During the season of Advent, which prepares us for Christmas, we share in the hope, peace, joy and love of Jesus as we contemplate his three-fold coming (advent) for our salvation: Jesus came 2,000 years ago through the Incarnation, permanently uniting his divinity with our humanity. Jesus comes now through the Holy Spirit, indwelling those who believe. Jesus will come again bodily at the end of the age, ushering in the fullness of the kingdom of God.
During Advent this year, in addition to contemplating our Lord’s comings, my wife Donna and I will be reflecting on the ways our triune God has been faithful to us throughout the many years of my employment with WCG-GCI in ministry (I’m retiring shortly after Christmas, though I’ll continue teaching and serving as a board member at Grace Communion Seminary, and volunteering as a GCI ministry coach). Let me share some of those reflections with you (including ones related to Equipper). I’ll also share some thoughts concerning the road ahead for GCI, then conclude with an outline of the contents of this issue.
In 2006, Dan Rogers (then Superintendent of U.S. Ministers) asked that I launch Equipper (click here for the inaugural issue). The goal then, as now, was to equip GCI pastors and ministry leaders to participate with Jesus in his ongoing ministry. After taking on Equipper, I was asked to also produce The Surprising God blog and GCI Update. To that was added work on GCI websites and Facebook groups. Throughout the years, this editorial work has been informed by my concurrent service in ministry as a pastor, district superintendent, Generations Ministries director, regional pastor, mentor and ministry coach. Add all these up, and it’s been 32 years of GCI-employed ministry.
Shaped by a sense of calling from God, my passion and focus throughout those years has been “to equip [God’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4:12). What a journey it has been! Though sometimes overwhelming, it has always been a blessing and privilege, leaving me with many wonderful memories. For that, I thank our Lord, my wife, and all of you, the men and women I’ve been blessed to journey alongside. Many of you have given me lots of encouragement, along with direction and support in multiple forms. Most importantly you’ve given Donna and me your prayers and friendship.
As a Christ-centered, gospel-focused team (We are GCI!), I see our future as bright, despite the challenges of living and sharing the gospel (our mission) in ways that lead to healthy church (our vision) in a world that grows increasingly postmodern and post-Christian. We need not fear this reality, and we must not hold back in moving forward. Jesus has this! (Eph. 3:20-21).
Though I’ll miss working with Equipper, I’m grateful to be leaving it in capable, dedicated hands. As Greg Williams mentioned last month, Rick Shallenberger is taking over as editor and publisher of Equipper later this month. I know you’ll support him as you have me.
In this issue
We hope you like the new look for Equipper introduced with this issue. The changes we’ve made bring this publication into alignment with GCI’s new branding, seen already on our new websites.
Within this issue, in addition to our regular Equipper features, you’ll find various tools designed to help your congregation pursue our shared vision for healthy church. You’ll also find two articles that conclude our series on worldview conversion—whole-life discipleship. I encourage you to use the articles in this series for personal study and for guided discussions in your congregation. To minister well in a post-Christian, postmodern world, it’s vital that we be equipped to deal with the challenging issues these articles address.
It’s my prayer that all the resources we provide in this issue (along with all other issues of Equipper) will help equip you for the gospel ministries to which our Lord has called you.
Journey on with Jesus!
Ted Johnston, Equipper editor-publisher
Tools for Building Healthy Churches
The links below connect to the Ministry Toolbox on GCI’s newly-launched Resources website. The tools found there are designed to assist congregations in pursuing our healthy church vision.
Healthy church results from several factors, including the two addressed below: healthy leadership and healthy ministries.
Healthy Leadership (REAL Teams)
Healthy church leadership is pastor-led and team-based—what GCI refers to as REAL teams. For an infographic explaining what this means, click here. For videos that give additional detail, click on these links:
Healthy church ministries are achieved when there is vibrancy in three areas (venues) of disciple-making ministry: the love venue (incarnational connection), the hope venue (inclusive gathering), and the faith venue (intentional discipleship). Health in these three venues yields Christ-centered, Spirit-led relationship. For an infographic that addresses the three venues, click here. For infographics specific to each one, click on the links below.
Why Small Groups?– environments for relationally-based discipleship (includes starter curriculum).
For additional resources related to intentional discipleship, click here.
Worldview Conversion: Racial Identity and Reconciliation
GCI’s Statement of Values says this: “Scripture declares that all hatred and prejudice is contrary to the Christian life. We are committed to furthering racial understanding, forgiveness and healing.” Living out this commitment is a great challenge in a world where there continues to be a great deal of racial prejudice along with the divisions it creates. The following article from Jeffrey Broadnax (Generations Ministries national coordinator) addresses this important topic as part of our series on worldview conversion and whole-life discipleship.
When we get to heaven, there will not be a white section, a black section, a Latino section, an Asian section and a Native American section. (Albert Tate)
Turn on the nightly news, pick up a newspaper, listen to talk radio or surf social media and it’s a pretty good bet you will experience a constant stream of economic, social, judicial, political and relational division with racial prejudice and division served up as a primary cause. News segments on everything from police/community relations to immigration, unemployment, mass incarceration, voting, drugs, and yes even Christianity, show caustic intersections of white, black, brown, yellow and red peoples. These often-toxic interactions are strategically highlighted to expose systemic inequities in power and dignity that have continuously existed throughout America’s 242-year journey as a nation.
Racial, ethnic and power divisions are not unique to America. Though called by different names, these cancerous divisions are found everywhere humans are gathered. It is precisely because they are individually and systemically common that they must be challenged. Historical blights such as Nazism, ethnic cleansing and the intercontinental slave trade expose a myopic racial worldview that seems woven into the fabric of human history.
Though common in our world and, sadly, in the church, the false belief that some races are innately superior to others is incompatible with both science and the Bible. Worldviews that embrace or foster human divisions based on race and ethnicity must give way to the Christ-centered worldview that embraces the gospel truth that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus…and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:28-29).
The Lord’s Prayer
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20b-21)
Jesus prayed that his disciples would reflect a heavenly oneness that would convict the world that he was the Messiah sent from the Father. He prayed about the ignorance, persecution and rejection his followers would experience as they lived as witnesses of his life and teachings. He didn’t offer them a worldview built on political and religious extremes but the worldview of the Father who “so loved the world” (John 3:16) that he sent his Son to reconcile the world to himself, bringing to humanity salvation, rescue and healing.
Six decades after his ascension, Jesus unveiled for the apostle John a vision of the throne room of the Father where John beheld
a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Rev. 7:9)
Note the diversity of these people. No image obliterates the idea of racism and racial separation better than this innumerable, multi-ethnic crowd of people in heaven. According to what John saw and heard, they stand together before God’s throne singing this song of praise:
You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. (Rev. 5:9)
Because of the healing, transforming sacrifice of Jesus, distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender and culture are celebrated in heaven as wonderful aspects of God’s good creation. The challenge to us on earth is to do likewise.
Diverse, yet one
What we learn from both Scripture and science is that though we are diverse, at our core as humans we are one—one blood and of one race (the human race). Dr. John Perkins makes this point in One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race, where he argues that the racial division that continues to plague our world is not primarily a community or national issue—it is a spiritual issue:
The problem of reconciliation in [America] and in our churches is much too big to be wrestled to the ground by plans that begin with the minds of men. This is a God-sized problem and only the Church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can heal. It requires the quality of love that only our Savior can provide. (p. 16)
To buttress his declaration of one blood/one race, Perkins cites the conclusion of the Human Genome Project, which found that all humans are 99.9 percent the same genetically. You and I are only one tenth of one percent different from any other person on earth, no matter what race they are. To devalue (even destroy) another human over racial, ethnic or cultural differences is as ludicrous as possessing $100.00, yet then doing harm to someone over a 10-cent coin.
I’m acutely aware of the truth that we are all of one blood. Twenty years ago I, an African American man, was blessed to donate some of my bone marrow to an Ecuadorian man who was dying from leukemia. Not only was I better matched to him genetically than were his siblings and children, we are of different blood types. This rare combination of factors, a miracle from God, not only united our two families, it brought together two cultures, races and ethnicities. Despite our racial-ethnic differences, it was determined that we were genetic brothers.
In Genesis 11, due to humanity’s arrogance and lack of faith, God separated humankind in speech, understanding and geography. Beginning with the fall in the garden of Eden, human relationships had continued to spiral away from God’s design. Separation became humanity’s natural (fallen) state. But this sad state of affairs is overcome in and through Jesus. Note what the apostle Paul said in addressing the Areopagus in Athens:
From one man [i.e. one blood] [God] made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. (Acts 17:26-27)
Paul’s declaration has both spiritual and physical validity. Spiritually, there is only one “man” (Jesus) through whom all people can “find” God. Physically, all humans have a common genetic origin—we all are descended from Adam.
Speaking of the oneness of humanity, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brothers’ brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” What would happen if this Spirit-led worldview would be embraced by all people; by all Christians? The fifth chapter of 2 Corinthians provides a road-map for us to journey in that direction.
When Paul wrote the letter we know as 2 Corinthians, the city of Corinth was rife with the behavioral, economic, ethnic, religious, leadership and identity divisions so common in our day. The Corinthian Christians, having repented of these divisions, were beginning to live in accordance with Christ’s worldview. Paul seeks to help them make further progress by equipping them with the antidote to the poison of racial and identity division. Let’s reflect on Paul’s instruction.
Be compelled by love
For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Cor. 5:14-15)
Since first partaking of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we humans have consistently sought our own way apart from God. Our hearts deceive us, leading us to embrace a self-centered worldview. Though we understand love, and sometimes stumble into a response that is more altruistic than self-seeking, when we find that our own interests are being jeopardized, our natural inclination is to protect ourselves and our interests even to the detriment of others. As we walk this path of self-protectiveness, our worldview slowly but surely becomes insular, discriminatory and biased in favor of ourselves over others.
With Jesus it is not that way. He showed in his death that he would not live for himself but for those he created. He could have rightly chosen his preservation over ours, but in order for us to learn to love he lived that love for us and offers it freely to us. Jesus, by the Spirit, now compels us who have received his love to abandon a self-centered worldview and live for others without barriers. In doing so, we will grow in the love and oneness he prayed that we would find.
See no one through human eyes
So, from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Cor. 5:16-17)
In the lexicon of Christ, “all lives matter” the same to him. Human distinctions based on physical characteristics or even behavior must be seen through the lens of Jesus’ completed work of forgiveness on the cross. To hold this viewpoint does not mean ignoring systemic abuses, blatant discrimination, or historical exploitations of any person or group of persons. Instead, it means facing those human crimes with a thirst for Christ-like forgiveness rather than a hunger for human justice. Embracing and then living out a Christ-centered worldview is not easy but it is mandatory for followers of Jesus. We must study and immerse ourselves in the teachings of our Lord on confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Participate in the ministry of reconciliation
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. (2Cor. 5:18-19)
In One Blood, John Perkins defines Biblical reconciliation as “the removal of tension between parties and the restoration of loving relationship” (p. 17). He notes that this reconciliation is grounded in God’s declaration that he has reconciled the entire world to himself in Christ. In Christ, every broken relationship is restored, made whole. As followers of Jesus, Christians are invited to share with humanity the truth that they have been forgiven and that their sins and acts of separation are not being chronicled in a condemnatory list in heaven. Given this reality, how can we, regardless of hurtful offenses and mindsets, not serve as agents of truth, justice, equality and love filtered through the finished work of Jesus?
And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. (2 Cor. 5:19b–20)
Jesus has invited us to join with him in his ministry of reconciliation. He empowers us to do so through the Holy Spirit who gives us the words we are to speak—words by which we re-present Jesus, making his appeal to all who will listen. That appeal is that they will embrace and live into their true identity as beloved children of God.
We do not have an option about sharing this message, and we must be careful to speak of the reconciliation that comes in and through Christ, not a reconciliation that is based on humanly-devised approaches. We must teach that there is only one blood, one race in Jesus. Then we must model that oneness through transparent reflection, confession, forgiveness and actions that foster restoration. These words and actions must flow from a heart that has been transformed by Christ. This is about the Lord’s own appeal to the human race, and he chooses to make it through us.
Conclusion: keep looking in the mirror
We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21)
Because a Christ-centered worldview does not come naturally, we must seek it from its Source. We do so by submitting our hurts, pains, insights, wisdom, histories and efforts to Jesus who takes our efforts and transforms them by the Holy Spirit. It is only through what Jesus has done on our behalf and continues to do by the Holy Spirit that we are able to experience the true, loving reconciliation that overcomes all barriers.
Sadly, many approaches to racial reconciliation are more about self-will than about Jesus’ other-centered love. Let us prayerfully ask our Lord to wash our hearts and grant us the ability to faithfully share with the world his good news concerning the spiritual unity that is available to all humanity in, through and by him.
Worldview Conversion: Science, the Bible and Faith
In “The Trinity, Creation and Pastoral Ministry,” Graham Buxton notes that church leaders and teachers need “a more sympathetic engagement with those in the scientific community in order to combat the (sometimes substantial) residual prejudice in the minds of many Christians against the contribution of the natural sciences to an understanding of what it means to live as human beings in God’s world” (p. xv). In the article below, GCI Elder Santiago Lange asks and answers a related question: Can science, the Bible and faith be reconciled, or are they hopelessly at odds?
Defining the issue
Some Christians feel that to uphold Scripture, they must reject many of the claims of science (particularly ones related to origins and the age of the earth). Conversely, many non-Christians (and some Christians) believe that to uphold modern science, they must reject at least some of what they understand Scripture to say. Is there no possibility of reconciling science and Scripture; science and Christian faith? Let’s see what we learn when we address this topic through the lens of a Christ-centered worldview.
Dealing with our preconceptions
Let’s begin by noting that both sides in the science vs. faith debate tend to bring to the table preconceptions concerning both science and Scripture that flow from the particular worldview they hold. Some Christians bring preconceptions rooted in what we might call a fundamentalist Christian worldview—one that tends to see science (evolution in particular) as hopelessly God-rejecting. On the other side, some scientists come to the table with a philosophical commitment to a materialistic-naturalistic worldview that sees the Bible as primitive and anti-science. This latter group tends to view the first 11 chapters of Genesis with particular skepticism, even derision.
Using an exegetical method in reading Scripture
Thinking with the mind of Christ, let’s lay aside our preconceptions as best we can, and go to Scripture to see what it says, using an method of reading the Bible that is advocated by many conservative Bible scholars, including John H. Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College.
Dr. Walton warns against bringing false notions (preconceptions) to our reading of the Bible (the Old Testament, in particular). He notes that though the Old Testament was written for all humankind in all eras, it was written specifically to Israel, not to us. He explains the implications of this understanding:
[The Old Testament] is God’s revelation of himself to Israel and secondarily through Israel to everyone else. As obvious as this is, we must be aware of the implications of that simple statement. Since it was written to Israel, it is in a language that most of us do not understand, and therefore it requires translation. But the language is not the only aspect that needs to be translated. Language assumes a culture, operates in a culture, serves a culture, and is designed to communicate into the framework of a culture. Consequently, when we read a text written in another language and addressed to another culture, we must translate the culture as well as the language if we hope to understand the text fully. (The Lost World of Genesis One, p. 7)
Like most conservative Christians, Walton embraces the exegetical principle that a passage of Scripture can never mean something it did not mean to the original author/audience. This principle is grounded in the understanding that God works through authorized human vessels, and we must be careful to not interpret biblical texts on the basis of private interpretations grounded in contemporary experience. To rightly understand Scripture, it is vital that we understand the particular text’s context. Walton illustrates this point by saying that when we read the Old Testament we are in a way reading “someone else’s mail.” Though the authors of the New Testament interpreted Old Testament passages in fresh ways, they did so uniquely, having been given God’s authority to do so. Walton comments:
Biblical authority is tied inseparably to the author’s intention. God vested his authority in a human author, so we must consider what the human author intended to communicate if we want to understand God’s message. Two voices speak, but the human author is our doorway into the room of God’s meaning and message. That means that when we read Genesis, we are reading an ancient document and should begin by using only the assumptions that would be appropriate for the ancient world. We must understand how the ancients thought and what ideas underlay their communication. (Walton, p. 15)
Genesis 1:1 says that “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This has rightly been called one of the most profound statements ever made. It sparks our curiosity regarding some fundamental questions. However, as Walton asserts, the Bible is not a textbook on science. Instead, it is a book about redemption, emphasizing the concept of Immanuel (God with us). Walton recounts the primary flow of Scripture—starting in Eden, continuing to the Tabernacle, then the Temple, on to the Incarnation, then Pentecost, and finally the new heaven and new earth.
In this progression, Immanuel theology becomes clear. God’s presence, which Walton defines as “sacred space,” is to be guarded, maintained and expanded by the human race as bearers of God’s image. This is humankind’s appointed priestly role, with Adam and Eve serving as archetypes for humanity. God’s plan of redemption declares the way out of a disrupted, disordered and alienated world. The supreme concern within God’s heart in giving us the Holy Scriptures is that we might understand what goes on in the human spirit, affecting everything we do, and that we might understand God’s great desire to dwell with us in relationship.
Understanding ancient cosmology
Walton also emphasizes that the creation accounts in Genesis are embedded within the cultural background of ancient cosmology. Genesis does not describe cosmology in modern terms, nor does it address modern scientific questions. Instead, God gave his message to Israel within its context, which included the accepted cosmology of that era. Walton writes,
Through the entire Bible, there is not a single instance in which God revealed to Israel a science beyond their own culture. No passage offers a scientific perspective that was not common to the Old-World science of antiquity. By the way, there is no concept of a “natural” world in ancient Near Eastern thinking. The dichotomy between natural and supernatural is a relatively recent one. (Walton, pp. 14-17)
Understanding the cultural context and worldview of those who wrote the Old Testament leads to a more accurate understanding of its message. Walton comments:
The Bible’s message must not be subjected to cultural imperialism. Its message transcends the culture in which it originated, but the form in which the message was imbedded was fully permeated by the ancient culture. This was God’s design and we ignore it at our peril. Sound interpretation proceeds from the belief that the divine and human authors were competent communicators and that we can therefore comprehend their communication. (Walton, pp. 19–20)
How old is the earth?
A primary question that arises in reading Genesis has to do with the age of the earth. “Old earth” proponents understand it to be some 5 billion years old—an understanding based on physical evidence derived from scientific observation. “Young earth” proponents understand it to be 6,000-10,000 years old, inferring that understanding from statements in Genesis. But this is only an inference, for as Walton notes, Genesis does not state the age of the earth—it simply refers to “In the beginning”—a period of time, not a particular point in time.
According to Walton, the creation accounts in Genesis are not about material origins (though he does acknowledge that God created the cosmos out of nothing), but about God setting up functions and order out of pre-existing matter on earth. This understanding fits with the ancient Near Eastern cosmology embraced by much of the world (including Israel) at the time God communicated these accounts to Israel through Moses. Thus to read into Genesis chapter 1 a discussion regarding the age of the earth is, in Walton’s view, a “category fallacy.”
Two complementary facts
Genesis begins with two great and complementary facts. The first is the existence of an ordered universe (“The heavens and the earth,” Gen. 1:1). That fact, made known by observation, is linked with a second fact, made known by revelation: the existence of a God who has a plan of redemption and wants to make his home with us.
What meaning do these two facts have for Christians? Two things: 1) nature is designed to teach us certain facts about a supreme, divine Being, and 2) divine revelation is designed to lead us to the very God about whom both nature (observable facts) and Scripture (revealed facts) testify. These two books—the book of God’s works and the book of God’s words—properly understood, are complementary in that they complete one another. As Walton notes, there is no real war between science and Scripture.
The ancient cosmology in the Old Testament
Walton identifies several passages in the Old Testament(including the creation accounts) that reflect the ancient cosmology that forms the basis for how creation is described throughout the Bible. The diagram below illustrates that cosmology—click on the image to enlarge it.
God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day. (Gen. 1:6-8, KJV)
In a similar way to the idea of the firmament (seen in the diagram above and sometimes called the vault or expanse), day two addresses the regulation of earth’s climate. Ancient Near Eastern cultures viewed the cosmos as featuring a three-tiered structure: the heavens, the earth, and the underworld. Climate originated from the heavens, and the firmament was seen as the mechanism that regulated moisture and sunlight. Though in the ancient world the firmament was generally viewed as more solid than we would understand it today, it is not the physical composition that is important, but the function. In the Babylonian Creation Epic, the goddess representing this cosmic ocean is divided in half by the god Morduch to make the waters above and the waters below.
The water cycle
He draws up the drops of water, which distil as rain to the streams. (Job 36:27)
Though some modern interpreters have attempted to read this verse as a scientific description of the condensation-evaporation cycle, the context is clearly operating from a different perspective (e.g. Job 36:32, where God fills his hands with lightning bolts that he throws like spears). The two verbs in this verse speak of a process of drawing out or refining (as precious metals would be drawn out in a refining process). It was believed in the ancient Near East that raindrops came from a heavenly stream or ocean, a great body of water that enveloped the earth, and from subterranean waters. Thus, there were waters above and below the earth. It was these waters from which God is seen as drawing out raindrops.
The circle of the earth
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. (Isa. 40:22)
The picture of the universe described here is the common cosmological view of the ancient Near East. As shown in the diagram above, the sky was a dome that arched over the disk of the earth, which sat on top of a primeval ocean. Under the ocean was the netherworld (sheol), virtually a mirror image of the space above the earth. Thus, the entire universe was an enormous sphere, cut in the center by the earth. Nevertheless, in Isaiah 40, the earth itself is described as circular. In Babylonian literature, Shamash is praised as the one who suspends from the heavens the circle of the lands. Likewise, in a prayer to Shamash and Adad, Adad causes it to rain on the circle of the earth. The circle simply reflects the curvature of the horizon, thus disk-shaped, rather than spherical (for which Hebrew uses another word). In the ancient world, the earth was consistently regarded as being circular.
Then went up Moses, and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel: And they saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness. (Ex. 24:10, KJV)
Some first-millennium Mesopotamian texts speak of three heavens with each level of heaven described as having a particular type of stone as its pavement. The middle level is said to be paved with saggilmud stone, which has the appearance of lapis-lazuli (NIV, sapphire in the KJV). This was believed to give the sky its blue color. The middle heavens were where most of the gods lived.
“This is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jer. 31:33)
There is no Hebrew word for brain, and neither the Israelites nor any of the other ancient peoples knew what the brain was for. Egyptian priests who in mummifying bodies carefully preserved all the important internal organs, discarded the brain. For the ancients, the heart was the seat of both emotions and intellect.
Though this article has only scratched the surface of a large topic, hopefully what we’ve looked at here will help us all to take another look at both science and Scripture, recognizing that neither one of them (rightly understood) is in conflict with the other. If you’d like to read more about this important topic, see the suggested resources below.
Sending a thank you card or note is a powerful way to enhance connection within a congregation. Once sent to a visitor lets them know their presence is appreciated. One sent to a donor or church worker lets them know their generosity is appreciated. Below are four options for GCI-branded thank you postcards—click on each one to download an infographic with a template and instructions for use. To download GCI’s branded font, click here.
GCI-Branded PowerPoint Templates
To help you use graphic communication in building unity within your congregation, GCI Media produced the three PowerPoint templates linked below. Clicking on each image will start the download of a PowerPoint file (give it time, these files are very large) . You can then add information about your congregation to each template. Click here to download GCI’s branded font.
Prayer Guide: December 2018
Click on the image below to download a list of GCI-related topics to pray about each day during December.
The Gift of Thanks
This Kids Korner article is from GCI Generations Ministries National Coordinator Jeffrey Broadnax.
Most people are open to receiving words of appreciation, small gifts and other acts of kindness at any time of year. But during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, it seems that God uses such acts in a special way to open people’s hearts to Jesus and his love. So, let’s encourage our children and teens to take advantage of this opportunity by being intentional and personal in expressing appreciation to people in their congregation who they know (and even admire).
Proverbs 18:21 says that “life and death are in the power of the tongue” and that “those who love it will eat of its fruit.” The Message Bible offers this paraphrase: “Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.” Let’s encourage our kids to bless others during this time of year by choosing to speak heartfelt words of appreciation or by extending genuine compliments. Doing so will give other people hope, a reason to smile, and even strength to make it through a rough day. It’s amazing how much power a few words can have in blessing another person.
Two children in the congregation I pastor recently handmade gifts for me. As they handed them to me, they said, “It’s just because you are a great pastor.” Those gifts are now sitting in a prominent location on my desk at home—that’s how much what those kids did means to me. I still smile when I look at their gifts. But that’s not all. What they did makes me want to do something similar for others so they might share in the joy I am feeling. So, I texted a short message to a couple of friends to tell them that I love being their friend.
This month, during the season of Advent, why not ask the kids in your church to look around the congregation and make a small gift with a note to thank someone, such as:
the person who sets up the cookie table each week
the worship leaders who sing those cool songs
the person who runs the sound system
the people who stick around to clean the church
their friend who plays with them before and after church each week
Encourage the kids in their notes to go beyond a mere “thank you” to specify what they are thankful for. I bet those giving and receiving such notes will be chewing on that spiritual fruit for a few days as together they experience the gift of Jesus’ love and joy.
Advent and Christmas blessing to you all!
Here are two videos that would make good introductions to a conversation in your youth group on this topic:
Note: January 6, the day of Epiphany, begins a season in the Church calendar also called Epiphany (or Epiphany Season). For a Surprising God article explaining its meaning, click here.
Isa. 60:1-6 • Ps. 72:1-7, 10-14 • Eph. 3:1-12 • Matt. 2:1-12
A Light to Follow
(Matthew 2:1-12, NRSV)
Note to preacher: As an introduction, you might show the Visual Bible video enactment of the Magi's visit as recorded in Matthew's Gospel. To find it online, click here (and continue to 10:05).
You’ve no doubt heard the story of the three wise men, the Magi, come from the East to visit the newborn Jesus. Some of the ways the story is traditionally told are inaccurate. For example, the Bible does not say how many Magi there were, though it mentions three gifts they brought. Neither does the Bible say anything about these men, except that they were wise and came from the East. It does say they were following a star. As a result, some speculate they were astronomers or astrologers. Others say they were kings. These details are not important, because the story in Matthew is not really about the Magi and their identity, it’s about Jesus and his identity.
Matthew’s story of the Magi is traditionally told today, the first Sunday in the season called Epiphany. In the annual worship calendar, presented in the Revised Common Lectionary, Epiphany is both a day (January 6 each year) and a season that begins January 6 (following the 12 days of Christmas) and continues to the first Sunday in Lent (March 10 this year).
The word “epiphany” means “revelation” or “manifestation.” Matthew’s account of the Magi’s visit to Jesus is about the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentile world. In this and other stories from the Gospels read during the season of Epiphany, we are reminded of the great truth concerning Jesus’ true identity, which then points to the revelation of God’s true nature. We also are reminded of who we are, in Christ.
It is appropriate that our first story for Epiphany, the story of the Magi, takes place, traditionally, at night. What has been hidden to our sight is now coming to light:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matt. 2:1-2, NRSV)
Note that this event takes place “in the time of King Herod” and also after Jesus had come. The stories of our own lives also fall under this tension of overlapping times. We live “in this present evil time” (under our own “Herods,” if you will) and at the same time, the time after Jesus has come and inaugurated the kingdom of God. This living “between-the-times” presents a tension that we experience as we follow Jesus in this present age. It is thus not surprising that we find ourselves, like the wise men, with many questions.
The questions being asked by the Magi focus on the when and where of Jesus. Our questions typically concern how and why. The apparent simultaneous reign of two kings in the same region doesn’t always give clear answers. But answering the question as to which of these kings is worthy of our worship will ultimately be found in the answer to the who question: Who is the one the wise men came to see? Matthew gives us a bit of foreshadowing in Herod’s response after hearing of Jesus’ birth:
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. (Matt. 2:3-4, NRSV)
Herod, out of fear, gathers the chief priests and scribes to find a way to get rid of this upstart king. The kings of this world, who want to protect their control and power, are always fearful of “rising stars.” (We see this evil alignment developing again, when years later the chief priests and scribes conspire to kill Jesus.)
They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.” (Matt. 2:5-6, NRSV)
Herod, hiding behind false humility, calculates how to get rid of this newborn king. In doing so, he inadvertently provides to the Magi a hearing of the Jewish scriptures. In case we think this story tells us that all roads lead to Jesus, these Gentile travelers do not find Jesus until after a hearing of the words “written by the prophet.” It is only after that hearing that they find the answer to Jesus’ location. God will walk down any road we are on, and he can get our attention using things like astrology, mythology, science or nature, but in the end, he brings us to know him through his word.
That understanding brings us to an epiphany from our story: God calls everyone to himself. He did not choose the Jews to exclude the rest of the nations. He chose them as a way to include the whole world.
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. (Matt. 2:9-10, NRSV)
The appearance of the Magi signals that all are welcome in Jesus’ kingdom. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the star they followed “stopped” and they “were overwhelmed with joy.” In our search for Jesus, sooner or later the signs that point to him are replaced with the joy that he is near. Joy becomes our new guide, leading us to enter his home where we see Jesus.
On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matt. 2:11, NRSV)
When the Magi enter the house, they not only see Jesus, but see him “with Mary his mother.” This is another epiphany: God is a God of relationship. Jesus doesn’t drop out of the sky like Thor or an alien invader. He comes to us in relationship, where our identity is wrapped up in who we are with him. It is in this relational context that true worship takes place. The wise men don’t worship outside the stable. No matter how dirty it may be inside, worship takes place alongside brothers and sisters who come to “pay homage,” sharing all they have with Jesus.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. (Matt. 2:12, NRSV)
Matthew’s story ends with the Magi “warned in a dream” to not return to Herod. Instead they head directly to their home country. Up to this point they have done everything Herod told them to do. But after meeting Jesus, they now follow a new king, who is ushering in a new kingdom. Matthew tells us, “They left for their own country by another road.”
The question they haven’t asked has been answered. Who is this new king? He is King of kings and Lord of lords—the Lord God himself, who has humbled himself so as to exalt us in relationship with him. Like the wise men, this revelation brings forth repentance. We turn our ears from the rulers of this age and set our sights on following Jesus. Home is now found down a different road.
Small Group Discussion Questions
This is a story about the Magi who came from the East. What are some of the myths of this story that might get in the way of what their visit is really about?
What kind of questions do we wrestle with as we live in the tension between the present evil time and knowing that Jesus has already arrived with his kingdom?
How might we participate with Jesus meeting people on their journey while bringing them to know him face-to-face? What role does Scripture play in sharing Jesus?
Do you see other epiphanies in the story of the Magi?
What do the details of worship seen in the story tell us about our worship of God?
Read Isaiah 60:1-5 and discuss how it relates to the story of the Magi.
Do you see a correlation between Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 and the story of the Magi? Discuss what it meant for these wise men to come to Jesus.
Read Ephesians 3:1-12 where Paul shares that he was called to bring light to the Gentiles, helping them understand they are included. Discuss how the story of the Magi also makes this clear.
Isa. 43:1-7 • Ps. 29:1-11 • Acts 8:14-17 • Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
Jesus, the Demolition Artist
(Luke 3:7-17, 21-22)
Note to preacher: For the introduction you may want to show a video of a building being demolished through an explosion.
Demolition—it’s the necessary job of removing the old so that the new can come in. It involves pulling, crushing (and sometimes exploding), then removing, so that old material can make way for the new.
Demolition, particularly when it involves the use of explosives, is a delicate art. You’ve likely seen buildings demolished using explosives. It looks like an ordinary building on an ordinary day, when somewhere, deep inside the structure, there’s a jerk, then a shudder, then another, like the building is having a seizure. Then one corner of it lunges, starts to fall, and in just a moment there is a murky cloud where the building used to be. Demolition experts call this “progressive collapse.” Skillfully handled, it can happen without breaking windows in nearby structures.
A progressive collapse is the safest, fastest, and most cost-effective way to remove an old building. The use of a wrecking ball or bulldozers and other kinds of machinery is time-wasting and potentially more dangerous. The experts managing a progressive collapse use math and physics as they study the structure. They locate the support beams – those that hold the most weight – and that is where they lay the explosives. Then an ordinary button on an ordinary computer is pushed, resulting in millions of tons of concrete, glass and steel becoming a pile of dust.
What has this to do with us today? Last Sunday we entered the season of Epiphany by looking at Matthew’s story of the wise men visiting Jesus. As Epiphany proceeds, we will be reflecting on the manifestations of Jesus during his ministry, spanning the time it first began until his revelation on the mountain of transfiguration.
Reading Jesus’ words in the Gospels, it’s clear that the message he proclaimed was not about comfort or about maintaining the status quo. So radical and unsettling was his teaching, that we might call Jesus a “demolition artist.” In that regard, judgment is a common topic in his teaching as he calls for radical change. Jesus overthrows the old paradigms and ways of understanding—sometimes adjusting them, but most often demolishing them.
The Jews Jesus was addressing had lived for centuries with the Law of Moses—the ethics and practices that marked them out as God’s people. A culture had grown up around this code—sometimes out of faithfulness, sometimes out of sheer routine, sometimes out of having a sense of being an exclusive community that felt that they were better than the nations around them. Based on their reading of Scripture, they had developed a certain picture of what God’s deliverance of them as a nation would look like. They had “figured out” what God’s kingdom would be like—especially what God’s king, their Messiah, would look like when he arrived. As God’s people, they understood that they would be the privileged heirs of a physical kingdom, and would rule over other nations—the nations that had persecuted and even enslaved them throughout their history.
What they expected of the Messiah was one of the first support beams that Jesus put the dynamite under. Another was the expectation of what the kingdom would look like. He blew these expectations apart with small charges we call parables—particularly ones known as the kingdom parables, that tell what the kingdom of God is and where it is.
Jesus declared the kingdom of God to be like a story where a despised Samaritan is the hero—BOOM! The kingdom of God, he said, is like the master who pays his servants the same no matter how long they’ve worked—BAM! The kingdom of God, he said, is like the younger brother who repents and comes home, not the older brother who stayed loyal and kept all the father’s rules—KABOOM! Another expectation Jesus demolished is that God’s kingdom will come to the rich, powerful and perfect. To do so he picks a group of thieves and roughnecks to be his inner circle—BOOM!
Do you see how these parables are similar to how Jesus came into our lives? He turned our tables, shook our foundations, disrupted our neat little plans and our expectations of how things are “supposed to” go. He demolished what we had built and expected, so that he could build our lives in accordance with his plan.
We should not think that the Jews portrayed in the Gospels were uniquely sinful or full of pride. Most were devoted to God. But there is another side of the story that involved some of the religious leaders of the Jews.
There were the Sadducees who traded obedience to God for political jobs, making nice with the Romans. Some Christians in our day do likewise—compromising Christian ethics and doctrine in order to be comfortable in society and more acceptable to non-Christians.
Then there were the Jewish zealots –fundamentalists – some of whom were quite violent. Some Christians in our day are like that—they blow up abortion clinics and beat up gay people.
Then there were the Essenes—the Jewish mystics who ran away from the world and hid in caves, waiting for the end of days. Some Christians in our day are like that—you might find them in groups that shy away from engaging society at all.
But most of the Jews in Jesus’ day were strong, middle-of-the-road worshippers of the God of Israel who held onto the faith, even its more difficult truths, remaining a part of their Jewish culture. These were good citizens, solid people, the kind you wanted your daughters to marry. Included in that group were the Pharisees. Though we often view them as self-righteous bigots, the reality is that they were more faithful and observant than any of us will probably ever be. Nevertheless, Jesus reserved some of his strongest warnings for them. It’s as if Jesus gave the toughest coaching to the star athletes. His most devastating words were spoken to the best and brightest.
Jesus did this to the Pharisees to show us that ALL of us need demolition and rebuilding. ALL of us need Jesus’ explosive charges laid at the pillars and supports we’ve built up for ourselves—no matter how well-intentioned they might be.
So, Jesus the demolition artist, comes at the expectations and culture that had built up around the Law and the Prophets, and blows out the supports, piece by piece, until the whole edifice topples under its own weight. True construction, true growth and change, can’t come until the old is demolished.
Here’s a question for each us: Has Jesus ever blown out our supports? Has he ever blown up old things—old habits, old sins, self-protection—the things we’ve relied on instead of him? Has the demolition artist ever gone to work on you? He’s certainly gone to work on me!
Note to preacher: this would be a good place to share an example from your life.
There are times I thought I had it figured out—times I thought I knew how things would go, what shape my life would take, what would happen next. But Jesus didn’t seem too concerned about my thoughts on the matter. He sent in the demolition crew, attached an explosive charge to the foundations of my pride and presumption and BOOM! As the structures of pride, ignorance and even arrogance fell, and the smoke cleared, I could get a glimpse of God’s amazing plan for my life. And what a plan is was, and is!
Let’s go now to our reading in Luke. To get the context, we’ll start in verse 7 where John the Baptist addresses the crowd:
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:7-14)
If Jesus is the demolition artist, then John the Baptist is his wiry, tough, fast-moving assistant—the one who finds the supports in the structure and marks them with chalk so Jesus can come along with the heavy artillery.
John is addressing everyday people who feel spiritual hunger and thirst, people whose hearts are in some measure tenderized by God. John points out their everyday sins—the ones most everyone commits. He points out that their surplus of food and goods belong to the poor. Sure John, but doesn’t everyone keep a little extra for themselves? John then points out that the “accepted” evils of the tax collector culture, skimming a little off the top, is also unacceptable. He points out that the “accepted” evils of the soldiers’ world—extorting people for extra cash, skimming off the top too—is also unacceptable. He is pointing out that Jesus is here to take sin out by the roots, not to merely remodel the building. Instead, Jesus will demolish it and start over from the ground up.
In our culture (even among Christians) there are “acceptable sins.” How often do we look at what the Bible lists as sin and respond with a helpless shrug—”that’s just the way things are.” Plenty of good moral people find themselves in such circumstances. John is showing us that we don’t need a slight modification of our behavior or a mere refreshing of our perspective. What we need is a new heart and soul. We need Jesus the demolition artist to take down our old concepts of righteousness and goodness and build the real thing in its place.
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:15-17)
Here John uses a couple of metaphors to describe what’s going on with Jesus. There is a belief among the Jews at the time that as descendants of Abraham they will be excluded from God’s judgment. But that is not the case. Everyone (Jews and Christians included) need a full change of heart. They need the re-creation that is theirs in Jesus, the Messiah. To make that point, John uses the illustration of a winnowing fork and a threshing floor.
In Jesus’ day, you had to separate the wheat from the chaff. The wheat was the kernel that could be made into bread and the chaff was the useless shell that was thrown away or burned. The threshing floor was a flat area of packed dirt where the wheat was laid out to dry. These floors were often on top of hills so the wind could blow across, blowing away the useless chaff.
When the wheat had dried, the farmer would come along with a winnowing fork or fan and throw the wheat up in the air. The remaining chaff would then blow away and the kernels of wheat would fall to the ground. This analogy here is about separating out what is useful from what is useless—the good from the bad.
For us, Jesus is the separator, the judge, the demolition artist. He has the winnowing fork in hand. I know—he’s thrown me in the air before to knock the chaff off. This was usually painful, but God used those experiences to transform me—to pull away the chaff and let the wheat—the good stuff—remain. Though painful, most of those experiences were not dramatic—just everyday stuff. Indeed, everyday life is typically the threshing floor where Jesus meets us. I hope someday to get to the place where I recognize him in those moments as they are occurring, though even when I can’t see them, his threshing still accomplishes its goal—to cleanse and heal me.
Luke’s account continues:
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22)
Jesus, the thresher, the demolition artist, comes to John for baptism. Here’s another expectation held by many of the Jews of that day being demolished. After all, the Messiah they longed for was supposed to be a conqueror, an other-worldly figure of great strength. But here comes Jesus, asking to be baptized in a river with everyone else.
Though he did not need to repent or be cleansed, by being baptized Jesus aligned himself with all humanity—joining us in our greatest need. Everything we endure, he endured; all we fail at, he completed. He was baptized with us and for us so that we could be baptized into him. And that represents the greatest demolition of all.
Jesus took all our sins upon himself, he assumed our fallen nature, and bearing that, he destroyed sin and brought us healing. Along the way, he endured all our temptations, yet never sinned. By going to the cross he destroyed the power of death. He is, indeed, the great demolition artist and everything he destroys is so he can build it up again in him. He became one with us in order to transform us, making us his beloved brothers and sisters. Through his representative, substitute humanity, we are adopted as God’s beloved children, who, with Jesus, call God Abba, our Father.
Jesus came, lived, suffered, died and rose again to demolish all that is wrong in us and to make of us a new creation. Through the word of God and the indwelling Spirit he shows us who he really is, and thus who we really are, in him.
Here are some concluding thoughts about what we’ve learned about Jesus today and what that means for each of us.
Jesus is the demolition artist
Though he doesn’t use the term, C.S. Lewis talks beautifully about Jesus as the demolition artist, who says to us:
I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. … Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours. (Mere Christianity, book 4, chapter 4)
Jesus is the threshing artist
What if we saw the pain and irritation in our lives as tools in Jesus’ hands to break away that chaff so that the best in us (who we are in Christ) remains? What if we prayed, “Lord, remove the chaff, no matter the cost, I want to be all I can be in you.”
Jesus is sometimes not the Messiah we want
Jesus spent a lot of time correcting false expectations of what the Messiah would look like. Where are our expectations? Do we want Jesus to be our comfort blanket (when we see in Scripture that he is the judge and thresher)? Do we want Jesus to be the conqueror, annihilating all our enemies (when we see in Scripture that he hung out with sinners)? Do we want Jesus to always be on our side, justifying our causes (when we see in Scripture that he had the sharpest rebuke for the most “righteous” of people)? What if we prayed, “Lord, remove all my false expectations about who you are and let me see you.”
During the week ahead, I invite you to pray these prayers:
Lord, help me fully surrender.
Lord, remove the chaff.
Lord, remove my false expectations.
Lord, let me see you and what you are doing.
Note to preacher: you might end by praying these prayers on behalf of the congregation.
Small Group Discussion Questions
Have you ever witnessed the demolition of a building in person? What was it like?
Has Jesus ever “demolished” your expectations of him in your life? Has Jesus ever “demolished” sins, selfish attitudes, life-draining habits in your life that you didn’t even know were sins at the time? How has he rebuilt you?
In Luke 3:7-14, John takes aim at some of the “acceptable” sins in their society—tax-collectors skimming of the top, soldiers extorting people, not giving to the poor. What are some of the “acceptable” sins in our lives and our society that need to go? How can we remain aware of these things when the temptation is to always “let it slide”?
John uses the metaphor of Jesus on the threshing floor, removing the useless chaff from the precious grain. What if we reframed the stress and irritation in our lives to see it as the chaff being removed? To see these trials as Jesus removing the old, the useless, so that only the best remains? How would that change our daily lives?
The book of Hebrews says we have a high priest who sympathizes with our frail human existence. What does it mean that Jesus has gone before us through all these things---that he has walked before us, and still walks with us, through every trial we face? How does that change our perspective or attitude?
Isaiah 43:1-17 talks about the various trials we have. Who is always the redeemer? How has he redeemed you through a trial?
Discuss Psalm 29:1-11. Is there anything this God can’t and won’t demolish for you?
Acts 8:14-17 talks about receiving the Holy Spirit. How does the Holy Spirit in you help you see the things that need to be demolished?
Isa. 62:1-5 • Ps. 36:5-10 • 1 Cor. 12:1-11 • John 2:1-22
The Woman and the Wine
John 2:1-11 (NRSV)
Note to preacher: Brides and grooms often fear something going wrong on their wedding day. As an introduction to this sermon, you might share about your wedding day challenges.
It’s interesting that Jesus’ first miracle came at a wedding. It’s an event that brides and grooms carefully prepare for. Because family and friends share the occasion, the last thing the couple wants is to run out of food or drink. In our Gospel reading today in the book of John, we find a newly married couple running out of wine at the wedding reception. Jesus’ mom tells the servants to go to Jesus for help.
Why the third day?
John 2:1 says this first miracle occurred “on the third day.” Why say that? In the Bible, three-day periods point to acts of divine intervention. On the third day of creation dry ground appeared and the land produced “fruit”—seed-bearing plants and trees came forth. On the third day of his burial, Jesus was resurrected, providing firstfruits of a re-creation that will involve the entire cosmos (humans included). John is likely using this three-day motif to show that the miracle of changing water into wine is to be understood as a sign pointing to the truth that Jesus is none other than the Word of God—the one who spoke and the cosmos came into being. Jesus is the Son of God, the Creator and now the re-Creator.
Was Jesus mistreating his mother?
Given that understanding, we are left wondering, why would Jesus say to his mother on this important occasion, “Woman, why do you involve me?” (John 2:4a). Was Jesus condemning her? Putting her in her place? To think so would be tantamount to embracing the lie the devil whispered to Eve in the garden of Eden (and to all women since): “You are not valuable, not cherished, not loved.” Would the Son of God dishonor his mother that way? Certainly not. Instead, by this statement, Jesus was actually ascribing to his mother great worth.
Throughout the Gospel of John, Mary is called “the mother of Jesus” never Mary. It doing so John seems to be emphasizing the fat that this particular mother is the one who gave birth to the Word of God come in human flesh (John 1:14). However, here in John 2, then later at the cross, Jesus calls his mother “woman.” In light of the connection of “on the third day” to the third day of creation, we see that John means to connect “the seed” mentioned in Genesis 3 with “the woman” who bears the Seed (Jesus) who saves the world. Note in Genesis 3 where God says this to Satan:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen. 3:15)
Seeing these various connections, we understand that Jesus is telling Mary that she is the fulfillment of prophecy. She is THE WOMAN whose Seed is the Savior of the world. Wanting others to understand this, Jesus exalts Mary, thus connecting her identity with his. This may explain Mary’s response to Jesus: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5b). Mary did not respond as one who had been reprimanded, but as one no longer concerned about the problem. Understanding who Jesus is, Mary places her trust in him and in his power to solve the problem in “whatever” way he deems appropriate.
When we see our identity wrapped up in Jesus, we too are freed from the need to try to fix all the wrongs and problems that come our way. How easy it is for us to take on problems that do not belong to us! Conversely, when our identity is bound up in something that is broken, we exhaust ourselves trying to fix the problems on our own. Such attempts often lead to toxic relational entanglements, and enmeshed modes of relating.
When our identity is firmly grounded in Jesus, and in him alone, we are able to trust him in all situations without fearing any loss of value to who we truly are.
Jesus didn’t stop with merely solving the wine shortage problem. Through this miracle he revealed (manifested) his glory. That’s why this story is read during the season of Epiphany (the word “epiphany” means “unveiling”). In this event at Cana we have the unveiling of who Jesus is, along with the unveiling of who we are in him. In his story we find several unveilings:
Note to preacher: before going through the list below, you might ask the congregation what unveilings they see, or give each item on the list to a small group to discuss before continuing the sermon.
God includes us. Our triune God (Father, Son and Spirit) has existed for all eternity in a relationship of sharing. God created us to be adopted into that triune communion. Jesus could have just made wine appear. Instead he involved the servants.
God is working in us to bring the best out of us. Our brokenness and emptiness do not prevent Jesus from producing the best fruits—the “finest wine”—that he intends for us to be.
God doesn’t hold back. 180 gallons of wine is more than enough for a wedding celebration. In Jesus, God shares himself with us in abundance. We will never be lacking.
Jesus honors relationships. Jesus replaces our empty works of religion with an abundant life of relationship. The wedding celebration was saved, as was the family’s reputation.
Jesus works with what we have and where we are. He doesn’t need super-charged holy water to work his miracle. Dirty cleaning water will do. We can give him, up to the brim, what we have; who we are.
Jesus shares his work with his servants. When we participate with him we come to know him, and his Father’s plan and purposes for us even more.
Since Jesus is the one working we can boldly participate in what he is up to. Mary and the servants were willing to do “whatever” Jesus asked.
As we participate in faith with what Jesus is doing with us and through us, we will grow in our trust and knowledge of him. As Jesus continues to reveal to us who the Father is, like the disciples we too can “believe in him.” What does that belief look like for you today? What has Jesus invited you to participate in (corporately; personally)? What will you respond?
Small Group Discussion Questions
Do you remember all the preparations that went into your wedding or the wedding of a friend? What went wrong?
How might hearing Jesus speaking words of honor rather than dishonor shape our response to him?
How does doing “whatever” Jesus tells us shape our experience of following him?
Can you think of other revelations that can be seen in the details of Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine?
After this experience, how do you think the disciples may feel the next time someone’s honor is on the line?
Read Isaiah 62:1-5 and discuss how it relates to this passage in John.
Psalm 36:5-10 talks about the steadfast love of God. How has God shown this love to you recently?
1 Corinthians 12 talks about spiritual gifts – just one of the ways God honors his relationship with you. What gift do you have? What gift do you see in others in this group?
Neh. 8:1-10 • Ps. 19:1-14 • 1 Cor. 12:12-31a • Luke 4:14-21
Jesus’ Inaugural Address
Note to preacher: For the introduction you might talk about inaugural addresses you’ve heard---ones with hollow promises concerning what the speaker says they will do, all the while knowing they won’t or can’t.
During the season of Epiphany, most of our Gospel readings focus on the early part of Jesus’ public ministry, showing him taking aim at the idols people worship. Much like explosions purposefully set to demolish a building, Jesus demolishes our idolatrous temple.
Two weeks ago, in Luke 3, we heard John the Baptist calling the people of God, the Jews, to repentance—not just repenting of idolatrous practices, but the idolatrous content of their hearts. BOOM! Our self-righteousness is blown to bits.
Then last week, in John 2, we saw Jesus demolish expectations by his focus on relationships when he turned water into wine at a wedding party. BOOM! Our self-centered agendas come tumbling down.
Today, the demolition continues. In our reading in Luke 4, Jesus takes aim at the idolatry of exclusivity. He tears down our human tendency to be judgmental—to determine who is “in” and who is “out.” He topples our understanding of who the deplorables are as compared to God’s favorites. BOOM! Any idea of “us versus them” comes tumbling down.
Some context will help here: The Jews of that time believed God would deliver them by destroying their enemies—particularly the Roman occupiers. Based on their reading of the Old Testament, they saw this deliverance as largely physical and political, with Israel being exalted among the nations as God’s favorite. From that perspective, the rest of the world could, quite literally, be damned.
In a rather shocking way, Jesus comes into town, railing against this attitude of exclusivity. Let’s look at Luke, chapter 4:
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. (Luke 4:14-15)
Jesus had just gone through a time of severe testing—a time when he was emptied so that he could be filled with the Holy Spirit as he begins his public ministry. Now, in the power of the Spirit he comes teaching:
He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21)
Jesus was doing what visiting rabbis were invited to do: read from the scroll of Scripture, then offer a short sermon as commentary. But something is different here. The congregation is aware of this Jesus guy, and what he has been up to. Word had spread far and wide about his teaching. And here they were, waiting for him to say something clever.
You can imagine their shock when, after reading a passage from Isaiah, Jesus then declares, “It’s about me—what Isaiah prophesied is now happening!”
BOOM! Another support beam blown up. Jesus was reading about God’s great deliverance of Israel—the deliverance they are all waiting for. Yet, he makes it sound dramatically different from anything they thought it would be.
Jesus is talking about those who are the undesirable, those who are broken and on the margins: the blind, the poor, the prisoners, the oppressed. Luke’s Gospel often talks about Jesus’ special love for the poor and downtrodden. But the definition of “poor” here is wider than that. It describes those who are of low social status in that society: women, children, disabled people, the blind. Here Jesus is stating that the vision of God’s kingdom starts with and always includes such people.
One commentator refers to Jesus’ declaration here as his “inaugural address.” Newly elected presidents, in their inaugural addresses set forth their vision for what their time in office will look like. Rather than talking about specific plans, they tend to focus on the tone and themes for their time in office. They might emphasize national unity, economic recovery, or foreign relations. But Jesus begins his public ministry by demolishing the people’s expectations of what the kingdom of God will be like. The kingdom is not for those who think they have it all together, but for those who know they are broken. That’s the bombshell here: Jesus makes it clear that he has not come to save the righteous, but sinners. He didn’t come to rain fire down on the bad guys, but to show the good guys and the bad guys that they need a Savior.
Filmmaker Mel Gibson gave himself a cameo in his movie The Passion of Christ. Rather than taking a large, heroic part, he portrayed the executioner who drove the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet. Those who know they would have been the one holding the hammer are on their way to the kingdom. But it’s easy to miss this mindset in the Western world where Christianity has been the dominant religion for centuries.
But times are changing. Though most of us remember the time when almost everyone went to church and the world stopped on Sunday, younger generations are growing up in a world where a Christian worldview is a minority position. Can we Christians approach other viewpoints with humility rather than with fear and bitterness? Can we learn to be thankful that we know Christ rather than condemning those who don’t? The saved hostage doesn’t judge those who are still imprisoned—he aches for them, prays for them, is grateful every moment that he has been rescued. Let’s let that be our attitude.
Jesus’ strongest, critical words were for the most religious people—those who think they have it all together, and so are quite unpleasant to be around. In contrast, it can be joyful and freeing to hang with people who know they don’t have it all together—folks like recovering addicts who have looked in the face of complete loss, even death, and know that every blessing in their lives is an added, undeserved bonus. They live with a certain freedom, knowing what it’s like to lose everything, knowing that they are just as capable of evil as the so-called “bad guys.”
In his inaugural address, Jesus says he is proclaiming “the year of the Lord’s favor.” In doing so, he is referencing what is addressed in the Old Testament book of Leviticus:
Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields. (Lev. 25:10-12)
In the year of jubilee, which occurred every 50 years, all property was to be returned to its original owners, and the land rested from being cultivated. Those who had become indentured servants due to poverty were set free. It was a year of liberation, return of property, rest and simplicity. The people were to live on what grew naturally, letting the land and the people rest. This would have been a simpler time. Wealth and competition would have been at a lull because everyone was living under the same restrictions.
Sadly, there is no record that the year of jubilee was ever kept. Yet here is Jesus proclaiming that it’s ultimate fulfillment has arrived. You see, the Sabbath day and Sabbath years pointed to the great Jubilee—the great and ultimate rest and deliverance for the people of God.
Last week in John chapter 2 we read about Jesus’ inaugural miracle—turning water into wine, the symbol and lubricant of partying. Now here in Luke 4 , Jesus gives his inaugural address, proclaiming the true Jubilee.
We are God’s people, you shall know us by our parties? By our feasting? No, Jesus is declaring that the people of God will be identified by simple joys, by starting over from ground zero. Over-complicated, hyperactive, sin-infested ways of “who owes what to whom” and “who offended whom” and “who’s winning and who’s losing” need to be demolished, so that we can start from scratch.
The Jews in the synagogue that day were not thrilled by what Jesus declared, particularly when he, in not-so-veiled terms, went on to explain how God delivered other nations—gentile nations—instead of them:
There were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land.Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian. (Luke 4:25-27)
God cared about Naaman the Syrian—commander of Israel’s enemy? Jesus’ radical point is that the Jubilee is for everyone, for all nations. The release from oppression he declares is not just for Jews—it is release for ALL people from the most brutal tyrant of all: OURSELVES.
Incensed by Jesus’ declaration, the Jews took him to the edge of a nearby cliff, intending to kill him:
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. (Luke 4:28-29)
Not long before this, Jesus had been atop the highest point of the Jerusalem temple (Luke 4:9-12), invited by the devil to throw himself down to prove his identity as the Son of God. Now Jesus stands atop a high cliff near Nazareth. At the temple, the devil twisted the words of Psalm 91 to try to tempt Jesus to show off. But Jesus refused. Now, due to his humble obedience to God, Jesus faces execution. But he is delivered, perhaps by angels:
[Jesus] walked right through the crowd and went on his way. (Luke 4:30)
As we ponder Jesus’ inaugural address, here are three takeaways:
Jesus didn’t come for those who think they have it all together, but for those who know they are broken. We would be the one holding the hammer and nails at Jesus’ crucifixion. He knows that—he’s always known it. Everything in life is extra, every blessing we have, a gift; so let’s be freshly grateful.
We as God’s people need to be gentle with those who don’t call themselves Christians. Jesus gives several examples here of God’s mercy shed on those who are “outsiders.” He had his strongest words for the religious establishment, for the US not the THEM. Let’s continue to tell truth in love, and be known for our welcoming and hospitality, for our feasting, instead of how well we withdraw from those who are not like us. Let’s pray for others, get into their lives, be living examples of Jubilee.
The year of Jubilee that Jesus declared has never ended. It is the year—the era in which we, through him, are released from sin, guilt and shame. Do you need that time, that Jubilee, in your life? Is there something you need to let go of? Some bitterness, some rage against someone, or against life itself? Let this be your year of Jubilee. Let this be the year when you claim God’s peace and love against all odds. Let this week be the start of you bringing Jubilee to someone close to you. Forgive, let go, love. This is what we do, and this is how we are known.
Small Group Discussion Questions
Have you ever watched a president’s inaugural address? In person? How do they compare with each other?
Throughout his ministry, and definitely in this passage, we see Jesus expanding the Israelites’ notion of who’s “in” and who’s “out.” Here he mentions Gentiles—even Israel’s enemies—who received God’s favor (Luke 4:24-27). What does it mean to show God’s love to those on the outside or in the fringes of society? Why is that important in the kingdom of Christ?
Jesus refers to the Year of Jubilee practice in Israel, a year in which indentured servants were freed, land was returned to its original owners, and debts were cancelled. How can we practice this as a church community today? How can we practice “Jubilee” in our own lives by forgiving, giving grace, giving love to those who don’t “deserve” it?
Here as in other places, we see Jesus “breaking the rules” by interpreting a passage in a brand-new way. Can you think of any other examples in the Gospels of Jesus “breaking the rules”? What do these changes in the program tell us about Jesus? Has Jesus ever “broken the rules” in your life?
Jesus didn’t come for those who think they have it all together, but for those who know they are broken and in need of him. What does it mean to live with this reality in mind? What does it mean not to trust in our own strength and street smarts, but instead in his gracious protection and provision? What does it mean to be in touch with our own brokenness—how does that change our approach to others and ourselves?
In Nehemiah 8:1-10, Ezra read from the Torah. What was the response of the people? How does it compare to when we hear God’s word read to us?
Read Psalm 19:1-14 and share what the words mean to you.
Read 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 in terms of who's in and who's out. What is God saying to you in this passage? What does it mean in saying that the body is made of many members? To whom would Jesus say, “I have no need of you”?