Signs and Seals

Selecting a wedding band was once a straightforward affair.   The only real decisions regarded size and engraving.   A gold band was a gold band.   Larger or smaller, bought at a pawn shop or jeweler, it was adiaphora – a matter of indifference.    And as a pastor, the language used in the wedding service at the giving of the rings was also straightforward.

The ring is a visible symbol of the spiritual covenant that you are making today before God.  The ring will serve for you, and for your children, and for all who see it as a reminder of the purity and the permanence of your marriage covenant.   

Like the gold in the ring which symbolizes purity and beauty, your love for one another is to be pure — unmixed and uncompromised by any other priorities, second only to your love for Christ.   And like ring whose shape, the circle, has neither beginning nor end, you are covenanting today, before God, to enter into a marriage that is permanent and unbreakable.

[Groom], one day when your children see your ring and ask you what it means, you can tell them that it is a symbol of your promise to love and cherish their mother for all time and that it is to be a reminder to them that you will never leave them or forsake them.

And [Bride], when your children see your ring and ask you why you wear it you can tell them that it is a symbol of your promise to love and respect their father and that it is to be a constant reminder to them of your loving, unbreakable commitment to your family.

The gold in your ring may get scratched from time to time, but its beauty and luster will endure.  In the same way there will be trials in your relationship as you learn what it means to live as one-flesh, but your ring will be a constant testimony to you that God has brought you together for keeps. 

But now, during pre-marital counseling, I know to ask,  “what type of ring will you have?”  While the design of the ring does not define its value, the liturgy must acknowledge that gold is no longer a given.  Millennials opt for titanium, silicone, and even tattoos.    And nothing says ‘permanence’ like a tattooed wedding band.

While I don’t jibe with everything the in her blog, I appreciate what Laura Ulveling writes in a post promoting GrooveLife alternative rings.

Your ring is simply a universally recognized symbol to show the world and each other that you have committed your life to someone. Whether the wedding ring you chose is cheap or extravagant, gold or platinum, diamond or silicone, its design has no impact on its value.

Even if you decide to exchange traditional wedding rings at the altar, you can still order a set of Groove rings for your adventurous days so you don’t lose your diamonds while you’re climbing waterfalls or deep-sea diving on your honeymoon!

A ring’s design has no impact on its value.  Signs illustrate.  Seals authenticate.  A wedding ring is a sign and seal of the covenant of marriage.   The ring does not make you married and the absence of one does not remove that covenant.   But the ring does point to the undeniable fact that you belong to someone.  The ring can’t make you a spouse, but it can make you a liar.  You have made and received promises.  And those promises define everything about your life.  

In the Bible, one of the pervasive analogies of faith is that of husband and wife.  In the Old Testament, the Lord says to his people, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”   This is the wedding vow of the ancient world.   God is the husband to his people.  The New Testament picks up this analogy.  The church is the bride of Christ.   God makes a covenant of grace with his people.  A promise is made and sealed with his own blood in the person of Jesus.   And this promise changes everything.  

But there are days when life crashes in.  Our experience seems to contradict or nullify God’s promises.   Can we trust his promises?  Can we trust him?  Is God a faithful spouse?   And when I am not faithful, will he still love me and keep his vows?   Psalm 103 declares that the Lord knows our “frame, that we are but dust.”  Yet, even in our spiritual fragility, he has compassion on us and shows steadfast, unwavering, unbreakable love.    To shore up our flagging faith and soothe our doubts, he gives us signs and seals – reminders of what he has promised and assurances that he is as good as his word.

In the Old Testament God gave repeated sacrifices and sacred spaces to teach the people to expect a once-for-all savior who would secure all God’s gracious promises.   Now, he has given us clearer signs and seals – baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  But their purpose is the same, to point us to his promises and assure us of his faithfulness.

In Jeremiah 32, the prophet is in a hopeless place.   It’s the eleventh hour.  Jeremiah’s prophecies of doom and judgment are unfolding.   The Babylonian army has laid siege to Jerusalem.   Jeremiah has been imprisoned for treason.   But God gives a personal, yet puzzling, word to Jeremiah.   His cousin will offer a piece of land for sale.  Jeremiah has the right of redemption, but this was no time for land speculation.  The market hates uncertainty.  And nothing is more uncertain than a Babylonian invasion.   But Jeremiah is instructed to purchase the plot, seal up the deed, and store it away for safe keeping.   Nothing about this deal makes any sense.  

Jeremiah obeys, but struggles with the ‘why.’  Yet in this simple act, God offers a sign and seal that grace, not judgment, is the last word.   Join us this week as we examine Jeremiah 32 and consider the importance of signs and seals as a means of grace for us.  We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP

New and Improved

Novelty is a fickle temptress.    We are all fascinated with new things.  The promise of something new is alluring.   A new restaurant, no matter what its offers, will boom for six months.    Every new social media platform renders all others passé.  And when Dr. Oz recommends a new product, demand skyrockets.   But it doesn’t take long for the euphoria of fashionability to yield to a longing for the good old ways – the old places, the old platforms, and the tried and true products.    Novelty is a fickle temptress.    We love change, so long as it doesn’t actually change anything.   As the excitement of discovery cools, we see that newer is not always better.  

But novelty does offer an appeal.   Businesses understand this.   This is why beloved restaurants tinker with their menus and discount furniture stores are perpetually going out of business only to reopen under a new name.   When market share stagnates, products become ‘new and improved’ and businesses go ‘under new management.’    The word ‘new’ pricks our attention.  It arouses consumer desire, but often, not consumer discernment.   

Just what is new?  How is it improved?  Why, if at all, did it need to be improved?   Is the change an improvement?   Some of us are old enough to remember the New Coke debacle of 1985, and it jaded us.   The phrase ‘new and improved’ evokes suspicion.   And ‘under new management’ is often an admission of serious problems — code for ‘we swept the floors and the staff out the door.’   When we hear ‘new and improved’ or ‘under new management,’ we would do well to ask some hard questions and exercise discernment.

But what is true of our economics is even more important for our theology.    When we hear of new teaching or a new interpretation of scripture or a newly discovered ancient text, we must ask some hard questions.    Just what is new?   How new is it?   Why is something new needed?   Is this new thing contrary to the clear truth of the whole counsel of scripture?    The easiest way to lead Christians astray is to provoke our fickle love of novelty – novelty in worship, in teaching, or in practical living.   Ever since the Fall, God’s children have fallen prey to new teaching about God’s nature and His promises.

When we hear about something new, we would do well to ask hard questions and exercise discernment.  Especially when we see that claim in scripture.   Theological understanding demands it.   God promises a new heart, new heavens and a new earth.   He promises to do a ‘new thing’ in the lives of his people as he unfolds redemptive history.  And in the midst of Jeremiah’s Book of Consolation in Jeremiah 31:31-34, God promises a New Covenant – a promise formative in the history and theology of the Church.   

Jesus speaks of the New Covenant as he institutes the Lord’s Supper.

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”  

Luke 22:19-20

And the author of the Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31 twice as he examines exactly what is and is not new about the New Covenant.  

But theological heterodoxy over the nature, membership, and significance of the New Covenant has been divisive in the church, especially since the Reformation.  For some it points to a new way, or dispensation, of salvation.  For others it demotes the Old Testament to a lesser revelation, providing historical background but no continuing authority or relevance for Christian practice.   And many believe it radically changes the nature of covenant membership and therefore the nature of the church.  

With so much at stake, we would do well to ask hard questions when we hear the word ‘new’ in regards to God’s covenant of grace.    Just what is ‘new’ about the New Covenant?   How ‘new’ is it?  And why was something ‘new’ needed?   Jeremiah 31 is the only place in the Old Testament where the New Covenant is mentioned, but the prophet and the whole counsel of God’s Word give us sufficient context to understand just what is ‘new’ about the New Covenant.   And why it is important.

Join us this week as we examine Jeremiah 31:31-40 and consider what is ‘new’ about the New Covenant and why it matters. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP

Taking Comfort

Children can get comfortable in virtually any circumstance.  Alone or in a crowd, stretched out on their bed or cramped in a car seat, circumstance seems to have little to do with their comfort.   For children, comfort is rooted in assurance, not surfaces or society.   If they trust that dad and mom have everything well in hand, they can sleep anywhere and everywhere.   Parenting experts have long pointed out that when children have trouble going to sleep or staying in bed, they are often anxious that dad and mom don’t have it together.    Without assurance, they take no comfort.  With assurance they find comfort everywhere.

Adults are quite a different matter.   We are good at crafting comfortable circumstances — softer fabrics, ergonomic chairs, and bags of meds and supplements that eclipse Santa’s pack.  And spend our time, energy and brass seeking comfort, but little time being comfortable.   If comfort could be acquired, we would have palliated long ago.   Our lives are littered with the right pills and the right pillows.   We have therapeutic socks and smart mattresses.   We have more advanced and available health care than most of the world, but poorer health.   And with 5% of the world’s population, the United States consumes 95% of the world’s opioids.   We are comfortably numb, but devoid of comfort.  

Perhaps what we know about our children, we have failed to learn about ourselves.   Maybe comfort is derived more from assurance than circumstance.   Children gain assurance easily.   They have an unshakable faith in their parent’s wisdom and power.   Even when that faith is misplaced and disproven time and time again.   The willingness of children to rest in their parent’s word is remarkable.  

But as adults we are leery of trusting anyone but ourselves.   And often, we don’t trust ourselves.  Experience has jaded us.  We have been burned.  We have learned never to be at ease.   Even when our mattress is perfect, our medications potent, and our climate control pleasing, rest eludes us.   Real rest.  Soul rest.   The best we can do is to become comfortably numb.  If only we could trust that Our Father has it all together, that His promises and power could be trusted, that his love for us was real. 

Jeremiah spent four decades warning of Judah of judgment and exile.   Through warning after warning, God called the people to turn back to Him, but they would not.  They sought comfort down every path except the path of faith and repentance.   But God did not forsake them.  When hope seemed lost, God gave the prophet Jeremiah a word of comfort.  In the midst of the longest, and most sorrowful book in the Bible, we find bright promises of God’s grace.    Jeremiah 30-33 is often called the ‘Book of Consolation.’ 

Last week we examined Jeremiah 30 and considered how God consoles us in the midst of judgement.  But to take comfort from God’s promises, we must receive them.   We must believe them by faith.   We must turn back to Him.   We must rest in the assurance that Our Father has it all together.  The Heidelberg Catechism underscores this as it begins its summary of Christian doctrine with the question.

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me, that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him.

Heidelberg Catechism, Question 1

With this assurance, we find comfort no matter what, whether in life or in death. Join us this week as we examine Jeremiah 31:1-30 and consider how God calls us to receive and experience the comfort He offers.

We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP

Book of Consolation

Absence makes the heart grow fonder!  With some exceptions this is true.   If “Covidtide” has taught us anything, we have experienced this more keenly.  We were not made for social distancing.   Though necessary, we long for what is missing – our people, our places, and our practices.   And if social distancing has made us more loving and grateful then we will be the better for it.

Absence makes our hearts grow fonder, because often we don’t know what we have until it’s gone.   Grief teaches us this.  We so easily take for granted those we see every day, until the day we cannot see them.   Memories of the difficult times fade, leaving remembrance of what was good.   No matter how things were, absence, though painful, makes the heart grow fonder.  Travel teaches this as well.   The excitement of far-away, exotic travel is quickly tempered with a deep soul-ache for the places of home.

How easy it is to take the best things for granted.   The tyranny of the urgent prevents us from treasuring the best life has to offer – more time to listen to the unfolding of a small child’s story or the extra kiss goodbye.  Then we blink and those little windows are closed, gone forever.   Only then do we realize what a gaping hole in our lives has been left vacant, space that can only be filled with our people, places, and practices.   Absence makes the heart ache, but in that aching fondness grows — a fondness we should have had before.

From the moment the Israelites stepped foot into the Promised Land, they began take for granted the blessings of being God’s people– His Word and presence.   A land flowing with milk and honey is a great gift.  But the real treasure was not the gift of land, but the Giver of life.  To know Him was their inheritance, their very great reward.  He had set his love upon them and revealed his gracious ways and promises to them.    The Psalmist captures it well.

He declares his word to Jacob,
    his statutes and rules to Israel.
He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
    they do not know his rules.
Praise the Lord! 

Psalm 147:19-20

But, within a generation of Joshua’s death there “arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.”   Like the prodigal, they filled their lives with every empty thing.  They longed for a king, like the nations around them.   And the Lord tells a dejected Samuel, “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”  And at that terrible moment when the kingdom is divided after the death of Solomon, Jeroboam sets up Golden Calves to keep the people from returning to the “place where the Lord put his Name.”   So easily they forgot, who and whose they were. Israel had the world’s greatest treasure in Christ.  Yet, they ran after every vanity the world offered.   They lived with their backs to God.

Prophets warned them, starting with Moses. If they lived with their backs turned to God, he would turn from them.  And everything would be taken away.   But they would not listen.   They said, “it is no use, we love foreign Gods.”  They had more gods than towns and more altars than streets.  They were not inclined, nor willing, to hear God’s word calling them back from the brink.   They chose to experience his words of justice and judgement, rather than heed words of grace and mercy.   Yet judgment is not the last word.  To reclaim them, the Lord sent them away.  He took away everything, that they might see what had truly been lost. 

For forty years, Jeremiah wept for Judah.   But it was not until the exile, that the people learned to weep.  Psalm 137 captures it well.

By the waters of Babylon,
    there we sat down and wept,
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
    required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy!

Absence makes their hearts tender.   Not just an absence from the land, but from the One who makes the land and its people what they are.  But is it too late?  Will God remember mercy in wrath?  Has God’s steadfast love worn thin?   No doubt, the exiles remembered their northern cousins.   Exiled to Assyria a century before, the ten tribes of the north never returned, lost forever.    God would be perfectly just to treat them the same way.  Is there any kindness left?  Perhaps, you are wondering the same thing.   Have you filled your life with every empty thing?  And left no room for the only One who can fill?   What hope is there for you?  What comfort?  

God instructs Jeremiah to speak words of consolation to fallen Judah.  And not just speak them, but write them down.  Words for them and for us!  Jeremiah spent four decades warning of judgment and exile.   Now, when hope seems lost, he opens a new chapter – the Book of Consolation.  In the midst of the longest, and most sorrowful book in the Bible, we find bright promises of God’s grace.    Jeremiah 30-33 is often called the ‘Book of Consolation.’ 

We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP

Letters from Home

My father was a letter-writer.   On every birthday, there was a card.  Anytime I was away from home, there were letters.  He always wrote to share news from home and a fatherly exhortation.   While my father was not a very affectionate man. his tenderness shined through in his letters.   Without those letters, much of my father’s heart would have remained concealed.  

Unfortunately, the discipline of letter-writing is fading fast.   Instant communication is more expedient, more practical.   The patient beauty of a thoughtful letter has yielded to the pragmatic expediency of ‘messaging,’ despite its copious downsides.   Commercial clutter invades every exchange.  Intolerance erupts over every opinion expressed.  Nothing is private or secure.   Conversations become threads.  And our interactions become the stage, upon which we are merely players.   Every word is judged, commented upon, and hijacked by unfilterable group-think.  Yet the promise of immediacy seduces us to abandon the time-honored art of letter writing.  

Perhaps, most insidious in this brave new world is the “death of the sentence.”  My sophomore composition teacher, Ms. Sandidge, warned diligently against using sentence fragments, yet this is now the accepted norm.    The stilted, stuttering language of our instant messages, fast becomes the manner of our spoken word.   And the “death of the sentence” kills more than a way of speaking – it takes with it measured, reasoned, critical thinking.   Words describe, express, and instruct in a way that emojis never can. This is why God speaks to us in words, not images and forbids substituting imagery for God’s self-revelation in the Bible.  

To view God’s nature or purposes through the lens of circumstance or speculation, always leads to a distorted view of God, a pagan view, a view that makes a god after our fallen image.   When God desires to communicate his comfort, his purpose, his grace, his mercy, his love for us, he does it through his Word.  As Augustine famously said, “The Holy Scriptures are my ‘Letter from Home.’”

For decades Jeremiah had warned the people of Judah that the judgment of God was unfolding.   And in 597 BC, Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem and carried off the best and the brightest to Babylon. 

He carried away all Jerusalem and all the officials and all the mighty men of valor, 10,000 captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths. None remained, except the poorest people of the land. And he carried away Jehoiachin to Babylon. The king’s mother, the king’s wives, his officials, and the chief men of the land he took into captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon. And the king of Babylon brought captive to Babylon all the men of valor, 7,000, and the craftsmen and the metal workers, 1,000, all of them strong and fit for war. 

2 Kings 24:14-16

Imagine how these exiles felt.   Taken from the only places and people they had ever known.   What would happen to them?  Had God forsaken them in his judgement?   How were they to live as refugees, immigrants, and resident aliens?   Would they share the fate of their sister Israel, whose ten tribes were carried off to Assyrian and never heard from again?   But God was not done with them.  He had not washed his hands of them.   God had revealed to Jeremiah that he would set his favor upon them.

Thus, says the Lord, the God of Israel… I will set my eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up. I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart. 

Jeremiah 24:4-7

The Lord instructed Jeremiah to write letters to the exiles instructing them to live patiently as resident aliens.  In these letters, God’s grace shines through his judgment as he speaks comfort and clarity into uncertainty and confusion

Thus, says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

 Jeremiah 29:4-7

Resident aliens have great power to influence and effect society.   They bring their particular cultural strengths to the table, but also foster the distinctives of their homeland.  They are a part of society, without losing their identity. The Church is to be like this – resident aliens, “an island of one culture in the middle of another.” (Phil 3:20)   But it must never be merely an enclave.  For while the Church fosters the culture of its heavenly homeland, its calling is to transform its sphere of influence, not just “coexist.”  The Church is a colony of resident aliens gathered to “name the name, to tell the Story, to sing Zion’s songs in a land that does not know Zion’s God.”

These exiles were not merely collateral of war, the Lord sent them into exile.  He had a purpose for them among the Babylonians to reveal His glory and seek the “shalom” of the city where He sent them.  We see in their immigration the paradigm and paradox of the Christian life as they are placed by God’s providence in the midst of pagan Babylon, yet called to remain distinct as God’s covenant children.   Join us this week as we examine Jeremiah 29 and consider its instruction and comfort to us regarding how we are to live faithfully as resident aliens in a land that is not our home.

We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP

Conflict Management

Parting words are powerful words.   They live in the lives of recipients long after their sound has died away.   They have power to bless or curse.  Parting words establish new courses and callings for those who heed them.   Small talk has no place in them.   Each word and action matters.   Like words of poetry, though used sparingly, each is full and potent.

We see this in Jesus’ last words to his disciples.   They were contentious, dull, self-serving, self-seeking and consumed with the pecking order.   But on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus prepares them for his departure.  His actions and words command a new pattern.   They are to love and serve one another.   This is how they will be known.

He washed their feet, the duty of a slave, not a Lord, then instructed them.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you…  A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

John 13:12-17, 34-35

This is how the world should see the church.   This is how the world expects to see the church.   But what does the world actually see?  Do people know we are Christ’s disciples by our love for one another?   Too often, the world sees irreconcilable conflict in the church.   We are more known for division than unity.   And in a world hopelessly divided, why would anyone look to the church for leadership when pagans seem to manage conflict more graciously and effectively than Christians.

We are commanded to “[bear] with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” and “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”   Yet, more churches are planted through division rather than obedience to the Great Commission.   To be sure, God providentially uses for good what we mean for evil.    Yet, how many have fled from Christ and Christianity, because of the Christians they knew and observed.   How many have fled from Christ because they have observed you?

Once when the missionary E. Stanley Jones met with Mahatma Ghandi he asked him, “Mr. Ghandi, though you quote the words of Christ often, why is that you appear to so adamantly reject becoming his follower?”  Ghandi replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”   While Ghandi’s excuse was just that, an excuse, it ought to convict us.   How do we handle conflict in the church?   How gracious and prayerful are we when conflict is unavoidable?   Do others see our love – love for Christ, love for the Word of God, and love for one another in how we respond to conflict?

Jeremiah’s ministry was filled with conflict.   God warned him it would be that way.   Jeremiah had no illusions of picket fences or of honeymoons.   From the get-go, God told Jeremiah he would have conflict “against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you.” 

But Jeremiah’s greatest conflict was with those in the church, with priests and the prophets.   As God’s judgement unfolded against Judah, He sent Jeremiah to warn the people to submit to His discipline through Nebuchadnezzar.   If the people would repent and submit they would live.   To strengthen the message, God told Jeremiah.

“Make yourself straps and yoke-bars, and put them on your neck.… Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel…  I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant, to serve him. All the nations shall serve him and his son and his grandson, until the time of his own land comes.” 

Jeremiah 27:2, 6-7

Nothing provokes conflict in church like a sermon on submission.   Immediately Jeremiah is opposed, called a liar and a false prophet.   Everything he prophesied was contradicted.   And the yoke-bars and straps, were wrenched from his neck and broken.

In that same year, at the beginning of the reign of Zedekiah… Hananiah the son of Azzur, the prophet from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the Lord, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord’s house, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon” 

Jeremiah 28:1-4

Jeremiah often complains and confronts, but here his response to the false prophet is remarkable.   With gracious, prayerful wisdom the prophet rebuts the false teacher and disarms his false gospel.    Jeremiah’s life is quite literally an open book.   We often see his anger, but here we observe a godly example of how to handle conflict within the church.  An example worthy of imitation.  Join us this coming Lord’s Day as we examine Jeremiah 28 and consider how to respond to conflict within the church.

We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP

Owning Up

We knew she had them, but we never saw them – eyes in the back of her head.   Like the answer to the children’s catechism question, “we could not see them, but they always saw us.”   Just when we thought we were under the radar and outside maternal surveillance, we were called to account.  But parental omniscience is not just the province of mothers.   Fathers can have it too.   My father was very in tune with my sinful tendencies.   One particular example from my youth is seared into my memory.  

My friends and I were going downtown, but the train did not come as far as our neighborhood. So we drove to the station in Decatur.    The station did not have much parking, but was happily located right across the street from the Maud M. Burrus Public Library.   The library had plenty of free parking, each spot adorned with a warning — “library patrons only, all others will be towed.”  With dire words and prophecies of doom, my father warned me against the temptation to park there.   But my 1973 Goldenrod Impala needed space.  It yearned for free parking and lots of it.  So, as children often do, I disregarded my father’s instruction.

When we returned at day’s end, to my horror, the Impala was gone.   It was the sum of all fears.   Adrenaline surged.  A dreadful panic seized me.  Where could it be?  How will we get home?  And how would I explain this grievous crime to my father?  Then I saw it, a sight worse than any scenario I imagined.   Parked in a corner of the lot, far from where I left it was the Impala.   He knew!   He knew I was not to be trusted.  He knew I had ignored his wise warning.   The ugly truth could not be concealed.   I had deliberately disobeyed.   Wriggling out was not an option.   My only option was to own up and to accept whatever came.

Much to my surprise, the consequence was not as severe as it could have or should have been.   My father knew the shock of his masterstroke was, itself, quite potent.    His goal was not to punish, but to discipline – to instruct me in the pain of disobedience and lead me to the freedom that comes from submission.    Indeed, punishment and discipline, though both painful, are radically different.

Punishment’s goal is to inflict, to harm, to exact.   It covers the debt of justice by demanding the value of what was taken by the hand of a perpetrator.   It seeks no redemption, no rehabilitation, and no restoration.   It is guided by wrath not mercy.   Vengeance is its telos — an eye for every eye, and a tooth for every tooth.  But discipline is quite a different matter.   Discipline is concerned for growth, change, fruitfulness, and maturity.    It is guided by love and governed by relationship.   Discipline is redemptive, rehabilitative, and restorative.   This is what it seeks.   It teaches us that freedom and fruitfulness come from submitting to yokes not breaking bonds.

We see this truth remarkably laid out for us in Hebrews 12:5-11

And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” …For at the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

How will we respond to the Lord’s discipline?  When afflictions come.  When frowning providences are the only providence we know.   When we encounter many trials of various kinds?  Will we be like the God’s enemies in Psalm 2 who say, “Let us burst [His] bonds apart and cast away [His] cords from us.”   Or like God’s sons, who will “take [His] yoke upon us, and learn from [Him].”   

Punishment is for God’s enemies.   They will be destroyed by it.   They will rail against it and resist it.   They will not repent, but only raise a clinched fist.   They will call to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.”   But children receive loving discipline if they will submit to it.   Though it may be painful it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness in the end.   How willing are you to submit to the discipline of God?  Is your desire of comfort and relief greater than your desire to be conformed to the likeness of Christ?  

The Lord chastised Judah in Jeremiah’s day.  The best and brightest had been carried off to Babylon.   Zedekiah was placed on the throne only as a steward.   But the people were not content to submit to the God’s discipline.  They plotted rebellion.  And Jeremiah warned them with a powerful illustration.

This word came to Jeremiah from the Lord.  “Make yourself straps and yoke-bars, and put them on your neck.… Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel…  I have given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, my servant, and I have given him also the beasts of the field to serve him. All the nations shall serve him and his son and his grandson, until the time of his own land comes….  But if any nation or kingdom will not serve this Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, declares the Lord, until I have consumed it by his hand.”

Jeremiah 27:2-8

If they submit they will live.  But if they rebel, they will experience the just punishment of God.   What about you?  How will you respond when God lays a heavy hand upon you?  When he brings discipline because of sin?   Will you own up?  Will you submit?  Will you put your neck under the yoke?   Join us this Lord’s Day as we examine Jeremiah 27 and consider what it means to submit to the Lord’s discipline.  

We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP

09/13/2020 | “Worst Case Scenario” | Jeremiah 26

We love to proclaim and sing about being the salt of the earth and a city set on a hill, but Jesus speaks of this as a faithful response to persecution.  Today’s cancel-culture wants to silence the gospel and the truth of God.    How are we to respond?  Are we to soften our message?  Conform it to the differing expectations of culture?  Reassess our calling or the sphere in which we execute it?   These are all questions Jeremiah faced.   In Jeremiah 26, the prophet preached one of his earliest and most memorable sermons.  Jeremiah was probably optimistic as he preached.   But the moment the sermon ended the cancel-culture attacked.   “You shall die” was the response of the religious establishment.   “Jeremiah, conform or be cut off.”  How would Jeremiah respond?  How will we respond?  Listen to “Worst Case Scenario” as we examine Jeremiah 26 and consider the Jeremiah’s response to the cancel-culture of his day.

“Cancel Culture, Jeremiah 26”

Worst Case Scenario

I have a diverse library.  Every “ology” can be found – theology, technology, sociology, anthropology, and mythology, just to name a few.  Widely varied genres and perspectives live on my shelves.  My catalog runs the gamut from ancient to contemporary, orthodoxy to heresy, and the profound to the absurd.   Seriousness and satire have a home in my world of ideas – a cosmos framed both on shelves and in clouds.    

In the outer reaches of this cosmos is a book entitled, The Worst-Case Scenario Handbook.   Supplied to me by a bookstore-owning friend, who usually plied me with theology, this little quod absurdium purports to give strategies for life’s worst-case scenarios.  For example, when aliens invade, it is imperative to construct a headpiece of tin-foil.   As is well known, aliens are telepathic.   Only a tin-foil headpiece can foil their telepathy.   The only alternative is simply to stop thinking.   Just don’t think about anything.   Clear your mind.  This is the only foolproof way to avoid alien domination.

Perhaps this explains why critical thinking seems to have disappeared.  Maybe our culture is preparing for an alien invasion.  We have clearly stopped thinking – at least any thoughts other than the mantras du jour fed to us by (anti)social media.   Critical thinking, and its expressive corollaries, free speech and robust dialogue are now anathema.   Dialogue has been replaced with cancel culture – a group-think which refuses to admit any narrative other than that clearly delineated by a viral hashtag. Meanwhile everyone and everything at odds from the approved narrative is declared “dead to us.”  While I am not sure that Central, Central Intelligence or Big Brother and his Ministry of Truth are behind the cancel-culture, it is certainly enforced through social media.

But cancel-culture is not new.   Media campaigns and boycotts are as old as the Fall of Mankind.  Public shame and commerce have long been powerful tools for policy change, for better and for worse.  What is new is the amazing speed with which shame and commerce is effected through social media.   The uneditable and unanswerable animosity unleashed by social media cancels without appeal.  The “brakes” of time – and therefore reflection — were never installed.  Time to reflect, to think carefully, to analyze motive, context and deeper intent is missing.   There is no time for thoughtful action, only violent and immediate reaction.   As social critic, Neil Peart, noted, “conform or be cast out.”  These are the options – the only options.

Cancel-culture strikes at the core of the Christian’s identity.   Christians are animated by the gospel.  Thought, speech and actions are to be transformed by the renewing of minds not conformed to the pattern of the world.   Thus, christians are fundamentally at odds with the ethos of cancel-culture.   Truth is not socially determined, but authoritatively revealed.   And that authority is not Twitter.   On the continuum of “conform or be cast out,” Christians will always be castaways.  The received and revealed gospel is the compelling means of grace for our lives and our world.  Our compulsion, our commission is to share it, preach it, declare it and defend it.    Yet, the gospel’s presupposition of a brokenness no state or hashtag can fix is obnoxious to the cancel-culture.   In its opposition to Christianity, cancel-culture reduces Peart’s “conform or be cast out” to only one option – “conform,” willingly or unwillingly.

And so, Christians find themselves is a familiar place – the place of persecution.   This is nothing new.   As Jesus unfolds the ethics and expectations of a life animated by grace, he concludes with are remarkable statement. 

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.  

Matthew 5:10-16

We love to proclaim and sing about being the salt of the earth and a city set on a hill, but notice how Jesus connects these to a faithful response to persecution.  The cancel-culture wants to silence the gospel and the truth of God.    How are we to respond?  Are we to soften our message?  Conform it to the differing expectations of culture?  Reassess our calling or the sphere in which we execute it?   These are all questions Jeremiah faced.   The “Temple Sermon” was one of his earliest and most memorable sermons.  Jeremiah was probably optimistic as he preached.   But the moment the sermon ended the cancel-culture attacked.   “You shall die” was the response of the religious establishment.   “Jeremiah, conform or be cut off.”

When God called Jeremiah, he warned him that this would be the case.

But you, dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them. And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, declares the Lord, to deliver you.

Jeremiah 1:17-19

How would Jeremiah respond?  How will we respond?  As Paul wrote to a young Timothy, “indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12)   It is only a matter of time before you face the ultimatum, “conform or be cast out.”  What will be the response to this worst-case scenario?

Join us this Lord’s Day, September 13, as we examine Jeremiah 26 and consider the Jeremiah’s response to the cancel-culture of his day. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP

Choose Wisely

I admit it.  I am absolutely syncretistic in my speech.   Wherever I live, the local accent and expressions find their way into my own.    On a recent family movie night, an ancient VHS tape surfaced of a presentation I gave in 1988.   Two things were notable.  First, I had as many verbal ticks then as now.  And second, my accent – it was positively “down home” – vintage Georgia.    I am without a doubt a verbal chameleon.  Yet, this is true for most of us. 

The attitudes and expressions of those around us together with the images and phrases we’ve invited into our souls will bubble up to the surface of our lives through our speech.  Beyond accents, inflection and expressions, movies, books and music often implant phrases into our psyche that become mainstays of our expression.  Brando’s eerie mantra from Apocalypse Now – “the horror,” and Ham Porter’s refrain from The Sandlot – “you’re killin’ me Smalls,” are go-to phrases for me.   But a favorite is the admonition of the Grail Knight from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – “choose wisely!”

After navigating the “leap of faith from the Lion’s Head,” Indy enters into a shine to the Holy Grail, guarded by an ancient knight.   The room is filled with different cups — elaborate and simple, some of precious metals and jewels, others of simple wood or glass.   In order to save his father’s life, Indiana Jones must choose the one true Holy Grail from the vast display.  But the first choice must be the right choice, for the Grail Knight warns him.

“You must choose, but choose wisely, as the true grail will bring you life and the false grail will take it from you.”

Indy must choose a cup to drink.  He must drink.  No other option is on the table.  He must choose – and choose wisely.   Life or death hangs on the choice.

We see a similar picture come into focus in Jeremiah 25.   The prophet is told to take the “cup of the wine of God’s fury” and make all the nations drink from it.   It is no mild vintage.  It has no smooth flavor.  This wine is neither light-bodied nor flavorfully rich in tannins.  No hints of this or notes of that.  And it does not finish well.  It is hard drink.  The cup of judgement.   Those who drink it, drink it down to the dregs.   It has no mild or pleasant effect.  The drinker becomes raging drunk and violently ill.   Bold drinkers think they can handle this liquor, but it reduces them to complete stupor.   But what if men simply refuse this choice?  What if they will not drink.   Note what the Lord says.

Thus, the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me: “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it…. And if they refuse to accept the cup from your hand to drink, then you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: You must drink!’” 

Jeremiah 25:15, 28

Not to drink is not an option.   And there is no milder vintage.  But is there another cup?   The cup is a common picture of God’s judgment in the Bible.   But scripture reveals a remarkable promise —  that God, himself, will graciously take the cup from us.

Therefore hear this, you who are afflicted,
    who are drunk, but not with wine:
Thus says your Lord, the Lord,
    your God who pleads the cause of his people:
“Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;
the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more; 

Isaiah 51:21-22

But what is more, God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, drinks our cup for us.

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, … he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”  …Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”

Matthew 26:36-42

And then He gives us another cup, a different cup – the cup of blessing which we bless.

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Matthew 26:26-28

Jeremiah was told to take the cup of the wine of the wrath of God and to make all the nations drink of it.  But there is another cup.   For those who choose wisely — who trust in Christ, not in themselves, who acknowledge God’s righteous judgment of sin, yet plead for His mercy upon sinners, there is the cup of blessing.  The Grail Knight spoke more than he knew when he cautioned, “choose, but choose wisely, as the true grail will bring you life and the false grail will take it from you.”  What cup will you choose?  The cup of the fury of God’s wrath?  Or the cup of Christ?

Join us this Lord’s Day, September 6, as we examine Jeremiah 25:15-38 and consider the choice God sets before us between grace and judgement. We meet on the square in Pottsville, right next to historic Potts’ Inn at 10:30 am for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.  Or join us on Facebook Live @PottsvilleARP