4 million women who deal with the condition she has and the condition has a name - obstetric fistula. A fistula is simply a hole between an internal organ and the outside world that should not exist. There are two primary causes of fistula in women in developing countries: childbirth, causing obstetric fistula and sexual violence, causing traumatic fistula.”[ii] This impoverished girl thinks her life is over and quite possibly it is her fault. The problem is unique to her and so she bears the agony of being punished for some unknown sin. In truth, for only a few hundred dollars, a surgical operation could repair the injury and restore her life.

Instead, she has been kicked to the curb, and herself believes that the curb, the gutter, the waste heap is where she belongs. Lewis Wall is the professor of obstetrics/gynecology in the School of Medicine and professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. He’s also on the board of directors of the World Wide Fistual Fund, That website gives loads of information about fistula, about what women go through, and it gives ways concerned Christ-followers can pray and help.

Another website with even more information is the site of the Fistula Foundation There, Asosa, an 18-year-old young woman from Southern Ethiopia shares her story.

I studied in school until 7th grade. I helped my mother at home with housework, but I didn't have to carry too many heavy things.

I got married when I was 15. I met my husband for the first time on my wedding day. My parents chose him for me. I felt sad that I had to quit my education, but otherwise I liked my husband. He was a good man.

I got pregnant one year later. My pregnancy was fine. My labor started at three in the afternoon and my husband and my mother were with me. A traditional doctor told me to go to the hospital. I got a free letter from my kebele. I went to Asosa Hospital and they operated to take out the baby, but it was dead.

After the baby died, I went back to my village and two months later my husband married another woman. My friends were there to help me in the village. I lived with my mother. When I came to Fistula Hospital, I was very happy. I knew this was the place where I would get cured. It has been 15 days since my operation and now I am dry.

I have made friends here. We have fun together and we talk about our health and our operations. We ask each other, what will you do when you are cured?

When I am cured, I want to go back home and continue my education. I want to study and I want to become a doctor like the doctors here and help girls like me who have this problem.

When I go back to my village, I will tell other women to go immediately to a hospital so that they won't have a problem with their labor. Most people don't know that a hospital can help them, but if they knew, they'd go.[iii]

The pains of those who deal with fistula are real, but isolated. It’s easy for someone in the United States to not know and not care. Obviously men don’t need to be concerned about it. And women who live in industrialized nations and have access to modern medicine don’t have to worry either. Obstetric fistula is a third world problem and there are so many third world problems.

How can we care for them all?

Jesus cares for them, and we – His church – are his body. We make up the body of Christ. What burdens His heart is to burden ours.

I had never heard of fistula until I read the wonderful book Hospital By the River. It’s the story of two Australian Christians, doctors Reginald and Catherine Hamlin. They answered the call of God to go to the mission field, specifically Ethiopia. There, they treated numerous problems, but their specialty was care for women who had suffered fistula. These women, and sometimes their parents (rarely their husbands), spent all the money they had to travel from remote villages to the capital, Addis Ababa, so they could be seen and treated by the Hamlins.

When they were cured through the routine surgery, it was like a miracle had taken place. These women Catherine Hamlin describes thought their lives were done, and then they had life again. Over and over, women praised the Lord, and saw life with new eyes. Many stayed and worked as nurses and administrative assistants in the hospital. Their lives in the villages they left behind were over anyway. Husbands rejected them, parents saw them as burdens, a shame on the family. They didn’t contribute anything and so were often relegated to the status of unproductive animals. Not all husbands and parents were so calloused and cruel, but many were. No one gave these women much hope.

That complete rejection is what caught my eye as I thought about the Gospel, and as I thought about preaching on Mother’s Day.

Luke 8:43-48 says,

As he went, the crowds pressed in on him. 43Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years; and though she had spent all she had on physicians, no one could cure her. 44She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his clothes, and immediately her hemorrhage stopped. 45Then Jesus asked, “Who touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.” 46But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.” 47When the woman saw that she could not remain hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before him, she declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. 48He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”

The connecting point for the woman came when Jesus called her “daughter.” It says in verse 44, “immediately, here hemorrhage stopped.” At that point, she was anonymous. The crowd was so dense they did not notice her steal into the midst of them and touch Jesus. Her bleeding condition rendered her ritualistically unclean. By law she was cut off from society. She couldn’t be in normal relationships because if anyone touched her, they too would become unclean. She couldn’t go to temple or synagogue. She was a “reject” in every way describable.

Yet, her gamble worked. Violating law and convention, she made her way unnoticed through the crowd and touched Jesus. Upon grasping his clothes, she was healed. She could then wash up and present herself to the priest. She’d be a part of society once again.

But Jesus didn’t leave it at a simple healing. No healing is complete in his eyes until the broken spirit is healed. She needed more than just her ailment corrected. She needed to know that though everyone around her treated her like she was a piece of nasty garbage, God loved her. In shame and despair, God saw her, was with her, and was for her.

That point is driven home the moment Jesus calls her “daughter.” The most legalistically minded among the Pharisees would have called her a lawbreaker. Jesus called her daughter and commended her faith. He also bid her “peace.”

Peace in the Jewish sense is so much more than a simple absence of conflict. It is wholeness, shalom. The idea of shalom is that all right between a person and her neighbors and a person and her God. Jesus called this troubled soul “daughter,” and he bid her “peace.”

This is what Jesus does for all people; you, me, everyone. The Biblical lesson about an afflicted person and Jesus meeting her in her pain, at her lowest, most desperate point speaks into our lives because Jesus does the same for us. When we seek him, force our way through obstacles to touch him, and have faith in him, he responds with love and grace. And our lives change forever.

The woman didn’t suddenly have an easy life because she was healed. Dr. Wall says of modern fistula sufferers who do not have access to treatment, “They are seen as hopeless, drifting to the margins of society where they live lives of misery, isolation, worsening poverty and malnutrition, unloved, unwanted, and alone.”[iv] If a Christian ministry, reaching out in the name of Jesus identifies these women and helps them get treatment, they don’t pop right onto their feet and live meaningful, self-sufficient lives the day after the surgery. The healed woman didn’t have an easy street the moment she heard the Master call her “daughter.”

She did though have peace of mind because she knew without a doubt that God was on her side. She did have a reason to live a purposeful life – she had been blessed by Jesus. She would, from that point going forward, need a new community of people of faith to embrace and welcome her. She most likely joined the ranks of Jesus’ women disciples (see “daughters of Jerusalem,” Luke 23:27-28). Those who followed him would be a group on the fringes of society, but though they along with the male disciples were marginalized, it was they the Holy Spirit filled at Pentecost.

Similarly, the women healed of fistula will often need the church to help them find employment, and maybe a place to live. Many will need the church to become their family, a source of friendship and emotional and social support. It’s true of any group or individual today rescued from the brink of destruction by Jesus working through his body, the church.

We help the alcoholic put the bottle down. We must then help him get on his feet and discover God’s purpose in his life. We help the person struggling with depression find joy and a loving community. We then need to help that one move into a productive, sustainable joy that lasts throughout life. We help each other through times of crisis and provide community and family as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are there for one another in good times and in bad. And, the church is always open, ready to enthusiastically welcome whomever we would deem to be the lowly, the outcast, the bleeding woman. Just as the hurting soul can find hope in hearing Jesus call him “son” or her “daughter, he or she can find that hope in God’s people, the church.

The connecting point for us is we are as broken as anyone. The Wall Street banker and the starving child in a poor country have this in common: both are lost without Jesus. But, both are saved when they recognize their own condition (of being lost apart from God), and turn to Jesus in repentance and in faith. He welcomes and saves both. AMEN

[i] Wall, L. Lewis, “Jesus and the Unclean Woman,” Christianity Today, January 2010, p.48-52.

[ii] The Fistula Foundation website,


[iv] Wall, Christianity Today, p.52.

Monday, May 17, 2010

"I know your works"

My goal for the next several months is to illustrate in this column the gospel found in Revelation. Revelation is inspired writing, possibly the most direct dictation of any book in the Bible. Paul was inspired when he wrote his letters as were the evangelists when they wrote the Gospels. But each wrote with their own style and with specific purposes, and not always the same purposes. Revelation is different. In Revelation, the resurrected Jesus appears to John while John was in exile. John became a secretary, writing exactly what Jesus told him to write.

Bible readers and theologians, historians and New Testament scholars trip over themselves trying to unlock the intricacies of the symbolism in Revelation. In places though, the message is obvious. “I know your works” the Lord says to the Christians of the Ephesian church (2:2). Craig Keener points out that Emperor Domitian had named Ephesus “guardian” of the imperial cult less than 10 years before Revelation was likely written. At that time, he was honored at the Olympic Games held there. Furthermore, the cult of Artemis was prominent in the city, as was the practice of magic. There was also a strong Jewish presence. All these competing faith claims would put a great strain on the small Christian church there (Keener, NIV Application Commentary, p.106).

In the face of such a diverse religious landscape that was potentially hostile to the Gospel, Jesus commends the believers for their patient endurance (Revelation 2:3). “I know your works” – Jesus knew that their faithful worship was carried out in difficult circumstances and he wanted them to hear that this commendation.

“I know your works” – it was also a harsh critique from the Lord. “You have abandoned the love you had at first.” The way it is written, Jesus could have meant their love for God was diminished or they were failing in love for one another. They worshipped faithfully. Their commitment to truth was admirable. But, their practice of Christianity lacked love, and Jesus finds this unacceptable. He did not say that the greatest commandment was to preach true doctrine. That is important, but the greatest commandment, said Jesus, is to love the Lord our God with all the heart, all the soul, all the spirit, and all the mind. The second command is to love our neighbor as ourselves, and on these two hang the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:37-40; Luke 10:27). It’s all about the love, said Jesus, and in Ephesus the love was lacking.

So did Jesus then tell them to start loving again? No! The love comes from God. The Ephesians needed to “repent” (v.5); turn back to Jesus, and the love would follow because He is the source of true Godly love.

In his comments on this passage, the great revival preacher John Wesley said, “with regard to us, to every one of us also he saith, ‘I know thy works’” (quoted from E-Sword). What’s true for Ephesus is true for HillSong Church. What was true for John is true for you and for me. Jesus knows our works, and that’s great when our works bring him glory and serve God’s kingdom. And when our works, our very lives, show us to be self-serving, then we too are called to repentance. Selfishness is sinful and is the opposite of the love Jesus modeled and expects of his disciples. If we are to be true Jesus followers, we have to love one another with mercy and grace.

“I know your works” – it is a summons to us to align our lives with Jesus’ gospel. And we don’t this is a call to repentance so that we may receive forgiveness and also receive the grace Jesus gives. In this way, by opening ourselves to Jesus, we too receive permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God (Revelation 2:7).