Monthly Archives: December 2011

On Using Fame as a “Platform” for Christian Witness, Pt. 4

I’ve given a few reasons why I do not think Christian athletes should use their well-knownness as a “platform” to speak about Christian faith.

I think that well-known athletes ought to embody Christian faithfulness by participating in their sport in redeemed ways.

First and foremost, they ought to be serious about having fun.  They should enjoy the games they play.  Sports should be considered Sabbath activities, God’s gift to humanity meant for our enjoyment and pleasure.  Sadly, people play sports for a variety of corrupted reasons: to dominate others, to establish value as individuals or prove their worth, or to somehow earn others’ approval.

Having fun in sports represents God’s reclamation of creation, including the redemption of sports as Sabbath activities.  It may sound mundane and unremarkable, but Christians should be serious about having fun when they play games.

Second, Christian athletes should be good teammates, provoking the best performances from others and playing in ways that make others better.  Biblical values of community can be actualized within games in an endless variety of ways, such as blocking for others, passing on a fast break, or playing to teammates’ strengths in other ways.

Sports are corrupted by the varieties of selfishness that destroy teams.  Being purposeful about being a good teammate, provoking others to greater joy and better performance manifests God’s reclamation of sport.

Rather than using sports as a “platform,” Christian athletes should focus primarily on honoring the games they play and embodying Christian faithfulness within the sport.  And because sports, according to creation, are Sabbath-oriented activities, Christian faithfulness is embodied by being serious about having fun.

Now, as I mentioned previously, I don’t think that Christians must be silent about their faith. 

They should, however, consider very carefully the dynamics of celebrity in contemporary American public life.

Fame, well-knownness, celebrity, or whatever we call it—and whatever “it” is—is unpredictable, fleeting, and subject to endless distortion.  The blindlingly fast paced flicker of images and micro-half-thoughts on TV and computer screens re-packages everything as superficial and banal by the time it ever reaches whatever counts for an “audience” these days.

Consider once again Tim Tebow.  I’ve been surprised at how reflective his comments have been about the relationship between his faith and his performance on the field.

But because it takes real work to find the transcripts, watch his complete press conferences, or find accurate reports, few others have caught his intended nuance. 

Talk show hosts need material so that they can just keep talking.  TV hosts need to fill time and make discussion topics as sensationalized as possible just to hold on to audiences.  And comedians will do whatever it takes to get laughs.

Far from accurately representing what Tebow has said, it is actually in their interest to distort his words.

Because of the corrupted and distorting dynamics of public discourse and the layers of media between athletes and audiences, I think that considering wisely how to act toward outsiders (Col. 4:5) may well mean that Christian athletes be far more reserved in speaking about Christian faith.

In a culture of noisy blah blah blah, we may do well to give renewed attention to Paul’s instructions to the Thessalonians: “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life” (1 Thess. 4:11).

The corrupted character of audiences and the perverted cultural contexts we inhabit must shape the nature of our Christian witness.  In a subsequent post or two, I’ll elaborate on this from two narrative devices in the Gospels—Jesus’ “hour” in John and the “Messianic secret” in Mark.

Climactic Moment Spirituality vs. Mundane Faithfulness

Evangelical Christians have a long history of highlighting climactic and decisive moments.  In our highly dramatized rhetoric we’ve stressed the need to be prepared to say just the right thing when the moment arises, to stand boldly for the faith when challenged or pressured to compromise.

I grew up hearing this sort of preaching all the time.  Looking back, I think it made me devalue mundane faithfulness.

What about day-in and day-out virtues like honesty, kindness, charity, self-control?  What about the faithful friend who rarely says anything profound but is always available?  What about the person who shows up regularly and cares about his work over a lifetime?  What about the husband or wife who will never write a book or give a seminar, but is faithful for the life of a marriage?  What about the parent who has sacrificed career opportunities for the sake of serving family?

And how many climactic moments in life are there?

Just wondering . . .

On Using Fame as a “Platform” for Christian Witness, Pt. 3

I’ve been considering the question of whether or not Christian athletes should use their well-knownness as a “platform” to speak about Christian faith.

I’ve indicated that I think they should not do this.  I’ll elaborate on a third consideration here and in a subsequent post turn to some constructive comments about how well-known athletes can embody Christian faithfulness.

It seems to me that this strategy doesn’t consider wisely our current cultural climate. 

It doesn’t take seriously our media-saturated culture of cynicism and its familiarity with well-worn manipulative evangelistic strategies.

Cynicism about evangelical Christians in American public life has as long of a history as does evangelism, going back at least to Sinclair Lewis’s novel, Elmer Gantry (1927).

More recently, movies like “Saved” and evangelical characters on TV sitcoms point to a culture tired with evangelicals inappropriately exploiting opportunities to inject canned evangelistic messages.  Our wider culture views American evangelicals as judgmental, manipulative, superficial, and offensive.

And it won’t do to identify this kind of public profile with the persecution of early Christians or the offense of the cross.

Early Christians were persecuted because their alternative lifestyle was perceived as a threat to the imperial economic order.

And the offense of the cross had to do with the gospel’s call to embrace weakness and humility, to worship as lord the One who had disappointed corrupted Jewish messianic expectations.

In contrast to this, contemporary evangelicals have this public image—rightly or wrongly—because of their participation in the culture wars of the last forty years and a history of evangelistic strategies shaped by manipulative salesmanship.

Our culture perceives evangelical behavior as offensive, not the gospel.

We can claim that this is unfair or we might wish to put forward better examples of genuine evangelical Christianity.  At some point, however, we’ve got to reckon with this reality.

Given this cultural context, it may actually be counter-productive for Christian athletes to use their well-knownness as a “platform” to speak of Christian faith.

Despite their good intentions, our culture is more apt to identify them as an advocate for one side in the culture war than as a gracious exponent of genuine Christian faith.

On Using Fame as a “Platform” for Christian Witness, Pt. 2

I do not think it’s a good idea for Christian public figures to use their well-knownness as a “platform” for Christian testimony for a second reason.

Such a strategy partakes of the same dynamics as modern advertising.

Modern advertising works by inviting consumers to participate in some kind of desirable reality that has little or nothing to do with the actual product being advertised.

Advertisements do not trot out the facts about products and list their possible uses.  They don’t give information that would help people make wise choices about whether or not to purchase the product.

Advertising doesn’t focus on the thing itself.

Advertising creates idealized identities that will appeal to people who sense some sort of inner emptiness.  The product is then associated with satisfying that longing to belong, to participate in an idealized identity.

“You want to be just like your favorite celebrity or sports figure, don’t you?  See how happy and ideal their life is?  They use this hair product, wear this shoe, drink this coffee, drive this car.  Acquiring it will give you the satisfaction of owning a _____ , making you the envy of your friends, just like _____ .”

The very same dynamic is at work when Christian figures use their well-knownness as a “platform.”  According to this dynamic, Christian faith is commended on the basis of association with this well-known figure. 

“You want to be just like your favorite celebrity or sports figure, don’t you?  Well, he’s a Christian!  Doesn’t that make you want to be one, too?  You can be just like _____ !”

Paul encountered a culture just like ours in Corinth.  He was quite familiar with these very dynamics and he resisted commending the faith on any other basis than its counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, and cross-shaped realities.

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Cor. 2:1-5).

Paul refused to dress up the gospel in ways that would be culturally appealing.

The dynamics of advertising and celebrity are distracting, empty, and vapid.  They discourage sustained attention to the core reality of anything.

This is disastrous when it comes to the Christian gospel because it demands precisely that—sustained attention to its core realities.

Again, I’m not saying that Christians with public profiles ought to remain silent about their Christian faith.  It seems to me, however, that Christians ought to reflect a bit more on the shallow and ephemeralizing dynamics at work in our contemporary culture.

Commending Christian faith ought to work in radically different ways than commending an energy drink or a line of men’s trousers.

** POSTSCRIPT: Daniel Boorstin analyzes the dynamics of advertising and celebrity brilliantly in his classic work The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.  I wrote about Boorstin’s description of celebrity and the character of cruciformity here.


On Using Fame as a “Platform” for Christian Witness

In response to a few recent posts, my friend Haddon raised the question, Should Christian athletes (or other well-known Christians) use their stature as a “platform” to speak about Christian faith?

I tend to think that they should not.  I don’t have the final word on this, but I think this way for several reasons.

First, the character of God’s far-reaching salvation.  The various arenas of our lives are to be inhabited as redeemed people in redeemed ways.  To use them as “platforms” for something else is actually to diminish the value of God’s creation and his good gifts to us.

God created all things and called them good.  He gave us vocations (teachers, gardeners, engineers, etc.) and roles to play in family and neighborhood (parent, husband, wife, daughter, son, neighbor, friend, etc.).

God also gave us a range of activities to enjoy on the Sabbath.  Such activities were to be different in that they were to be seriously frivolous—fun activities that brought us joy and didn’t produce anything.  We worked six days to produce—an important part of God’s creation economy.  But on one day we were to explore, play, and have fun.

All these things and every arena of human experience have been perverted in various ways at the fall.

Among the many ways that Sabbath activities like sports and play have been corrupted is that sports are now used to establish one’s value to one’s parents, coaches, or peers.  Sometimes international competitions, such as the Olympics, are pervertedwhen they were used to establish claims to national supremacy.  Sports are perverted when they’re not received as good gifts—as goods in themselves—but instead are used for other purposes.

In redemption, God reclaims all arenas of life and frees creation from the corrupting grip of Sin and Death.  He begins the process of reclaiming our lives, vocations, and relationships. 

He also gives us back our Sabbath activities as good gifts.  Receiving them as such is part of what it means to embody redeemed behavior.

So, taking Sabbath activities seriously as Christian people involves seriously enjoying sports and refusing to use sports for any other purpose. 

When we establish our value and identities by “succeeding” in sports, there’s something wrong with that.  And when we use sports for some other purpose—even as a “platform” for speaking about the gospel—there’s something wrong with that.

 That’s why I said in the last few posts that a redeemed quarterback will be serious about having fun, being a good teammate, and eliciting from the other side the best possible performance.  He receives the game as a gift and inhabits it as it was meant to be played according to God’s intentions.

Now, I don’t think that sports figures must remain silent about their Christian identity.  But speech about Christian realities is, in an important sense, irrelevant to analyzing football games in post-game press conferences.  In fact, to be a faithful Christian in such a situation is to really think through the game and talk through its dynamics faithfully.

Using those opportunities as platforms for something else diminishes the Sabbath-oriented character of the game.  It is to mistreat a good gift from God, seeking to turn it into a non-Sabbath activity. 

Explicit speech about Christian realities only because relevant if one must talk about why he’s so serious about having fun, being a good teammate, and eliciting excellence from his competitors.

I know that it stems from a kind of piety to want to exploit opportunities to commend Christian identity to the public, but good intentions don’t justify such an approach as biblically faithful.

More to come on this . . .

On Christians Speaking Wisely in Public

There’s a common assumption among evangelical Christians that all public Christian speech or all public speech that involves the Bible is an unmixed good.  In fact, there’s something powerful about Christian talk that borders on magical.

This is based on a number of Bible passages, but most specifically Isaiah 55:11 in which the God of Israel says, through Isaiah,

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isa. 55:10-11).

Many Christians take this passage to indicate that any Christian speech or talk about the Bible or the realities of salvation in Christ will do something.  It is speech that goes out there and has some kind of powerful effect.

Therefore, even when a gospel presentation feels awkward, or perhaps a reference to the Bible isn’t warranted, Christians ought to inject Christian speech without hesitation.  When they do so, Christians are making a bold stand for Christ.  After all, “God’s word will not return empty, but will accomplish its purpose.”

It seems to me that this approach to Christian behavior in public misunderstands both the Scriptures and our culture.

The Isaiah passage is not referring to any and all talk about God or Scripture.  God is making direct reference to his specific word in Isa.55:1-7.  The God of Israel is unlike anyone else and any other god.  If Israel turns from its wickedness, he will forgive and restore his people.  The one true God will stand by that specific promise.  It will not return empty; he means it.

It’s a statement about God’s faithfulness to his promise.

Further, there are loads of examples in Scripture about God’s words in general having no effect.  Because of the mystery of iniquity and the madness of sin, Israel ignored pretty much all of the warnings contained in the prophets.

In fact, God says to Ezekiel that his people actually love coming to hear his preaching, but it has no effect at all on their lives.

As for you, son of man, your people are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, “Come and hear the message that has come from the LORD.” My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice (Ezek. 33:30-32).

Israel was like modern Christians who purchase all the materials of their favorite ministries but have no plans to let any of it shape their lives.

Beyond this, however, evangelicals would do well to consider their cultural context.  In America, anyway, the broader culture has evangelical Christians pretty well figured out.  We’ve made quite an impression and it’s not all that good.

I’ve made reference to these before, but books like unChristian and films such as “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers” portray a culture in which Christians come off as insincere, flippant, superficial, judgmental, and hypocritical.

I wonder if we’re in a day, in many American contexts, anyway, in which less is more.  We might consider the virtues of deference, the activity of listening, and the power of a timely and well-chosen word.

We might do well to consider our public witness from texts like Col. 4:5: “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders.”

Tim Tebow & Public Christian Speech

Tim Tebow and the resurgent Denver Broncos have become one of the biggest stories of the past few months in sports.  The Broncos began the season at 1-4, but since installing Tebow as their starting quarterback, they are 6-2.

Tebow doesn’t fit the mold of a typical NFL quarterback and he’s outspoken about his Christian faith.  These are the sources of much of the comment about him.

It seems to me that it takes a serious curmudgeon to dislike Tim Tebow.  He’s a great guy and he’s having a blast playing football.  His unconventional style injects drama into games that makes them unpredictable and compelling.

Some have been uncomfortable, however, with Tebow’s faith talk.  He intentionally begins his post-game comments with the following: “I just want to begin by thanking my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  He closes by saying, “God bless.”

I’m glad that Tebow seems to be a person of integrity and humility.  He carries himself well and treats people with dignity.  He doesn’t take himself too seriously, he isn’t rude or arrogant, and he uses his influence for good in surprising and wonderful ways.  He isn’t a poor representative of Christian faith.

But I wonder if his faith talk is inappropriate.  I wonder if this is an instance of zealous evangelical faith not rightly reckoning with the dynamics of Christian faith and the realities of the broader culture.

Now, I realize that there is a reservoir of biblical texts that Tebow might be drawing upon to understand his role as a Christian person in public.

He should always be ready to speak a word on behalf of Christ with boldness (1 Pet. 3:15) and make the most of every opportunity (Col. 4:5) because God’s word always accomplishes its purpose and doesn’t return void (Isa. 55:11).

Evangelical Christians now these texts well.

At the same time, it’s worth considering whether there are proper and improper venues for speaking about Christian faith.

Jesus may be referring to being shrewd about one’s audience when he says, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs” (Matt. 7:6).

Further, Paul exhorts the Colossians to “be wise in the way you act toward outsiders” (Col. 4:5).

I wonder if, in Tebow’s evangelical zeal, he’s actually running afoul of the third commandment. 

The new NIV captures very well the sense of Exodus 20:7: “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.”

I wonder if there’s a sense in which Tebow is misusing the name of Jesus Christ by overusing it.  I wonder if he’s cheapening Christian realities by referring to them too much and in the wrong venues.

It’s worth considering the form that Christian faithfulness takes in public.  I don’t have the final word on this, but it seems to me that inhabiting the role of a football quarterback as a redeemed person does not mean that one must utter the name of Jesus at every opportunity. 

Faithfulness to Jesus might best be embodied by being a good teammate and being serious about having loads of fun.

Tebow’s persistent speech about Christian realities has invited further misuse of the name of Jesus Christ.  It has given rise to ridicule and mockery, most recently in an SNL skit about Jesus getting tired of bailing out the Broncos every week.

In a well-written piece, Charles Pierce makes the point that whatever one injects into public discourse becomes an object of merciless ridicule.

What if Christian faithfulness demands that Tebow do his best to make sure that the conversation about him remains solely and squarely about football?

Gabriel’s Message

The choir sang this today in church.  It was beautiful.

"The Annunciation," Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1898

Gabriel’s message does away
Satan’s curse and Satan’s sway,
out of darkness brings our day:
so behold, all the gates of heaven unfold.
He that comes despised shall reign;
he that cannot die, be slain;
death by death its death shall gain:
so behold, all the gates of heaven unfold.
Weakness shall the strong confound;
by the hands in grave clothes wound
Adam’s chains shall be unbound:
so behold, all the gates of heaven unfold.
By the sword that was his own,
by that sword, and that alone,
shall Goliath be o’er thrown:
so behold, all the gates of heaven unfold.
Art by art shall be assailed;
to the cross shall Life be nailed;
from the grave shall hope be hailed:
so behold, all the gates of heaven unfold.

An Advent Homily

*Originally given at Midtown Christian Community, Dec. 18, 2010

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25
Psalm 80:1-7, 1618

We are in the final week of Advent.  Christmas Day, of course, is next Saturday.  Advent is the time of year leading up to Christmas when we celebrate the coming of the Son of God into the world to accomplish our salvation.  We celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in his first advent and we anticipate the return of Christ the King in his second advent.

This season highlights the revelation of God in Jesus to redeem all of creation and to reconcile God’s people to himself.  We are being redeemed by God right now, and we look forward to the final consummation of our redemption. We remarked a few weeks ago that the Scripture readings for Advent reflect this emphasis on the second advent, including themes of accountability for faithfulness at his coming, judgment on sin, and the hope of eternal life.  It’s a time of reflection and consideration of our lives before God.

In this double focus on past and future, Advent also symbolizes the spiritual journey of individuals and a congregation, as they affirm that Christ has come, that he is present in the world today, and that he will come again in power.  With all of that in mind, we need to ask ourselves, “how should we be living?  What in the world are we supposed to be doing?” 

We are a group of people committed to blessing Springfield, called to embody God’s love, presence, and power to one another and to this city.  We are called to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Well, how does that look?  What shape should that sort of life together as a community take?

These are the questions that we are going to need to face in the coming weeks and months.  By God’s grace, we have come through a time of wilderness wandering, looking for a home.  Now we’re here.  We’re settled.  Now what?  What should we be doing?

Transitioning to our passages for tonight, we ought to be asking ourselves, what shape does the obedience of faith take among us?  In Romans 1, Paul mentions that his entire mission was to bring about the obedience of faith among the nations.  God’s aim is to reconcile all the nations to himself, and we are a gathering tonight that testifies to the fruit of Paul’s ministry.  Paul took the gospel message outside of Israel to the nations, and that we have become obedient to the faith is one of the results of that.

But how should the obedience of faith look among us?  We can’t be satisfied with the status quo.  We have discovered that our lives are vibrant and exciting when we truly put ourselves in the risky place of doing something that stretches us for gospel purposes.  We don’t want to fall into a rut here in this new place.  We’ll be starting those conversations in January, so please be thinking about that question – what does the obedience of faith look like for us?  In these Advent passages, what wisdom can we glean for considering our lives as those who belong to one another and to Jesus?

I want to suggest to you (that sounds so formal!) that these texts point to what genuine obedience looks like.  And I say this on the basis of the contrast between Ahaz in the first text and Joseph in the Matthew passage.  The connection between these two passages is very obvious, of course, because we have the prophecy in Isaiah and the announcement of the virgin birth to Joseph in Matthew.  While there’s much there to talk about, I want to point out the contrast between Ahaz’s response to a word from God and Joseph’s response to a far more challenging word from God.

This contrast highlights one of the major themes of the Advent season – preparation, readiness, willingness to do what God says to do, repentance, obedience to the life-giving word of God, even if that word comes to us and radically challenges our assumptions.

First, let’s look at Ahaz.  In Isaiah 7, the prophet is sent to the king.  Now, time for a Bible quiz—is Ahaz a good king or bad king?  Ahaz was one of the bad kings in Judah.  He turned away from the Lord and did not honor God the way he should have done.

Isaiah is sent to Ahaz to deliver to him a word from the Lord.  It was pretty normal for a prophet to deliver a message from God and then to announce that a sign was about to be given to confirm that the message truly was from God.  The Lord tells Ahaz to ask for a sign.  Ahaz responds by saying, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.” 

Bravo, Ahaz!  That’s almost the same thing that Jesus says when he’s tempted in the wilderness, isn’t it!?  Sounds very pious, very godly.  Well done, Ahaz, you’ve responded rightly.  Or has he?  What does Isaiah say in response?  You are trying the patience of God!  He told you to ask for a sign, so do it!  And since you won’t, here’s the one you’ll be given.  That’s the context for the announcement that a young maiden will conceive and give birth to a son.

What we see in Ahaz is a person who is well-practiced at pious talk with no real commitment to seriously listening to God and doing what he says.  Frankly, Ahaz is right that no one should put God to the test, but this is not the right situation to use talk like that.  Ahaz wouldn’t be putting God to the test by simply responding to what God had commanded, but he uses this kind of talk to hide an unrepentant heart—to hide the fact that he’s not actually willing to adjust his life to bring it into conformity with what God has commanded.

It’s easy for us to do the same thing.  It’s easy for us to make excuses for not participating in our community life the way we ought to.  It’s natural to make excuses for not giving ourselves to one another the way we should be doing.  If Advent is an opportunity to consider how to make adjustments in our lives to participate more fruitfully in Jesus’ own joy among this community, then we need to be suspicious of our immediate reactions to being challenged.  We need to sift through our talk and make sure that we aren’t masking unrepentant hearts.

Joseph provides an opposite example in the Matthew text.  Joseph is a young man, probably something like 15 or 17 years old.  He’s been told since he was old enough to remember that he was going to be married to Mary, probably a neighbor.  They have been betrothed and are heading toward marriage.  All of a sudden she turns up pregnant.  That can only mean one thing.  Mary has had relations with some other young man.  Joseph doesn’t know what to do.  He must have been humiliated, frustrated, confused, hurt.  But he’s an honorable person, which is incredible when you consider how young he was.  He wants to quietly do the right thing in order to make sure that Mary doesn’t endure awful shame in their community. 

While thinking through all of this, Joseph is visited by an angel in a dream.  He is told that Mary is pregnant by God himself, and that the child to be born is the long-awaited savior who will redeem Israel from their sins.  This is outrageous news!  He’s probably having a hard time believing it.  It was, after all, a dream – maybe he’s just losing his mind out of jealousy for Mary and whoever she’s messing around with.  But look at the passage – how does Joseph respond?  What does he say?  What does he do?

No pious talk that masks an unwillingness to respond to God; no excuses; nothing at all.  Joseph just does it.  He wakes up, changes his plans, and does what he does in response to what God had said.  He gets the outrageous news that Mary is pregnant by God himself—that doesn’t happen every day—and that this child will be the Messiah.  In the face of all that, Joseph does not ask questions but just does the next thing he’s told to do.

What a great example of simple obedience—a single-hearted response to God that does what is asked in response to the path of life being pointed out. 

This is the sort of community we need to be.  We may need to make some adjustments in our lives.  We may need to say “no” to other things that distract us in order to make room in our lives for being Midtown the way we need to.  We may need to shut down certain things we do and begin other things.  Who knows?  We don’t know exactly what we’ll look like down the road, but we need to be willing to talk with each other, think creatively, pray, listen to one another, pray some more, and be ready to be a repentant community so that we truly enjoy the presence and power of God among us.

A good place to start may be to pray our psalm for this evening.  I’m going to close by praying it, so when I finish, make it the prayer of Midtown by saying a hearty “amen” at the end. 

Hear us, Shepherd of Israel,
   you who lead Joseph like a flock.
You who sit enthroned between the cherubim,
shine forth before Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh.
Awaken your might;
   come and save us.
Restore us, O God;
   make your face shine on us,
   that we may be saved.
How long, LORD God Almighty,
   will your anger smolder
   against the prayers of your people?
You have fed them with the bread of tears;
   you have made them drink tears by the bowlful.
You have made us an object of derision to our
   and our enemies mock us.
Restore us, God Almighty;
   make your face shine on us,
   that we may be saved.
Your vine is cut down, it is burned with fire;
   at your rebuke your people perish.
Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand,
   the son of man you have raised up for yourself.
Then we will not turn away from you;
   revive us, and we will call on your name.

Jude on Ambition & Judgment

I was reading through the little letter of Jude the other day to prepare for a class on apocalyptic literature.  Having cruciform leadership on my mind, I was struck by Jude’s strong rhetoric of judgment for leaders who are selfishly ambitious.

He warns against ungodly leaders who are driven by ambition, leading them into all sorts of follies.

He orients his short letter by the word “keep,” employing it to highlight God’s salvation at the letter’s opening and closing.  He also uses it to commend to his readers a discerning self-control that avoids the destructive consequences of selfish ambition.

He opens the letter by speaking of his readers in terms of their being held in God’s saving grip.

Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James, to those who have been called, who are loved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ (v. 1, NIV).

He closes with a beautiful celebration of God’s power to preserve his people:

To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen (vv. 24-25).

Within the body of the letter, he compares corrupted leaders with “the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their proper dwelling—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day” (v. 6).

He’s referring to a prominent early Jewish interpretation of Genesis 6:1-5, which understands the “sons of God” as cosmic rulers that looked lustfully on women, took on bodies in order to have sexual relations with them, and spawned a race of giants.

According to Jewish texts like 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees, these angelic figures have been put in some kind of bondage to await final judgment.

Jude doesn’t refer to these figures to fascinate modern readers, but to note for his hearers that leaders who do not control their ambitions are, like those cosmic figures, headed for judgment.

He warns of such leaders, noting that they are captive to their own selfish ambition:

they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage. But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. They said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.” These are the people who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit (vv. 16-19).

Jude commands his readers, “keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life” (v. 21).

Leaders often receive praise for their ambition, their big dreams and impressive plans.  In the church, however, such leadership is fraught with peril.  The church is God’s holy and cruciform people, called to be utterly unique in and for the world. 

Christian leadership, then, must be different and utterly unique.  It must be cruciform, and that means that leaders of God’s people put themselves and their ambitions on the cross, leading and loving the people of God according to God’s own character.