Monday, September 29, 2008

God Reigns

The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from [Babylon], will stand far off, in fear of her torment, weeping and mourning aloud, "Alas, alas, great city, clothed in fine linen, in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! For in one hour all this wealth has been laid waste! -Revelation 18:15-17a

I believe that God reigns as the Creator and Ruler of the universe. Anything and everything else in all creation is secondary to God.

I also believe that in the history of the world, and in particular the history of the United States, a free market and free exchange of money has led to many wonderful blessings. Money and markets have fed millions of people, provided clothing and shelter, given security and safety, and brought peace and hope to so many of our brothers and sisters. But money and free-markets are not God. We must not worship money and markets. While they have been marvelous tools for good, we cannot find ultimate hope in money or markets. They will fail us eventually. Unfortunately the world is facing such a failure today in the current economic crisis.

It is my prayer that a solution for this crisis can be found, whether it be political, financial, or both. More people will be helped and kept safe if the markets can stabilize than if the whole thing crashes and burns.

But because money and free-markets are not God there is a chance that the whole thing could very well crash and burn. Ultimate hope and safety is found only in God. People who put their faith in money and markets will always be disappointed in the end. We see examples of this in Revelation, not because John the Seer is predicting 2008, but because John is pointing out what has been true throughout history: People have always been putting their faith in stuff instead of in God. In Revelation "Babylon" represents the Roman Empire, which itself represents any "thing" that pretends to be the ultimate power in the universe. "Babylon" is Sin and Death's beast. It lies to us. It pulls us away from faith in God. The beast convinces us that there is no power greater than it. Most of my fellow Americans have believed that money and free-markets are the most powerful forces in the world. My faith in God tells me that is a lie.

The current crisis screams at us that we have been believing a lie. If we thought our livelihoods were secure because of our money investments and economy we believed a lie. The truth is that the Lord is our rock and salvation, not money and free-markets. Unfortunately, however, we have lived our lives too often as if money and markets were our rock and salvation. In Revelation 18 the nations who had been suckered into believing the lie of "Babylon's" great power realize the truth like America is realizing the truth today. The nations in Revelation lament their choices and mourn the loss of everything that once was so important to them.

I have read articles and columnists today who sincerely believe our nation will never be the same after the events of the past few weeks. Our faith in free-markets, Wall Street, and businesses may be strained for generations. That very well may be the case, I don't know, but I do hope that this may be an opportunity for Christians everywhere put our faith back to where it should always have been: in Christ. May this also be an opportunity for us Christians to change from greedy ways and instead use our money always as a reflection of our faith. May we all become diligent in using the stuff called money to love our neighbor, serve those in need, help the poor, and be the light of Christ's gospel of the world.

Monday, September 22, 2008

My Seven Favorite Images From Revelation

The last book of the Bible, Revelation, speaks to Christians struggling to live faithfully in the face of societal pressures pulling them way from God. Using hundreds of images from the Old Testament, John the Seer describes as best he can the divine visions given to him while he was exiled on the Island of Patmos. Through symbolism, allegory, metaphors and layers of meaning John proclaims boldly that God rules and overrules in the affairs of humankind. These seven important images from Revelation help me remember that God wins!

7. The Kingdom of Our Lord and of His Messiah
Revelation 11:15-19
The kingdom of the world has become God's Kingdom: a Kingdom of justice and wrath. Those who choose not to serve God will suffer because of their choice. In verse 19 we are given an image reminiscent to the description of the events immediately following Jesus' death on the cross in Luke. Here, wonderfully, the temple "was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen..." Nothing separates God from his people.

6. Two Harvests
Revelation 14:14-20
In Revelation John describes two harvests. It's different from the harvest parables in the Gospels because there is no separation between good grain and weeds. First the "Son of Man" harvests all the "grain" on earth. In the second harvest an angel uses a sickle to collect "the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe." All of the grapes must go through the "wine press of God's wrath" located outside the city. The grain and grapes symbolize people and all people, sinners that we are, will suffer the consequences of poor choices. But through the blood of the Lamb, shed outside the city, there is hope. The image in verse 20 of a river of blood 200 miles long coming from the press is quite disturbing, but this horror movie description is actually meant to point to the power of Christ's cross and the blood he shed for us "over ripe grapes" on that cross.

5. Nations Lament
Revelation 18
For as long as there has been sin, death, evil, and the devil people have been tricked into turning from God and believing the devil's lies. The nations discovered earlier in Revelation 17 that they had been deceived all this time by "Babylon" (which represents Rome, or to a greater extent sin, death and the devil). They now know that all that was so important to them was just a lie... but even so they lament the loss of things they once held dear. (Does this sound like Wall Street today?)

4. The Dragon
Revelation 12
The either cartoonish or sinister way the devil has been depicted in culture has always seemed like a joke to me. It's led me to keep my focus on Christ and his Gospel and not talk about some goofy devil. Revelation has changed that for me. In Revelation John the Seer uses the image of a dragon to symbolize the devil, sin, and death. The dragon pursues symbols of Christ and Israel and fails. He is defeated and banished from heaven and though his time is short he continues to lash out, seeking to destroy the woman's children, which symbolizes followers of Jesus. How true it is that sin tempts us and lies to us in order to pull us away from faith. A dragon, whose is on his last breath, is in hot pursuit. This makes a lot of sense to me. It helps me name the forces of sin that have an effect on my life.

3. New Jerusalem
Revelation 21
In his last vision of the end John describes a Holy City descending from Heaven. God now dwells among mortals. There is no more death, sorrow, crying, or pain. The age of the dragon is over. No one will tempt you to sin. No one can turn you from God ever again. This is God's new creation. "See, I am making all things new." says the voice of God from the throne. He has transformed us into his new creation.

2. Great Multitude
Revelation 7:9-17
So often one's vision of the end is peppered with thoughts of who's in and who's out. We might ask ourselves if we are good enough to "go to heaven." Is anyone good enough? John gives us an image early in Revelation of a "great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages" standing before the throne of God in heaven. Wow, that's quite a group. These are believers robbed in white and are a greater crowd of people than John could comprehend or imagine. So who's in? Boy, its A LOT of PEOPLE.

1. Eden Restored
Revelation 22:1-7
Genesis begins with a description of how people got into this mess of sin. It involved a man and a woman, a serpent tempter, fruit from a tree, and broken boundaries between God and creature. The dragon has been on the loose ever since then. Revelation ends with a description of the end of sin and death. It is finished. So within the Holy City the brokenness of Eden is make whole again. The tree of life is there by a river of life-giving water. It bears 12 types of fruit monthly and the tree's leaves bring healing to the nations; the same nations that lamented the defeat of "Babylon." There is healing, forgiveness, and new creation here. Best of all... you can eat all the fruit you want. Eden is restored! Praise be to God!

Friday, September 19, 2008

October Surprise

Now that September is winding down the pennant races in Major League Baseball are coming to some sort of conclusion. My hometown team, the Brewers, have choked. At one point they were locks to make the postseason, now they are locks for an early vacation. The Cubs are on the verge of clinching their second straight division title and the White Sox are ready rap up their place in the playoffs soon. What happens next is any one's guess however.

October is full of surprises. The phrase "October surprise" comes from the realm of politics. The Democrats and Republicans hold their "hands" close to the vest for much of an election year waiting for the last weeks of the campaign to play their aces so that the "surprises" they hold will have the most impact on the voters. I'm sure there will be a surprise or two about Senators McCain and Obama revealed next month.

In baseball the October surprise often comes in the form of a Cinderella team making waves out of no where. Just when everyone is talking about the Cubs, Angels and Red Sox it is the Rays or the Dodgers who win it all. Last year Arizona pulled off such a surprise on the Cubs. Pessimistic Cubs fans are convinced that it will happen again.

But maybe the biggest October surprise we can experience this fall will come from our Lord Jesus Christ. Wonderfully in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard Jesus tells us about a land owner who hired workers to work his vineyard. He promises to give them the fair daily wage for their work. Later in the day he hires more workers. Still there is not enough workers so even when there is only one more hour of daylight he hires even more harvest his grapes. When the work is over he gives every single worker the same amount of pay: the fair amount for a day's work. Those who worked the whole day are furious. "How dare he! It's not fair that those who worked only an hour get the same pay as they got!" There's your October surprise. The owner is generous. He is fair to the workers who worked all day and merciful to those who worked only an hour. All receive the same. God love for his children is the same for all.

So how do you respond to God's October surprise? Do you cry out "It's not fair?" Does it anger you? Have you convinced yourself that you deserve "the championship" because you're better than others? Truly, deep down in your heart, you know through the Spirit that such feelings are wrong. The generosity of God is to be celebrated and not scorned.

But sin leads you to ask: "Why should I toil in the vineyard all day then?" Ahhh... The truth is that service in God's name is a joy and not toil. Working in God's presence and in God's vineyard brings meaning to your life. Those who wait in nothingness don't experience such satisfaction and joy until God brings them into the vineyard to work for their hour. Grace is not an excuse to be faithless. Grace is a gift to be both treasured and shared.

Look for God's October surprises... even now in September. (An October surprise in September? Now that's surprising.) And as you encounter them don't fall into the trap seven-year-olds fall into. Don't cry out "It's not fair!" Instead cry "Thanks be to God!" All are welcome in the vineyard of the Lord... where the wages are fair and the cup of mercy overflows.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Power of the Cross

What is power?

Does power come from weapons? Some believe they gain power and respect with a gun in their hands. Are we only a powerful nation because we have largest military in the world? Does our power come from our weapons? Others say money is the source of power in the world. In the coming century it may be that the might of trillion dollar corporations will out weigh the power of a nation with a large military. In the United States we would like to think power comes from the people. We, the people, elect our leaders. We will choose who will be our president. We will choose who will pass laws and run our government. That's power.

Power found from weapons, money and politics goes back centuries. The Roman Emperor Constantine the Great used all three to gain tremendous power. He was the first Christian Emperor and gave credit for his pivotal military victory at Milvian Bridge to Christ because of an epiphany he had the night prior. A cross appeared in a vision and a voice saying in Greek: "In this sign, you shall conquer." Constantine found great power in this "cross" and later in life became a Christian. A decade after this battle Constantine's mother Helen went to Jerusalem to see some of the sights of Jesus' ministry. Guess what she found. Miraculously she found the True Cross upon which Jesus was crucified. Soon pieces of that True Cross spread throughout Christendom. Surely real power could be found in these pieces of wood.

Maybe... Maybe not.

In 1 Corinthians 1:18 Paul writes that "The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." Truly power is found through Christ's cross: But not through pieces of wood... or military power. Constantine and Helen and so many Christians after them have gotten it wrong. Power is not found in a relic, instead the true power of God comes through the message of the cross. And the message of the cross is that weapons and money and politics are not the true sources of power in the world: only God rules!

The message of the cross is that the Messiah reigns through death. Jesus loses. He has no weapons or money or political influence. He is the opposite of everything we would expect power to come from. But through that cross... that symbol of defeat... Jesus actually conquers and wins. He dies for our sins and defeats sin, death and the devil on that cross. Indeed: in this sign, you shall conquer... by giving up your whole life to follow him.

Many say its foolish to proclaim Christ crucified. But is it? What good did it do that Constantine won at the Battle of Milvian Bridge? That is just an event for the history books. Constantine and his Empire died off a long time ago. Likewise money comes and goes. Political power is given and taken away in an instant. Are those real sources of power... or phony sources of power that too many people have been suckered into believing?

Instead we are fools for Christ. We carry no weapons, except the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. We seek no money, expect that which can support our work for Christ. We don't seek the approval of the masses either. Outnumbered 10 to 1... 100 to 1... 1000 to 1 we press on serving the Lord because we have been given real power through the Blood of the Lamb.

"For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:25)." Yeah it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to our human minds. We are tempted to believe that real power is found in wealth and adoration. But truly our power is from God and God alone. So we proclaim Christ crucified. And stand in awe because though we are fools the Lord continues to do miracles through us every day in the name of Christ. That is real power.