Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Sermon Preached at McAfee School of Theology

I had the privilege of preaching in chapel at the McAfee School of Theology, Mercer University's seminary, on Tuesday, September 29; I am grateful to Dr. Brett Younger for the invitation. The theme for the semester is the Ten Commandments and my assignment was the Sabbath commandment. Here is the sermon that I preached.


Hope for the Chronically Rushed

Exodus 20:8-11; Mark 2:27-28; Hebrews 4:9-10

I am thankful for the mysterious providence of God that caused me to plan not to attend the Mercer Preaching Consultation this year so that I could accept the invitation to be here on this day when my assignment would be to preach on the Sabbath commandment.

I am thankful for two reasons. First, in preparing I have been reminded of the necessity of practicing Sabbath in my own life and I plan to respond to my own invitation by doing better. Second, I have been on a quest for a while now to help myself and the people among whom I minister to become more authentically the Church by living out of a real and growing relationship with God through Jesus Christ our Lord, a relationship that I am increasingly convinced can best be pursued—perhaps can only be pursued—by exercising the classic Christian disciplines. This assignment has led me to seriously consider the discipline of Sabbath keeping and I have become convinced that it may be one of the keys to the way of life into which I should be led and into which I should in turn lead the people for whom I am responsible as their pastor.

Why do I say that?

Well, consider the position of the Sabbath commandment in the Decalogue: it comes at the end of the “first tablet”; it thus concludes the set of commandments that deals with our responsibility toward God and it leads into the set of commandments that deals with our responsibility toward other people. That positioning is appropriate given that the command has to do with God—“the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God” and it has to do with others—no person (and no animal, even) is to work. Notice, though, that the command also has to do with the self, with the ones who are to keep the commandment: “you shall not do any work.”

This emphasis on honoring God, on honoring others, on honoring self—it all sounds so very familiar, doesn’t it?

When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he did not say “Keep the Sabbath.” What he did say was, “’Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mark 12:29-31a). The keeping of the first and second greatest commandments, then, involves loving God, loving others, and loving self—none of which are easy and all of which require intentionality and discipline and practice.

The keeping of Sabbath is a good way to be intentional about practicing and developing the discipline that will enable us to love God, others, and self in the ways that God intends because Sabbath practice prepares and positions us for the daily practice of loving God and loving neighbor and loving self and Sabbath observance prepares and positions us for the daily practice of acknowledging the blessings of God and the needs of others. We need to observe Sabbath not as the only time that we love God, others, and ourselves but rather as a time to take the time to remind ourselves that we are to love God, others, and ourselves at all times and that the day is coming when all will be loved as they should be.

To observe Sabbath is to remember—and remembering inspires us to love God.

“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy”--in remembering the Sabbath, we remember who God is and what God has done. We remember that God is Creator (Ex. 20:11) and that God is Savior (Dt. 5:15—“Remember that you were a slave and the Lord brought you out”). In observing the first day as a Sabbath we Christians remember the resurrection of Jesus Christ and we thus remember what God did in Christ to bring us out of slavery.

We observe the sacred time of Sabbath so that we will stop to remember who God is and what God has done so as to discipline ourselves to remember who God is and what God has done at all times—and remembering we will be inspired to love God at all times.

To observe Sabbath is to respect—and respecting inspires us to love others.

Here is the ethical dimension of the commandment: nobody in the family, no one in the workforce (slaves/servant), no one in the immigrant workforce (resident alien) was to be abused or misused—all were to rest. So here is a focus on others. We use Sabbath to remind ourselves how we are to treat others on all the other days.

It is here that Jesus’ example and teaching are especially important. Jesus did good for and to others on the Sabbath and, since he is Lord of the Sabbath, we should follow his example. “In Jesus’ actions on the Sabbath Day, the commandment becomes an embodiment of the love of neighbor” [Patrick Miller, The Ten Commandments (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), p. 162]. So in our Sabbath observance we should take the time to reflect on how we can offer help and healing and wholeness to people and we should gladly embrace opportunities to do so.

There is a good word here for ministers, I think. For those of us who pursue parish ministry (and some other forms of ministry), we will work on the “official” Christian Sabbath (and thus we need to carve other real “Sabbath” time for ourselves) but, in the spirit of Christ, we are on the Sabbath touching folks for the sake of their help, healing, and wholeness, which is a good thing—and the Sabbath gives us the opportunity to reflect on how we are—or aren’t—doing that all the time.

We observe the sacred time of Sabbath so that we will stop to respect the needs of others and to reflect on how we can take action to meet those needs so as to discipline ourselves to respect and act on those needs at all times—and we will thus be inspired to love others at all times.

To observe Sabbath is to rest—and resting inspires us to love ourselves.

Such resting is for own good. In taking time to rest, to recreate, to celebrate—I would sum it up in the phrase “to let go”—we acknowledge that it’s not all up to us and the failure to acknowledge that truth is a danger in all vocations and maybe especially in ministry. In acknowledging through Sabbath practice that God is God and we are not we learn the great truth that Thomas Kelly put so succinctly: “Nothing matters; everything matters” (A Testament of Devotion); in Sabbath rest we lay it all down so that we can, by the grace of God, pick up again what is appropriately ours.

As for what it means to practice Sabbath rest, I am drawn to the emphasis of Karl Barth as pointed out by Tilden Edwards in his book Sabbath Time; Barth said that the Sabbath should be approached without a program by which I think he meant without a planned agenda. Edwards summarizes Barth’s emphasis this way: “’Let things take their course with particular freedom,’ in stark distinction from weekday practice. Don’t radically plot or settle it beforehand. Do just as much or as little as the day brings, ‘without grasping after it anxiously or eagerly.’” Edwards goes on to say that Barth’s “basic challenge” is “to allow the day a quality of lightness” with the hope and expectation that such lightness “will spill over into the workweek too, cutting into our temptations to overcontrol life willfully, and at the same time sharpening our capacity to discern those actions to which we are truly called.” [Tilden Edwards, Sabbath Time, rev. ed. (Nashville: Upper Room, 2003), p. 69]

We observe the sacred time of Sabbath so that we will stop to rest so as to discipline ourselves to rest in our trust in God at all times—and we will thus be inspired to love ourselves at all times.

But there is more to it than that. In resting—celebrating, enjoying—we look back to what God has done, we look at what God is doing, and we look forward to what God will do. When we observe the Sunday Sabbath, we look back to the resurrection of Jesus, we live now in the power of the resurrection, and we look forward to the resurrection to come—to the Sabbath rest that is yet to be.

Sabbath reminds us that as it was in the beginning (God rested on the Sabbath), is now (we rest on the Sabbath) and ever shall be (we will rest on that great Sabbath that is yet to be). (Cf. Miller, p. 126) The Sabbath then becomes for us an inbreaking of the Kingdom, a foreshadowing of the great Sabbath rest that is to come—a foretaste of glory divine. In Sabbath observance we practice living in what some have called “the ‘isness’ of the shall be” which involves, of course, not just love for ourselves but also love for God and love for others.

As Patrick Miller has recently put it,

The Scriptures thus understand the Sabbath rest as both present gift and also blessing yet to come. That Sabbath promise receives its seal and authentication in the church’s celebration of the holy day of rest and worship on the first day of the week, thus forever identifying the Lord’s Day with the climactic redemptive work of God in Jesus Christ, a work that is the ground of all hope. ‘The first day of the week should be a pointer to the last, final day for every person’ (Wolff, “Day of Rest,” 75). The rabbis were right. The Sabbath is indeed a glimpse of the world to come. (Miller, Ten Commandments, p. 166).

We need Sabbath because we need “a glimpse of the world to come”; we need a glimpse of the world that God has in store for us one day, a day in which love of God, love of others, and love of self will be perfected—but don’t we also need a glimpse of the world that God in Christ and through us might have in store for Monday and Tuesday and every other day of the week, days on which we can go a lot farther than we think we can in loving God, loving others, and loving self?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Questions About a Proposed Amendment to the GBC Constitution

The Christian Index, the newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC), has published a notice of an amendment to the GBC Constitution that will be recommended to the convention by the Executive Committee this November.

The amendment is to the "Membership" article; the proposed addition is in boldface.

Article II. Membership.

Section 1. This body shall be composed of messengers from cooperating Baptist Churches. A cooperating church is one that gives evidence of its belief in Holy Scripture as its authority in matters of faith and practice and is in harmony and cooperation with the work and purpose of this Convention. A cooperating church does not include a church which knowingly takes, or has taken, any action to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.

Because I have some questions about the amendment I wrote a letter to the editor of the Christian Index. I do not know if editor Gerald Harris will publish it--and let me be very, very clear that whether or not to do so is absolutely and totally his choice and I have no grounds for complaint if he chooses not to publish it.

The beauty of a blog, though, is that I have this forum through which to state my questions and that is what I want to do here. So, what follows is the text of my letter.


September 18, 2009

I noted with interest the proposed amendment to the "Membership" article of the GBC's Constitution, which would add to the definition of a "cooperating church" that such a church "gives evidence of its belief in Holy Scripture as its authority in matters of faith and practice."

While I am sure that no Georgia Baptist church would see itself as doing anything other than that and while I certainly affirm that the worship, preaching, teaching, discipleship, doctrine, and ministry of all Georgia Baptist churches should be formed through the prayerful and ongoing study of Holy Scripture, the proposed amendment nonetheless raises some obvious and, at least to me, troubling questions.

First, what is the nature of the "evidence" that is going to be required? Will it be good enough for a church to say, "Why yes, we believe in Holy Scripture as our authority in matters of faith and practice"?

Or will each local Georgia Baptist church that desires to continue as a cooperating GBC church be required by the GBC to adopt a confessional statement that affirms its commitment to biblical authority? If such an adoption is to be required, will a church be expected or allowed to compose its own statement or will it be permitted--or maybe even required--to adopt the Baptist Faith & Message Statement (rev. 2000) article on Scripture--or perhaps the entire statement--in order to be seen as providing sufficient "evidence"?

Second, if the forced adoption of a confession is not to be required, then who is going to determine what constitutes "evidence" of a local Georgia Baptist church's "belief in Holy Scripture as its authority in matters of faith and practice"? Is the GBC going to set up an "evidence of belief in Scripture" watchdog committee that will examine each GBC church?

Or perhaps the intention is only to deal with churches that present the GBC with some kind of "problem" in the kind of "evidence" it presents in its "faith and practice." The problem still remains--who is going to be "Big Brother"; who is going to decide which churches are and are not "in cooperation" with the GBC under the terms of this proposed amendment?

Third, if each local GBC church is not going to be required to adopt an acceptable statement regarding its fidelity to Scripture as its way of providing "evidence," then what are the standards going to be by which the adequacy of a church's "evidence" is evaluated? Is the GBC going to investigate each local church's "faith and practice" to see if it offers "evidence of its belief in Holy Scripture as its authority"? If so, how is that to be done? Will the Christian Index publish a list of standards to which each church must live up if it is to be welcomed as a "cooperating" church?

For what it's worth, I have my own suggestion as a beginning point for a standard: let's start with the Sermon on the Mount. Let's examine our churches to see if their members individually and if they corporately willingly and consistently express their "faith" and carry out their "practice" in ways that reflect the instructions of the Lord Jesus Christ in that Sermon. If we deem all the churches that fail to do that to be out of compliance with this proposed amendment, then the GBC will, as of the first annual meeting following its adoption, be no more, because no church will qualify.

I hope and trust that, before it is brought up at the November meeting in Woodstock, the rationale behind this proposed amendment and the plan for implementing it, should it be adopted, will be dealt with in great detail in these pages.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Visit my Blog "The Jesus Lens"

There you can read the latest post in my ongoing experiment in reading Genesis through the Jesus Lens.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Politics of Identity

Jody Powell died Monday of a heart attack; he was 65 years old.

Powell and the late Hamilton Jordan were among the key architects of Jimmy Carter’s successful run for the White House in 1976 and they subsequently became part of the “Georgia Mafia” that invaded Washington along with Carter, Powell serving as the President’s Press Secretary.

As a pastor I find it prudent not to take sides publicly in elections and I as a rule don’t discuss for whom I voted in an election but I am willing to affirm here and now, 33 years after the fact, that I voted for Jimmy Carter in his contest with President Gerald Ford. Some of my acquaintances will be disappointed to hear that but to them I say, with all the love and grace I can muster, “Tough peanuts.” Other of my acquaintances will be pleased to hear of my choice but to them I must confess that my vote was not decided upon after a careful consideration of the policy differences between the two men; indeed, I probably could not have articulated what those policy differences were.

My two reasons for voting for Carter were much more visceral than intellectual, more emotional than rational, and more social than political.

My first reason was that President Ford, whom I regarded as a good, capable, honest, steady, albeit clumsy—no, wait, that was Chevy Chase—leader, had come into office as a result of the tawdry Watergate affair and I, who had first started paying close attention to national politics as a result of that scandal and whose political idealism at that point in my life would have made Mr. Smith (the one played by Jimmy Stewart in the classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, not the one played by Brad Pitt in Mr. & Mrs. Smith) look downright cynical, was in a mood to throw the bums out and, even though I did not regard President Ford as one of the bums, it seemed to me that he lived on the same street as the bums, and that was good enough—or bad enough—for me.

For what it’s worth, my desire to throw the bums out applied not only to Republicans. A few years before, when I participated at the tender age of fourteen in a Close Up (the educational foundation, not the toothpaste) trip to Washington, our Democratic congressman, one Rep. Flynt, ticked me off with an answer he gave during a question and answer session with our group and I pledged to myself that if I ever had the opportunity to vote against him I would and in 1976 I did, casting my vote for an obscure college history professor and Republican political novice named Newt Gingrich.

That’s right—I voted for Jimmy Carter and for Newt Gingrich in the same election!

Now I dare you—I triple dog dare you—to accuse me of blind partisanship. Of course I could also dare you to accuse me of any political logic whatsoever, couldn’t I?

My second reason for voting for Carter was that he was from Georgia—and so was I.
To quote the legendary Georgia Bulldogs broadcaster Larry Munson, “Get the picture.” The election of November 1976 was the very first election in which I was able to participate; I turned eighteen just six weeks before the polling took place. On election day I drove the thirty-six miles from the Mercer University campus to my home in Barnesville to cast my vote; I could have cast an absentee ballot but I wanted none of that—I wanted to stand in that long line with all of those people from the community in which I had spent my entire life and celebrate my American bar mitzvah, to say that, politically speaking, “Today I am a man.”

It was one of the proudest days of my life.

And my pride was compounded by the fact that I got to vote for somebody who was, like I was, a Georgian, who was, like I was, from a small town, and who was, like I was, a Baptist.

My pride was further compounded by the fact that when Jody Powell stood before the Washington press corps to answer their questions and to articulate the President’s policies, he sounded like I did—he sounded like a Southerner, and he did not try to mask it.

Put simply, I was pleased to vote for Carter because I identified with him and because I thought he identified with me; I was pleased to hear Powell speaking for the President because he sounded like I did and because I sounded like he did. I was proud—do you hear me, I said I was proud—to have Southerners in the White House. I was proud when the Atlanta Rhythm Section played there; I was proud when they served Sconyers Barbecue—the pride of Augusta, Georgia—there.

And I got mad when the northern “elites” and Washington insiders made fun of my Southern brothers and sisters who had moved into those swanky quarters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue; I got mad when they acted like people who looked and talked like I did had usurped someone else’s rightful place in the halls of power; I got mad when it seemed that they couldn’t wait to remove Carter from office so that they could get their power back and get their party back and get their country back.

Of course, what they got was Ronald Reagan, but that’s another story, and a right funny—in the ironic sense—one at that, if you stop and think about it.

Now, I know that it’s a far different situation and I by no means—by no means at all—wish to imply that I equate the two situations, but I can at least imagine what it must have meant to African-Americans to see someone with whom they could identify and who could identify with them become President of the United States when Barack Obama was elected in November 2008. It was so moving on election night to see so many black Americans, tears streaming down their faces, celebrating the fact that their nation, many states of which not too many decades ago denied blacks the right to vote, had progressed to the point that we could elect a black man President of the United States.

And I can understand if they get angry when some people act as if such a man has no place in the White House, if they get angry when some people act as if someone who looks like they do has usurped others’ rightful place in the halls of power and if they get angry when some people act as if they can’t wait until they can evict Obama from office so that they can get their country back.

It was hard for me not to believe that, while much of the opposition that President Carter faced stemmed from legitimate opposition to his policies and from genuine frustration at the results of those policies, much of it also emerged from the prejudice of some toward those of us in the South. It is hard for me not to believe that, while much of the opposition that President Obama faces stems from legitimate opposition to his policies, much of it also emerges from the prejudice—perhaps subconscious—that some harbor toward those who do not look like they do.

I do not—I cannot—begrudge the natural and understandable pride that African-Americans feel in the election of Barack Obama any more than I think that people should have begrudged the natural and understandable pride that I felt as a Southerner in the election of Jimmy Carter—and in the work of Jody Powell as his Press Secretary.

It is the politics of identity—our default setting is to support those with whom we identify.

But people are capable of thinking; we should not simply and habitually and reflexively and blindly support those who look like we do or who talk like we do or who are from our region or our race or our religion.

Besides, even as an eighteen-year-old first time voter I realized that we were not really electing a President of Southern Americans—we were electing the President of all Americans; this time around we were not electing a President of African-Americans—we were electing the President of all Americans.

So, even when we disagree with the President’s policies, I hope that we will do the right thing and pray for him; I hope that people will put irrational fear behind them; I hope that people will acknowledge their latent or manifest prejudices, see them for what are, and move beyond them.

After all, the politics of identity should finally mean that we all identify with each as fellow members of God’s diverse human creation and secondarily that we identify with each other as fellow Americans.

There I go with that Mr. Smith idealism again!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Good Post from my Friend Randy

My friend Randy has written eloquently of "The Other Side."

I am honored that he mentions my mother along with many of his family members.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

When You Stop & Think About It for September 9, 2009

(When You Stop & Think About It is the title of my weekly church newsletter column)

I am always intrigued by conversations that I have with people who were born in the early part of the last century, I am particularly fascinated by those that I have with people who were born in the 1920s, and I am absolutely mesmerized by conversations that I have with folks who were born in 1921.

So if you’re 88, I really like talking with you!

And yes, there is a reason.

Both of my parents were born in 1921, my father in July and my mother in September. Each of them died before they reached retirement age, Mama of cancer when she was 53 and Daddy of a heart attack when he was 57.

I will be 51 in a couple of weeks and so I am entering the phase of life during which my parents died; I have no plans—not that my plans have anything to do with it—to follow their leadership in that way. But there sure have been lots of times over the last three—my goodness, almost four!—decades since they died when I would have been so very grateful for the opportunity to rummage around in the attic of their collected wisdom, to pick up some of what I found there, and to try it on for size.

I know some of it would have been outdated and out of style and maybe even moth-eaten and I know that I would have left much of it right where I found it but still—the gaps in my knowledge, the deficiencies in my wisdom, and the holes in my soul could surely have been more easily filled had I had access to the treasures I would have found there.

As things are in my real world—the one in which my parents aren’t present—though, it is hard for me even to picture what they would have been like as 88-year-old people. Oh, sometimes I get a glimpse; my father’s youngest brother Johnny, who is just entering his seventies, looks and talks very much like Daddy and so I am blessed when I am around him both by who he is and by the glimpse of my father that he offers me.

But I am also blessed when I share in a conversation with people from my parents’ generation, with folks who are 88 or thereabouts, because in their experiences I can sense my parents’ experiences, in their values I can detect my parents’ values, and in their wisdom I can see my parents’ wisdom. So to our senior adults I say “Thank you”—thank you for the ministry you offer me and others in your words, in your actions, and in your presence.

My father was born on July 25, 1921 but my mother was born on September 13, 1921, which means that this Sunday—the day of our Senior Adult Day celebration—would have been her 88th birthday.

So if some of you catch me looking at you a little funny this Sunday, don’t take it personally—I’ll be thanking God for you, to be sure, but I’ll also be thanking God for the reminder you are to me of the parents who have not been with me—but yet, through memories, through stories, and through others, have been with me—for a very long time.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Fall of Babylon

(A sermon based on Revelation 17-19 for Sunday, September 6, 2009)

The vision of chapter 17 focuses on a woman, described as a harlot, seated on a beast with seven heads and ten horns. The harlot has a name: “Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth’s abominations” (v. 5). In Revelation the name Babylon is a symbolic synonym for Rome. That identification is made clear by 17:18: “The woman that you saw is the great city which has dominion over the kings of the earth.” Two questions beg for an answer here.

First, why was Babylon appropriate for this role? The Babylonian Empire was one of the great empires of the ancient world. In the biblical mindset its name came to sum up all of what was evil about arrogant, oppressive, God-denying empires. It was therefore a proper code name for the Rome of John’s day.

Second, why was Rome pictured by John as a harlot? Whenever Israel came to serve other, false gods, God viewed them as having committed adultery against him. They had played the harlot with other gods. Rome had led other nations to commit spiritual adultery by demanding ultimate loyalty, by promoting the religion of materialism, and by fostering emperor worship. That is the kind of harlotry of which Rome was guilty.

A further and extremely serious sin of the woman was that she was “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (17:6). During the reign of Domitian a persecution was undertaken against the church and many people gave their lives for the sake of the gospel. John anticipated that this situation would worsen but that Rome would be judged for her murderous actions.

When John sees the harlot she is seated upon “a scarlet beast which was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns” (17:3). This beast is best identified with the Roman Empire as it was personified in the person of the Emperor. There are several reasons for this identification.

First, “it was full of blasphemous names.” One of the main reasons that the Empire was persecuting the church was that Christians would not acknowledge that Domitian was “Lord and God” as he claimed to be. The best way to view these “blasphemous names” is as such claims to divinity by the Emperor.

Second, the angel explains to John that the seven heads of the beast “are seven mountains on which the woman is seated” (17:9). The city of Rome was built on seven hills. The seven hills were literally foundational to the city of Rome; the far-flung Empire was foundational to the status of that city.

Third, the seven heads are also said by the angel to be “seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a little while” (17:10). The seven kings represent the Roman emperors in their totality. John anticipated still more persecution from the emperors, for he said that there was an emperor yet to come to whom he refers as “an eighth” (v. 11). This language, as well as that in v. 8 (“the beast that you saw was, and is not, and is to ascend from the bottomless pit and go to perdition”) makes use of a rumor, current in John’s time, that the dead Emperor Nero would somehow return to wreak havoc on Rome.

Fourth, this beast on which the woman sits “is to ascend from the bottomless pit” (17:8). We are reminded of the first of the two beasts in chapter 13 that rose from the sea. In biblical symbolism the sea is virtually synonymous with the abyss; so we are safe in identifying these two beasts with each other. We have already seen that the beast from the sea in chapter 13 is best seen as representing the Roman Empire. For this and the other three reasons we can see that the beast of chapter 17 represents the Empire.

The ten horns of the beast are identified as “ten kings who have not yet received royal power, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast” (17:12). The most likely view of who these ten kings are is that they represent the leaders of provinces under the influence of the Empire who join in the persecution of the church. They would be conquered by Christ and would join with the beast and turn on the harlot. This is a marvelously pictorial way of saying that the city of Rome would finally be conquered by forces from without and from within.

Chapter 18 consists of an announcement by an angel that Babylon (Rome) had fallen (vv. 1-3) a call from heaven for faithful people to escape from the coming deserved destruction of the city (vv. 4-8), words of sorrow and lamentation from the kings of the earth, the merchants of the earth, and the sailors over the destruction of Rome (vv. 9-20), and a symbolic action by a “mighty angel” depicting the complete overthrow of Rome (vv. 21-24).

John’s message communicates that Babylon-like powers must be overthrown. In John’s immediate context that meant Rome. But how do we think about “Babylon” in our context? We immediately think of those nations and rulers that are dictatorial and oppressive. We remember President Reagan’s characterization of the old Soviet Union as an “evil empire” and we think that it may have been a modern Babylon. In recent years we might have been thinking of Saddam Hussein in those terms (that would be easy, given that modern Iraq is the location of ancient Babylon). Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Hirohito’s Japan, Amin’s Uganda…we could go on and on.

But as we ponder what Revelation teaches about the fall of Babylon might we need to think some about ourselves? After all, historical Babylon of the sixth century B.C. was the mightiest power of its day. Rome of the first century A.D., John’s metaphorical Babylon, was the mightiest power of its day. Notice also that John depicts those who had profited from the economic power of Rome as being the ones who mourned the most over its fall. Where is the locus of economic power in our world today?

We are so blessed. The United States is the greatest country in the world. God has blessed this nation beyond measure. Legitimate Christian faith has a greater chance to flourish in this free and pluralistic society than it does anywhere else. There are so many ways in which we are not like ancient Rome. Yet I fear for us and I believe that we should ponder the dangers. We are the world’s only remaining superpower. Recent setbacks notwithstanding, we are the cornerstone of the world’s economy. We are the leader of the world.

We are not Babylon but we need to work and pray that we not become Babylon. How would it happen? It would happen if we come to trust in the power of the state more than we trust in the power of God. It would happen if we come to seek economic prosperity even at the cost of basic human dignity. And it could happen.

Babylon, you see, is worldly economic and political and military power that trusts in itself rather than in God and that leads others to do the same. Babylon is the pride and arrogance that thinks it can leave God out of the equation. Let us pray and work that our beloved nation will not fall prey to the temptation to be like Babylon. And let us pray and grow that in our individual lives we not put ourselves in the place of God. And let us pray that we Christians will also be the anti-Babylon in the midst of the greater population, that we will be those who insist that because we are Christians and because we are the Church our trust in God and our following of Christ mean that we will give our ultimate loyalty only to God that our loyalty will show itself in the ways we treat people—in particular that we not put selfish economic interests ahead of the needs of those who are hurting.

Because, and make no mistake about it Babylon has fallen, Babylon is falling, and Babylon will fall—but Christ and his kingdom has stood, is standing, and will stand!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

When You Stop & Think About It for September 3, 2009

(My church newsletter column is entitled "When You Stop & Think About It." What follows is this week's column.)

We pay a lot of attention to what season it is but the seasons to which we pay attention depend on what our interests are. So, some of us are very much aware that we are moving toward the end of the Major League Baseball season; many of us know that the high school (Go ‘Canes!) and college football seasons are underway; some of us are excited when our favorite television show begins a new season (some of us are old enough to remember when all television shows observed the same season but that day is long gone); and others of us know by heart the beginning and ending dates for dove season, deer season, and turkey season.

Proper observance of the seasons orients our lives to what we enjoy or to what we think is important.

What is important to the Church? What matters the most to the Church? I would summarize it this way: what matters most to the Church is the expression of our identity as the Body of Christ through worshiping God, through following Jesus, and through being formed by Scripture.

Those are all actions but the actions have meaning and integrity when they express our ever-increasing desire to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Those actions all work together—our worship of God in the sanctuary will lead us to worship God through service in the world; our following of Jesus will necessarily cause us to take steps to grow in our personal relationship with Jesus but it will also necessarily cause us to follow him out into the world to touch hurting and lost people; our study of Scripture will change our attitudes, motivations and priorities which will compel us to express our increasing love and our increasing drive to serve by helping those who need our help and by ordering our lives in ways that will do good and not harm.

We are increasingly the Church as we increasingly worship God, follow Jesus, and are formed by Scripture.

The seasons of the Christian year orient our lives to what is most important. The Christian year begins with Advent and proceeds through the Christmas season and on to the season of Epiphany; those seasons comprise the first major block of “sacred” time during which we focus on the coming of the Messiah.

The second major block of “sacred” time, during which we focus on the death and resurrection of our Lord, begins with Lent, proceeds through Holy Week and the Easter season, and ends with Pentecost.

All other days of the Christian calendar are known as “ordinary” time, which allows us to focus on all aspects of who God is and what the Church is.

When you stop and think about it, since those seasons that we treat as most important both reveal what we regard as most meaningful and orient our lives toward what we find most vital, the Church should observe those seasons that point us toward God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and that direct us toward the Scriptures that will help us to be formed as the children of God.