Thursday, October 19, 2017

He Suffered

Click for a printable version of this post.
 
Scripture for Sunday, Oct. 22:  1 Corinthians 1:17-25
Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 37:  What do you understand by the word, "suffered"?
 
Last Sunday, we worshiped Jesus Christ, the one mediator between God and people.  We considered how claiming Christ as the "one name under heaven  by which we must be saved" gives rise to our struggle with the scandal of particularity:  Can so many people outside the Christian faith really be eternally lost?  
 
We saw that a deep and honest look at different religions shows us that they are foundationally different.  They cannot all be true.  And the kinds of claims  Jesus makes about himself and that others make about him aren't relative.  The scriptural witness makes Jesus' status as the Son of God clear.  Either Jesus is God-in-the-flesh, the way to the Father, or he isn't.  He is a lunatic, a liar, or Lord. 
 
There is nobody like Jesus, who not only reveals God's path back home but is himself the path back home.  So we respond to the call to pray for "all people,"  praying that they may come to know this Lord whose perfect justice and perfect mercy will be shown in an ultimate way at the end of time.
 
This week we turn to another scandal about Jesus:  The scandal of his suffering.
 
The Scandal that is Hard to See
If you have been a follower of Jesus for a long time, it's hard to think about salvation as coming in any way except through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ.  That's a given, something we remember often with thankfulness but entirely without surprise.
 
But for the young Corinthian church, apparently even among believers  the message of a crucified Messiah was a "stumbling block."
 
"We preach Christ crucified," Paul says, "A stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God"  (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).
 
The word translated "stumbling block" is "skandalon," the root of our English word "scandal."  The Jews--Gods chosen people, who knew his works and his ways--were completely scandalized by this kind of Savior.  
 
Wasn't the Messiah expected to rule and reign with power, in the same mighty way that God had led his people out of Egypt?  It was unfathomable that God's Anointed could be someone whose ministry ended with an execution in the common criminal way, a way that evidenced not God's blessing but his curse (Deuteronomy 21:23).
 
An accursed Messiah?  Impossible.  Oxymoronic.  Preposterous.
 
For the Gentiles, the idea of a crucified Christ was madness.  What kind of God gets himself killed by his enemies? How foolish.
 
But scandalous as a Suffering Savior was, unpopular as it may have been, incomprehensible as it seemed even to those who were taking steps in Christian faith, what is Pastor Paul's approach?  Does he whip out a clever marketing strategy that will persuade the "wise" Greeks?  Does he seek to demonstrate to the Jews how the suffering of the cross was really powerful, just in an imperceptible way?
 
No.  Paul names the alternatives that keep the Corinthian believers looking for God in expected but erroneous places:  In miraculous signs and in arguments from human wisdom (1 Cor. 1:22). 
 
Such idolatries were clouding true worship of "Christ crucified"--a God who saved on his own terms; a God who did not consult humans on his plan to save the world; a God whose 'saving through suffering' not only blew away human categories but also saved our lives.
 
This idea of a suffering savior, a God-Man who died a nasty death at the hands of unclean people is something Paul is eager to re-assert and establish as bedrock.  It is astonishing.  And ugly.  And painful and overwhelming, when you stop to think about it. 
 
It is also the reason for our very great hope. 
 
Questions for Reflection or Discussion:
 
1)  From the Sermon:  Rev. Hoogeboom identifies two forms of idolatry that are temptations for the Corinthian church and for us.  What idolatrous tendency poses more danger to you?  How might the foolishness and weakness of Christ's cross respond to that temptation?
 
2)  On the Scandal/Surprise of the Cross:  Can you identify a time or a way in which God's way of saving caught you by surprise? 
 
(I think of reading a book on the Incarnation in my teenage years that suggested Jesus had acne as a teenager.  Our perfect Savior?!  Blemishes?  Impossible!) 
 
Reflect on your stories of surprise about God's method of saving, and how they impacted your life of faith.
 
3) Read 1 Corinthians 1:25.  How do you conceive of  the strength of "the weakness of God?" 
 
With a nod to the Jewish tradition of reciting the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), today some Christian believers will communally recite the Greatest Commandment (in which Jesus quotes the Shema and expands it--Matthew 22:37-39) with an upraised pinky finger.  The gesture reminds them that God delivered his people from Egypt with the power not of his mighty hand or his outstretched arm, but with just the power in his little pinky finger. 
 
Even God's pinky is strong!  And his strength is revealed in the ultimate weakness of Christ's cross. 
How does 1 Cor. 1:25 give you hope and comfort in the challenges you face?
 
4)  Read 1 Corinthians 1:26-31.  What circumstances were you in when God called you to belong to him?  Perhaps you have been a Christian your entire life; perhaps not.  We are all on a journey of being made new in Christ (sanctification)--and hearing others' stories of faith can encourage us along.
 
5)  Where have you seen God among things that are "lowly and despised" (v. 28)?  In what ways have you seen God use adversity or painful circumstances in your own life as a place where your Suffering Savior draws near? 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

One God and One Mediator

Click for a printable version of this post.
 
Scripture for Sunday, October 15:  1 Timothy 2:1-7
Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 29 and 30
 
Last week, our Words on the Wall series brought us into the presence of Jesus, whose place as Prophet, Priest, and King answers three questions that everyone faces in life:
  1. How should I order my life?  We saw that Jesus is our prophet/teacher, who teaches us the way of life through him.
  2. What is wrong with me, and what can be done about it?  Here, we saw that Jesus is our priest, who makes peace with God on our behalf and grants us his righteousness.
  3. What is the ultimate goal and purpose of life?  We saw that Jesus is our king, whose current-and-future reign gives us reason for great hope.
This week, our focus turns to a foundational Christian conviction that occasions lively conversation in groups of people whose religious convictions differ:  Is Jesus really the only way to God? 
 
 "No other name under heaven...by which we must be saved"  (Acts 4:12)
 
1 Timothy 2 opens with a call to prayer.  But the prayer is not for the benefit of the people who pray.    While the pray-ers may benefit from God's response to their prayers secondarily, e.g., through a government that allows them to pursue peaceful and godly lives (see verse 2), Paul's opening, overt call in verse 1 is a prayer for "all people."
 
Prayer for "all people," so Paul's logic continues in verse 3, is good and acceptable before "God our savior, who wants to save all people."
 
God's stated intention, Paul says, is to save all people.  We know that when Jesus judges humanity at the end of time, not everyone will be saved.  But God's heart is for all kinds of people, and many of them, to be saved through Christ.
 
One question in response to God's stated intention is this:  What about the people who have never heard of Jesus, or who have followed other faiths in search of God?  Rev. Jonker will consider these question on Sunday.
 
Another question in response to God's stated desire deals with our own attitude toward people outside the flock of faith.  Do we pray in line with God's intention as Paul instructs, for "all people" to come to a saving, transformative knowledge of Jesus?
 
Much though I hope my heart's attitude is one of concern for people who do not yet know Christ, I need God to keep working in me.  The natural tendency to love people who are familiar and who love me is strong.  It's a work of the Spirit when prayerful attention and a hopeful attitude for God's work characterize my posture toward "outsiders" or "enemies."
 
I see examples of this most clearly in my childhood.  When I was growing up, my parents provided me with a Christian education.  But as I progressed through elementary school, they recognized troubling attitudes in me.  While I seemed to be growing in knowledge and love for Christ, I was demonstrating both fear of and disregard for people outside of Christian faith.
 
That anxious and dismissive attitude gave my parents pause.  They concluded that I needed to learn by immersion--to see that people Christ loved, people he died to save, orbited in spheres outside of my immediate circle of home, church, and Christian school. 
 
Perhaps counterintuitively, my parents decided to enroll me in a public middle and high school to help shape my soul.  (This is, of course, not the only or best option to help young students learn about God's care for his world--but it is the way my family chose.) 
 
In those schools, God opened my eyes to his concern for my locker partner, Chelsea.  And to our eventual class president Madhan, who was from India.  And to Kristin and Anne, Brian, Leah and Rebecca--who were Christians of different denominations from mine.  I saw Caleb, who had a mohawk and sported piercings, stand up for his Christian faith by opting out of watching movies that denigrated Christianity in class.   
 
I began to experience how big God's world is; how very many kinds of people there are in the world--and, in retrospect, to watch God grow in me a heart that looked a little bit more like my Father's--a heart that desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth:
 
For there is One God,
and One Mediator of God and of people--
the man Jesus Christ  (1 Tim. 2:4-5)
 
One God and One Mediator.  And so we pray for all people to come to a knowledge of this God.

Questions for Reflection or Discussion:

1.  From the Sermon:  This passage and others (John 14:5-14Acts 4:1-21teach clearly that Jesus is the only way to the one true God.  Living in relationship to this one true God through his son, Jesus Christ, led many early Christians to speak of this truth even when doing so earned them persecution. 
 
Putting on your "alternative argument" hat, what reasons can you think of for why people would find the idea that there are many ways to God attractive?

2.  One commentator on this passage responds to the objections raised by people who say there are multiple paths to God.  He says this: 

"Unless there is one God and one Mediator there can be no such thing as the brotherhood of [people].  If there are many gods and many mediators competing for their allegiance and their love, religion becomes something which divides...instead of uniting them.  It is because there is one God and one Mediator that [people] are brethren of one another" (Wm. Barclay, The Letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, 1975: Westminster Press, 66). 
 
Does Barclay's argument that the "one way" of God through Christ is actually more inclusive than the alternative seem persuasive to you?  How would you restate his argument in such a way that you could explain it to a non-Christian friend?

3.  Do you find yourself drawn to pray for people who don't know Christ?  If so, what motivates you to pray?  If not, why not?   

4.  What one small step could you take this week to "pray for all people"--that if they know Christ they might live in him; and if they don't, that they would come to know him?  (Some ideas:  pray over the news headlines; pray for the person ahead of you at the grocery store; pray for the person on the other end of the phone at work).     
 

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Prophet, Priest, and King

Click for a printable version of this post.

Scripture for Sunday, October 8, 2017:  Matthew 28:16-20
Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 31 & 32

This week we return to our Words on the Wall series after participating in World Communion Sunday last week.

So far we our series has considered God's power and love in creation; his providence in the unfolding of history; and God's in-the-flesh coming in Jesus Christ.

Now we turn our attention to Jesus' mission in the world.  What does his role imply for our own mission as his people?  Join us on Sunday as we hear his call and receive his assurance for lives of following him.

All, all, all--yes all! is Christ's

In Jesus' Great Commission of Matthew 28, those who follow Jesus receive their marching orders.

It's a climactic scene.  Jesus has risen!  He has appeared to some of the women, and instructed them to tell his disciples to meet him in Galilee. 

So Jesus' joyous, anxious, confused disciples come to meet him, as he directs, on a mountain in the north. Important things happen on mountaintops in Matthew--think of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), or the Transfiguration (Matthew 17).

There they are--assembled to see their Risen Lord.  But someone is missing from the group.  Judas has killed himself.  Scholar Dale Frederick Bruner notes that Jesus is "commanding a defective eleven," rather than a perfect, complete twelve.

Then Matthew reports that, while the disciples worshiped him, some doubted. 

The team is incomplete.  The team wrestles with its uncertainties.  Yet Jesus' mission in the world does not stall for lack of a perfect team.

 Jesus moves to reassure and challenge those who are inclined both to worship and to doubt (Matthew 28:17).  And his message is a cornerstone command for mission agencies, Sunday school teachers, and Christians who want to be good neighbors right up to the present time.

"ALL authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," Jesus says.

"Therefore, disciples, make more disciples of ALL nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to obey ALL I have commanded you.

"And surely I am with you ALWAYS, even to the close of the age."  

Notice how comprehensive Jesus' reign is.  See how many times the word "all" appears in these short verses? 

What do the "alls" suggest?

Jesus has (1) cosmic and comprehensive authority.  He is a King who has "the whole world in his hands."  (2)  Jesus is ruler of all earthly people groups.  No nation's troubles or needs surprise him; and he calls people from all kinds of places to belong to him.  (3)  He is a prophet/teacher, who has lived and taught comprehensively on what life with God entails, commanding us to obey him and to teach what he taught.  (4)  He is a priest who intercedes for us with God and gives us assurance.  He grants us an all-times, all-places promise of his presence to empower us for lives that honor him.

Questions for Reflection or Discussion:

1.  From the Sermon:  What is it about who Jesus is that excites you, personally? 

2.  From the Sermon:  What universal human questions does Jesus' priesthood, role as prophet/teacher, and king answer?  Can you speak about these things in a way that a 10-year-old could understand?  In a way that your neighbor who doesn't know Christ could understand?

3.  What role--prophet, priest, or king--makes the most sense to you?  Which role feels more foreign?  What role gives you great hope?

4.  When you are invited to follow Jesus in these prophetic, priestly, kingly ways, which role seems the most natural to who you are?   

5.  What role does (or has) doubt play in your own Christian faith journey?  If you find yourself in a time of doubt, you are in good company.  Calvin says that we need to have the gospel preached to us weekly, because we are all "partly unbelievers 'til we die."  What gives you strength in times or places of doubt?

6.  How do you understand your own call to follow Christ in his mission to live and share the gospel?  What holds you back when you want to live boldly?  What kind of equipping do you need? 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

One Humanity Out of the Two

Click for a printable version of this post.
 
Scripture for Sunday, October 1:  Ephesians 2:11-22
 
This week we step away from our Words on the Wall series to join in a worldwide celebration of the Lord's Supper.
 
We'll remember that God's people are worshipping in house churches and in cathedrals; in prisons and outdoors; in fear of persecution and in freedom.
 
We'll remember that people from every tongue, tribe, language, and nation are among the company of those who belong to Christ--and that, both in the United States and worldwide, many of our siblings in Christ do not look or sound like us.
 
"HE HIMSELF IS OUR PEACE"  (Ephesians 2:14)
 
One of the things I love about the Apostle Paul (and, of course, about the God whom Paul serves) is that he only gives commands after reminding us of who and whose we are.  Someone smarter than me said this:  Imperatives (commands) always follow indicatives (statements of fact).
 
Ephesians 2:11-22 is full of statements of fact, reflections on what Christ has done.  In this passage, we have few commands.  Verse 11's "remember" is the only one--which calls its hearers not to action but to remembrance.
 
The remembrance is tear-stained.   
 
The remembering brings to mind namecalling.  "Uncircumcised scum."  "Jewish insider."  It brings to mind outcast status.  It brings to mind hopelessness and division.  The division isn't only between people and God; it's also between groups of people--Jews and Gentiles.  (Ephesians 2:11-12). 
 
Meditate on what and where you were before you were in Christ, Paul says.  It wasn't a good place.
 
At verse 13 there's a turn:  But now--Paul says--now, you who are in Christ have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
 
Christ himself, through the sacrifice of his body, brings all who were far from the Father near to the Father.  No longer strangers to God, no longer strangers to one another.  This is once-for-all ontological reality.  Believe it or not, Paul says, whether we see it or whether we don't, in some kind of ultimate way that we just can't quite get our minds around, Christ himself has made a costly, effective peace. 

Brought near to the Father.  Brought near to one another.
 
Christ does this not just on an individual level, but also on a communal level.  Christ is creating a "new humanity," in himself.  "He reconciled the both in one body of God through the cross, killing the hostility in himself," the Greek says in verse 16.
 
Consequently, we are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens of God's holy people--and members of God's household, a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.  (vv. 19, 22).

And that news is both amazing--and hard, as we who are different from one another learn to live together in the love of Christ. 

Questions for Reflection

1.  Especially when we have been Christians for most of our lives, it can be difficult to remember that without Christ, we are strangers to God.  Exercising your sanctified imagination, consider who and what you are without Christ.  Try to be specific.  If you can see ways that Christ has caused you to grow, to become new, consider who you would be without his work in your life.  Take time to own your brokenness and to praise God for his renewal.

2.  Where do you witness the pain of alienation between people as a result of sin in our world?  Ask God to intervene in your own life and in the world in this area.

3.  What "imperatives" (commands) do you believe grow out of the reality that Christ has reconciled different kinds of people to one another?  What implications does this reality have on the way we see, think about, and interact with people whose backgrounds are very different from ours?

4.  Read 2 Corinthians 5:26-21.  What does it mean to you that God has committed a ministry of reconciliation to us? 
 
5.  Rev. Jonker is preaching on this passage as it relates to racial issues in the United States.  Do you find the "surrender to Jesus" or "social justice" responses to racial tension more compelling?  Where might you sense God asking you to step into an uncomfortable place as it relates to the issues we see between people of different backgrounds?
 
6.  If you would like to do some further reflection on race, consider viewing and discussing the film (or book) Same Kind of Different as Me, which is based on a true story.  There is a trailer here.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Incarnation

Click for a printable version of this post.

Scripture for Sunday, September 24:  John 10:22-39
(focusing especially on verses 22-30)
Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 35 & 36


We are in week three of our series on the Heidelberg Catechism's teachings on the Apostles' Creed. 

The first two weeks we considered the first line of the Apostles' Creed:  "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth."  We thought about God's care for his creation and creatures, and about his role in the events of human history.

This week we turn to the second line of the Creed, to the person of Jesus:  "I believe in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary...."

For Christians today, the idea that God took humanity to himself in the person of Jesus is everything--an absolute essential of our faith.  It's a cause for great joy and thankfulness, and something that--if we're honest--we can take for granted because it is so familiar.  By now it is not "news."

But for the Jewish leaders of Jesus' time, Jesus' claim to be God in-the-flesh was brand new.  And not only that, it was blasphemous.  Join us on Sunday as Rev. Hoogeboom helps us recognize Jesus for who he is--the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).

Seeing Jesus

John 10:22 places us with Jesus at the temple during the Feast of Dedication, or Hanukkah.  Hanukkah is a Hebrew word that means "dedication."  The Greek term for Hanukkah means "renewal." 

This is a time when God's people would remember and praise him for establishing his presence among them--first in the Tabernacle; later in Solomon's Temple; and after that in the second temple, built under Ezra after some of the people of Israel returned from exile.  The Feast of Dedication marked a time when the hearts of God's people were turned toward him in worship. 

And so it is that at a time set apart for "dedication" Jesus enters the temple courts to find open conflict.  It seems that sometimes "renewal" comes with pain.

Jesus' adversaries badger him, telling him to stop stringing them along.  "Why are you keeping us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly."

"I did tell you," Jesus responds.  "But you do not believe.  The works that I do in my Father's name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep.... I and the Father are one."

The Jewish leaders of John 10 expect to recognize God's Messiah by his works.  They expect he'll do the kinds of things they do:  worship in the temple as they do, keep the festivals as they do, claim ancestry from Abraham as they do, observe the Old Testament law as they do. 

But Jesus' coming turns the Jews' expectations upside-down.  No longer do God's people belong to him through Abraham's human family; they belong to God by being "born again" through the Spirit.  No longer is the debate about proper worship of God solved by a direction to the Jerusalem temple; it's solved by a direction to Jesus AS the temple, the place where God's presence is known on earth.

And not only that.  God's Messiah doesn't serve to announce God's reign or a political rescuer from the Romans, God's Messiah is God himself, taking on "a truly human nature...like his brothers and sisters in every way except for sin."  (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 35).

This oneness between Jesus and the "one God" of Deuteronomy 6:4 is mind-boggling for the Jewish leaders.  It is Jesus' claim of oneness with the Father that brings the Jews' indignation to the boiling point. 

Incarnation is not something they expected.  But it is the very thing that will bring about the renewal they so desperately need.

Questions for Reflection or Discussion

1.  From the Sermon:  How and when have you recognized Jesus' work--a hallmark of his oneness with the Father--in your own life?  How has he worked in ways you expected?  In ways that surprise you? 

2.  On recognizing Jesus:  Read Luke 24:13-35.  What do you notice about how the disciples came to recognize the risen Jesus? 

3.  On why the Incarnation matters:  Read Exodus 33:12-23.  What is the implication of seeing God's face?  Now read Hebrews 1:1-4.  What difference does the Incarnation make for our ability to see God?

4.  St. Anselm of Canterbury was an archbishop in the 11th century who wrote about why it was necessary for God to become human.  Anselm argued that no one but God could save humanity; but only human beings should pay the debt for sin.  God's solution was to send his Son:

"God will not do it, because he has no debt to pay; and man will not do it, because he cannot. Therefore, in order that the God-man may perform this, it is necessary that the same being should be perfect God and perfect man, in order to make this atonement. For he cannot and ought not to do it, unless he be very God and very man"  (Book 7 of Cur Deus Homo).

Does Anselm's reasoning persuade you that the Incarnation was necessary?  How would you talk about this argument with someone who was considering Christianity and found this doctrine hard to swallow? 

5.  What difference does it make in your day-to-day life that Jesus is like us--his adopted younger brothers and sisters--in every way, except for sin?

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Providence

Click for a printable version of this post.
Click to access the related sermon on providence. 

Scripture for Sunday, September 17:  Matthew 10:26-31

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 27-28:  "All things come to us not by chance, but by his fatherly hand."

Last week in this series, we recognized God's rule in and over his creation.  This week, we continue with the first affirmation of the Apostles' Creed:  "I believe in God the Father Almighty," considering God's rule over history.

I suspect that not too many of us have the word "Providence" hanging on our walls.  But all of us have an operating theology of providence.  Did God cause you to lose your job, or did he allow it?  Did he direct the path of the errant baseball that knocked out your Little Leaguer's tooth? 

On a broader scale, is God orchestrating the strategies of world governments behind the scenes; or are oppressive or dictatorial leaders evidence of sin's fallout in a world made good and glorious for God? 

One goal of the series this week is to explore the tensions we encounter when we live as truly free people in a world that is also truly in God's control.  Join us Sunday to hear how the Scriptures and Reformed theology wrestle with these questions.

Reflection:  The Problem of Providence

Read Psalm 55:12-23 

The speaker of Psalm 55 has been blindsided, bowled-over by the treachery of a dear friend.  

"If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it," he says, "but it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend."

The companion the psalmist trusted has proved unreliable.  The friend in whom his heart found rest has turned traitor.

Our deep questions about the providence and goodness of God arise out of the deep valleys of our souls.  When it seems to us that God we are on friendly terms with God, when he is near and smiling on us, it is easy to believe the goodness of his "fatherly hand."  But what are we to do when we experience the shadow side of God's providence?

C.S. Lewis describes the problem this way:

“When you are happy, so happy you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels— welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”   (A Grief Observed).

When the cancer diagnoses comes; when the house doesn't sell; when the hours are long and the job is hard and the pay is low; when mental illness robs our loved one of her personality, it can feel as if the God in whom we trust has proved unreliable.  We may even wonder....  Has God turned traitor?

The Psalmist doesn't stuff his complaint when his friend betrays him.  He brings it to a God who he knows will hear him.

"As for me, I call to God and the Lord saves me.  Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress and he hears my voice....Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you.  He will never let the righteous be shaken."  (Ps. 55:16-17, 22).

Are we inclined to stuff our complaints when we wonder about God's goodness and his providence?  After all, when we cry to God about someone or something, that's quite a different thing than when we complain to God about himself

When we question God's providence, we're bringing the complaint directly to the friend who seems to have closed and locked the door.  What to do?

We keep talking to God.  Later in A Grief Observed Lewis acknowledges the mysterious company of God through the place of pain:

“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of 'No answer.' It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, 'Peace, child; you don't understand.”

 The strength of a Reformed view of providence--that "rain and drought, fruitful and lean years...health and sickness, prosperity and poverty....come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand" is a way of affirming that absolutely nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).

The immediate aftermath of a diagnosis or an accident is not the time to talk about theology of God's providence.  Those are the places for hugs and tangible expressions of help--which, between followers of Jesus, bear the presence of God into places of pain.  But having the theological scaffolding of God's providence in place gives us strength for the times when we wonder just what God's fatherly hand is up to.

Questions for Reflection or Discussion:

1.  From the Sermon:  How have you understood God's providence?  What difference does it make whether you believe God sends everything in life our way, or that he allows everything in life to come our way?  What viewpoint seems more truthful to how you understand the Bible, and to your own life?

2.  Can you tell about a time when an understanding of God's providence brought you comfort?

3.  The Psalmist says he brings his complaint to God evening, morning, and noon (the Hebrew day was understood to start in the evening) (Ps. 55:17).  How do you present your requests to God when you don't understand what he is up to?  Do you find it easy or difficult to bring your complaints or concerns to God?  Are there times when you haven't been on speaking terms with God?  Who or what has helped you in such times?

4.  Paul's speech to the Athenians in Acts 17:16-33 (especially v. 24-28) identifies ways that God's providential care has been shown in human history.  What does Paul suggest is God's goal in being involved in the ongoing care of his world? 

5.  Who in your life has "lived stories" (testimonies) of God's providence?  What are the stories of God's faithful care, and how does remembering them help nurture your own faith?  Examples might include unexpected finances that came in at just the right time; a palpable sense of God's presence in a time of trouble; clear orchestration of details that were beyond human power to execute, etc.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth

Click for a printable version of this post. 
Scripture for Sunday, September 10:  Psalm 33
Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 26 (from the Heidelberg Catechism page, click the "God the Father" heading)

 
Reflection 1:  The Power of Words
Suggested Scripture:  Psalm 1
 
What words hang on the walls of our souls?
 
When the cool fall air invites us out for a walk...
When the noise of daytime fades and the song of crickets lulls us to sleep...
When we come to a stop, stunned at the glory of an eight-point buck on a creekbed in the city...
 
What words echo in our souls?
 
This week we begin a fall series on the Heidelberg Catechism and the Apostles' Creed.  These summaries of biblical faith are a great gift--time-tested and community-approved.  Controversy, reflection, and Holy-Spirited discernment led to a carefully-honed articulation of the faith "once for all entrusted to the saints"  (Jude 1:3).
 
The Creed summarizes the convictions that Christians everywhere and in every time hold in common.  The Catechism articulates biblical faith with a Reformed accent.
 
For some of us, these words are incredibly familiar.  They are part of us.  Saying them is like enjoying a fine wine that has been a favorite for years.  For others of us, coming to receive these words of faith as a gift takes longer.  We learned the content of the Catechism but didn't see how it brought us comfort, how it shaped our lives.  We wonder how expressing our faith in common forms is also personal.
 
In this series, we will be challenged again to see how ideas have power.  The words hanging on the walls of our souls have the power to shape our interactions with God, with ourselves, and with others and the world around us. 
 
Questions for Meditation or Discussion:

1.  Describe your own response to the Catechism or the Apostles' Creed.  Are they life-giving affirmations of faith; statements of faith that you'd say are theologically correct but haven't sunk deep into your heart; or something else?

2.  Read Proverbs 18:20-21, James 3:1-12.  What kind of power do human words have?  
    
3.  Human words do have power.  But human words are not ultimate.  We don't create ourselves or our world.  Read  Psalm 33:4-9 and Isaiah 55:8-11.  Describe the power of God's words according to these passages, contrasting them God's power with the power of human words.  How does the scope of God's words comfort you?

4.  Read Psalm 1:1-3.  In quiet moments, do you find that the "law of the Lord"--his Word in Scripture, his glory in creation, his Word-made-flesh in Jesus Christ--echo in your mind and heart?  If not, what litany of thoughts or attitudes compete for your attention?


Reflection 2:  The Creator of Heaven and Earth
Suggested Scripture:  Psalm 19; Matthew 8:23-27

When our first son was born, we brought him home to a nursery with these words on the wall:

All things bright and beautiful
All creatures great and small
All things wise and wonderful
The Lord God made them all

Even before Micah could understand the words, we wanted them etched into the walls of his heart:  He occupied his Father's world.  He belonged to us, yes.  But even more importantly, he belonged to a God who created a universe with order and beauty and purpose, whose faithfulness to his creation never fails.  Fundamentally, foundationally, and finally, God's world is GOOD. 

Our boys share that room now, and they are fast outgrowing the d├ęcor.  And their questions about God are growing too.  How do we think about God as a good creator in the face of natural disasters--wildfires and hurricanes?  Tornados or flooding creeks that come into our basement? 

We hold to the truth of what we believe about God's goodness, and we also tell the truth as best we understand it about what happens in our world.  Chaos does break through into the orderly world that is our home.  God's creation and providence have a place for hurricanes.  

But God is not surprised.  No, God is still "enthroned over the flood" (Psalm 29).  The ancient Israelites understood, perhaps better than we do, God's marvelous power over the world he made, and over the forces of chaos.  It was God who brought life and order to the world at the beginning of time (Genesis 1-2).  Jesus was confirmed with power as the Son of God, who ordered the wind and the waves (Matthew 8).   

And as creation yearns for its completion in its Lord, Jesus Christ, God has placed us on this planet to represent him, working toward healing and wholeness in a multitude of ways in his world.


Questions for Reflection or Discussion: 

1.  In what way do you feel "at home" in the Father's world?  Where has God shown you his loving care in providing a world that is not predominately cold or hostile, but rather DOES provide for everything we need for life?

2.  We do experience adversity in this world.  But Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 26 says that God will "turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world.  God is able to do this because he is almighty God and desires to do this because he is a faithful Father."  Can you reflect on a time in your life when you have seen God turn adversity to your good?  Are there times when you haven't been able to see what God is up to?  What gives you hope and strength in such times?

3.  How does a bone-deep conviction that God is in control--not chance or fate or human effort--give us as Christians a foundationally different outlook on life than people who believe differently?  What comfort and responsibility do  we have in knowing that creation is heading toward completion in Christ (John 1, Romans 8)?