In the Office: You Gotta Be Dead!

In his book How Good Is Good Enough? Pastor Andy Stanley tells the story of a children’s Sunday school teacher who wanted the kids in his class to know what someone had to do in order to go to heaven. So he asked a few questions to discover what kids already believed about the subject.

     “If I sold my house and my car, had a big garage sale, and gave all my money to the church,” he asked, “would that get me to heaven?”
“No!” the children answered.
“If I cleaned the church every day, mowed the yard, and kept everything neat and tidy, would that get me to heaven?”
Again the answer was, “No!”
“Well then,” he said, “If I was kind to animals and gave candy to all the children and loved my wife, would that get me into heaven?”
Again they all shouted, “No!”
“Well then,” the teacher asked, looking out over his class, “how can I get to heaven?”
A boy in the back row stood up and shouted, “You gotta be dead!”

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Ah, the wisdom of children! But whereas the precocious young man in Pastor Stanley’s story was probably talking about “physical death” as a key requirement for entry into heaven, today’s New Testament lesson (Ephesians 2:1-10) reminds us that acknowledging our “spiritual death” is a prerequisite, too. The Apostle Paul tells his readers: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:1, 4-5).

Of course, most of us have no problem confessing that we’re “spiritually sick.” We know that we’re sinful and that we’re saved only by the grace of God. And yet, we’re also tempted to cling to the notion that we’re still in better shape than “those other sinners.” The folks whose politics we disagree with and whose lifestyles we don’t like. The people whose religion is different from ours and whose brokenness can’t be hidden as effectively as ours can. We might be in the ICU and failing fast, but it’s those other sinners who are stone cold dead.

But I wonder. Could it be that our reluctance to acknowledge our need prevents us from receiving the fullness of grace that God has provided to meet it? Because of His great love for us, God has made us alive in Christ. He has offered us resurrection life! But resurrection is what the Lord does for dead people — not for those who think they’re alive and needing only a spiritual vitamin shot.

“I am crucified with Christ,” Paul said. May we embrace the death of our sin-sick selves so that we can receive the grace gives new life.

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In the Office: Ascension

I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)

For those who follow the liturgical rhythms of the Church universal, today is Ascension Day — a day to remember that moment in which Jesus was “taken up” to heaven following his resurrection (see Acts 1:6-11). But before we get too fixated on images of Jesus rising into the sky and disappearing from sight, it’s worth remembering that what Ascension Day truly celebrates is his ascension to the throne. At the heart of resurrection faith is the contention not only that Jesus lives, but that Jesus reigns. And that’s why the readings in today’s Daily Office focus on God’s eternal kingdom, which now has Christ as its head. The Old Testament lesson (Daniel 7:9-14) tells us that “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away.” The New Testament lesson (Hebrews 2:5-18) describes the work of Jesus, “who was made lower than the angels for a little while, (and is) now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death.” And in the gospel lesson (Matthew 28:16-20), Jesus declares, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

ascension

Of course, it’s easy for most of to believe that Jesus reigns in some “spiritual” or “other-worldly” sense. But especially when we look around at a world that seems so broken — and in which there remains so much hatred and tragedy and sin — it can be a struggle to accept that “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).

But to a certain extent, that’s where we come in. When we trust in Christ’s reign and live as His loyal subjects — when we find greatness in serving others, and respond to hatred with love…when we declare our Sovereign’s majesty, and seek to be a blessing as we ourselves have been blessed — then we “make manifest” the kingdom of God. And we create the kind of conditions that make it possible for others to see it, to believe in it, and to enter it themselves.

“Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy,” today’s psalm declares; “for the LORD Most High is awesome, the great King over all the earth.” May Jesus reign in us, my friends. And through our joyful submission to His rule, may we expand His kingdom’s embrace.

In the Office: To the Praise of His Glorious Grace

Those of you who follow these almost daily ramblings will note that it has been several days since I posted my last “In the Office” reflection. That’s because I’ve been “Out of the Office” spending some time with my mother, who had knee-replacement surgery last week. I’m happy to report that the procedure went well, and she is now back at home, engaged in the rest and recuperation that I trust will lead to her increased mobility.

In the OfficeNaturally, I’m grateful that I was able to be with my mother during this process, but I must confess that the time away from my normal routines always leaves me feeling a little guilty. Being the Type-A “borderline workaholic” that I am, I’m often tempted to view any interruptions to my normal ministry rhythms as a shirking of responsibility. But in His goodness, God has given me a gift in the readings from today’s Daily Office, which includes these words from Ephesians 1:1-10:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

I know of few passages that remind us so powerfully that our hope consists not in what we are able to do for God but in what God has done for us. “He blessed us in the heavenly realms. He chose us in him before the creation of the world. He predestined us for adoption to sonship. In Him we have redemption through his blood…in accordance with the riches of grace that He lavished on us. He made known to us the mystery of his will.” And all of this, of course, is “to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One he loves.”

I’m glad to be back in the office, and I look forward to the work that the Lord will allow me to do today and in the days ahead. But even more, I’m glad to be the recipient of such unmerited, overflowing, glorious grace. May we rest in that grace today — and then offer our efforts joyfully to God, trusting that He is the one who works in us both to will and to act in order to fulfill His good purpose (Philippians 2:13).

In the Office: Intercession (Bible-Style)

One of the things about my congregation for which I am deeply grateful is its prayerfulness. This is a church full of people who genuinely care about others, and that care gets expressed in prayer and petition — not just for fellow church members — but for a wide range of individuals in our community and the extended family of faith. And naturally, there are usually a lot of things about which to pray! Sometimes, it’s hard to keep track of the many battles with cancer, the upcoming surgeries, the significant losses, and the countless life experiences that leave people in need of strength and grace. But prayers are offered, for which I give thanks. And yet, if there’s one “ministry of prayer” in which I’d continually love to see us grow, it’s in our passion to pray not only for the needs of individuals and families, but also for the movement of God’s Spirit and  God’s kingdom in our church, our community, and our world.

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I harp on this from time to time (but only because it seems like such a relevant biblical point). But as I read the prayers recorded for us in the New Testament, there seem to be relatively few that focus on the sick, the grieving, and so on. (Although, I have no doubt that such prayers were being prayed; and I am thoroughly convinced that God wants us to pray about these concerns.) Instead, we find prayers for faith and love to fill God’s people ever more completely — and for the mission of God to be accomplished through them. As an example, there is this prayer from today’s New Testament reading (2 Thessalonians 1:1-12):

With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may bring to fruition your every desire for goodness and your every deed prompted by faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. (vs. 11-12)

I would never want us to miss out on praying about the illnesses, and the losses, and the surgeries, and the stressful life situations. But I wonder if one of the reasons that we don’t experience more dynamism and passion in our shared mission as God’s people is that we’re not praying specifically and passionately about that mission.

Let’s be faithful, then, to pray for one another. And may our prayers be intimate enough to lift up the deepest needs of our closest friends — and expansive enough to lift up the grandest movements of our Father’s kingdom. Amen.

 

In the Office: God’s Option for the Poor

Over the years, I’ve come across an idea that various biblical scholars describe as “God’s Preferential Option for the Poor.” Briefly stated, this is the notion that in both the Old and New Testaments there is a repeated emphasis on God’s concern for the poor, weak, and oppressed — and a frequent call for God’s people to show compassion for those in need. And today’s readings from the Daily Office provide examples of why this “preferential option” would have been noticed:

  • In the Old Testament reading (Leviticus 19:1-18), God’s Law says, “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.”
  • In today’s psalm (Psalm 72), a prayer for the king requests, “May he defend the afflicted among the people and defend the children of the needy…For he will deliver the needy who cry out, the afflicted who have no one to help. He will take pity on the weak and the needy and save the needy from death. He will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.”
  • Even the gospel reading (Matthew 6:19-24), while not speaking directly to the plight of the poor and oppressed, reminds all of us, “Do not store up treasures on earth…For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also…You cannot serve both God and Money.”

God of the Poor

None of this, of course, suggests that the poor and needy are somehow “better” than everybody else. Nor does it address the sometimes difficult question of what specific actions will most effectively bless the poor and needy and provide them with a “hand up” rather than a “hand out.” But these and so many other verses make it clear that our gracious Savior — “who, though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9) — reveals the heart of a Father who gives us not what we deserve, but what we need. And He calls us to do the same.

I wonder if God will give us opportunities today to honor him by emulating His “preferential option for the poor”? Or — since we are constantly surrounded by people in need — maybe the better question is: Will God help us to notice those opportunities? And having noticed, will we respond with the same kind of gracious generosity that we ourselves have received?

In the Office: The Law of Life

When was the last time that you thought about…or meditated upon…or found delight in God’s Law?

In the OfficeToday’s Old Testament reading (Psalm 119:137-160) comes from a psalm that offers an extended reflection on the blessings of the Law; and because I preached on a different section of the same psalm last Sunday, a few helpful insights are still fresh in my mind. Most significantly, I’m reminded that the “Law” or “Torah” was not viewed solely as a list of external rules by which God sought to control life. Instead, God’s commands and decrees — His statutes and promises — were the internal compass through which God gave life. In giving the Law, God was giving Himself — which is what allows the psalmist to say things like: “your commands give me delight” (v. 143); “give me understanding that I may live” (v. 144); “I have put my hope in your word” (v. 147); “preserve my life, LORD, according to your laws” (v. 149); and “see how I love your precepts” (v. 159).

Of course, among those of us who live on this side of the cross and resurrection, there often seems to be an assumption that the Law no longer applies. Oh sure, the Ten Commandments still apply; and Jesus’ “summary” of the Law (“Love the Lord your God…love your neighbor as yourself”) remains eternally valid. But doesn’t the Bible tell us that “through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set us free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2)?

And yet, Jesus told us that He didn’t come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-18). And how are we to understand what that fulfillment means — and more to the point: how are we to know how that fulfillment is meant to shape us and give us life — unless we do think about…and meditate upon…and find delight in God’s Law?

I’ve been the pastor of a local church for more than 14 years now. And in that time, it strikes me that I’ve preached very few sermons (and I’ve done relatively little deep, personal study) on the “Law” of God. I wonder how much delight and hope and life I’ve been missing?

What are your feelings about the Law? And how has God’s Law spoken to you and sustained you recently? How much interest, if any, would you have in a sermon series or a Bible study that looked closely at the Law to examine what it says, how it is fulfilled in Christ, and how it gives life to those who continue to treasure it?

“All your words are true,” the psalmist says, “and all your righteous laws are eternal” (v. 160). May we desire and seek and know God’s law today. And may we discover in the process that it allows us to know the Truth who sets us free.

In the Office: Resurrection Hope

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)

In the OfficeThese words, which introduce today’s New Testament reading (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), find their way in one form or another into every funeral that I do (which means, I must confess, that I sometimes end up sharing these words more often than I’d like). I highlight this passage, because it reminds us that our grief is appropriate. The fact that we believe in Jesus and the resurrection life he offers does not mean that we shouldn’t mourn the death of those we love. If we felt no pain of separation, after all, we might have reason to question the authenticity of our love in the first place. No, our faith simply means — as the passage says — that we “do not grief like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” For those who have placed their trust in Christ, death is not the end. So, we can grieve now, while looking forward to a grand reunion later.

It’s worth noting, however, that Paul isn’t really addressing in this passage the grief that his Thessalonian brothers and sisters felt over their own sense of loss. He was addressing the grief that they experienced over the fear that their departed family and friends might have “missed out” on the resurrection. This letter, you see, was written during the earliest years of the Christian movement — at a time when many were looking eagerly for Christ’s immediate return to usher in the kingdom of God. When folks started dying before Jesus came back, it left the living to wonder: Will our deceased brothers and sisters miss out on a new heaven and a new earth in which all things are made new?

But as Paul goes on to assure the church: “We who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first” (verses 15-16). There is an indestructible and glorious life coming — one that “swallows up” our own sense of loss in victory and that “makes good” on God’s promises to all those who have lived in grace-inspired hope.

“Therefore encourage one another with these words,” Paul concludes. May we be encouraged today — and may we share that encouragement — as we allow God’s Word to remind us that our labor in the Lord is not in vain.