Category Archives: missional

What does it mean to be a transformative church?

What does it mean to be a transformative church?The Transformative Church

Two elements orient my overall purpose.

  1. A church is transformative when it engages in the development of people to better reflect the life of Christ in their lives

  2. and when this transformation then extends itself beyond the boundaries of a church community, as such people live their lives in new ways wherever they are.

We become in the church who we are to be in the

Read more…

Posted in church, emerging church, missional, theology, Transformative Church, writing | 6 Comments


Since only a small number of people will ever look at my dissertation (hopefully a much larger number look at the Fortress Press published version), I am posting here my Acknowledgment section that is at the beginning of the dissertation.  A way of more publicly to say thanks to the people involved in the process:


At the beginning is the end. The end of a long process of reading, writing, talking formally and informally with so many others. Along this way, I have had so many people who have influenced me in my thinking, in my faith, in my perseverance, pointing me towards a way of hope. Many of those I am not in regular contact with anymore and yet I would not be at this point if not for their influence. Thank you to my teachers at Wheaton for giving me the tools to explore theology and history, expanding not only my knowledge but also expanding my world, exposing me to the possibilities that Faith makes possible and giving me examples of how this can be worked out in the past and in the present. Thank you, dear friends who have walked a long or a little ways with me along the road. I value your friendship likely more than I ever expressed.

Others have had a more direct involvement in this process. Dr. Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen stands out in this regard. He was a significant influence during my MDiv studies and years later when I was at another crossroads of vocation he invited me to apply to study with him at Fuller for a PhD. His graciousness throughout has been inestimable, and more than this, a graciousness mixed with a sharp eye towards stretching, training, and sharpening me. In many ways his mentoring took the shape of what follows, he spurred me on and gave space for my participation, always encouraging and with a sincere excitement about my progress. His sense of humor mixed with a depth of insight and mastery of so many topics serves as a continuing example of the kind of scholar I seek to be. While I do not quote his own works extensively throughout this present work, his stamp of influence is profound throughout, in major and minor ways. He is my Doktorvater and my friend.

Along with Dr. Kärkkäinen, I wish to offer thanks to The Center for Advanced Theological Studies. The fellowships provided throughout my PhD studies allowed me to begin and press onwards in these studies, a task that was well beyond my means except for their generous support and validation each year. More than financial help, those in CATS have served as wonderful mentors, exemplifying the best theological education can offer, truly combining a substantive integration of faith and learning, never interested in an isolating ivory tower, modeling how a life of study can also be a life of faith.

Dr. James Bradley bears special mention in this regard as he helped shepherd me through a minor in church history. This subject is a love of mine and Dr. Bradley exemplifies why I love this field so much. His constant graciousness and his pursuit of academic rigor is likewise a model to me as I press onwards in my vocation and my faith. I want to also thank Dr. Bill Dyrness who was my second reader and whose class on Theology and Beauty helped to wonderfully initiate my PhD studies. Jürgen Moltmann also deserves personal appreciation. He was gracious in responding to notes and in encouraging my theological studies. He continued to be gracious in opening up his home for a few sessions of conversations in 2011. His openness to me was a great encouragement and is a great model.  He truly lives out what he writes.

My parents supported me through the ups and the downs, believing in me when I was confident about God’s work in my life, and believing in me when I wandered a while through a wilderness. They taught me to follow Jesus from my earliest days and have continued to be not only my family but my also my friends and a key part of my spiritual community. They are my mentors in life, in pressing onwards, in seeking after God in the good times and in the struggles, able to talk over the deep things of Scripture or theology, laugh together in considering the absurdities of life and celebrate together in the triumphs. I owe them much more than I can possibly say.

Amy has been my dearest friend, my constant encourager, my love of my life. She is a faithful follower of Christ, and I love being a team with her in this journey. I treasure her wisdom, her passion, her heart, the way she radiates the fullness of Christ, the way she hopes with me and for me, constantly pointing me towards God’s work. She is also much better at grammar than I am and helped me sort out many issues in what follows, fixing all manner of punctuation and being willing to tell me when something just plain didn’t make sense, as well as encouraging me when she read something that she loved. In big and small ways, her assistance is invaluable and I treasure beginning a new phase of life with her, our first that doesn’t involve PhD studies. We made it, my love.

This work is about the church. And while it may be wonderful to see transformative ecclesiology taking shape sooner rather than later, the reality is that any transformation of the church is like turning a cargo ship. It doesn’t happen quickly. With that in mind, I realize that what follows is an expression of hope for future generations. Along the way of writing this, one particular member of this future came into my life, my daughter Vianne, who was born very early in the morning on Easter, 2012. I continue to see the task of theology in all its forms as a way of helping provide for her a way forward in her own faith and hope and participation with Christ. She is a constant delight and a wonderful gift from God. I dedicate this dissertation to her, with hope and with expectation that she will see the wonders and promises of Christ become ever more present during the course of her life.

San Dimas, Maundy Thursday 2013                     Patrick Oden

Posted in academia, dissertation musings, ministry, missional, theology, Vianne, writing | 12 Comments

Creating a Missional Culture

Over the last couple of decades there have been various streams of church development, pointing at first to how older approaches were missing the mark and losing the vision and hiding behind walls. What was wrong? How did it go wrong? Sure there were some very engaging Christian communities, but the trend was troublesome. Critiques abounded, often from people who were burned, or burning, out and were desperate to find a new way. In the midst of that, there were a fair amount of proposals, and a fair amount of attempts at rediscovering a thriving Christian vision in our era. Publishers got in the mix, and there was a flood of books, many featuring the words “emerging” or “missional.”

Those became buzz words. And buzz words attract all sorts of people, many of whom have very different ideas about what those words mean and many who don’t care, and don’t want to try anything different, just want to repackage older church growth models with new terminology, thus keeping their place on the Christian conference circuit.

Just as troublesome was the tendency to use such terminology to undermine core Christian beliefs and values altogether, making big theological or ethical moves and then co-opting the terminology to fit that theological agenda.

Lost in all of this was the reality that emerging and missional movements were, at their core, not forsaking of the Gospel or limited to trendy new youth-oriented practices involving cushy chairs, round tables, and cussing pastors. The core, the leading edge, was always about Christ. Don’t be Christians just in name, but be so in fact. What does it mean to live out the Christian life in the midst of our present society? What does it mean to pattern the church around a more holistic and dynamic understanding of the work of God in this world? Merely maintaining patterns that were, for the most part, developed in the 1500s is not an adequate pattern if we are to commit the whole of our life and community to teaching, preaching, prophesying, pastoring in, with, and among the people God is seeking out.

The trends changed. Some said the missional and emerging movements were dead, mostly because publishers lost their buzz. Men and women didn’t stop seeking out holistic patterns of Christian community simply because there was waning interest by the powers that be. Some kept writing, leading, developing, speaking, praying.

Now, we’re in a new wave of publications, and this wave has a depth of theological insight and background in healthy and thriving practices that point to a sustained movement in the life of the church. I could list a great number of books that fit into this category. Indeed, I have, in my recent dissertation.  I’ve become an expert in the literature through my study and have been around this movement for about 20 years so have a good sense of what it is like in practice.

So, why am I writing all this here? Because with all this in mind, if I were to recommend one book as a starting place and overview of the missional movement, I would point to Creating a Missional Culture by JR Woodward. Woodward here does a masterful job of combining a wide array of sources–experiences, theology, organizational theory. He pulls from his own very developed understanding as a pastor and leader of a network of missional communities, from insights of other such leaders, and provides a book that describes the goals, theories, expressions as well as any other book I’ve read. Lots of books have more narrow focus, emphasizing one element or another, but Woodward brings it all together. If you want to know what a missional church is like, what they are doing and why, then this is where you should begin.

Any critiques? I suppose that with such a wide net of sources and insights, a book like this could easily become overwhelming to those who may not have a background in leadership studies, organizational theory, or ecclesiological musings. This isn’t a book for those who are trying to find their way, it’s a book for those who understand the basic themes and could use a succinct analysis and proposal. It’s a book for pastors, church leaders, and seminary students mostly. That’s not to say that the ideas or goals here are limited to such people, more that the language and concepts are decidedly directed that direction.

As far as style, Woodward is a great writer, focused and with a varying rhythm throughout that keeps the reader from getting bogged down in one direction or approach. He mixes narrative with theory with theology with practices and, in doing this, very nicely illustrates how missional churches seek to keep all these in holistic dialogue, rather than combative disdain of each other. Here theology informs and practices illuminate, both in dialogue with each other, informing and strengthening. Woodward is a great communicator, a great student of theology and missiology, and an experienced leader who brings a trustworthy weight to his ideas.

Posted in books, missional | 1 Comment


The process of embedding a transcendent reality within an imminent context is one of illumination, seeing reality for what it is and, in this, making the truly worthwhile stand in contrast to the wrong and misguided. Such a process for a person, or community, or context is not always easy, or welcomed. The whole problem with alternative identity systems is that they are forming identities, and our identities are who we think ourselves to be and orient us in how we act for ourselves and among others. This is why a person who is being illuminated by the Spirit, and seeks this illumination, needs a safe space in order to become who they are called to be—a space where there is encouragement to walk along the way of Jesus Christ and walk with fellow travelers accompanying them on this journey.

Such a community of people are becoming together who they are called to be in their lives and in a specific context, which it itself as a context and as a space filled with many people, called to redemption in the light of God’s immanent transcendence. As people resonate with this work of the Spirit they are both lifted up towards Christ and situated even more in their place—becoming incarnations of God’s reality with, for, and among a particular location. This is a work of transcendent immanence, participating with the Spirit in the redemption of a context, helping it to realize what it was called to be and helping those within it learning who to be.

This is, to be sure, a profound work, a work that we see most fully realized in the work of Jesus, whose incarnation resonated within his particular context, and then as people were transformed beginning to resonate in many other contexts, reaching all around the world. These pockets of resonance carry on this mission of the Father, which is the mission of Christ, which is the mission of the Spirit, gathering all of space and time into the resonance of God’s redemption and relationship. Put in such terms, it seems incredible that such a mission would be entrusted to people—all of whom are not yet fully who they are called to be themselves and yet are, in the midst of their own becoming, called to participate with God in the liberating work of the church. We are being formed as we are being sent. “It is,” as Jon Huckins puts it, “the only way to fully step into a vocation of Jesus apprenticeship. It is emulating our rabbi.”[1] Part of this emulation, then, is the posture of entrusting.

Just as Adam was intended as a mediator and to represent to it God’s identity and to steward it in submission to God, so to Jesus came among us, in part, to serve as a model and a mediator—for creation in general and for the misguided humanity in particular.[2] This role of mediator and representation was passed on by Jesus to his disciples, not staying among them but leaving and in this leaving, allowing the Spirit to enter into the life of the church with new power and authority. This is not necessarily something the disciples would have chosen on their own, as Jesus was, without a doubt, much more trustworthy in such a mission than they were. Indeed, one might say that entrusting such people—then and now—to such a task is dangerous.

Yet, this is the work of God, calling others to be who they were made to be in the midst of the mission each were called to participate in: being sent into this world for the sake of this world. This is a community task, as it is as persons within a community that we begin to represent God to this world. “God’s mission wasn’t designed to advance with a set of sent individuals. It was designed to advance through a faithful people living as advocates of the missio Dei.”[3]

[1] Jon Huckins, Thin Places: Six Postures for Creating and Practicing Missional Community (Kansas City: The House Studio, 2012), 133.

[2] See Huckins, 133.

[3] Huckins, 135.

(an excerpt from my dissertation)

Posted in dissertation musings, emerging theology, holiness, Holy Spirit, Jesus, missional, theology | 1 Comment

Truth, Beauty, and Yodeling Pickles

Peter, “It’s just a bit of silliness really.”
JM Barrie, “I should hope so.”

~from the movie, Finding Neverland

There’s something about theology and ministry that makes me serious. Now, that’s not a comment about how seriously I take it, or these are topics of great concern that merit only very serious attitudes.

It’s more that these topics, for whatever reason, seem to cause a shift in my personality. I become very serious. Don’t believe me? Read this blog. It’s very serious, mind-crushingly serious, alienatingly serious. I can’t even remember the last whimsical post I wrote here. I can’t remember, for that matter, the last whimsical anything I wrote. I try to post on what I’m thinking about, but since this is an entirely sporadic blog (liberally sprinkled with “sorry I haven’t written for awhile” sort of posts), I’m not really even sure what the goal of this blog is and it’s certainly not a cross section of what I usually am thinking about.

This has become my serious side. It’s the side of me that doesn’t let itself out in most social situations, and the side of me that, for whatever reason, is both an integral part of who I am and the choices I have made, yet I don’t express in other situations.

Remember the pensieve from Harry Potter? It allowed one to store memories, pulling them out like threads then storing them in a bowl.

This blog, and writing in general of late, has been my pensieve for seriousness. Scroll down, read the earlier posts. Very serious stuff. The writing at least. The pictures are more about beauty.

Truth and beauty, that’s the stuff of life, yeah?

Only for the longest time whenever I’ve had to describe myself or add a tagline I’ve used the phrase “a lover of truth, beauty and occasionally silliness”.

That really does sum up my personality. Only there has been a plain lack of occassionally silliness in my writing. And honestly, I miss it. I’ve been thinking for a while about how to get it back in but, of course, as my main writing task these days is my dissertation and dissertations are, as a rule, especially soul-crushingly serious even within the already serious genre of academic writing, I’ve not a lot of mental space for indulging my whimsy.

I say I don’t have a lot of mental space for whimsy, but isn’t it a matter of making space?

Did I post that part of my dissertation, the part I talked about making space is a significant part of our relationship with God and with others, not only something we do but something that reflects the image of God? I don’t feel like looking now, because that’s tedious, and as there’s few things more serious than tedium, I’m going to dodge looking for the requisite link.

Making space is good. But making space for whimsy and silliness? That’s something the desert monastics would certainly scold me about. Such a serious lot. And the trouble is that I have long taken them very seriously so while I disagree with their scowling about laughter and fun, I realize that there’s was often a depth of spirituality that I, in my best moments, really would love to discover. Maybe my blog has become an unintended reflection of my inner suspicions that theology and the Christian life really are, and should be, quite serious endeavors.

“A hermit saw someone laughing, and said to him, “We have to render an account of our whole life before heaven and earth, and you can laugh?”

That’s from the Desert Fathers. Not all those desert monastic really knew God, but the ones quoted in that book did, and much more than I do.

And yet… to a person, every mature Christian I’ve met or heard speak in person–those whose walks with God are deeper and longer and more thorough than my own–have a sense of humor. That’s always high on a list of relationship ideals, right, that the other person has a sense of humor? That was a big part of my attraction to Amy. She made me laugh.

“And you can laugh?” Yeah, I think so. Precisely because we have to render an account. And there are parts of my rendering that will be, to be sure, pretty ludicrous in the re-telling.

Theology and the Christian life are serious, to be sure, so merit a degree of somber interaction. However, when it comes down to it, both are also pretty ludicrous. We’re trying to come up with words that describe the creator and sustainer and ultimate identity of the universe, who we say is one but also three, God but also man, but not just a man, a man that isn’t like other men but is so much like other men that our very orthodoxy is dependent on testifying that this man is a man as much as other men but not like other men in all sorts of pretty specific ways, like the fact that he didn’t sin and like the fact that even though God incarnated as a man, this man didn’t exhaust all the identity of God even though he was fully God in every way, but since we also have the Father–who was with but not identical with this man, but be careful about using qualifying identical because then you have three gods instead of one; and this third one, or part or mode or person (but not separate person, more of an identity within the threeness of the oneness) is tricky because it’s not really a person, only it is, but more of a wind, or a breath, or a tempest, or a bird? or maybe a force but also a person because our trinity needs three persons and isn’t the beginning of a joke in which a son, a father, and ghost walk into a bar. So, the man died, really died, but didn’t die because he was raised from the dead and is now alive but not alive with us, with the Father, and with us in Spirit–which isn’t a pretty phrase meaning we’re thinking about him but he’s literally with us in Spirit–only to return again at some point which is always just about to happen for the last 1988 years or so.

I could go on and on. But you get the point. There’s an inherent ludicrous quality about theology that sort of inspires a bit of snickering when anyone tries to take it too seriously.

Yet people are very intent about taking it too seriously and if you don’t take it seriously they’ll be the first to remind you how serious to take it. But what do they know?

Really, all that seriousness is about trying to cope with the fact that much of theology, and much of our lives, and much of reality in general is ludicrous. Not because it’s meaningless. But because the meaning is so complex and intricate that our attempts to package it up in brown paper with neat little bows is ludicrous.

And because, I think, God has a sense of humor too, so whimsy is embedded in Creation. Our recognition of it is not dodging the main points of life, it’s indulging in them, recognizing and interacting with the world in a way that doesn’t take it as serious as many people want us to take it.

Finding the silliness, exploring the whimsy, letting go the absoluteness that seriousness seeks to impose, isn’t just a distraction. It is, I increasingly believe, part of our participation with God, part of recognizing the world for what it is–a ludicrous sort of place–seeing the contradictions and complexities as often displaying the ludicrous reality in which we now live.

Laughter is good medicine not because it’s a placebo, but because it helps us see the world rightly once more. Whimsy gives us perspective. And inasmuch as it does, it is, I think, holy.

“And you can laugh?” Yeah, I think so. Because we don’t just render an account our sins. We celebrate our salvation, and that is a feast, a joyous event, a reflection of the fact that this God, the God, our God, takes us seriously but not that seriously. He thinks us ludicrous too, and is willing to rectify our faults because of his love for us, not because we deserve it, because we’ve proven how serious we are about our salvation, but because he wants to. So he does. Ludicrous as it is, God saves us. It’s his whimsy to save the world. God is holy and God saves, becoming one of us so that we can participate with him. Foolish and scandalous as this might be, that’s what he does. And it makes me laugh, because it’s so thoroughly good.

Truth, beauty and occasionally silliness aren’t just a tagline, after all. They’re how I define holiness because they are how I see God’s identity expressed in this world.

They are, as such, also the expressions of love.

Which is, I think, what theology should also be about. Certainly it’s what I want to be about, and I think finding the whimsy and humor again in my writing is a necessary part of my becoming a more developed theologian.

A theologian who is always serious doesn’t really know God.

I could go on and on, writing serious words about whimsy and bogging down in existential introspection about my own identity as a theologian and the seriousness of silliness as part of the theological project. But, that would be ludicrous, so instead, let us end with this, a yodeling pickle.

This post is part of the May Synchroblog. Here’s a list of other participants in this month’s bit of silliness:

Posted in academia, contemplation, missional, musings, personal, silliness, theology | 13 Comments

The Crux of the Cross

A wee bit from my dissertation writing:

Moltmann writes:

When the crucified Jesus is called ‘the image of the invisible God’, the meaning is that this is God, and god is like this. God is not greater than he is in this humiliation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity. The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about ‘God’ is to be found in this Christ event. The Christ event on the cross is a God event. And conversely, the God event takes place on the cross of the risen Christ.

Those who are forsaken, who are poor in Spirit, are blessed because in their forsakenness Jesus identifies with them; these are the people whose life share his own experiences and those are the people with whom he was cast. They are blessed because then, with Jesus, his future becomes their future. If then, the experience of Jesus is ultimately the experience and orientation of God in bringing salvation, only by identifying with those who Jesus identified with does one then identify with Jesus.

To identity with the forsaken one must let go that which one feels is one’s right, letting go forms of oppression so as to participate in community with Christ who suffered under oppression. Those who are oppressed, then, are liberated as oppressors no longer can justify their oppression, so no longer oppress. The broken relationships are healed when the oppressor lets go domination to join Jesus on the cross and is thus together with those who Jesus joined by going to the cross.

In light of the cross, the oppressor can no longer justify oppression by blaming the oppressed for the state of oppression, charging them with violations of blasphemy, or political unsuitability, or being God forsaken and thus deserving of human forsaking. In light of the cross, alternate forms of identity formation that always leads to some kind of oppression are put aside in order to identify with the man who challenged all societal forms of justification and identity. One cannot, literally, be with Christ while being an oppressor.

One must be liberated from oppressing in the very nature of participation with the God who is the crucified God. In this we face a crossroads. A person is either with Jesus where he is, or they are with those who accuse Jesus, aligning themselves with those who were arrayed against him: the Jewish leaders, Pilate, the Roman soldiers. If someone oppresses they are not worshiping the God who is Jesus. The oppressors are the true blasphemers, the true rebels, the truly godforsaken. That is the crux of the cross.

Posted in academia, dissertation musings, Jesus, missional, theology | 1 Comment

Weaponized Ethics

In the file cabinet of my brain, I keep assorted topics and ideas in a folder for future consideration. Maybe it will be a book or an article or something. Somehow, someway, it’s going to get a fuller treatment from me. That my paper last quarter touched on themes I first started sketching out about fifteen years ago, I figure these little topics will eventually see the light of day, even if it’s not quickly (sort of like my second book).

One of these topics nowadays is in the field of ethics. I’ve never been entirely interested in the formal field of studying ethics as an exclusive focus. What’s funny is that in my long time focus on eastern and desert monastics, I’ve definitely built up a fairly strong study of relevant topics. Couple this with the fact that I, at some point, have the topic of sin as another future focus (definitely a book length study), and I’m always a little surprised the subject of ethics doesn’t interest me as much. Or maybe it’s more the fact that the general approach doesn’t interest me enough, and like with the rest of my theological studies, I just take my own road.

None of the previous sentences really matter. Just a way of introducing what is a very unformed thought in my mind.

There is an aspect of ethics that really does interest me, and I see it affecting how I view responses online or in the real world. I’ve come up with a way of describing it. Weaponized ethics.

Now this isn’t warmongering, violent rhetoric that is all about promoting the military industrial complex. Rather, it’s the idea that our discussions of ethics themselves can, and are, used as weapons against our perceived enemies. We make strong ethical points or arguments against certain people, while ignoring our own, similar, failings, or while we ignore the similar failings of others, making excuses for some as we demand perfect moral consistency from others.

This happens a lot in politics, both domestic and international.

Yet, I don’t see this as a consistently Christian approach. If God has expectations for some, he has them for all. That’s the doctrine of sin and salvation. If someone treats a poor person poorly in the United States, that person is liable to judgment. But so also is someone in Mexico who treats a poor person poorly. Or a person in Italy. Or a person in Egypt. Or a person in Chile. Or a person in… wherever. If we excuse or ignore the fundamental evil in one direction, while only focusing on the evil that is most immediate to us, we run the risk of both missing the root causes and undermining our own, supposed, goals for real equanimity.

With a distorted, overly focused, view, ethics becomes an entirely pliable priority that can be used to make specific people feel guilt, even as the guilt is significantly wider.

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Abomination, Desolation, and Christmas

Last evening, I had the opportunity to preach at the Saturday evening service over at PazNaz. This year, the church has been going through the book of Mark and so rather than having a traditional Advent passage, the passage I was given to preach on was Mark 13:14-27.

Do you know this passage? On the surface it appears entirely non-Christmasy. But, I quickly realized that it was absolutely an appropriate, if nontraditional, passage to preach on during this time of year. What follows is my sermon outline notes I used last night. They’re not a script, nor a traditional outline, rather they’re more like thoughts I write out that serve as cues as I move along. If my mind blanks I can look down, but for the most part I just glance at the theme of each paragraph and talk. I’m getting better at it, Amy says.

The service began with Amy leading some songs in worship, and then an advent liturgy. I then talked a little bit about Christmas and the usual thoughts of family, peace, joy, life, hope that come during this season. At that point I read the passage.

Mark 13:14-27
14 “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 15 Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. 16 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 17 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 18 Pray that this will not take place in winter, 19 because those will be days of distress unequaled from the beginning, when God created the world, until now—and never to be equaled again.

20 “If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. 21 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 23 So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.

24 “But in those days, following that distress,

“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

Merry Christmas? Doesn’t exactly fit, does it? But this is a great passage for Christmas. Let me finish the passage:

26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Still doesn’t quite seem a Christmas passage? But it is! Let me explain why. Though just as a bit of warning, means I’m going to be doing a lot of history and a bit of reading. God works in history, after all, and we can’t just take a passage out of its context and think we know what it means. Mark assumes that his readers know the history, because the Jewish people and the early Christians were, if nothing else, people who knew the Scriptures and in the Scriptures they were reminded of the workings of God throughout time. As Christians, we tend to ignore history, thinking that it’s not relevant for our future or our faith. That’s troublesome because that’s one of the remnants of liberal Christianity that found its way into conservative circles.

Back in the day, scholars wanted a faith but didn’t really believe in God’s working, they liked the idea of God but thought all the stories and miracles and such were a bit absurd. Nowadays, we might affirm the stories, but we do so in an ahistorical way. That’s how this passage is often read too. This passage and others have so much intriguing imagery that teachers and preachers like to fill it in with their own thoughts and in doing that provoking panic and fear and isolation, encouraging people to succumb to their worries, to look for things to fret about.

They cause people to be wary of this world, to see it as us against them, a competition over meaning or resources. But that’s where Christmas comes into play. Reading this passage wrongly makes us afraid and wary of this world. But Jesus came into this world, being born in a manger, participating in it. Not with an attitude that everything is okay as it is, because it’s not, but with an attitude of love, offering the hope of salvation, the hope that what is experienced is not in fact the defining reality of this world.

Which reality do we want to participate in? The one that competes and is afraid, constantly worried about signs or disasters? Or the reality that Christ brings, that of true hope, true joy, true peace? That’s the message of this passage. And this passage immerses us in the history of God’s work with his people so that by understanding this work we might have confidence in his work in our lives and his continuing work in the future.

An abomination that causes desolation? What is that? Well, throughout the Bible we have these sorts of phrases and prophecies that, for the readers, served as an allusion of sorts, bringing to mind events of the past and pointing how these events are not just in the past but are models of our lives and the future of this world. We have this image of the abomination that causes desolation? What is this?

Well, it’s like what is sounds like. It’s this world shattering event or moment in which that which defines us, which gives us meaning and direction and identity, somehow utterly defiled. Everything we put stock in, that which we thought was the most important thing, that’s ruined and it leaves us in desolation. Sometimes physically, sometimes emotionally, sometimes spiritually.

To understand this issue, we have to go back to the beginning, and by beginning I mean the very first story of humanities interaction with God.

Adam and Eve – the abomination of eating the fruit, desolation in being kicked out the garden. How did that work out? God reached into human history to set things right.

We go on from there, and can talk about Joseph in slavery. Tossed into the well. Abomination that caused his desolation. He did everything right… but everything went wrong. With Potiphar’s wife maybe he could have just adapted to his situation, try to make the best of it. He stood close to God, and desolation followed. Then God worked.

Exodus – the abomination of killing the babies, of slavery made harder, of freedom then starvation and thirst. The abomination of the wilderness, the desolation of the journey.

Abomination passage itself is originally found in Daniel

Daniel (1st Temple): Remember Daniel? Daniel 1:1-6.

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.

3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— 4 young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. 5 The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service.

6 Among those who were chosen were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.

Daniel was this guy, in every respect gifted in intelligence and good looks. He had everything going for him. Then everything, every part of his life was stolen, he was taken from his destroyed home, and it is quite likely that he was made into a eunuch. He refused for this desolation to give him identity. He clung to the identity of God, as did his friends, even in the face of persecution and isolation and desolation.

Here’s what he writes about the abomination that causes desolation:


25 “Know and understand this: From the time the word goes out to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler, comes, there will be seven ‘sevens,’ and sixty-two ‘sevens.’ It will be rebuilt with streets and a trench, but in times of trouble. 26 After the sixty-two ‘sevens,’ the Anointed One will be put to death and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end, and desolations have been decreed. 27 He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And at the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.


31 “His armed forces will rise up to desecrate the temple fortress and will abolish the daily sacrifice. Then they will set up the abomination that causes desolation. 32 With flattery he will corrupt those who have violated the covenant, but the people who know their God will firmly resist him.

33 “Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. 34 When they fall, they will receive a little help, and many who are not sincere will join them. 35 Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless until the time of the end, for it will still come at the appointed time.


“From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination that causes desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days. 12 Blessed is the one who waits for and reaches the end of the 1,335 days.

13 “As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.”

Do you know the story of Hanukkah? [Here I summarized, but if I had more time I would have read a passage in Josephus and one from 1 Maccabees — here’s a link that summarizes those]

So, Hannukkah celebrates this restoration of the Temple and the restoration of the Kingdom.

Romans (2nd Temple): The people forgot their devotion and things went bad, so bad the corrupt descendents of Judas got into their own corruption and problems. I won’t go into the details, but basically this all led to Rome taking over in Israel. And that leads to the situation we encounter at the time of Jesus’s birth. We know Herod, yeah, but we don’t know how vicious and mean he was. He did all sorts of terrible things to keep the peace, to keep the peace of Rome that was imposed upon the people. He wasn’t the only one. Up in Galilee, where a Roman governor was in charge there was the story of Sepphoris. [I summarized Rome, Herod, Sepphoris abominations]

Herod himself creates abominations, he rebuilt a majestic Temple, one of the grandest buildings of the time, sure. But then he killed all the boy babies in Bethlehem. Echoes of Pharaoh and Egypt? Sure! The people were living in a reality where others were imposing on them what it meant to live in this world. There was rebellions and disasters, and massive amounts of violence, so much so that it would take weeks and weeks to talk about all the stories of suffering and sacrifice.

And it wasn’t over when Herod died.

What did the readers of Mark think about? Maybe all the things I shared. More immediately, to them, though, they thought of the Roman siege of Jerusalem. Scholars think that Mark was written not long after Jerusalem was destroyed, and that destruction involved its own desolation and abomination. Let me read a little bit about that from a passage written by Josephus, that the early church historian Eusebius quotes.

That was, no doubt, in the minds of the earliest readers of the book of Mark. They knew abominations, they experienced desolations.

So, what was Jesus talking about here? Remember the passage in its context!

Prior to this, the whole book, he’s talking about the kingdom, what it’s like, what the people are like who live in this kingdom.

Don’t get distracted. Don’t give into competing claims. What was Jesus talking about earlier in the chapter? The importance of love, the sacrifice of the widow in giving what she had. These are messages of what it means to live in God’s Kingdom, a way of life that won’t be defined by other attempts to define rule and law and identity in this world. More than this, however, in this passage Jesus is telling us that life is absolutely not going to go fine just because we claim Jesus as our savior. The people of God experience suffering, and this story of suffering is throughout the Bible.

We’re told to expect this. But we’re also told not to obsess about it. There’s the hope that comes from God, and there’s a false hope that comes from people trying to use suffering or evil or problems in order to take advantage of those who want, who need, to hear a good word. The trouble is that so often they then point to hope that isn’t God, and because we’re so desperate for hope we look to those other people to give us wisdom and guidance, who to be for and who to be against.

When we follow those false prophets and false messiahs, we’re no longer following Jesus.

So even if they sound like they’re talking about Jesus, or using Christian words, if they’re pointing to a sort of Kingdom that is different than what Jesus talks about, they’re not of God. If they’re pushing us to be afraid, or to worry, or to get caught up in this sign or that sign or obsess about all the details of Christ’s return, then, according to this passage, they’re not from God.

The message here is that we should not, can not, define our suffering as the true reality. Jesus is telling us not to get distracted by the competing claims or those things which seem to destroy our whole sense of meaning and purpose.

As bad as it can get, and it can and will get very bad, we are to stick to being the sorts of people that live in accordance with God’s Kingdom, people of love, of hope, of life and light, not people of fear and worry and constantly fretting about this event or that supposed sign. God is in charge. God wins.

So, what does this have to do with Christmas?

Another image of possible devastation. Isaiah – Isaiah 7

1 When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, was king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but they could not overpower it.

2 Now the house of David was told, “Aram has allied itself with Ephraim”; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.

3 Then the LORD said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer’s Field. 4 Say to him, ‘Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood—because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah. 5 Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah’s son have plotted your ruin, saying, 6 “Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it.” 7 Yet this is what the Sovereign LORD says:

“‘It will not take place,
it will not happen,
8 for the head of Aram is Damascus,
and the head of Damascus is only Rezin.
Within sixty-five years
Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people.
9 The head of Ephraim is Samaria,
and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah’s son.
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
you will not stand at all

10 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”

12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.”

13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 16 for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.

We make it about competing kingdoms, one winning is the other losing. We’re tempted to pick sides, to make it about competing over the same piece of the pie — the land, the schools, the whatever.

However, God is not competing with the other kingdoms. He defines reality.

They are suggesting one kind of reality, we are participating in another. This is not other worldly, this is true worldly, God the creator re-creates, he does a new thing. A baby is born. Both sides are liberated.

It’s not that we don’t feel it, giving into a religious soaked denial of our circumstances. No, we’re in the midst of the suffering, we feel the desolation at times. We are rightfully enraged by the abomination.

It is in this experience of suffering that we hear a voice crying in the wilderness. A Son is Born. Christ is with us. God is working. We have true hope.

Isaiah 35

Joy of the Redeemed

1 The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, 2 it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.

3 Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
4 say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”

5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

8 And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
9 No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
10 and those the LORD has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

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Triumphant Entry and Turning over the Tables

Here’s the outline/text of the sermon I preached last night on Mark 11:1-11, 15-19. It served more as a guide than as a script, but it’s full enough that I think it’s worth posting here.

The Book of Mark is about what? The Kingdom.

The Kingdom…. But what kind of kingdom? We are told of the Messiah, but what kind of Messiah is this?

The Messiah is the promised bringer of the promised Kingdom.

But so often instead we’re so intent about finding the Messiah that we want, we miss the Messiah that we need. And coming to terms with the Messiah we need is about more than reading the right books, having the right religious statements. It’s even more than about reading our Bible or doing good works. Because the Pharisees did that, did that better than any one of us.

And the disciples did that too, indeed they spent day and night with Jesus, and you know what, up to now, up to our passage, they missed understanding the Messiah they needed because they were so intent on getting the Messiah they wanted, a Messiah who would make them important and put them in places of honor, and help make Israel important again in the world.

They wanted a restoration of the kingdom like David had enacted, and they thought that the Messiah was going to do exactly that. As the earliest followers of Jesus they thought they were in a good place for all the rewards that come with having networked right and early with the key guy.

They had an answer about the kind of Kingdom they wanted and they had an answer about the kind of Messiah who would bring that Kingdom. We have the same answers. We have a kingdom in mind and we have a Messiah in mind. What kind of kingdom? What kind of Messiah?

The whole book is about answering these questions, so we could survey the whole book, but let’s look at the last 2 chapters — 9 and 10 — before we get into our passage.

We have the transfiguration (9:2-13), what does this say about the Kingdom? It’s real and it is cosmic.

We have the demon possessed boy (9:14-29) (note how this ends in v.29, and keep that verse in mind). Jesus frees this boy from the possession, taking away the barriers that have blocked him from experiencing true freedom.

On the other hand, those who make it more difficult for others to get it, to find freedom, are judged. Be ruthless about what is required, right? Get rid of that which gets in the way and get rid of those who get in the way. If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out, right? Give someone water to drink and you’re giving Christ water. If someone gives you water, helping you on your way, they are giving it to Jesus, because as we progress in this real Kingdom, we are progressing right along with the Messiah who makes it possible.

In Mark 9:30-35, Jesus talks about his death and resurrection, but the disciples don’t get it. They miss the point, they miss this whole core message of their Lord, and then spend the rest of the trip talking about who was the greatest.

What does Jesus say in response? He sits them down and says the least are the greatest. What?! He picks up a child, whose name we aren’t given, leaving him nameless to us. This nameless child becomes the model of the mission of the Messiah.

Chapter 9 ends with a more conceptual teaching as the disciples sort out what this kingdom is all about. They want to control the power, but Jesus says whoever is following the Kingdom is part of it, equal to the rest. There’s no power play in the Kingdom, after all. Those who get it, are part of it.

And get rid of anything that gets in the way of getting it, and living it out. If the salt is filled with dirt, it’s worthless. Don’t let it get ruined. Get your way into the Kingdom, and let go of anything that causes barriers to you or others.

But, again, what kind of Kingdom is this? What kind of Messiah is initiating this Kingdom? How do we recognize it? What should we look for?

Chapter Ten carries us forward in answering these key questions. Verses 10:1-12 is about divorce and marriage. The emphasis here is on maintaining the bond of unity, not forsaking the old for someone new, not trying to trade up for some supposed better model. Be faithful, that’s part of the Kingdom, we learn. And be faithful to each other, because in a marriage it’s not about one person carrying the burden while the other gets to do whatever he or she wants. Remember what Jesus said about causing someone to trip? Don’t trip your partner by pushing them down or away.

Verses 13-16
are about children again. The least among them, they’re excluded. Jesus says to include these least, because that is what the kingdom is like. It belongs to the least of these, to children and to people whose humility and inclusion is like children. It belongs to the powerless, the excluded. Yeah, that’s a strange Kingdom. But that’s the Kingdom that Jesus tells us about.

That’s not the Kingdom the rich young ruler wanted or expected. We read about his story in the next verses. Jesus told him what was necessary. This young man didn’t want that Kingdom or this Messiah, so he walked away. He wanted the Kingdom he wanted according to his own definitions. Jesus said, “go and sell what you have.” The young man just went.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. Which is another way of asking “Who do you say that I am?”

With the beginning of chapter 11, Jesus is still asking this question, but more importantly he is also giving us answers. What do you want me to do for you? The people want a triumphant king.

Who do you say that I am? The Messiah, they say, a religious and political leader.

Passage—Read 11:1-15

A bit on Triumphant Entries, Caesar, Alexander, Titus

Jesus showed that he is the Messiah, then he shows what kind of Messiah he is, what kind of Kingdom is declaring.

Some details worth noting.

Followers were not random people. These were people who already believed.

Colt – a gesture of his claim to the throne of Israel. Horses tended to be foreign and exotic. The donkey meant he wouldn’t walk, he would ride. Not as a foreign power copying foreign trends, but as a Jewish King with Jewish habits. The colt, some think, ensures that it had not been ridden before, so Jesus isn’t stepping into anyone’s shoes or following anyone’s pattern. He’s a new King, making his way into the city fresh. Want some confirmation of this? Zechariah 9:9

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Clothes being laid before him and on the donkey – 2 kings 9:13

They quickly took their cloaks and spread them under him on the bare steps. Then they blew the trumpet and shouted, “Jehu is king!”

Branches – 2 Maccabees 10:1-8

Judas Maccabeus and his followers, under the leadership of the Lord, recaptured the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. They tore down the altars which foreigners had set up in the marketplace and destroyed the other places of worship that had been built. They purified the Temple and built a new altar. Then, with new fire started by striking flint, they offered sacrifice for the first time in two years, burned incense, lighted the lamps, and set out the sacred loaves.

After they had done all this, they lay face down on the ground and prayed that the Lord would never again let such disasters strike them. They begged him to be merciful when he punished them for future sins and not hand them over any more to barbaric, pagan Gentiles. They rededicated the Temple on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev, the same day of the same month on which the Temple had been desecrated by the Gentiles.6 The happy celebration lasted eight days, like the Festival of Shelters, and the people remembered how only a short time before, they had spent the Festival of Shelters wandering like wild animals in the mountains and living in caves.But now, carrying green palm branches and sticks decorated with ivy, they paraded around, singing grateful praises to him who had brought about the purification of his own Temple.

Hosanna: means “God save us”
Psalm 118:19-29

Open for me the gates of the righteous;
I will enter and give thanks to the LORD.
20 This is the gate of the LORD
through which the righteous may enter.
21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
you have become my salvation.

22 The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
23 the LORD has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 The LORD has done it this very day;
let us rejoice today and be glad.

25 LORD, save us!
LORD, grant us success!

26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD.
From the house of the LORD we bless you.
27 The LORD is God,
and he has made his light shine on us.
With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession
up to the horns of the altar.

God save us from what? God save us for what? These are key questions.

This wasn’t an expression of humility by Jesus. This was him saying that he had the answers and authority. Jesus embracing, setting this up, being surrounded by his followers was a significantly bold statement of who he was. Jesus is declaring himself to be King, to be Messiah. Not a Roman King. Not a Greek King. A Jewish King following very clear Jewish prophecies about who he was as King.

Jesus then went to the Temple, because at the end of a triumphant entry one gets a triumphant welcome at the place of triumphant power. But it was late, Jesus looked around at the Temple, and the Temple was not ready for him. The Temple was not ready to embrace the kind of Messiah he was nor the kind of Kingdom he was bringing. The Temple, up to the time of Jesus the most visible symbol of God and his reign on earth was expressing a different kind of authority. And apparently he did not like what he saw. So he left, but he came back the next day.

And when he came back the next day, we learn what this Messiah of this Kingdom, thought of the Kingdom as it was being expressed in the Temple.
Read 11:15-19

15 On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, 16 and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. 17 And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”

18 The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.

19 When evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

Jesus has two aspects in his ministry that we see. He confronts established powers and he includes the excluded, liberating the latter from being oppressed and liberating the former from oppressing.

That’s the kind of Messiah he is
. This present passage is a case of him confronting the powers, saying that the established power structures in the Temple are getting in the way of the purpose that God intends.

Note that while we may think of this in terms of being against consumerism, buying and selling, it really isn’t that. The buying and sacrificing of animals is in the Law, in the OT. (Lev 5:7; 12:6-8) People were to bring a lamb or sheep, the poor could bring a dove or pigeon. So if Jesus didn’t come to overturn the Law but fulfill it, what’s this about?

The actions of Jesus go deeper than this, and are attacking the power structures that gain and maintain their power through the use and misuse of religious power, choosing who is in and who is out, who succeeds and who fails. It is a prophetic protest against a broader kind of corruption, one that is declaring its own particular kind of Kingdom, and thus declaring a particular kind of salvation, one that enables Temple leaders to be powerful and wealthy. It’s not the Temple salesmen Jesus is after, it is the Temple power structure, and thus the religious aristocracy. He’s undermining the power of the religious leaders by both attacking a core area of their concern and by focusing the Temple on an area they do not control, that of prayer.

Remember the passage from Maccabees, about their cleaning the Temple from impurities and idolatry. Remember that when we think of what Jesus did. He’s saying to the Temple, you’re getting it wrong and I’m going to clean you out.

He quotes Scripture while doing so. Let me read those phrases in their context.
Isaiah 56:7-8

These [the outsiders] I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.”
8 The Sovereign LORD declares—
he who gathers the exiles of Israel:
“I will gather still others to them
besides those already gathered.”

And Jeremiah 7:8-11

But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.

Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.

The Kingdom is not about transaction, it is about freedom. But, the starting point of freedom does not begin with us getting what we want and doing whatever we want. The starting point of freedom begins with us being freed, first of all, from ourselves, from our attempts to dominate, to compete, to compartmentalize our spiritual and social lives in a nicely wrapped transaction approach to life.

We too often make transaction the substance of our identity: do this, get that. We want a Messiah that fits into this model. Life makes sense to us when he does.

Jesus pushes back against that. Gouge out the eye, cut off the hand, turn over the tables.

And those of us who are claiming this Messiah as our Messiah and this Kingdom as our Kingdom, sometimes experience Jesus as the Messiah who overturns the tables in our own life. Because the Temple, this Temple [point to self], is now the Temple of the Holy Spirit, in us, and we are not to be part of the transactional, power seeking, dominating Kingdom. This house [point to chest], this house [point around to others and repeat], is to be a house of prayer. Are we seeking power and dominance and influence? Do we operate with the assumption of transaction to get what we want? Or do we humble ourselves and listen and follow the Spirit?

Are we trying to assert a different Messiah of a different kind of Kingdom? Sometimes, like with the temple, we may even look very religious and good.

Or are we people of humility and people of prayer who will let go of anything that binds or confuses or prevents us from seeing Jesus as he reveals himself to be? Throwing out the spirits of the world, those false ways of trying to secure meaning or purpose or identity, like with the demon-possessed boy, are driving out through prayer. That’s why the Temple, [point to self] temple, has to be a house of prayer.

When I was at Wheaton, I got my tables overturned. It’s a much longer story, but basically comes down to the fact that life was really falling apart for me in most every way. I became pretty severely depressed my junior year and found light by discovering some deeper truths in Scripture, church history. I really started readding Wesley, fasting, praying, studying at a good college. I thought I was on my way, thinking I needed to sharpen my spiritual life? But the more I did the more went wrong. Why I asked, and I didn’t get it. Because even though I said I was for Christ and His Kingdom, in my heart, in my deepest self, what I wanted was answers to my frustrations, dating, money, success. I was, basically, trying to make a transaction with God. And I got my tables overturned. I had a crisis of faith for a long time because I thought I was doing everything right but everything kept getting worse and worse. Only now I realize that I had a crisis of faith because my faith wasn’t in the Messiah who was and is, but the Messiah who I thought I wanted.

Jesus overturned my tables so that I could realized the Messiah I needed, and become the person, finally, he created me to be. This didn’t just happen at Wheaton. This happened for most of the ten years after Wheaton. I was a mixed bag, doing and thinking a lot of right ways, but mixing in far too much transactional theology. Not intentionally, but it was there. I thought if I did the right things I would get the right things. But I did so much of what was right, but everything kept going wrong. I realize now that much of this was Jesus overturning my tables. I was mixed, because it wasn’t that I was malicious or deceptive. All along I would have said I want Christ to be all and all in me. But, underlying those statements were some wrong assumptions. I had a crisis of faith because my faith was in the wrong kind of Messiah.

This isn’t to say, not at all, that all our problems are caused by Jesus trying to put us right, of overturning the tables. That’s the brilliance of these various passages put together. Sometimes we are sick and need to be healed, sometimes we are being attacked by evil and need to be freed from that, sometimes we are thirsty and need a glass of water, sometimes we are among the excluded, like the little children, and need to be included. The Kingdom is about real freedom, and freedom for some, for so many, means being encouraged and empowered and renewed for this participation.

But others, and the disciples and the religious leaders and the Temple patterns are a model of this, are arguing who is the greatest, and maneuvering for positions of power or going through transactions to trade their wealth or influence for more power. These are the sorts of people who get their tables overturned. Not because the tables are themselves inherently wrong, but because they are in the way of understanding the truth of the Kingdom for what it is. Those people, so many of us, get our tables overturned precisely because we’re trying to do what we think are the right things, in all the right ways, to get noticed and get involved, but in doing so we’re pursuing—often unconsciously—the wrong Messiah and thus the wrong Kingdom.

Sometimes we are in need of both healing and getting our tables overturned.

We like to think of ourselves as the people along the street waving our branches at the Messiah, but so many of us, and I include myself in this, are also the people in the Temple, selling our wares, trying out our sacrifices.

And to us Jesus says, “Stop. I want you, not your performance. I want you, not your transactions. I want you to pray, to listen, to be transformed. I want you to see, see the Messiah for who he is and see the Kingdom for what it is.”

One way or another we will see the Kingdom for what it is, if we are blind in our eyes, Jesus will heal us.

If we are blind in our understanding, Jesus will teach us. If we are blind in our actions, Jesus will stop us and point us the right direction, the direction of real freedom.

If we are seeking the Kingdom, truly open to the Messiah for who he is, we might be healed from our suffering or we might get our tables overturned.

It’s the same work of the same Messiah for the same purpose, to lead us all, however and wherever we’re coming from, into the presence of the King, to be the kind of people who really get, who really live out, this reality of the Kingdom in ways that help others live it out. We are freed and in this freedom we can help others find freedom in Christ.

Who asks, “What do you want me to do for you? Who do you say that I am? We answer this in our actions, with our whole life. Jesus shows us his answer. Are we ready to let go and serve this kind of Messiah? In this kind of Kingdom?

Who do you say Jesus is? What do you want of him?

Be careful, because Jesus will answer you. Because he is the Messiah.

And he may lift you up or he may turn over your tables.

Either way, keep holding on because Christ and his Kingdom is the way of peace and hope and life.

Posted in church, holiness, Jesus, ministry, missional, Scripture, speaking, theology | 2 Comments

So, confession is like going to a doctor’s office…

Last night I had the privilege of teaching on the topic of the spiritual discipline of confession. I’m slowly making my transition from depending on a complete written out manuscript (such an academic thing to do) to speaking more freely. I’m currently somewhere in the middle of this process, so I have a kind of expanded outline that I didn’t read from, but which did help me stay on track, and gave me something to look at when my mind blanked a little bit. In case you’re interested in what I think about confession, here’s that expanded outline, with some parts filled out for this post.

Intro to Confession: The discipline we don’t want to brag about. We honor the people who are great at prayer, we respect those who fast, we want to be people who serve more, or study better. So many of the spiritual disciplines are habits we respect in others and might feel proud about as we do them. Not confession. Someone who confesses a lot sounds a bit suspect, right?

Growing up in the church, confession wasn’t really at all a part of my experiences. Almost just the opposite. People didn’t confess their sins, they hid them. They weren’t open about their weaknesses, they promoted their strengths. Everyone has walls up, staying hidden, showing only their best, most holy-like, self. Which creates, I think, a culture of competitiveness and secrecy, two immensely damaging traits for any community.

When I initially thought about the topic of confession a few images immediately sprang to mind.

Images of Confession:

A. Religious 1: Catholic, confessional and priest, solved by acts of penance
B. Religious 2: Martin Luther, couldn’t confess enough. Penance wasn’t enough. This sort of penance goes to a quality of religious guilt before God. We confess so that we let go of the burden.
C. Legal: Detective Show interrogation
Courtroom drama, Matlock or Perry Mason. Confess guilt to hope for mercy or lesser sentence.

Those didn’t feel all that scriptural, to be honest, so I thought it would be good to think about confession in Scripture. And King David immediately sprang to mind.

D. The confession of David: Psalm 51

David was a great sinner and David was a great confessor of his sins. It’s the second part that is a big part of why God continued to bless him and his family. Saul, after all, wasn’t nearly as big of a sinner, but he would refuse to confess. Remember 1 Samuel 15:17-26?

A bit on Sin and Holiness

When we talk about confession as a discipline, we are by nature talking about sin. What is sin? That’s a much bigger topic but basically it involves going against God’s call in our life. We tend to think of sin in terms of do’s and don’ts, in terms of rules, but sin is much more than that. Sin isn’t as much violating a rule as much as it is resisting God. We are going against who God calls us to be and oftentimes in doing that we are resisting his work or his goodness or trying to make our way in this world without him. The template for sin is that original sin in the Garden. Adam and Eve ate the fruit that God told them not to eat, they did so because they were tempted by the serpent to get wisdom without God, to get this freedom to live as they wanted to live without having to depend on God. But, there’s no life without God. God is the giver and sustainer of life, and so sin, in its essence is us fighting against life itself, causing chaos or frustration or disharmony. No wonder sin is tied to death.

What is holiness? Holiness is walking in a way that’s in tune with God, with his harmony and purposes. It’s not equivalent to following the rules, it is equivalent with us following God however and whenever he leads. That’s why rules are sometimes bad indicators, as they may or may not match up with what God is actually calling us to do. Think about the Pharisees, for instance, who had all sorts of rules and laws, but Jesus saw much of these as a hindrance to real holiness.

And so confession is this way of acknowledging how we’ve left God’s path, in big and small ways, not so that we can fix it ourselves or beat ourselves up over it, but mostly so that we acknowledge that we are indeed off the path, once more, and need God’s grace in helping us get back on it. It’s when we’re off God’s path and don’t know it, or don’t admit it that we get into trouble.

Which makes me think of the story of the pharisee and tax collector in Luke 18:9-14

9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Confession is a way of humility for us, leading us away from assuming our attempts at holiness are really sufficient.

Which makes a lot of sense before we know Christ, right? When we are lost in our sins, and need a clear savior, confessing our sins and believing in the salvation that only comes through faith in the Risen Lord is so apparent.

These fits those confessions I mentioned before, for the most part. Jesus paid the penance, something Luther learned so clearly.

Confessing our sins is the beginning of the Christian life. But what about as a continued discipline? If sins are forgiven by Christ, what is the role of continued confession?

E. One more image: Doctor: Medical confession. Tell me your symptoms.

We don’t think of confession as being something that happens when we go to the doctor, but that’s precisely what happens. We tell the doctor everything. We tell the doctor all our symptoms, all the ways our body isn’t quite working right. We’re probably never more open than when we’re in a doctor’s office. Why? So he can say that our symptoms don’t matter anymore, that we can feel good about ourselves because we told him our bodily failings? No, we confess all our symptoms because we want to be healed from them, and confessing everything is how the doctor knows what steps to take next. We confess because we want healing.

Confession of sin as a continued discipline isn’t equivalent to us confessing a crime and getting a reduced penalty, or penance, or getting our guilt taken away. We rightly continue to confess that by believing Jesus our sins are already forgiven.

Confession of sin as a continued discipline is much more like confessing symptoms to a doctor. Sitting in a doctor’s office is by its very nature humbling, not to mention all the poking and prodding and such that might take place.

And it’s certainly not about feeling guilty, even if sometimes we have contributed to particular health problems. We confess our symptoms to our doctors because we need help getting better, and only by confessing our symptoms does the doctor understand what might be wrong and what might be the cure.

Now, this isn’t to say that God waits for us to confess in order to find out we did something wrong. It’s like after Cain killed Abel, God asked Cain to confess, but knew exactly what Cain did. Confession is our way of being open about the symptoms God already knows about. And by being open to our symptoms we become open about addressing them.

And can I say this is one of the areas in which I’m so glad to be in a tradition that believes in, and indeed pursues, sanctification, a reality in which we know that God is calling us to be more, be holy, be more who we were created to be, and indeed empowers us to make steps towards this every day of our life.

And so confession is a discipline which is particularly suited for those of us in the holiness tradition. We confess our symptoms that are our sins, so that we become more aware of where we are still incomplete and in need of further growth.

James 5:16: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

Note the wording at the end, it’s not about forgiveness like we are confessing a crime. It is about finding healing, because we are, at our core, sick and sins are our symptoms. So, there’s no place for posing or trying to put on a show of holiness and moral health, that delays the healing we truly need.

Like Jesus said to the blind man, “Do you want to be healed?”

You know this passage: John 5:1-6

1 Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda[a] and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3 Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. 5 One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

Do we want to be healed from our sins? Do we really? Or do we want to hold onto them, find our identity in them, letting them define us? Or do we actually want to get well?

If we want to be holy, truly holy, we confess our sins so that we may find healing. Do we want to get well? Getting well means being vulnerable about where and how we are broken.

This is why confession was at the core of Wesley’s own pattern for disciplines in the Methodist Bands. In 1738 or so, he wrote up some rules for the Methodist ‘bands’, something we now would call small groups. At the end he writes,

“Any of the preceding questions may be asked as often as occasion others; the four following at every meeting.

1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting.

2. What temptations have you met with.

3. How were you delivered.

4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not.

He knew that confessing sins was a starting point to being open to others, understanding ourselves, and relating rightly to God.

Sin as symptoms: As we confess our sins, we don’t only look at the sins themselves. We are pushed by ourselves, by the Spirit, or by others to go deeper and see what our sins are illustrating in our own life. For instance, I realized that my own sins were so often tied to a loss of faith. Confronting my wrong attitudes or actions was something I need to do in my life, but along the way I confront the deeper issue of faith by growing in my participation with God in various ways. Confession becomes a tool for me to examine my present state so that I can see my tendencies and ways I try to maneuver away from God.

Confession is also something that confronts me as I interact with others. That’s what is so brilliant about the confession aspect in the Lord’s prayer. We all know it, right? Forgive my trespasses as I forgive those who trespass against me.
hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. 3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’”

I confess to God my sins while at the same time opening myself up to those who confess to me, with me. How can I be stay closed off to them without incurring the wrath of God? I can’t.

So confession has these three aspects.
Confession Before God: humility, opening ourselves up to listening to the Spirit, to being restored by God.

Confession Before Ourselves: Admitting our weaknesses helps us have a right perspective about our place in this world, both our strengths and our weaknesses, we find healing when we acknowledge our sicknesses.

Confession Before Others: by confessing to others we open ourselves up to honest interaction in which there is no place for posing or intimidation. Holiness is not about looking like we are better than others, that’s the image of the Pharisee and the publican. Holiness is being wholly healed so that we are renewed in how we live our own lives and how we love others. We give them space to find healing for their faults and find a shared unity in seeking together healing from God that helps transforms us individuality and as a community.

I want to close with one final image. This one isn’t an analogy but something I experienced.
Confession Image: Wheaton Confession.

Confession is vulnerable, maybe the most vulnerable discipline, but necessary.

Psalm 139:23-24:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

Posted in church, missional, Scripture, sins, speaking, spirituality, theology | 2 Comments