Friday, September 28, 2007

What your congregation really needs

While reading The Pastor's Guide to Effective Preaching (Beacon Hill Press), a collection of essays by a number of notable preachers (including Billy Graham, Eugene Peterson, Elizabeth Achtemeier), I came across the chapter on "The Personal Holiness of the Messenger," by Maxie Dunnam. I'm not a pastor in the vocational sense, but I am married to one. Also, much of what I do with my Sunday School class qualifies as shepherding. (We can get into the differences between spiritual gifts and offices later.) Nonetheless, this chapter contains some thoughts worthy of your consideration (whether you are a pastor or not).

What is the greatest need of your congregation?

More visitation for the sick, the troubled, and the widowed? Relevant, contemporary preaching? Systematic theology for all? Flashier ad campaigns and renewed emphasis upon giving? Higher attendance and increased voluntarism? A vibrant children's ministry? An edgy singles ministry? An increased outreach to the neighborhood through charity and evangelism? Deeper, more intense Bible study? Nope. None of the above.

Your congregation's greatest need is your personal holiness. Why don't you say that again to yourself? "My congregation's greatest need is my personal holiness." And, the truth of the matter is, you are as holy as you want to be. Do you want to be holy? No really. Think about it. Do you really want to be holy?

As people who spend almost all of their time in public, receiving either flattering admiration or withering criticism (or both at once), pastors learn quickly how to conceal themselves from their people. Every single person has an "outer life" and an "inner life," but if they are not careful, pastors can become those who constantly live in their "outer life." A glass house can make actors and actresses out of those who live within it.

I understand the fears of being "real," believe me. Pastors and their spouses know very well that if the church members could look deep within their hearts, most of them would spit in their faces. For this reason, "Hypocrisy is the greatest temptation of religious professionals." When you're a professional holy person, "faking it" often seems like the right thing to do so as to protect yourself from attack. We must resist this temptation and embrace the consequences of being real as we pursue holiness.

Dunnam offers the following five questions as tools by which we may constantly evaluate the attention we are giving to our personal holiness. I encourage you, whether you are a pastor or a lay minister, to give some thought to the answers:

1. Am I resisting image-building by living as transparently as possible?
2. Am I dealing with the self-deceit that comes from the applause of others?
3. Am I keeping my calling clear, resisting both the temptation for security and a competitive spirit?
4. Am I defensive when asked questions about the use of my time and the consistency of my spiritual disciplines?
5. Am I blaming others for things that are my own fault and the result of my own choices?

Dunnam goes on to say, "All the permanent fruit and progress that results from our leadership is based on strong character." And, its not enough just to recognize this truth. We must live the kinds of lives, practice the kind of disciplines, that build character and form us into the ministers God calls us to be.

So, I ask you: Are you growing in your walk with Christ? Do you want to change? How deep is your desire for holiness? "I know of no Christian in all the ages that we turn to for teaching and inspiration who did not give himself or herself consistently to discipline and devotion. Disciplines for the spiritual life are at the heart of living out the gospel. The purpose of discipline is to enhance our relationship with Christ, to cultivate a vivid companionship with Him. Through spiritual discipline, we learn to be like Him and live as He lived."

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Shut Up!

I was trying some green ginger tea from Starbucks this morning and I happened to read the quote on the back of my cup. I know Starbucks has been in trouble in the past for the quotations they publish, but this one speaks great wisdom.

The Way I See It #280
"You can learn a lot more from listening than you can from talking. Find someone with whom you don't agree in the slightest and ask them to explain themselves at length. Then take a seat, shut your mouth, and don't argue back. It's physically impossible to listen with your mouth open."
- John Moe, Radio host and author of Conservatize Me.

Do you feel the sting of conviction? I sure do. Its funny that those of us who know the truth are usually the ones who can't keep our mouths shut. But, very often, that's precisely what we need to do. There's a reason James says that the tongue is a "restless evil, full of deadly poison," unable to be tamed (James 3:8b). If a radio host understands the value of shutting up and listening, surely we who know the word of God should as well.

Monday, September 24, 2007

A Sermon on Luke 14:28-33

This weekend, I wrote the first of two sermons for my class on preaching the parables. Since I have little spare time to post "fresh" things outside of what I do for school, I thought I'd post the sermon here. I write my sermons assuming that the text has been read already in the liturgy and you'll notice that I've broken the sermon into three movements. Let me know what you think and if you have any flashes of brilliance about possible titles.

----------------------------
A Parable of a Tower-Builder and a King Contemplating War: Luke 14:28-33

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate their own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay a foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began and wasn’t able to finish.’

“Or suppose a king sets out to go against another king in battle. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? For if he is not strong enough, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will negotiate a truce.

“In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
- Luke 14:25-33

Introduction
On August 1, 1914 Perce Blackborow, a twenty year-old Welshman with black hair and dark eyes, was huddled inside a metal locker in the storage hold of a large English ship. He was waiting for assurance from his friends that the Endurance had successfully sailed from the London dock and was too far at sea to turn back. Although Blackborow knew that what he was doing was illegal, he was determined to join the crew of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his famed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

When Blackborow first responded to Shackleton’s recruitment advertisement, he was rejected, but the sailor would not be deterred. The twenty-seven crewmembers planned to sail to Antarctica and traverse the entire continent: 1,800 miles across ice and snow. They would do so using only dog sleds and determination. Blackborow’s stowaway plan worked. When he was discovered, Shackleton reluctantly made him the twenty-eighth member of the crew, a part of “the last great Antarctic adventure.”

Twenty-two months later, however, Perce Blackborow was huddled within his threadbare fur coat, sucking on what remained of a sugar cube—the last of the six he was given from the crew’s meager rations. Sadly, Blackborow and the crew of the Endurance never made it to the Antarctic mainland. Before the ship could reach the target destination, the hull became locked in a vice grip of floating ice and the gargantuan sheets crushed the boat like a bundle of twigs.

As Blackborow savored his breakfast, their leader, Ernest Shackleton had been gone for almost four months. After days of trudging through blizzards and ice storms, Shackleton took a huge risk in order to get all twenty-seven men off the ice alive. Leaving the majority of his crew alone, he departed with a small team, in a 23 foot-long lifeboat to seek help from whalers on the nearest island, located 800 miles away. Miraculously, Shackleton’s tiny crew made it to South Georgia Island and four months after the risky mission began everyone was rescued. Aside from losing a few toes to frostbite, Blackborow escaped with no other physical signs of his ordeal.

I am inclined to pity Perce Blackborow and his impetuous decision to stowaway in the Endurance. Surely if he had known what awaited him in Antarctica, he never would have defied Shackleton’s wishes. Surely Shackleton must have used some kind of flashy and misleading recruitment campaign to dupe these men into joining him. But, the truth is that Blackborow and every other member of Shackleton’s ill-fated crew were prepared for their dangerous endeavor. Of course, they didn’t know the details, but Shackleton had made certain that every person on his team understood the dangers awaiting them in the frozen unknown. His London newspaper ad, to which the twenty-seven crewmembers responded, was straightforward and brutally honest:

MEN WANTED:
FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY.
SMALL WAGES, BITTER COLD,
LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS.
CONSTANT DANGER.
SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL.
HONOUR AND RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS.
- SIR ERNEST SHACKLETON

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus resolutely pursues his own perilous journey. In chapter 14, as is often the case, Jesus finds himself followed by “large crowds” determined to travel with him, many of whom fancy themselves new members of Jesus’ entourage. Although they conclude correctly that he is headed for his triumphant coronation in Jerusalem, they do not understand that Jesus’ enthronement will take place on a Roman cross, hanging between two thieves. In light of their ignorant enthusiasm for becoming his followers, Jesus gives them a startlingly honest appraisal of the journey of discipleship.

Jesus declares that no part of your life is left untouched when you travel as his disciple. Everything—family, reputation, possessions, and even life itself—is secondary to the demands of the Kingdom of God. To communicate this point as strongly as possible, Jesus tells two parables about a man building a tower and a king contemplating war. The combined message of both short stories is this: You must travel the journey of discipleship on the path of total surrender.

Move One
When ground broke on China’s World Financial Centre in 1997, the skyscraper was supposed to be the planet’s tallest building: 101 stories, or 1,614 feet tall. It was envisioned as the jewel of the Pudong financial district in Shanghai. But, the 910 million dollar project came screeching to a halt during an unexpected Asian financial crisis that year. Construction was frozen for six years, as the Chinese government waited for the funds to complete the project. The gigantic gaping hole in the ground served as a daily symbol to passersby of their government’s inability to finish what they started.

Although first-century Palestine seems to be light-years away from 21st century Shanghai, Jesus’ first short story of a man who wants to build a tower makes a universally applicable point about discipleship: You must calculate the cost.

Most likely, the “tower” Jesus has in mind is a type of large farm building, like a watchtower in a vineyard. For a farmer or vineyard owner in first-century Palestine, building a tower was an expensive undertaking, requiring plenty of materials and manpower to complete. Over time, such a project would prove to be a cost-effective investment, however, possibly even helpful to expand the productiveness of the family business. Jesus understands that this kind of project demands a tremendous amount of foresight and careful planning. The reputation of the landowner is at stake, for the construction of a new tower would have been a source of great honor and a sign of success to his neighbors.

In our context, of course, you wouldn’t dream of building an addition to your business without consultation with all of the appropriate professionals: architects, contractors, builders, and city representatives, as well as your bank or other source of financing. Such advisors would help you make appropriate plans and ensure that you don’t make serious mistakes. But, in the case of Jesus’ hypothetical builder, without calculation of costs and evaluation of available resources, the project never makes it past the foundation. What a tragic waste to have poured an enormous concrete slab, only to realize you have insufficient funds to finish! Clearly, if your business goes bankrupt at the earliest stage of the expansion project, someone has made grievous errors in cost calculation…and its probably you.

If the journey of discipleship is like building a tower, then it is vital that we understand the estimated costs involved. Immediately preceding the parables, Jesus outlined the price to be paid in order to become one of his followers. Your love for your family must look like hatred compared to your love for Jesus. Your commitment to your life, plans, hopes, and dreams, must be subordinate to those of Jesus. Even your own possessions are not yours, for they must be constantly given up as well.

Some of these demands seem exceedingly steep. But, Jesus insists that we survey what we consider to be our resources and calculate the expenditures involved in leaving what we have to follow him. What will be the highest cost for you? What aspect of discipleship scares you the most? Truly, the edges of the “narrow way” are lined with dead-end detours and ever-winding tributaries from the vast numbers of people who have begun the journey but determined the cost too high to finish. Jesus does not want you to be among them.

Move Two
Although Jesus’ second short story expands upon the first, he also advances his point a step further. Not only must you calculate the cost of discipleship, but also you must evaluate your ability. Members of Jesus’ audience did not have to be soldiers to appreciate the battle scenario he describes. There is no doubt that a king who prepares to go to war against another king first will “sit down and consider whether he is able.” The numbers Jesus’ uses in this story presuppose that the king is outnumbered two to one: ten thousand against twenty thousand. Even with the fiercest of troops, these are not good odds. When and if the king realizes that he is not able, rather than submit to a humiliating defeat, resulting in untold carnage and death, he will send a delegation and submit to terms of surrender.

When the infamous Carthaginian warrior, Hannibal, invaded the Roman Republic in 218 BC, the Senate sent consul Tiberius Sempronius to reinforce Roman troops stranded in a snowy Italian winter. But, the ambitious Sempronius was not content to take a supportive role. Although his senior consul warned him not to pursue a battle with Hannibal, Sempronius disregarded the admonition and sought a reason to pick a fight.

Knowing of Sempronius’ arrogance and reputation for impetuosity, Hannibal laid an ingenious trap. Under the cover of night, he sent a detachment of troops to wait along the streambeds of the Trebia River. At daybreak, Hannibal’s cavalry went beyond the Trebia to harass the Roman camp and then retreat. As soon as Sempronius caught sight of Hannibal’s soldiers, he dispatched a portion of his own cavalry to drive them off. Then, in what can only be explained as a spell of hubris-induced madness, immediately following the cavalry, Sempronius sent his entire army of 43,000 into the open battlefield.

Seeing Sempronius’ folly, the ambush was sprung and Hannibal’s army fell upon the rear of the hard-pressed Romans. With their morale already sapped by cold, hunger, and fatigue, the Romans broke under the surprise onslaught and collapsed. What had once been a line of determined fighting soldiers became a mob of helpless, flailing men. Thousands were cut down on the spot and many more drowned attempting to cross the river to safety. Sempronius’ recklessness cost the lives of more than a third of his forces and won for Hannibal his first great victory over the Roman Republic.

It seems that Jesus’ emphasis on the value of realistic evaluation is not inappropriate. While the tower-builder’s failure in the first story results only in his humiliation, the king’s failure in the second affects the lives of his soldiers and their families. Although both characters in Jesus’ stories face defeat, the king is wise to evaluate his strength properly and then choose to have a say in the terms of his surrender. Even in the humiliation of surrender, there is satisfaction in knowing that the tragedy of bloody defeat has been avoided.

But, how does war-making and troop calculation relate to joining Jesus on the journey of discipleship? Jesus assumes that no one should build a tower without calculating the cost, but he suggests that the wise evaluation of the war-making king is to be emulated. Look within yourself and appraise everything that you possess: family heritage, social networks, mental acumen, natural talents, and learned skills. But, don’t just look to your perceived strengths, evaluate your weaknesses as well: moral deficiencies, chronic problems, and serious blind spots. Do you have what it takes to complete the journey? Do you have what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus?

Move Three
Jesus knows that if you are honest with yourself, you will discover that you do not have the resources necessary to complete the journey of discipleship. As talented and skilled as some of you are, as eager and enthusiastic as you may be, when you aspire to follow the path of a Savior who embraces coronation through crucifixion, you are like the king with 10,000 troops hoping to defeat another with 20,000. It can’t be done.

Jesus’ conclusion to the two parables reveals how well he understands this: “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” This is the surprising center point of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship. Counting the cost and evaluating your ability eventually serves only one purpose: to realize you don’t have what it takes. With the cost so high and your resources completely insufficient, only one option remains: total surrender.

Perhaps no one understands this truth better than the Apostle Paul. As you know, in his Jewish ethnicity, Paul had an impeccable pedigree: circumcised on the eighth day; from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew of Hebrews; a Pharisee; zealous and passionate; blameless in law keeping; and even educated by the famed rabbi Gamaliel the Elder.

But, more than just a devoted Jew, Paul was a citizen of Tarsus, which was the prosperous capital city of Cilicia. This placed Paul within the Diaspora, those Jewish settlements established outside of Palestine following Pompeii’s occupation of Judea. As a Jew in a culturally Greek and Roman-ruled city, Paul possessed a triple identity: Greek by place of birth, Roman by citizenship, and Jewish by ethnicity.

His Greek identity was obvious in his Hellenistic rhetorical skills, excellent use of the Greek language, and knowledge of the Hebrew scripture preserved in Greek. All of these proficiencies were acquired through the well-known schools of Tarsus. Also, Paul possessed great knowledge of Greco-Roman religious practices, moral and ethical teachings, and their ordinary way of life. Finally, Acts reveals that Paul was a Roman citizen from birth, something rare and highly valued. It is possible that Paul was a descendent of one or more freed slaves from whom he inherited citizenship.

If anyone was qualified to be a disciple of Jesus, if anyone could claim to have what it takes to complete the journey of discipleship, it was the Apostle Paul. And yet, what did he have to say about it? “Everything that was an advantage to me, I have considered to be a deficit because of Christ. More than that, I also consider everything to be a deficit in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of him, I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filthy garbage so that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”

This is the essence of what Jesus meant when he told those enthusiastic crowds, “Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” What do you have that you are unwilling to surrender? What are the things that you consider to be your best resources? Yes, even your high quality education, even your many years of experience, even your loads of culturally relevant street smarts are of no value to you in the arduous journey of discipleship. Jesus is not an unfeeling killjoy, seeking to drain from you all the things that make you who you are. But, the journey of discipleship is a journey to Golgatha. And, Jesus is intimately aware that when the splintered crossbeam is loaded onto your deeply bowed shoulders, you are incapable of holding on to anything else.

Conclusion
As we conclude, I think it is important for us to understand that Jesus does not call us to something he did not undertake for himself. You know that when Jesus entered adulthood at the age of twelve, he knew already that the priorities of the Father overshadowed those of family and social network. After his sermon in Nazareth, not only was he rejected by the members of his hometown, but also endured his kinsmen’s failed attempt to murder him. Later, Jesus explained to would-be disciples that he lived without even the minimum material comforts of life. And, it is evident throughout his ministry that he lived with the confident expectation of a murderous, torturous death. Jesus calls you, the members of the crowd, to abandon the many resources to which you cling and commit yourself to the mission that Jesus himself models. As the parables make clear, to neglect the call is to ensure failure and humiliation. Like the wise king, you must recognize the insufficiency of your resources and submit to complete surrender.

The image is among the most iconic in civil-rights history: a dignified young black woman in a crisp white dress marches through a hostile mob of jeering white students. She grasps her books tightly in the crook of her left arm as she looks fixedly through darkened glasses. While the composure in her face and the firmness in her stride communicate serenity in the face of trials, the downward gaze of her eyes betrays a hint of the truth: the young woman is terrified. A closer look would reveal that her knuckles are a fleshly vice-grip against the edge of her books, while the ligaments in her neck are rigid with anxiety.

The young woman in the picture is Elizabeth Eckford, one of the so-called Little Rock Nine: teenagers who were charged with integrating the city’s finest high school in 1957. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to escort black children to Central High School, Governor Orval Faubus ordered the National Guard to prevent them from entering. The black students made a plan to enter as a group, but young Elizabeth never got the message. Her poor family had no telephone. She came petrified and alone, only to be sent away by Faubus’ soldiers and left to the whims of an angry mob.

In the weeks following the integration, the Nine endured unrelenting abuse. They never believed the task would be easy, but they had no idea how hellish it would become. Decades later, Elizabeth Eckford realized she suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder for many years following the ordeal and was unable to work for a long time. In an interview done by Newsweek to mark 50 years since the incident in Little Rock, Eckford had only this to say about her iconic journey to Central High: “I wouldn’t do it again.”

Amazing, isn’t it? One of the key players in one of the crucial moments of civil-rights history and Eckford says if she had to do it over again, she wouldn’t. The reason is clear: the cost was too high. Once you understand the demands of discipleship, you probably find yourself sympathizing with Eckford’s perspective. When you calculate the cost of the journey, and evaluate your ability to complete it, you discover that you do not have what it takes to pursue Jesus. Instead, you must travel the journey of discipleship on the path of total surrender. In the scene of Luke 14, you may find yourself not amongst the inner circle of disciples, but standing amid the large crowds, perplexed and conflicted regarding the proper course of action. Yes, to follow Jesus entails daily sacrifice and total surrender. But, to stay behind means missing out on the Kingdom of God, a prospect that is far worse.

Friday, September 21, 2007

"Jena is America"

I doubt this is a newsflash for most of you, but racial stigma and inequality is alive and well in the United States of America. Recent events in Jena, Louisiana are proof of this fact. I recommend this commentary by Harvard Ph.D. candidate Lydia Bean as a simple, straightforward starting point for thinking Christianly about racial inequality in our country and the place of the church in the midst of it all.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A thought from Karl Marx

I am up to my eyeballs in reading for my 15 hours of graduate classes this semester. In the midst of all the required reading, I am enjoying one book very much: Practical Theology: History, Theory, Action Domains, by Gerben Heitink, a Dutch theologian. Much of the volume is new information to me--truthfully, a whole new way of thinking about doing theology in dialogue with human and social sciences and other "practical" matters.

In one particularly interesting chapter on the impact of social concerns upon the church's theology, Heitink provides a brief survey the theories of Karl Marx in their Enlightenment context. I confess that I am largely ignorant of the primary sources related to Karl Marx. I have been dependent upon the evaluations of others, largely in the context of studying Latin American and feminist liberation theologies. The only phrases of Marxist literature I can quote to you are: "Religion is the opium of the people," and "Proletarians of all countries, unite!"

I was intrigued, therefore, to be able to read the first of those famous sayings in the context of Marx's larger argument. I have not thought it through completely, but I am not entirely sure that Marx doesn't have a point. I am not saying I'm sympathetic with his economic view of history or his proposed socialist system, but I do think he may have offered a meaningful criticism of what he perceives as "religion" in his day (even if he did so with different motives). Marx says:

"Indirectly the battle against religion is the battle against the world which has religion as its spiritual aroma. The religious misery is the expression of real misery, but also of a protest against this real misery. Religion is the sigh of the creature in distress, the soul of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of spiritless situations. It is the opium of the people. The abandonment of religion as illusory happiness requires the establishment of true happiness. If we require someone to give up his illusions about his situation, we demand that he give up the situation that makes the illusions necessary. The criticism of religion is thus, in its essence, the criticism of the valley of lament, which has religion as its aureole*."

It appears that Marx does not distinguish between forms of religion or expressions of religious faith. His answer to the problem of religious "opium" is to rid the people of the opium--"require someone to give up his illusions," meaning his illusions of God in general. I cannot agree or support this conclusion.

But, if I can find fault with some forms of "religion" as well (which I can), then there may be some room to agree with Marx in his condemnation of that which is only "illusory happiness." If I see "religion" as a substitute for genuine, reconciling, redeeming, life-transforming relationship with a loving God, then Marx is right: "Religion is the sigh of the creature in distress, the soul of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of spiritless situations. It is the opium of the people."

Contrary to Marx, however, I would suggest that it is necessary to purge ourselves and our congregations of the folk religions, unnecessary dogmas, and silly sacred cows that form a faulty basis for our own "illusory happiness." If we trade these "miseries" for Someone worth knowing and loving, then we will not be without our regular "valleys of lament," but rather than have religion as its "aureole*," we will have Jesus. That's something worth having, I think.

Despite the numerous faults in the socialist ideology Marx fathered, I think he may have stumbled across a truth in the midst of it all. What do you think?

*Aureole comes from the Latin word aureola, which means "golden crown" or "bright circle," or even "halo." Aureole may be used technically to refer to the corona, the gaseous envelope around the sun or other stars.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Missio Dei in the Apocalypse

Throughout this semester, I am teaching a weekly seminar at our church called Apocalypse: Now. My aim is to expose the laypeople of our church to the social, historical, and literary context of the book and its contemporary application for theology, ethics, and ministry. I am doing my best to steer clear of "time-lines" and conjectures about the future, hoping to get a glimpse of what the original hearers of John's Apocalypse would have heard and understood. As I prepare for a study of the themes and theology of the Apocalypse, I thought it would be interesting to present some of my findings on the missiological content of the book. Let me know what you think.

Introduction
The work of Christian witness and the purpose of Christian witnesses (Gk. martys and martyres) are prevalent, interconnected themes throughout the Apocalypse. Between the horizons of Patmos, as far as John can see, the rise of the Roman Empire and the persecution of the church portend the second coming of Jesus Christ and the redemption of all things. With urgency, therefore, John exhorts seven churches in Asia to remain faithful while undergoing various kinds of testing and to remember the crucial battle between God and evil as this epoch is brought to completion. The witnesses of God are key figures in this prophetic exhortation, for they both carry out the continued mission of God to the earth and reveal the fate of all those desiring to conquer and overcome the powers of evil. While there are many possible facets of this topic, due to space constraints, this short study will offer merely an introduction to these martyres and their key role in God’s mission in the Apocalypse.

The Mission of God in the Apocalypse?
For readers even remotely familiar with the Apocalypse of John, the possibility of finding evidence of the mission of God within its cryptic pages is likely met with serious skepticism. With image after image of mystery and dread, including giant angels, a red dragon, ghoulish demons, tremendous violence, and great bloodshed, how is one to believe that John has in mind the mission of God? While it may be difficult to discern at first, it is my contention that the mission of God for the redemption of the world is intimately connected to the contents of the Apocalypse. In fact, if one looks carefully, one will discover that it is the driving motivation behind John’s work.

Although an extensive treatment of this issue cannot be given here, it will be helpful at least to survey the contents of Revelation for evidence of this claim. The prologue to the Apocalypse declares a blessing upon those who hear and “obey” its message (Rev. 1:3), and the epilogue contains an “invitation” of sorts calling out the readers to “Come!” in light of what they have heard (22:17). The first scene of worship in the Apocalypse depicts “every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth, on the sea, and everything in them,” giving homage and praise to the One seated on the throne and to the Lamb (5:13). John envisions the people of God as a “vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9). The severe judgments of God upon the earth are shown to be for the purpose of repentance among the nations (9:20; 16:11). John himself is ordered to “prophesy” against “many peoples, nations, languages, and kings,” with a message that is sweet in the mouth yet bitter in the stomach (10:9-11).

Perhaps the most explicitly mission-focused aspects of the Apocalypse are found in the announcement of the “eternal gospel” in 14:7, which calls all of the earth’s inhabitants to “fear God and give him glory,” and the ministry of the “two witnesses” in 11:3-14, which results in thousands of people giving glory to God. There is also sufficient evidence to suggest that the literarily climactic portion of the Apocalypse is in chapters 13 and 14, where the reader is urged to determine their allegiance, whether to “the beast” of Satan or to “the Lamb” of God (Lee 1998: 174, 193-194). Finally, the Apocalypse concludes with visions of God’s new creation and New Jerusalem, in which “the nations will walk” and the “kings of the earth will bring their glory” (21:24). While this brief survey does not approach a full demonstration of God’s mission within the Apocalypse, it does provide a sufficient foundation from which we may proceed with an introduction to the martyres and their ministry in this mission of God.

Introducing the Martyres of the Apocalypse
The word translated “witness” (Gk. martys), which is the root for the English word “martyr,” occurs numerous times throughout the Apocalypse (Rev. 1:5, 9; 2:13; 3:14; 11:3; 17:6). It is closely connected, both lexically and thematically, to the words “testimony” (Gk. martyria) and “testify” (Gk. martyreō) (6:9; 11:7; 12:11; 12:17; 19:10; 20:4). In John’s Apocalypse, all three of these terms converge around the picture of faithful followers of Christ giving testimony to the Gospel and willingly enduring suffering and death for the sake of this message.

Within John’s context, the ministry of faithful witnesses is of vital import, for they testify in light of the nearness of Christ’s return and do so knowing that the time for repentance is short. Ultimately, it is through the suffering of the martyres that many from “all peoples, tribes, languages, and nations” will turn to God in repentance (Rev. 11:9, 13). To understand the witnesses’ ministry in the Apocalypse, two themes are important: (1) the witnesses conquer by the word of their testimony, and (2) the witnesses testify for the conversion of the nations.

Conquering by the Word of Their Testimony
The faithful martyres of the Apocalypse testify on behalf of Jesus Christ, who is portrayed chiefly as triumphant yet “slaughtered lamb” (Rev. 5:6). This is significant for the identity of the witnesses, for the object of their witness is One who triumphed only through suffering and death. In John’s mind, the slaughtered Lamb sets the standard for his witnesses, both as the content of their witness (maybe similar to Paul’s assertion, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified,” [1 Cor. 2:2]) and as the supreme example for them to follow (Jesus is even called “the faithful witness” in the prologue [Rev. 1:5]). Just as the Lamb conquered through his death, so will those who seek to follow his example and proclaim his message to the world. The conquering Lamb empowers his witnesses to conquer also, but only as they willingly accept the same fate as their Master (2:7, 11, 17, 28; 3:5, 12, 21; 12:11; 15:2; 21:7).

The conquering of the witnesses is clarified by the explanation that it is achieved “by the word of their testimony” (12:11). This concept is described in several parallel ways in the Apocalypse, including the specific pairing of their testimony with the “word of God” and “Jesus” (1:9; 6:9; 12:17; 19:10; 20:4). For John, then, it seems that the testimony of the witnesses is first made up of the word of God and Jesus himself. If the witnesses “conquer” by this testimony, as 12:11 says, then the testimony itself seems to have the power to conquer evil. Furthermore, though, John also sees the “testimony” of the witnesses as made up of their faithful lives and martyr deaths. While in the eyes of the world, the faithful witnesses are defeated when they suffer and die, in the eyes of heaven, they are triumphant because they share in the victory of the Lamb whom they serve (Koester 2001: 123).

Testifying for the Conversion of the Nations
Ultimately, however, the testimony of the martyres is not for the purpose of glorious martyrdom. The Apocalypse makes clear that the purpose of God is for the inhabitants of the earth to repent, including his churches, in order that all peoples, tribes, nations, and languages may worship God and the Lamb (see Bauckham 1993: 98-104). Nowhere is this better illustrated in the Apocalypse than the ministry of the “two witnesses” in 11:3-14, a symbolic story that is considered by most scholars to be representative of the community of God as they bear witness in faithfulness to Christ (see Caird 1966: 133-140; Beale 1999: 572-608; and Koester 2001: 108-111).

John receives a spoken message, presumably from God, in Rev. 11:3 that announces the empowerment of “two witnesses.” God gives them power to prophesy for a limited time and their testimony is accompanied by sorrow and mourning for the sins of the earth. The witnesses’ description—“two olive trees and two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth” (11:4)—connects them with a similar vision found in Zech. 4:2-6. It appears that a similar meaning is intended here, but with a broader application: the Holy Spirit will be upon God’s witnesses as they prophesy faithfully upon the earth.

These witnesses of God perform miraculous signs and wonders, much like those of Moses and Elijah, and they are able to hold off the powers of evil with their testimony (11:5-6). Eventually, however, John reveals that the witnesses are “conquered” by evil (“the beast,” 11:7) and killed. Although people from all “peoples, tribes, languages, and nations” rejoice over the death of God’s witnesses (11:8-10), after three days the witnesses are miraculously resurrected and taken up into heaven (11:11-12).

Perhaps what is most fascinating about this story, however, is what follows the resurrection of the two witnesses. John hears that a violent earthquake shakes the city in which the witnesses prophesied and one-tenth of the city falls, while 7,000 people are killed (11:13). This would seem like a tremendous tragedy, except for the unexpected thing that happens next: “The survivors were fearful and gave glory to the God of heaven.” Throughout the Apocalypse, there is no repentance in response to the manifold judgments of God (see esp. 9:20-21 and 16:9), yet through the triumph of God’s witnesses through their testimony, death, and vindication, innumerable people from all nations of the earth “[give] glory to the God of heaven.”

Some seriously doubt that this event portrays true repentance (see esp. Beale 1999: 607), yet the comparison of this verse with the proclamation of the “eternal gospel” in 14:7 seems to recommend this interpretation. If the angel in 14:7 exhorts the earth to “fear God and give him glory,” in response to the gospel, then the response of individuals from all “peoples, tribes, languages, and nations” who do just that in 11:13 is justifiably viewed as authentic repentance. This affirms the ultimate purpose of God’s witnesses in the Apocalypse: to testify faithfully, even painfully and sacrificially, for the conversion of the nations to the Lamb (Bauckham 1993: 86-87).

Keeping in mind that the story of the two witnesses is symbolic, we must affirm that nations will not necessarily see the literal resurrection of God’s people prior to their repentance. Instead, through the faithful suffering and death of the witnesses, the nations will perceive the truth of their testimony, especially the truth of Christ’s triumph over death.

Conclusion
As we have seen in this brief study, the witnesses of God and their testimony among the nations (Gk. martys and martyres) are key features the Apocalypse. For John and the churches to which he wrote, the nearness of Christ’s return and the judgment that he will bring makes the faithfulness of God’s witnesses vitally important. Although the mission of God is not normally considered within the enigmatic visions of the Apocalypse, we have seen that, at the very least, John was very interested with the response of the world to the Lamb of God, for references to the universality of the gospel and the universal scope of God’s plan are interspersed throughout the book. In John’s view, the witnesses of God both carry out the continued mission of God to the earth and reveal the fate of all those desiring to conquer and overcome the powers of evil. Further, as was illustrated above, the witnesses of the Apocalypse conquer evil by the word of their testimony and testify for the conversion of the nations.

While witnesses to Christ in the western world are largely ignorant of the kinds of persecutions and sufferings portrayed in the Apocalypse, such experiences are commonplace in the lives of fellow-witnesses in all times and places throughout other parts of the world. Indeed, it seems that the annals of church history affirm that the suffering of God’s faithful witnesses is the customary occurrence, while the enjoyment of peace and prosperity remains relatively uncommon. For those faithful witnesses suffering persecution and death in their testimony throughout the world, it may be a powerful comfort to view their experience in the context of the Apocalypse. For therein, suffering witnesses are viewed not only as conquerors over evil by their testimony to Christ, but also as key components in the completion of God’s mission: the conversion of the nations.

-------------------------------
Sources
Aune, D. E. Revelation 6-16. WBC 52b. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998.
Bauckham, R. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation. NIGTC. Grand Rapids/Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans/Paternoster, 1999.
Caird, G. B. The Revelation of St. John. BNTC. Second Ed. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1966.
Koester, C. R. Revelation and the End of All Things. Grand Rapids/Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans, 2001.
Lee, M. V. “A Call to Martyrdom: Function as Method and Message in Revelation,” NovT 40, 2 (1998) 174-194.
Luter, A. B. and E. H. McGowin. “The Earth-Dwellers and the Heaven-Dwellers: An Overlooked Interpretive Key to the Apocalypse,” Faith and Mission, 20.1 (2003) 3-18.
Schüssler-Fiorenza, E. Invitation to the Book of Revelation. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1977.

(Picture: William Wolff, The Witnesses of the Apocalypse, woodcut, 17½ x 24, 1975)

Monday, September 10, 2007

"Suffer the little children..."

This morning, I was contemplating life in occupied Iraq. I was drawn to an essay of photos that included this one of two little girls being bathed by their mother:

There is a reminder here, I think. There are thousands of children in the war zone of Iraq--children who look like our children: innocent and playful, mischevious and petulant. These nameless Iraqi girls are are those about whom Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these" (Mark 10:14). When we quote the King James, we say, "Suffer the little children..." In Iraq, there is now much truth to this archaic translation. I don't want to forget that.

You may access the original photo, as well as the whole photo essay on the lives of Iraqi women at BBC News on-line.

Friday, September 7, 2007

I have beautiful feet

"How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!'" (Rom. 10:14-15; TNIV)

I'm not a big fan of feet. I suppose it has something to do with my background in ballet, a physically taxing artform that commonly results in calloused, bloodied, and blistered feet. I recall many evenings following grueling rehearsals, soaking my toes in salt water, wondering to myself if my feet would ever recover from the abuse my pointe shoes were causing. It seemed no matter how many times I taped my knuckles or how much lamb's wool I stuffed in the "box" of the shoe, my feet would emerge like a red-faced, battered boxer after ten rounds.

So, like I said, I'm not crazy about feet. I think they are generally ugly and sad indicators of the wear and tear of life--dry skin, cuts, moles, and even little hairs. Ew! And yet, the Apostle Paul affirms with confidence the "beauty" of the "feet" belonging to those "who bring good news." Why? How can feet possibly be beautiful?

In v. 13, Paul contends that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” In the case of the Roman believers, he is concerned especially to establish that Jews and Gentiles have equal access to the Lord's salvation by employing the same means: calling upon the Lord. An expanded understanding of this truth is that no matter one’s religion, socio-economic background, gender, sexual preferences, or general sin history, all who cry out to Jesus in faith will be rescued: from the powers of evil, from the ways of this world, from themselves.

In v. 14 Paul makes it clear that he understands the proclamation of the good news to be essential to the salvation of people who call on the Lord. There is a clear progression in his mind: preaching leads to hearing, which leads to believing, which leads to calling, which leads to saving.

But, is this emphasis on preaching really necessary? This seems so “old fashioned.” Can a fifteen to forty-five minute monologue really make a difference in the world? Is preaching really that big of a deal?

In the tradition of Jesus of Nazareth, the Apostles, and all who followed after them, preaching is announcing the reality of the Kingdom of God, as a herald or witness. The emphasis is not on being a sophisticated orator, although such skills are to be valued if one has them. Essentially, preachers announce “good news”—previously unknown news of a cataclysmic change in reality—to people who have not yet received the word.

Like the announcement of a new president over the airwaves on election night, heralds of the good news announce the inauguration of Christ’s Rule to people who are ignorant. This announcement provides people with an opportunity to call upon the one who reigns as King, either swearing allegiance to him or denouncing his prerogatives over them.

Paul understands that even before preaching takes place, however, heralds must be “sent.” That is to say, the people of God must send emissaries in order to share the news of God’s Rule with those who know not of it.

He quotes a beautiful passage in Isaiah 52 as support for the need to “send” preachers. The verse comes from a joyful proclamation regarding the end of Israel’s exile in Babylon and their anticipated return to the holy land. Verses 7-10 are particularly moving:

How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!”

Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices;
together they shout for joy.
When the Lord returns to Zion,
they will see it with their own eyes.

Burst into songs of joy together,
you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.

The Lord will lay bare his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see
the salvation of our God.


In this way, the preaching of the good news of the Kingdom of God is analogous to the announcement of the end of Israel's exile. The time of God's punishment is over. The people of God may dwell in their land in safety. In the time of Isaiah and the time of Paul, this "good news" contains peace, good tidings, and salvation.

Despite the postmodern tendency to discount preaching as "dated" and unnecessary, we must conclude that in the preaching event, in these seemingly simple snippets of human communication, God is at work. In the heralding of the Kingdom, God comforts his people, he redeems his people, he bares his holy arm in the sight of all nations, and allows the ends of the earth to see his salvation.

Now, we see why Paul believes that feet are beautiful. Preachers are “sent” as representatives of God’s Rule, engaging all earthly gifts and abilities through the grace of God so that all nations may hear and believe the truth.

Whatever our disagreements about whether or not women should be pastors, there is little doubt, I think, that all disciples of Jesus proclaim in one way or another. We announce the victory of God, the enthronement of Jesus, the arrival of a new era. We are preachers. We have beautiful feet.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Rest

The house is quiet today and I am contemplating my need to find rest.

At 11:15 AM, Ronnie pulled away from our home with a UHaul and his good friend, Brad, in the passenger seat. He's headed to Liberty Township, Ohio, to begin our new life and ministry there, while I finish up graduate school here. Although I've shed many tears anticipating our separation, I find myself surprisingly calm today. I am grateful for God's mercy in that regard. I would have hated to see Ronnie off with a puffy-faced, runny-nosed good-bye.

With fifteen hours of graduate work ahead of me this semester, as well as a household to relocate a thousand miles away, I am looking at very full "to do" list. Reading, writing, preaching, visiting, teaching, packing, planning--all these things occupy my mind and time every day. I wake with my schedule set for me already and I go to sleep at night contemplating tomorrow's tasks.

I'm sure that you are no less busy with the demands and concerns of life. For Americans, especially American Christians, busy-ness has become a way of life. Yet, in the midst of all my activity, I hear the tender voice of our Father inviting us to rest.

The first giving of the Decalogue is recorded in Exodus 20:8-11. The fourth commandment, the command to keep the Sabbath, is explained in the following way: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy."

I notice a few things about this first appearance of Sabbath law in the Scripture. First, the basis for the command to rest is the truth that God rested on the seventh day of creation. It is because God found rest after creation that human beings must rest every week. Second, by blessing the Sabbath day and making it holy, the Lord set apart this day as unique among all other days. This ordained cessation of "work" was tremendously counter-cultural in the Ancient Near East and it remains so to this day. Although the Israelite teachers developed complex interpretations about what Sabbath-keeping should look like, the basic point of the command is "to desist, cease, or rest" from usual activity.

The Decalogue is given again in Deuteronomy, a book that makes up the stylized sermon Moses delivers to the people of Israel before they enter the Promised Land. The description of the fourth commandment is slightly different in Deuteronomy: "Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day."

What stands out to me in this re-telling of the fourth commandement is that the reason for the keeping of the Sabbath day has shifted. Whereas in Exodus 19, rest is commanded as a means of imitating God, who rested on the seventh day, in Deuteronomy, rest is commanded for two reasons: (1) to ensure that rest is provided for the servants of Israel; and, (2) to provide a constant reminder to Israel that God brought them out of slavery from Egypt.

I think we learn something important in the change of focus from Exodus to Deuteronomy. Although the higher purpose of God's ordained day for weekly rest is in order to imitate God, there is a "lower," more earthy reason, as well. Human beings have a natural tendency to forgoe rest in order to drown themselves in a sea of busy-ness. As I see it, this is comparable to the slavery Israel experienced in Egypt. Unable to determine their own lives, activities, and wages, the children of Israel labored ceaselessly under the yoke of Egyptian bondage.

Yet, not only are human beings inclined to submit to the slavery of busy-ness in their own lives, but they drag others into it as well. This is understandable, of course. When one demands constant activity from oneself, one must demand the same from everyone else. So, when Moses explains the Sabbath day to the Israelites headed into the holy land, he emphasizes the need to provide rest for those who serve them. At one time, they lived in a constant state of labor and toil, so God instructs that they must not force this tortuous existence upon other human beings.

So, what is the point of my little meditation on Sabbath-keeping in the OT? Notice that a commonality between the Decalogue described in Exodus and Deuteronomy is that the fourth commandment comes on the heels of three commandments intended to preserve Israel's devotion to Yahweh alone. Because Yahweh is God, who brough them out of Egyptian slavery, the Israelites are to have no other gods before him, make no images of other gods, and claim not the name or power of God in thoughtless, disrespectful ways (Exod. 20:2-7; Deut. 5:6-11).

From this context, I notice something very important to the matter of Sabbath-keeping and finding rest. Preserving weekly restfulness is intimately connected to honoring God as God. That is to say, the first result of recognizing God's unique status in our lives is our decision to seek regular times of rest. Betty Talbert, the director of the spiritual formation program at Truett Seminary puts it in stark and convicting terms: "When you refuse to rest, you are proclaiming that you are God. When you say, 'I am so important that I cannot take the time to rest,' you are saying that you are more vital than the Creator and the world cannot go on without your activity."

Our Lord Jesus Christ modeled the truth of Dr. Talbert's statement. Despite the fact that he was often accused of breaking Sabbath laws, the truth is that he kept the Sabbath better than any person who ever lived. I encourage you to search the Gospels and observe how many times Jesus withdrew from the crowd to rest and pray. Sometimes he sought solace alone on a hillside, communing all night with his Father and arising refreshed from the fellowship. Sometimes he reclined at the table of good friends, teaching and sharing as they fed him a tasty meal and nourished him with spiritual food. Sometimes he stole time alone with his circle of learners, leaving behind hundreds of needy, sick, and dying people in order to rest with them.

No matter the details, the reality is the same: Jesus of Nazareth, whose ministry lasted only three years, whose touch could cure sickness, cast out demons, and raise the dead, whose leadership and teaching turned the ancient world up-side-down, chose to rest from his work regularly--so regularly, in fact, that it is a hallmark of his life in the Gospel narratives.

Perhaps you are a busy student like me. Perhaps you are a minister of the Gospel, whether professionally or on a "lay" level. Perhaps you are a teacher, doctor, lawyer, soldier, insurance salesman, retiree, or football coach. No matter our vocations or situations in life, our inherent need for rest is the same. Permit me to exhort you this evening: To escape slavery to the hurried tasks of life, you must seek rest and find regular times of solitude and silence. To honor God as he is, to recognize yourself as creature and him as Creator, you must keep Sabbath. You are not God. The world will go on without you.