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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Living Church


The Living Church, 9-30-2020

             “Tell the older women to be reverent in behavior … so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, … to be good managers of their households. … Urge the younger men to be self-controlled.  Show yourself in all respects a model of good works” (Titus 2:3-6).  In this short New Testament letter, Paul instructs Titus how to lead the church in Crete.  Paul wants to see a church that is called by Christ, loyal to Christ, and functions in an organized, ordered way.  

            Is the church organized?  Does the church have direction, and a sense of mission?  We must be discerning in reading Titus!  We do not abide by 2:9, “tell slaves to be submissive to their masters,” because we have read Philemon.  We know Paul himself subverted the institution of slavery when he commanded Philemon to receive the runaway slave Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a brother (Philemon 1:15-16).  We know Paul’s sense that in the church of Jesus, no one is a slave (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11).  Thus, we take Titus 2:9 as a word set in first century Crete, but not applicable to us today.  The overarching spirit of Titus, though, most definitely speaks authoritatively to how we, as a 21st church, must function if we are to be the body of Christ.

            We must be a living church.  In a living church, ministries happen.  People meet Jesus.  The good news is proclaimed by the pastor in sermons and by the members and worshipers in everyday life. 

            Are you a woman in the church?  Are you mentoring younger women, as Paul prescribes (Titus 2:4)?  It’s not as if Paul says, ‘go ahead and do this if it fits your calling and is in your comfort zone and is aligned with your gifting.’  This word from Paul is for all women in the church.  Are you mentoring a teenaged girl or a college-aged girl, or a young woman?  If not, why not?  Are you contributing your time, experience, and knowledge to the church’s children’s, youth, or young adult ministries?

            Men, there’s a word here for us too.  “Show yourself a model of good works,” Paul tells Titus (2:7).  Are you doing that?  If so how?  Would you respond, “Well, I am not a role model or mentor, because I don’t know how to do that”?  Fine.  What are you doing to learn how to do that?  Men, how are you pouring your faith and your life into boys, teenaged young men and college-aged young men? 

            We, and by “we” I mean the people of the church, have to want this.  We cannot say, “Oh that’s not a priority for me.”  The Bible doesn’t give any space for saying we don’t value active ministry.  God’s word doesn’t give the option of not passing our faith onto the next generation.  We have to value an active, difference-making approach to living our faith, and this includes discipling each other and especially our younger members.  We all have to be part of ministry.  In a living church, there is no sideline nor are there any wallflowers.  Everyone is dancing.  Everyone is in the game.  Every worshiper, member, and attendee are involved in some way. 

            The only exception might be newcomers, visitors, and seekers.  Part of being involved in ministry is recognizing who the newcomers are and gently inviting them to become involved.  We want those who come for the first time to be loved, to see Jesus, and then to get active in church life.

            Not knowing how to mentor or disciple is not a reason to avoid mentoring and discipling.  The follower of Jesus learns how. 

            The pandemic is not a reason to avoid being involved in ministry.  The church has survived plagues, wars, and severe persecution throughout its history.  In the Roman era, the church met in tombs – the catacombs.  The church, persecuted by the most powerful empire in the world, grew holding worship in mausoleums.  We can grow, even if we stay home to avoid getting sick or wear masks and hold our meetings under “social distancing” protocols.

            In an era of texting, countless forms of social media, and good old-fashioned phone calls, we have constant connection.  We just need to use it to spread the Gospel, encourage each other, and grow in relationships with fellow church members.

            If upon reading this, you want to become more involved in ministry, check in with Dina, or Pastor Rob.  Our college/young adult group has started back up, in-person.  So has our youth group.  We continue to do our food pantry and we continue to need volunteers.  We have a small group (via Zoom call) starting October 8.  You can be involved in any of the ministries.  Women, you can attend Dina’s Tuesday morning women’s Bible study, which is also now meeting in person. 

If you want to be involved in a one-on-one relationship of spiritual mentoring, we can help you do that.  Pastor Rob or Phil Partin can assist you. 

If you read this and don’t feel the need to be involved in ministry in any way, I urge you to read Titus 2, prayerfully and discerningly.  How does this word of God speak into your life?  What does it mean, in your life, to live an active faith?  What, in your sense of things, does an active, mission-directed church look like, and what’s your part in that? 

I know what I’m saying here is direct and challenging.  When we follow Jesus, we find that he’s direct, and he challenges us.  I don’t presume to be Jesus, but I think what I wrote here is something he wants all of us to think about.  Church should be comforting, but not too comfortable.  We need to be prompted and sometimes even prodded by the Holy Spirit.  Read Titus and the other passages referenced here.  Read, pray, and then get involved in living an active faith and helping Hillside be a living church.

Monday, September 28, 2020

"Great Commandment Politics" (Mark 12:28-34)


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Sunday, September 27, 2020


            Our politics must be tied directly to the great commandment.  The Great Commandment only makes sense if we understand God intends to say everyone.  Jesus went to the cross because “God so love the world;” not part of the world but all of it, everyone. 

            What is the ‘Great Commandment?’  From the mouth of Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  He’s quoting Deuteronomy 6:4. This has been God’s top priority for us from the beginning.  Next, quoting Leviticus 19:18, Jesus says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31). 

            Wait, wait!  Time out, Jesus.  We wanted 1 – the greatest commandment.  You gave 2!  He’s allowed to do that. He’s Jesus.  He gives them together, because we can only understand them together.  We can only truly love God when we love our neighbor.  It is impossible to truly love God if we fail to love our neighbor.  So, racism, conscious or unconscious, makes it impossible to love God because it is a failure to love our neighbor.  Holding others in contempt, for whatever reason, makes God-love impossible.  If you hold someone in contempt, you have elevated yourself above him; you have failed to love him.  Loving God means loving people.  The way we approach politics shows whether or not we truly love people. 

            I don’t mean the American political scene.  It is abhorrent when churches and pastors align with one party or the other, or a third party.  Many in our church family and many listening to this have strong political convictions which may lead you to hear this message and conclude I am against your party or for your party.  It’s not so.  I am not advocating for or against any candidate or party. 

Partisan politics have no place in church.  This is God’s time.  We have to contemplate how God calls us, His church, to relate to each other and to the world.  Politics refers to people.  So, as Christ-followers, our politics have to be love-based.  It’s the only way Christ allows.  Of the many significant obstacles to love, I will briefly touch on 3, using as a source chapter 4 of the book Crossing the Lines we Draw by theologian and pastor Matthew Tennant. 

First: fear.  Fear drives us to objectify others.  Fear prevents us from seeing others as people – people God calls us to love.  Fear leads me to hoard resources and prevents me from sharing.  I forget that we all need food, shelter, healthcare, clothing, and community; instead, I make sure I have enough.  I even store extras to make sure I’ll have more than enough in the future.  Fear turns my generosity into greed as I ignore everyone else and look out only for myself. 

Tennant uses the example of terrorism to illustrate the way fear distorts our perspective.  He quotes an American politician who, a few years ago said, “We will … unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth” (p.41).  It’s a patently absurd statement because terrorism is a technique, not an individual or even a group.  Most Muslims are not terrorists.  Many terrorists are not Muslim; some are white American.  But fear leads us to demonize radical Islamic terrorists, whoever they are.  Fear leads us to objectify groups of people or regions of the world. 

In Matthew 5 Jesus says,  “I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. … If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:44, 39).  That’s the Jesus, red letters!  His teaching and his commands get drowned out by the illogical noise our fears produce.  So, who do you fear?  Protestors or looters?  Political liberals or conservatives? Submit your fears to God. Ask Him to give you the courage to love those you fear or hold in contempt.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we overcome fear by, loving those we would never love.  The ‘other’ is no longer an object of our judgment, but instead a recipient of our love.

A second obstacle to Great Commandment politics is the sense that life is a zero-sum game.  Tennant points out a zero-sum game requires winners and losers (p.49).  For you and I to be winners, we have to beat others.  We advance at the expense of others.  A zero-sum game favors individual advancement over cooperation and mutual gain. 

Picture it.  Five thousand people on a hillside have listened to Jesus for hours.  His words are so rich, no one will leave.  Practical-minded Philip, one of the 12, wants to know how they’re going to feed this crowd the size of a small town (John 6:5).  Andrew, the matchmaker of the 12, sees a kid munching a loaf of bread. 

“A lot of hungry people here,” he says to the kid.  The kid nods.  “You going to eat all of that?”  Andrew asks. 

The kid nods yes. Then he says to Andrew, “At least I got mine!”

That’s not how the story goes!  The kid offers to share his lunch, and we get to see the way God multiplies our small offerings; Jesus miraculously feeds 5000 people with one boy’s meal.  We give what have to support each other and help those with nothing, and God multiplies it.  This is not socialism; this is Great Commandment politics.  Share.  Give.  Make sure everyone is included, cared for, and empowered.  Guided by love, we reject the zero-sum game approach and instead look for ways we can give of ourselves for the good of others.  Jesus gave his all for us on the cross.  We imitate Him, our savior, by giving of ourselves.

So far, in connecting love with politics, we have seen two movements.  We reject fear by seeing the “other” whomever we mean by “other” as someone to love, not someone to despise.  Second, we reject the competitive idea of a zero-sum game in favor of cooperation and mutual blessing.  We do this by sharing and trusting God to take what we give and bless others with it.  What’s third obstacle to love we need to overcome?  False narratives. 

Tennant refers to a couple TV shows from the 1950’s, Ozzie and Harriet, and Leave it to Beaver.  Both are fine shows that depict an idealized America, if idealized America is a 1950’s white, working class nuclear family: mom, dad, two kids.  Sometimes this era is referred to as The Greatest Generation.  This is the generation of my parents and my grandparents.  However, the picture is of a particular type of family situation; but that’s not the only picture from that time period.

America back then was great, for some people; not for all.  Read the history of how stridently white people all over the country, not just the south, but all over resisted integrating public schools.  If you have a conscience and you’re willing to honestly read the history, you’ll be horrified.  Read about the racism against Asians coming to America during that time.

Tennant also points out that these beloved old shows fail to delve into the depths of Appalachia and the Southern literary tradition, a white cultural heritage that went ignored.  What makes America “great” is in the eye of the beholder.  As followers of Jesus, we have to tell the truth in the face of distorted narratives. 

The 1950’s, the 1980’s, today – none of it is a golden age.  Until Jesus returns, the world is a fallen place where women and men of every nation are lost and dying in sin, cut off from the love of God, cut off by their own choices.  The politics of love drive us to tell the truth about sin.  The politics of love compel us to help people find their way to the Savior, our Lord, Jesus.

We overcome fear by committing to love, even love our enemies.

We reject the zero-sum game in favor of cooperation and mutual blessing.

We expose false narratives by speaking the truth in love, even when the truths we expose are inconvenient and uncomfortable. 

Love of God and love of neighbor comes to full fruition in the most quoted of Bible passages, John 3:16-17.  Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

“The world” means everyone.  That so-called radical Islamic terrorist; Jesus wants to be with him for eternity.  That person in Portland you saw on the news, the one throwing a Molotov cocktail at the police; Jesus loves him.  That Aryan white supremacist advocating for the purity of the white race; he’s shouting, red-faced, at an antifa protestor, who shouts right back, louder.  Jesus died for them both.  Jesus died for George Floyd and Derek Chauvin, for Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, for Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.  God so loved the world, means everyone.

The cross shows that Jesus is for everyone.  Do you want to stand with Jesus?  You can stand against racism, against terrorism, and against hatred.  We are for people – black people, Arabic people, southern whites, Yankees, Canadians, Republicans and Democrats, everyone. 

Jesus gives the Great Commandment to love God and love people in the midst of a series of contentious public debates.  He debates with Pharisees, Sadducees, and a group called Herodians.  Each group attempts to outsmart Jesus and catch him in some inconsistency.  Like today’s political reporters, they try to trip Jesus up, but they always fail and end up with egg on their own faces. 

One guy though, described as a “scribe” (Mk 12:28), most likely a Sadducee, asks Jesus a legitimate question.  Which is the greatest commandment?  Jesus tells him he must love God and love neighbor.  A light goes on in this Sadducee’s mind.  “You’re right, teacher,” he says.  Jesus can see that unlike the others, his heart is true and Jesus says to the scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

That’s where I want to be, close to the Kingdom.  I want you there with me.  Commitment to the Great Commandment puts us on the path.  Right now, our country is mired in the worst of political seasons.  It’s an opportunity for us to bear witness to the goodness of God by sharing the love of Jesus, in our thoughts, our words, and our actions.  May we do that.  May we obey the command to love, answer the call of love, and win people over to Jesus with hearts, words, and deeds of love. 


Monday, September 21, 2020

"Some Blessings Bring Tears" (2 Kings 8:7-15)

Sunday, September 20, 2020

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            Serving as God’s prophet, did Elisha have the worst job one could ask for?  No one was closer to God in that day than Elisha.  He knew the will of God.  He saw with the vision of God.  Isn’t this what any person of faith would want?  Wouldn’t this be greater than any earthy pleasure or human achievement?

            In truth, any Israelite who heard the reading of the scrolls of Moses in worship knew the will of God.  Leviticus 19:2, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  Does anyone doubt what was required to maintain holiness?  Recite the 10 commandments.  Read Leviticus.  Worship God faithfully.  Conduct your business ethically.  When threats come, rely on God.  Treat your neighbors with kindness.  Practice hospitality. 

In Luke 16, Jesus tells a parable that ends with a rich man suffering in Hell for his failure to care for the poor man at his gate while he was alive.  The rich man begs “Father Abraham” to warn his brothers to care for the poor so they won’t suffer his fate.  He is told, however, they already have the law and the prophets (16:31).  They already have the information they need to live rightly, in God’s good graces. 

We do too.  We don’t need secret messages from God.  In the Bible, we have the revealed story of God’s truth for humankind.  We simply need to read it and live by it.  In Elisha’s day, they knew the teachings of Moses.  We know the teaching of Jesus.  Do we live by the word, or do we live as if the word is optional?    

In addition to the knowledge of God, Elisha had the vision of God.  God showed him that Israel, the chosen people, had disregarded God’s ways for generations.  Elisha could see that the people had ignored God’s the truth.  Worse still, Elisha could see that God was going to do something about this willful rebellion.  He saw what was coming.  

At this point, we turn back to Elisha’ predecessor and mentor Elijah.  Fleeing persecution, he was holed up in a cave when God came to him.  First a great wind came by, crushing rocks.  God was not in the wind.  Then, an earthquake rumbled and a supernatural fire blazed.  God was not in the earthquake or the fire.  Finally, a piercing silence penetrated Elijah’s soul.  He met God in the silence.

There, God told Elijah to anoint Hazael as king over Aram, Jehu as king over Israel, and then Elisha as his own successor.  This is God’s judgment of Israel for her sin of turning away from God and rejecting him as Lord.  God tells Elijah, “Whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill” (1 Kings 19:17).

Elijah passed his mantel to Elisha, but he never anointed the new Aramean king, nor did he anoint Jehu.  These tasks fell to Elisha. 

In 2 Kings 8, Elisha travels to Aram, modern day Syria, because the Aramean king, Ben-hadad is sick.  Ben-hadad knows no Aramean prophet has divine insight like Elisha.  Only he can provide answers.  So, the king sends his man, Hazael, to inquire.  Will the king recover from this illness?

Hazael carries out his assignment, delivering a gift to Elisha, speaking with fawning reverence.  “You son King Ben-hadad has sent me” he says.  Your son.  The hyper-respect, the gifts, the bowing and scraping; it’s all a show and Elisha plays his part.  Tell your master, “You shall certainly recover,” he says (2 Kings 8:10).

Then Elisha stares at Hazael.  The emissary fixes his gaze upon the prophet.  They stare at each other.  Suddenly Elisha bursts into tears.  The narrator of this story coyly withholds any insight into Hazael’s inner thought world.  He appears to be a flat character, but, in real life, no one is flat.  In real life, everyone has deep inner brooding, whether or not it is ever spoken.  “Why does my Lord weep?” Hazael asks. 

Indeed.  Elisha has stared down an entire Aramean fighting force without a hint of fear.  Why are his tears falling now?  He knows what is coming is from God, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

My sons and I have been binge-watching a show called Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D..  This is the same “Marvel Universe” that has given us Iron Man, Captain America, and the Black Panther.  S.H.E.I.L.D. is the secretive organization that works behind the scenes supporting the heroes and sometimes carrying out their own missions. 

In one season of the show, the heroes are whisked 100 years into earth’s future.  Much of the planet has been destroyed.  What’s left is being controlled by an alien race that has enslaved humanity.  S.H.E.I.L.D. has been brought to the future to rescue humanity from their alien overlords and the crumbling planet. 

The rub comes when the agents of S.H.E.I.L.D. learn that all the catastrophes they’re trying to fix in the future they caused in the past.  When they finally make it back to their own present day, they are determined not make the decisions and do the things that bring about the horrors they witnessed.  Yet, they seem powerless to alter fate.  Step by step, the calamities come upon them and there seems to be no way of changing things. 

That’s what makes Elisha weep.  He tells Hazael that King Ben-hadad will recover, but’s not true.  What’s actually true is Ben-hadad is going to die and Hazael will assume the throne.  Elisha says to him, “I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel; you will set their fortresses on fire, you will kill their young men with the sword, dash in pieces their little ones, and rip open their pregnant women.”

Second Kings 8:12 paints such a horrible picture, I almost didn’t read it.  I could have chosen to skip it, offering a sanitized summary.  Elisha couldn’t skip it.  He couldn’t unsee it.  Not only did he have to watch, but he also had to speak.  As a prophet, he didn’t the option of keeping it to himself.  Elisha knew that these horrors were God’s judgment.

That doesn’t absolve Hazael.  He went back to King Ben-hadad and reported that the monarch would recover.  Then, with the king relaxed, his fears relieved, his guard down, Hazael, his loyal aide smothered the king with bed sheet.  Once Ben-Hadad was dead, Hazael took the throne. 

God had been planning this since before Elisha had even ascended to his role as the leading prophet of Israel.  It’s not that God is obsessed with violence and lacks mercy.  God forgave his people countless times.  Read the book of Judges.  God so often takes the descendants of Abraham back after they have turned away from his call to holiness, it become a plot device. In seminary, we learned the “Judges Cycle”: sin-fall-cry-rescue. God makes the world, creation; humanity rejects God and catastrophe follows, uncreation; and, in despair, humanity cries and God starts over with us, re-creation.  If Israel would not respond to holy leaders like Moses, Aaron, and Deborah, and if Israel would not heed the leadership of true prophets like Isaiah, Elijah, and Elisha, and then God would work through evil people like Hazael. 

God did not cause Hazael to be evil.  The man made his own choices.  But God can work through any human being to accomplish his divine purposes.  Elisha was blessed to be God’s prophet, but some blessings bring tears too.  He saw everything, even the things no one would want to see. 

In 2020, we’ve seen a lot of things we would have never wanted to see in our lifetimes.  In fact, many of us 50, 60, 70 years old have never seen a year like this year.  Is God punishing humanity?  Physics, chemistry, and microbiology can explain the origins of the virus.  We don’t need a supernatural explanation.  Epidemiology, environmental science, and sociology, can explain why the virus has affected some communities worse than others.  We don’t need to speculate about what God is doing through the pandemic.  We do, though, need to listen to God. 

The devastating effects of the virus and wildfires and hurricanes and polarized politics all serve as indictments on humanity.  We’ve know vulnerable, disadvantaged populations are at greater risk in each calamity that hits.  What if healthy people, young people, and rich people dedicated themselves to making sure everyone’s rent is paid, everyone gets health care, and no one is abandoned?  What if the most able in society spent less time griping about having to wear masks and more time looking for ways to help vulnerable people?  If that happened, if we went out of our way to help each other, the story of 2020 would be entirely different.  The virus, fires, and storms haven’t ravaged us; each reveals our selfishness.  Self-centeredness wrecks human life and prevents human flourishing. 

Elisha wept at Hazael’s ascendency, but that Aramean’s reign of terror was directly tied to Israel’s rejection of God.  God let the people face the world without His help since they had chosen to reject Him as Lord.  Elisha was the messenger.

We’re suffering because God allows us to live with the consequences of our own choices.  2020 will make us weep, but it wasn’t fated.  It wasn’t inevitable.  We could be hit by all these threats and more, but if we took care of each other and revered the sovereignty of God instead of looking out for our own self-interests, our experience of the world would be a lot different.  

Now, the virus rages on as does the complaining about our nation’s response to it.  The election day is 48 days away.  The advertising, the politicking, and the deception from those who would lead us is nauseating.  Is our land fated to walk the path of destruction?  As the people of God’s church, do we, like Elisha, have no choice but to watch as the world around us burns?   

Throughout the days of Elijah and Elisha, and the great prophets that followed, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the rest, God warned his people of their sins.  But those prophets also promised hope.  Embedded in the damning messages they shared are words of hope.

We live after the era of the prophets.  We live in the age of the crucified, resurrected Messiah, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Even death doesn’t win.  Elisha’s pain at watching Hazael rise and Israel fall is a warning that God will allow humans to suffer the outcomes of their own selfishness and sin.  The cross is a promise that if we die to ourselves, repent, and turn to God in faith, he will give us a new day.  Even as the world around us seems to crumble, we keep our eyes on God, walk in his light, and help those suffering around us find their way to his salvation. 

Yes, we can weep and sometimes we need to, but not forever.  We have good news to share, hope to spread, and the suffering world needs to hear the truth we have to give. So, let’s get to our work of telling God’s story. 


Monday, September 14, 2020

"A Feast for My Enemies" (2 Kings 6:8-23)


October 25th: Bible Meditation for 2 Kings 6 | Free Daily Bible Study

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Sunday, September 13, 2020

            An American World War II general leading the allied forces is stunned when a company Nazis clumsily allows themselves to be surrounded by the allies.  Shouldn’t the general give the order to fire on them and eliminate them; or, at the very least, take as prisoners of war and only free them when the war is over?

            Two gangs battle over turf in a rough neighborhood.  The gang with the blue bandanas has about 20, of the gang with the red bandanas surrounded.  Do they let them leave?  Or, do the knives, chains, and guns come out?  Does it get bloody?

            This is the exact situation in 2 Kings 6.  The Arameans are surrounded by Israel.  Aram has not been friendly or merciful to Israel.  Now Israel has a chance to turn the tables and wipe out this foe, giving them what they have given Israel: violent death.  The Old Testament is a history of violence.  David was heralded in 1 and 2 Samuel for the 10’s of thousands of enemy troops he killed.

            Many generations later, King Jehoram of Israel would love to hear such songs sung about him.  He can have the accolades even though he knows he’ll never have the faith or ability of David.  How did this inept monarch end up with his enemy at his feet?

            Before we get to that, consider a thought exercise.  This requires you to follow my prompts and create a picture in your mind.  Here’s the guiding question.  Who do you see in your mind’s eye, when you hear the word ‘enemy?’

            Perhaps someone foreign, a faceless foreign soldier or militant comes to mind.  Perhaps an antagonist in a movie; you know, the bad guy.  “Enemy.”  What comes to mind?  Now, think more deliberately.  You’ve had the initial reaction, in your mind, to the word.  Now, intentionally paint the picture.  Who is the enemy?  Who do you see?

            An Al Qaeda or ISIS fighter?  If that’s your mind’s picture of enemy, consider this.  Have you ever met someone who identifies with these groups?  I doubt many of us in our Chapel Hill church have, but if you have, did you dig deep into that person to understand what led him or her to join a terrorist organization?  I don’t deny the evil and violence perpetrated by extremist groups.  But I do think we can have empathy for individuals who end up attached to terrorist movements.  I know Jesus calls us to pray for our “enemies.”  If you think of a terrorist extremist, but you yourself have no actual contact with them, then Al Qaeda or ISIS is not your enemy.  They are stories on the news.  In your life, they aren’t personally threatening you. 

            Enemy.  If we eliminate terrorists and we eliminate Kim Jong-un, because I don’t think any of us have had personal encounters with him, then what picture comes to mind.  Who is our antagonist?  Who is our enemy?  Who threatens us?

            Did you think of Democrats, or a certain subgroup within the Democrat arc?  Or, Republican, or a wing of the Republican party?  Again, I caution against this as the picture of enemy, if this is where your mind went.  Perhaps you have very strong feelings about our country and how things should be; and, your strong feelings lead you to ardently support one political party and oppose the other.  Fine.  Enemy is the wrong word.  Democrats and Republicans are Americans who want the country to be a good place to live.  They have different approaches for how best to govern.  They have different ideas of what makes our country a good place.  But in their own minds, they all work for America’s good. 

            If you’re a real devotee to one party and an opponent of the other, please, for the sake of our nation’s future, use words like ‘opponent,’ ‘rival,’ or ‘other side of the aisle.’  Republicans and Democrats are not each other’s enemies or yours.

            Enemy.  What do you see?  A personal rival?  Someone with whom you have had conflict?  It could be someone you work with.  It could be someone in your neighborhood or even in your own family.  Your perceived enemy could even be someone in your church. 

            When you consider enemy, have in mind an adverse relationship in which you have something at stake; something to lose.  In 2 Kings 6,  Aram and Israel are at war and the Aramean king is furious.  He’s convinced that someone from his own inner circle is telling Israel the Aramean army’s movements.  However, one of his officers assures him that there is no mole.  It’s Elisha, the Israelite prophet.  He sees with God’s vision and so nothing escapes his view.  He even knows the words the Aramean kings speaks in his bedroom (6:12). 

            Thus, the Aramean King will kill Elisha.  He sends a large force of Aram’s finest.  They surround Elisha’s town, Dothan.  Horses; chariots; the king of Aram will kill this Israelite prophet so he can get on with killing his foe – the Israelite army. 

            How foolish!  If he can’t ambush Israel because Elisha sees, how can he sneak up on Elisha himself?  He tries, and when Elisha’s servant sees all those Aramean troops, he is frantic.  Master!  What shall we do?  Note how closely seeing is tied with awareness of God’s protection.  Elisha prays that God would open his servant’s eyes so that he may see (6:17).  The Lord immediately grants this request.  The servant looks out of the house and sees the fierce Aramean army.  But beyond there is something else, a force from heaven.  Just as Arameans surround Dothan, an angel army with flaming chariots, unseen by human eyes, surrounds the Arameans.

            These enemies of God are no match for the angel army and cannot even see the angel army.  It will be an utter slaughter!  Yet, not one angel draws a flaming sword.  Instead, Elisha prays that the Arameans would be rendered blind.  God clouds the vision of these Arameans and makes them pliable.  They allow Elisha, the man they came to kill, to lead them into the very heart of Israel.

            When Elisha prays that their Aramean eyes be opened and God grants that prayer, they see they are surrounded by the enemy they came to kill.  And it is at this point that the Israelite King, Jehoram, begins to imagine great glory for himself.

            To the prophet who delivered this prize he is deferential.  He calls Elisha “Father,” a show of absolute respect.  “Father, shall I kill them?  Shall I kill them” (6:21).  In his head, Jehoram is writing a third verse to song sung by starry-eyed Israelite virgins.  “Saul killed his thousands, David killed his tens of thousands, and Jehoram killed the Arameans.”  Ahh, it sounds so good.

            “No!” barks Elisha.  “Did you capture with your sword and your bow those you want to kill?”  He demands (6:22). 

I asked you to do a thought exercise earlier.  In your mind’s eye, see your enemy; not a terrorist or a militant or a third world dictator.  There’s nothing at stake in defining enemy that way.  I asked you to not to select a Republican if you’re Democrat, or vice versa.  We’re all Americans.  We have rivalries and political opponents, but we must not demonize those with political differences.  Instead I wanted you to envision someone truly antagonistic, a personal enemy.

Elisha knew who the enemy was: Aram’s army.  Jehoram was quite clear: Aram was the enemy.  Now take note of what the prophet did.  He told the king not to kill the Arameans, but instead to feed them.  So, a great feast was prepared; not a few dry loaves and some old, dirty water.  A feast!  King Jehoram oversaw the preparation of a feast for these enemies who had terrorized him for a long time and who were now sitting in his power.  He didn’t, though, really hold any power.  He sat in the seat of the king, but the leader of Israel is primarily to be about service to God and to neighbor.  Jehoram did not see as God sees.  Did the action Elisha directed him to take – to feed, not kill his enemies – help him see as God sees?

More importantly, does it help us see as God sees?  The thought experiment – to visualize who is enemy – leads us to this point.  The one we call enemy must be personal.  In this relationship, there must be a lot at stake – everything at stake.  Is it an abusive boss?  An abusive parent?  A spouse who left or cheated?  A bully who terrorizes?  Is it someone who has expressed prejudice against you or wielded power over you, or someone who mocked your pain?  See the enemy. 

Now, do you long to destroy the enemy or has God gotten a hold of your heart?  Will you entrust your thoughts about enemy to God?  Will you and I be so transformed by the love of God; we are able to see our enemy and feed him a feast?

 The Apostle Paul, living 900 years later, knew the Elisha stories.  Like Elisha, Paul had the Holy Spirit in him and could see as God sees.  In Romans 12, Paul writes, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine … says the Lord.’ No, if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their head.  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:19-21).  Yes, Paul knew the Elisha stories, especially the one about feeding enemies.

Paul also knew Jesus, the real teacher.  And we do too.  He – Jesus - tells us, “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute so that you may be children of your Father in Heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45).

We need to work for justice and that work includes naming evil and identifying doers of evil, even when, especially when the evil doers are us.  We cannot skip justice and run right to forgiveness and restoration.  Repentance and repairing what’s broken is a painful process.  It is lifetime work.

But, working for justice and repairing what’s broken does not mean we neglect that before God, our sins make us the enemy.  Jesus’ cross transforms us.  From enemies, we are changed, made new, adopted as children of God.  We are not destroyed.  We are fed a heavenly feast.  We receive God’s generosity until our cups run over. 

You know when it is clear that God’s generosity has taken hold in us?  It’s when we are so overflowing with love that we don’t we ask what King Jehoram asked.  “Father, should I kill them?  Should I kill them?”  We can’t ask that. We’re too busy setting the table, because we are going to give our enemies a feast.


Thursday, September 10, 2020

The General, the Slave, and the Prophet (2 Kings 5)

Daily Bible Reading Devotional [2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c] – September 18th,  2016 – Dust Off The Bible

 Sunday, September 6, 2020

watch it here -

            Would you like to be king?  You’d be wealthy.  You could marry whomever you chose.  People cozy up to the king, compliment the king, and bow before the king.

            What’s it like to be a king?  We could ask Jehoram, king of Israel from 852-841 BC.  He lived in the city of Samaria.  To his Northeast was Aram (modern day Syria).  Aram dominated and humiliated Israel. 

Naaman was the leader of the Aram army.  The Aramean General’s name evoked fear.  Naaman?  Here?  Is he on the warpath?  The Aramean king relied on him.  Young Aramean men wished they could be him.  He was the picture of power. 

Remember however, this is not Naaman’s story.  It is God’s.  God gave Naaman his victories the text says.  Naaman was probably as fit as any soldier in the 9th century BC, but we know God gave him his success.  This is a story about God.

If we examine our own lives, we see that our stories are about our relationship with God.  This holds whether God is central to our lives or absent from them.  We were created in God’s image for the purpose of being in a relationship of love with God and with our neighbors. 

We meet Naaman and the kings of Aram and Israel, and a kidnapped slave, and the prophet Elisha, and a couple of servants.  All these characters illustrate God at work in the world in relation to God’s chosen people.  

He chose Israel to shine His light and thus draw people all over the world to Himself.  This story reveals something profound:  God is the source of true, lasting power and perfect love.  Our country has endured public, violent grasping for power from different groups in society.  If we can step back from the news cycle, which maximizes destruction and horror for the sake ratings, and take in the bigger picture, we see that God holds the real power.  We don’t need to grab for it.  We can trust him.  Instead of trying to be powerful, we can trust Jesus and, in his name, seek opportunities to serve the poor and disadvantaged people around us.    

In 850 BC, General Naaman, was the man of the hour but his life was not all rosy.  He had leprosy, a grotesque skin disease, a 9th century BC plague feared as much as COVID-19 today.  In his own mind, he was abhorrent.  He inspired awe and fear in other people.  He looked upon himself with disgust.  He had the world at his fingertips; sadly, he could not feel his fingertips. 

One of Naaman’s slaves was a young Israelite girl, kidnapped on a raid.  While ravaging Israelite villages, he saw her and thought she’s be useful.  She was human chattel, ripped from her home, taken into slavery.    

Every human being is unique.  Every one bears the image of God.  That image, though, is ignored when we willingly impose the chains of slavery, as our white ancestors did to our black brothers and sisters.  Slaves are dehumanized.  Slavery robs people of their identities, what makes them who they are. 

And yet, in this story the one voice to speak up and say that the emperor had no clothes was that Israelite girl Naaman had taken. She spoke what others only whispered.  Mighty General Naaman had leprosy and couldn’t do a thing about it.  The powerful man was at the mercy of this ailment and was getting worse.  His Israelite slave girl spoke what no one dared say out loud.  “If only my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria.”  The cure was not impossible.  Naaman’s hope was with the Israelite prophet in that god forsaken land he had so often terrorized. 

Astonishingly, Naaman listened to his slave’s words, requested leave from his king, and headed to Samaria.  He had been there before – conquering and killing.  Now, he was going in need.  The pompous Aramean monarch gave him a cover letter.  "To the King of Israel: When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy."

This stunk and King Jehoram of Israel knew it.  He didn’t have the power to stand up to Aram.  Now, General Naaman, in full regalia, strutted through his door and stood in his courts.  King Jehoram was powerless against leprosy, powerless against Naaman, and he was going to be routed – again.  If he failed to cure the disease, Aram would invade. There was nothing he could do.  In the customary manner of expressing great grief, he tore his robes.  Today, everything our president tweets ends up on CNN.  In 850BC, when the king tore his robe, word got out.  What national crisis brought on this lamentation?

Enter Elisha.  The prophet had no patience with the pedantic, self-serving, shortsighted world of politics.  He didn’t care about fame or personal wealth or his own reputation.  His fellowship with God is one few people have ever known.  He was concerned though when he heard of King Jehoram’s expressions of grief because they veiled a faithless fear that Elisha could not stomach. 

In his spirit, he knew the purpose of Naaman’s visit.  The powerful man was cut to his knees by a disease that was incurable in the 9th century BC.  To intervene would mean to help a man in God’s name and show the world God’s power.  Elisha lived for one thing: to serve God.  In this case, his service to God would spare the ridiculous Israelite King Jehoram and help Naaman, a man who never would have considered helping Israel.

Naaman thought he had seen it all.  The proud warrior was in Israel on the advice of a servant girl.  The king of Israel wept like a coward.  And the reclusive prophet he had never heard of, wouldn’t even come out to see him.  Elisha sent a messenger who told Naaman.  “Go wash in the Jordan River seven times and your health will be restored.  You will be clean.” 

Naaman fumed.  How dare this insignificant seer dismiss Naaman, yes that Naaman, with a message delivered by a lackey.  Bathe in the disgusting mudflow they call the Jordan River?  He flew into a fiery harangue.  Surely the prophet would “call on the name of Yahweh his God, and wave his hand over the spot and cure the skin disease. Aren't Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?"

Interestingly, Naaman the famed conqueror, overseer of cruel massacres, taker of slaves was a good listener.  He was in Israel on the word of his slave, now he would heed the word of his loyal aide. 

His aid de camp said to him, “My Lord, you’ve come this far.  With hat in hand, if you’ll forgive me, you’ve come to Israel asking for help.  Had this famed prophet spoken eloquent incantations, made a personal appearance, and instructed you to do great deeds and undergo bizarre rituals, you would have.  Right?  So, why not do this simple thing?  Why not see this quixotic journey all the way through?  If it works, you are cured.  If not, we come with our armies and raze Samaria to the ground.”

Naaman went to the Jordan.  Setting his dignity aside, he entered the water:  One time, two times, three … seven times he dunked himself and came out clean.  Leprosy – gone!  In the process of coming to faith, there is a moment when the lights turn on, the scales drop from our eyes, and the truth is crystal clear.  Naaman was close to that moment.  Healing paved the way for spiritual transformation.

The disease was gone.  His anger was gone.  His arrogance was gone.  He bounded back to Elisha’s house.  This time Elisha received the entire company and heard Naaman proclaim, “Now, I know there is no God on earth except in Israel.”

Naaman offered lavish gifts and bundles of money.  Elisha responded, “As the Lord lives, I will accept nothing.”  His sole purpose in life was to serve God. He wanted Naaman to understand that God did this.  Naaman rejoiced.

Then he begged Elisha to allow him to take two buckets full of dirt back to Aram where he would still be expected to accompany the Aramean King through the rituals of their polytheistic religion.  Naaman said, “I am going to have to do that, even though I know it is all a hoax.”  Naaman was overwhelmed.  His young slave girl had more insight than he, but he was – dare we say it – humble enough to recognize that.  He was born again and on the path to truth.  Elisha simply said, “Go in peace.”

Exit Naaman.  Enter Gehazi. 

Gehazi was Elisha’s aid, servant, and apprentice.  Gehazi had seen Elisha’ prophetic powers, but he did not appreciate the simple, lonely life of a prophet.  He thought to himself, “My master let that Aramean off too lightly.”  Gehazi wanted to get while the getting was good, so he ran down Naaman and his retinue.  Naaman, turned to Gehazi with concern and asked, “Is everything alright?”

Gehazi said.  “Yes, everything is alright, but my master has sent me” – no he didn’t.  “Two members of the company of prophets from Ephraim have just come from the hill country” – no they haven’t.  “Please give a talent of silver and two changes of clothing.”

Born again Naaman, bursting with living water, happily gave the clothing and two talents of silver – an enormous amount.  People flowing with God’s love eagerly go above and beyond what is asked.  Naaman skipped all the way back to Aram.  After that, I wonder how he treated people, especially his Israelite slave girl.

Gehazi slipped back into the house. 

Elisha asked, “Where have you been Gehazi?” 

“Your servant has not gone anywhere at all.”  Very deferential. 

Elisha perceived his apprentice’s ambition.  He said, “This is not a time for making money.”  God was at work, and Elisha would not allow God’s victory, won in the heart of Naaman, to be tainted by Gehazi’s greed.  “The leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and your descendants forever.”  Gehazi left Elisha’s presence leprous, white as snow. The servant of the prophet, so close to God, sold his soul for money that was useless in the face of leprosy.  Naaman, having received by grace the riches of Heaven, gladly gave away a bundle of worldly wealth.

Everyone’s journey to God is unique.  My prayer is that all of us would make that journey and meet Jesus.   Meeting him, I pray we’d be changed, like Naaman.  I pray we’d experience the freedom and joy that only found in God. 

I pray those who know Jesus would be as confident in Him as that unassuming Israelite slave girl was confident in Elisha.  Through us, no matter the situation, God can express His power and love through his church, through us, to work for Good and lead people to salvation.