The Peaceable Kingdom is Still Coming

I had the privilege of preaching this sermon on December 4, 2016, at Waverly Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our scripture reading comes from Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

The word of the Lord.

The world described in Isaiah 11 is not our world. I want to live in this world, but this is not our world. This is literally a counter-vision of our world. If you doubt that, go back on Facebook for thirty seconds. After the service. Or turn on Fox News, or CNN, or open the Post-Gazette.

This is not the world we live in. We live in a world of snap judgments, of angry Facebook reactions and shares of stories that may not even be true just because they make us angry. We are so quick to judge by what our eyes see and what our ears hear.

Our politicans judge the rich with unrighteousness and decide with firm in-equity against the meek of the earth. Our hearts are inundated with news of the innocent being killed as the breath of their mouths are stolen by those in authority. Finding a righteous and faithful politician isn’t unlike unicorn hunting. And this business about predators and prey living in harmony sounds like something out of Zootopia. Everyone thinks vegetarian lions and bears are a good idea… except the lions and bears.

They will not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain for sure, but just as surely, this world is not God’s holy mountain, and God’s holy mountain is not to be found on earth, and earth is painfully not filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Earth is filled with the knowledge of the tragic ways of the world. It is filled with politicians who compromise what they know will do the most good for the most people because they know congress won’t approve it, or their constituents will vote them out at the next election. It is filled with people who vote for the less-evil candidate because the good candidate cannot possibly win. We know our clothing and electronics and chocolate are made by unpaid or underpaid workers, but this is the way the world works.

The sad knowledge of the world is that drones and bombs and missiles and assault rifles are the only way to make peace. Most people I know of who buy guns buy them for self-defense, because it is painfully clear that the world imagined in Isaiah 11 is not the world we live in, and because earth is filled with the knowledge of the tragic ways of the world, and not filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the seas.

So what do we do with Isaiah 11? What good is it? Is it just a beautiful fantasy that doesn’t connect at all with the world we live in today? Is “peace,” the theme of this second Sunday of Advent, just a tragic joke? Are we who live in hope of this coming peaceable kingdom doomed to the fate of the magazine “The Christian Century,” so named because they thought the 1900s were going to be the time when people finally got it right and lived in Christian charity, only to find the 20th century the setting for the first world war, and the second one, and the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, and countless others.

Calling the 20th century “The Christian Century” was more than a little optimistic. Is hope the same as optimism, a “glass-half-full” state of mind? No! For Isaiah, the glass is not half-full. Isaiah’s glass is all but completely empty, and what’s left of the contents is on fire. He just finished prophesying that the kingdom of Assyria is going to come and crush his country. Isaiah’s hope for peace is not a different way of thinking about reality. It doesn’t “depend how you look at it;” from all angles, the situation is objectively terrible.

All angles, that is, except one: the angle of the eye of faith. For Isaiah, as surely as the King of Assyria is coming to destroy Israel, the King of Assyria will himself be destroyed. Isaiah knows that the King of Assyria’s coming violence has an expiration date – not because of term limits, but because of divine limits.

Isaiah knew the future because Isaiah knew his history. Isaiah was steeped in the Exodus, because it was part of the Passover celebration his people commemorated every. single. year. Egypt held Israel captive, God broke their power. And we have access to even more history than he did.

We know Assyria defeated the northern kingdom and attacked the very gates of Jerusalem… but Assyria fell.

Babylon ultimately did haul Israel off into captivity, but Babylon fell.

Babylon was defeated by Persia, which continued to rule over the people of God, but Persia fell.

Persia was defeated by Greece, which then took over Israel, but Greece fell – first to the Maccabees, and then to Rome.

Rome executed Jesus, but Jesus was resurrected.

Rome persecuted the early church, and tried to destroy it, but Rome fell.

And in the twentieth century, as surely as the Third Reich built concentration camps and killed the innocent, the Third Reich fell.

The Soviet Union fell.

The Berlin wall fell.

Proverbs 29:16 says,

When the wicked are in authority, transgression increases,
    but the righteous will look upon their downfall.

Psalm 37 reminds us that the day of the wicked is coming, and it will not be long.

The people of God can take heart from the words of Isaiah 11, because Isaiah 11 is the next episode of the story of this world.

When I was younger, I used to read the Hardy Boys Mystery Series. Sometimes, those stories got just a little too scary for me to handle. Our eternally-young heroes Frank and Joe get captured, and the bad guys tie them up and throw them into a van and set the van to drive off a cliff into the ocean. When you’re eleven years old, that’s pretty scary. I would always pull myself out of the story for a minute and remember: Frank and Joe have to survive, because there’s another story after this one, and they’re in it. Then I returned to the story with courage.

That’s what Isaiah 11 is about. Isaiah 11 is the sequel. No matter how much trouble our world is in, as Christians, we can pull ourselves out of the story for a minute and remember; we can look with hope at Isaiah 11 and say, “I know the bad guys have our world tied up and thrown in a van that’s set to drive off a cliff into the ocean, but THE PEACEABLE KINGDOM IS STILL COMING!

And from where Isaiah sits, all the bad guys and rope and vans and cliffs and oceans in the universe cannot do a thing to stop it. They can slow it down, but it. is. still. coming.

But right now, we live in the middle of the story. We live between the world restored, and the world tied up and thrown in a van set to drive off a cliff into the ocean. Which is to say, we live in advent. We live in waiting to see how we get from here to there.

Now, just as surely as Frank and Joe have to pull off some clever tricks or get rescued by their friend Chet and the police, we still have our part to play, but while we’re doing it, we can remember: there’s another story that’s coming after the one we’re in now. And in that story,

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

They will not hurt or destroy
on all God’s holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

That is the sequel.

Edward Hicks - Peaceable Kingdom

==Benediction==

Go out into the world in peace.
Have courage.
Be patiently impatient.

And when you see our world
tied up in a van
that’s about to drive off a cliff
into the ocean,
may God remind you
that this story has a sequel,
and if the Bible is to be believed at all,
you’re in it.

Now may the love of God,
the Light of Christ,
and the power and communion of the Holy Spirit
be with us all.
Go in peace.

Amen.

Matthew Vines Might Win the Evangelical Gay Debate After All

A while ago, I wrote a post arguing why Matthew Vines can’t win the evangelical gay marriage debate.

Today, I’m here to admit that maybe I was wrong. Why?

Because of Lee Strobel.

I’ll explain.


Lee Strobel was a reporter. He was an atheist because atheism made sense. He met Christians. He started digging. Eventually, he converted to Christianity.

I saw a Lee Strobel video where he told his story and what arguments convinced him that Christianity made sense. The arguments and the reasons he shared were entirely unconvincing. He interviewed Biblical scholars – all of whom were Evangelical Christians – to find out why they believed and what evidence they thought there was. This methodology isn’t wrong; it merely exposes Strobel’s bias: He wanted to be a Christian but needed evidence that it was true.

His friends were Christians, and they were nice. His wife was a Christian and his atheism/agnosticism was creating challenges in their relationships. As a result, he started compiling evidence that it was true. Strobel found the evidence he was looking for specifically because he was looking for it. Whether that evidence was sufficient evidence compared to other evidence to the contrary was not as relevant as the fact that there was evidence to be had, and Strobel snatched it up. Continue reading

The Eternal Homes: A Short Story

I have not done the work required to justify this story, and I have no way of knowing for sure what heaven is like, but the Bible verse at the end makes me think there might be some truth in it.


A rich man died.

After a long walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he found himself at the gates of heaven.

He was surprised to find at the gates not Saint Peter or Jesus or an old man with a beard, but the Black woman who used to be the gatekeeper at the parking garage he had parked in every day for the past twenty years. She didn’t look tired anymore.

“Who vouches for you?” she asked.

“Jesus?” He had been in church almost every Sunday of his life, and he had donated a large sum of money to the building project a few years ago, so he figured Jesus would recognize him.

“Jesus is busy,” she said. He thought about asking if maybe she could get Jesus on the phone, but she didn’t seem to be in the mood. “Got anybody else?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Who’s here?”

“Lots of people.”

He thought for a moment.

“You knew me, right?”

“I recognize your face, but I can’t say I know you.”

“Well,” he said, “maybe I’ll just wait for Jesus to not be busy.”

“Up to you,” she said. “I hear there’s a war down on earth and he’s awful busy.”

So he sat down on the bench beside the gate.

All day long, Jesus never came. A whole bunch of other people came by, though. People who had been hurt by war and famine and disease were ushered right in. A few others were told to wait until somebody could vouch for them. It seemed that the lower one’s station in life, the quicker one got in.

One day, the ragamuffin who had begged on the street corner approached the attendant. She checked her clipboard and let him in. “Your place is waiting.”

“Wait a minute!” said the rich man. “I know the person you just let in.”

“Hold on, kid,” she said. “Can you vouch for this guy?”

The ragamuffin looked him up and down. “I think I saw him once in a suit maybe, but he never gave me anything.” The rich man was not allowed in.

More time passed.

A few weeks later, an old homeless man walked up to the gates. The attendant recognized checked her clipboard. “Jacob. Welcome home. Your place is waiting.” But the homeless man just stood there looking at the rich man, who by now had begun to despair of ever getting in.

“Is something wrong?” asked the attendant.

“I know this guy!” said the homeless man. “He used to be my friend before I dropped out of college. One time he paid to get my car fixed when I just didn’t have the money.”

“Are you vouching for him?” she asked. “That means he lives with you.”

“Of course,” said the homeless man. “If he don’t deserve to get in, nobody does.”

The woman swung the gate open wide and they walked in together.


And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

-Luke 16:9, NRSV.

What Shall the Righteous Do?

This morning* I had Hebrew homework to do, but someone shared a link in one of my Facebook groups to a story on PinkNews.co.uk called “Christian groups are handing out these creepy ‘gay cure’ comics to children.”

I read the story. The American Family Association was giving away Bibles with comics in them. “Creepy” is accurate.

Then I went down the rabbit hole. The Bibles they were distributing are called “Truth for Youth Bibles,” because of course they are.

I googled “Truth for Youth Bible,” which led me to the website of the organization that publishes it. The organization’s name is “Revival Fires International.” Because of course it is.

Were there more sample comics at the Truth for Youth Bible website? Of course there were.

The Truth for Youth Bible is the God’s Word Translation (remind me to never support them), and contains “100 pages of powerful, full-color comic stories that present the “absolute truth” about issues that young people are confronted with.” (Spoiler: They’re all evil.)

What are these issues? Just the usual fundamentalist boogeymen, including:

  • Homosexuality
  • Abortion
  • Secular Rock Music
  • Evolution
  • Pluralism

The comic on the Supernatural seems to have renamed Dungeons and Dragons (or some other role-playing game) to “Detestable Practices.” You can read them all in their full-color glorious awfulness.

Seriously, they’re like Chick Tracts, if Chick tracts were full-color and drawn by people with a modicum of talent.

Yes. They’re really that bad.


I dropped by Revival Fires International’s About page and read this paragraph:

Tim [Todd] has a special message for the church during this end-time revival. He conducts special services where God’s Word is preached under the anointing of the Holy Ghost. Tim’s message is pure gospel, his delivery is dynamic, and his heart is aflame with the power of God.

…He exhibits a God-given ability to preach in a clear and powerful manner under a strong anointing of the Holy Ghost.

“Under a strong anointing of the Holy Ghost.”

“His heart is aflame with the power of God.”

The Truth for Youth Bible is endorsed by a lot of Christian leaders, including a number of dead ones.


What do I do with that?

This guy, Tim Todd, is preaching a “gospel” of awful. He’s distributing Bibles with comics in them that tell stories about how bullshit is truth and truth is bullshit. He’s basically reduced the Bible down to a book of rules about morality and how everything is bad and truth is lies and lies are truth…

And his website says that he is under a strong anointing of the Holy Ghost.

Are they lying?

Is it my place to say they’re lying?

Is there anywhere I can go to get authoritative proof that he’s not anointed? (Nope, we’re both Protestants).

Can I just say about him, as I’m sure he would about me, that Tim Todd isn’t a Real Christian™ because I consider myself a Christian and think what he believes is horrible?

This right here is why I feel so screwed up: There’s a part of me that wants to go back to being that person who saw God’s handiwork everywhere and felt like he had this almost-romantic relationship with God, but when I see Tim Todd claiming that he has the same kind of relationship, but more so, it freaks me out. I don’t feel safe.

There’s a part of me that wants to run as fast as I possibly can away from anything that feels like “the anointing of the Holy Ghost” because Tim Todd’s PR firm thinks that’s why he’s so much they way he is.

But there’s another part of me that wants to visit his Facebook page (it took some digging, but I did find it) and post “How dare you presume to speak for God?”

Honestly, it reminds me of Luke 11:52, where Jesus says,

Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.

And that’s how it feels – like Tim Todd and his ilk have taken away the key of knowledge but don’t go in to the Kingdom of God, and hinder anyone else who tries to get in.

Tim Todd would call me a compromiser. He’d say my gospel is “soft.” Just like in a Chick tract, the people who say God isn’t an asshole are always on the short train to hellfire and damnation.

I think he’s dead wrong, about God and about me, but what can I do about it?

What can you do when you’re confident that your religion has been hijacked by people who have made it about literally everything except what you believe it’s about – and when you know these people place their interpretation of the Bible as the ultimate source of authority and think their interpretation is just “the Bible” and there’s nobody around to say “these Christians don’t speak for God or for Christianity”?

Your thoughts?

* Post first composed 8/23, but went unpublished at the time because I couldn’t figure out how to land it. I still don’t have an answer, but I decided to post anyway in case you do.

The Dictionary of Evangelical

Dear friends,

A while back I shared some of my favorite passages from The Book of Evangelical. Well, funny story: I was at a yard sale last weekend and happened upon a rare copy of The Dictionary of Evangelical. Naturally, I snatched it up. I had to share.

-David

Latin dictionary

Continue reading

Are We Called to be “On Fire”?

A few years back somebody described me as being “on fire for God.”  I was surprised. Me, “on fire for God?” But I was just me! Apparently I was, though. It showed.

I read a book by Eric Ludy once in which he wrote about talking to an older Christian about his fiery passion and the older Christian telling him that it fades. He really didn’t want it to fade. He pledged that it never would.

I think it was Diana Butler Bass who lamented that the options for Christians seem to be knowledge on ice and ignorance on fire. I repeated that quote to an Assemblies of God friend, and he commented that the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary slogan is “knowledge on fire.”

And of course, there’s the misattributed John Wesley quote about how if you’re on fire for God, the world will show up to watch you burn.

As I fought to get a campfire going a few weekends ago, I remembered the lyrics to the song “Settle on My Soul,” as performed by the band The Martins. The song envisions faith as fire as well: “Before the embers fade, stir the ashes of my faith.”

I’m not sure which way it came, but culture also celebrates fire – particularly, the fires of romantic love. In the song “Remind Me,” Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood take on the persona of a couple for whom the fire has faded. They sing about how they used to be “So on fire so in love,” and regret that their relationship has dimmed to embers.

I don’t think this is quite right.

fireBig fires with high flames are exciting. If you don’t know exactly what you’re doing (and probably even if you do), it can take a while to build a fire, though. Dry wood is important. You also need plenty of air. And it requires work to keep it going the way it is in the picture. A lot of work.

I don’t think anybody has time for that.

The fire in this picture took a while to build. It’s this high because we had just tossed on a bunch of new, dry wood. But it didn’t stay that way. Eventually, it faded down until it looked more like the second picture.

And that’s good.

Big roaring flames are sexy, but you can’t cook much over them besides marshmallows and hot dogs. They look exciting, but as Kristen often reminds me, you can’t cook anything substantial on them until they’re down to hot coals. And I think coals might be a better metaphor.

Kristen and I have been married for over three years now. We’re still delighted to see each other when she gets home from work, but we don’t have that “whoosh” of excitement that we did when we were dating and I was working at Jumonville and only got to see each other once a week. That would be an exhausting emotional roller coaster ride if we did it every day. We still stir the embers and occasionally put on more wood, but our relationship doesn’t require embersthe constant second-by-second attention it did then. There’s still fire, but it’s less fireworky. It’s more useful now. It’s something you can sit around and hold a good conversation with close friends around. It’s something we can build a life on. It’s not a paper fire that’s all whoosh and then everything’s gone. The big logs have caught.

My faith has shifted down to embers too. Ignorance is paper. Knowledge is hardwood. It burns slower. Sometimes you get fireworks, but usually, it’s a slow, unimpressive burn that is capable of doing the work it’s meant to do.

By all means, let us celebrate the whoosh and roar of fresh fire – and let us hope that it will come to have the valuable strength of a slow burn that’s been going a long time and will be sustainable for a long time to come.

Is Socialism Unbiblical?

This morning, one of my wife’s friends sent her a link to a blog post condescendingly titled “Dear Liberal ‘Christians’: No, it’s Not ‘Christian’ for the Government To Redistribute My Money“. I call the title condescending because the word “Christian” is in scare quotes. Like a frightening number of other blog posts from all across American Christianity on both sides of the political spectrum, in the title alone, this post suggests that those who do not agree with the author are not Christians.

It’s tempting for me to join Ms. Kirchoff in saying that my political position is so much closer to what scripture teaches that those who don’t agree are so far wrong that they’re not even Christians. But what happens if I do that? I will insult my fellow Christians by refusing to give them the benefit of the doubt that their faith is sincere. There will be no chance made available for grace, and (if what I am saying is true) it will close them off to being guided into more truth and simply enrage them.

The post in question followed the tone in the title by being patronizing – including the utterly delicious phrase “In short, no. You’re wrong here too. Sucks, don’t it?” which, having admittedly typed similar sentences, I have no doubt felt utterly delicious. Then the author engages in name-calling, referring to a liberal Christian who might be reading her post in the second person as a “miserly crapweasel.”

She ends the post with this: “You’re just being an easily exploited rube with zero critical thinking skills. No, your Jesus fish will not absolve you of this one.” Now, unless this post is only for people who agree with her, she’s wasting her time here because if liberal Christians, as she says, have “zero critical thinking skills,” they won’t even be able to properly engage with her post and will just leave angry comments.


But what of the actual content of the post, tone aside? It’s mostly an argument from silence. The most biblical paragraph in the entire post is this one:

Jesus called his disciples to care for the least of these. The poor, the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit prisoners, etc. This is Christianity 101. We all know it. As Christians we’re called to be Christ-like, to be his disciples, to preach his word. All good things. Put a giant check mark next to your Jesus fish.

So far so good. But what happens next is both surprising and not particularly biblical. It is essentially the libertarian argument that taxation is theft. Essentially the argument here (you can read it for yourself to verify my depiction) is that Jesus’ command “to care for the least of these” is for individuals and not for governments.

The central question, then, is whether Jesus wants the poor uplifted, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, and the prisoners visited, or whether he merely wants Christians to engage in these activities because they’re good things to do. Continue reading

(New) Reflections on the Prodigal

You’ve heard a million sermons on the parable of the Prodigal Son, but when the passage was read in church this morning, I heard three things that I hadn’t heard before:

1. When the younger son was away in a foreign land, he was working – he had a job – but the job was not providing enough for him to get by. What did he say to himself? “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!”

It may be because there was a famine, but nonetheless, the point stands: the father in the story made sure those working to build and maintain his wealth had all they needed and more.

So will we join with the Father in the story, represented by God, and make sure that everyone who works has food enough and to spare? Or will we condemn those who, like the younger son, work in a foreign land as “lazy,” their laziness proved not by their unwillingness to work, but by their poverty?!”

2. The younger son made bad decisions, it is clear. But what is the reaction of his father? Does he shrug his shoulders and say that the boy should’ve made better decisions, and if he had, he wouldn’t be in this mess? Does he provide him with a budget plan and suggest he attend Financial Peace University, and maybe then he’ll be worthy of not starving?

This is not what we find at all! The father immediately brings his son back into attire worthy of a son, and puts food in his belly, and throws a celebration.

So will we join the older brother in insisting that because people may have made bad decisions they are unworthy of a steak dinner or happiness? Or will we join the father in his ridiculous party for an irresponsible person who wasted his money on all sorts of things money shouldn’t be wasted on?

3. How fortunate he was to have a wealthy father. Many people who’ve made irresponsible decisions don’t get have a wealthy father to run home to when they make bad decisions or take a job that won’t support them.

But here’s the twist: The father in the story represents God. (If you think this is going to go Joel Osteen, I have another twist coming for you). The father represents God, whom Ephesians 4:6 declares to be the father of all.

So when we talk about “entitlements,” calling poor people “lazy,” let us remember at least two things: (1) the words of Ephesians, naming God the father of all, and (2) that the son in the story did nothing to earn the celebration. He just came home and there it was.

The older brother was, of course, furious, as he watched his dad, who still owned everything, take away some of the things he’d worked so hard for and give them to his brother who was starving.

The older brother, like many Christians, was confused about what made this son worthy of a celebration and of having more than enough. It was not his labor (he could’ve asked for the party at any time and had it). It was who his father was: the one who owned it all.

Beyond a Theology of “Nope”

When I was growing up, a couple pastors said the church they grew up in might as well have had a sign on the back that said “No,” because it was the answer to every question.

Can I go dancing?

No.

Movies?

Nope.

Sex?

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!

Television?

Nope.

But it wasn’t just the churches they grew up in. It was also the churches they led. In fact, as I’ve been learning in my Church History 2 class, much of Protestant reflects this sort of Theology of Nope. Continue reading

What I can believe about God

After I shared yesterday’s post, I got some pretty cool comments. People say, “Don’t read the comments,” and they’re usually right, but in this case, do read the comments. So far, they’ve been pretty awesome.

My friend Chris asked some questions today that I really want to respond to.

David, I’m interested in seeing you write all this out positively. What do you believe about God? Knowing you, as I do, I see that your are wrestling with your old understanding of God. Yet, what can you affirm about God? Also, where do you ground these affirmations?

I don’t know what I believe about God anymore. Continue reading