On Sunday, I preached from Luke 4:31-44 on Jesus’ authority and healing. Last night, the grand jury returned a decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. I’m still processing and praying through this, still figuring out how I’m supposed to respond. I didn’t write my message or preach with the Ferguson decision in mind, but I guess there was a reason God wanted me to be thinking these things through before yesterday evening. What I do know is that we live in a fallen world, where authority is not always exercised justly and healing is an ever-present need.
So here’s an excerpt from Sunday’s message — “The Authority of Jesus, a.k.a. Kicking Butt and Taking Names.” (You can listen to the full sermon here.)
I’m sure we can all call to mind people in positions of authority; we might think of the President, Members of Congress, judges, police officers, teachers, or doctors. And we might also be able to call to mind what it looks like when folks abuse their authority—the Watergate scandal, for instance; corrupt government officials who line their pockets at the expense of those they’re supposed to be serving; doctors who take advantage of their patients or teachers who take advantage of their students.
But just like sin is not just the things we do but also the things we should do but we don’t, when those in authority don’t exercise it when they should, that’s also a problem: recently, the police in Hong Kong chose not to intervene when peaceful protesters were attacked; or the last four years have seen the most unproductive sessions of Congress in recent history—and, given that there’s so much still to do, I think we have the responsibility to call our elected representatives to use their authority to better serve the common good. Because, in fact, everyone exercises some sort of authority: parents over their children, celebrities over their fans, pastors over their congregations, voters over their representatives, and so on.
The biblical understanding of authority is much like the non-biblical understanding of authority, in that it’s connected to power, particularly to the legitimate use of power, and it could simply be defined as the “right to effect control over objects, individuals or events.” But the biblical understanding of authority is much more than that, too. It goes right back to creation, when God created human beings in his image—to be like him—and said to them, in Genesis 1:28:
Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.
That’s God delegating power so that the world might flourish, so that God’s kingdom might be seen on earth, so that all might be in right relationship with God, with one another, and with creation.
That’s the purpose of authority: that humanity might flourish.
That’s how authority should be measured: does it move us closer to God’s kingdom on earth?
In Jesus, we find the truest embodiment of authority rightly and responsibly exercised. Everything Jesus said and did brought more of up there down here. Theologian Darrell Bock writes:
Evil has severe angst in the presence of righteousness ready to be exercised.
When authority is rightly and responsibly exercised by a president, by a legislator, by a judge, by an officer of the law, by a teacher, by a doctor, by a nurse, by a famous person, by a parent, by a pastor, by you in whatever capacity you have been given a measure of control—when authority is rightly and responsibly exercised to bring more of God’s kingdom to earth, evil has severe angst.
Think about that: what you do matters; what you do with your life on the big picture level as well as what you do in your everyday has bearing on whether the kingdom of God advances or not. How you treat the homeless person you pass on the street; how much effort you put into your work; how much attention you give to your spouse; how you respond to people who are different from you or who disagree with you; how you forgive those who wrong you; how you deal with messing up—these are all instances where you can exercise the authority you’ve been given, and they all have bearing on whether the kingdom of God advances or not. What you do matters.
We inhabit what some theologians call the already-but-not-yet. See, the kingdom of God is at the same time past, present, and future. We know that Jesus came to earth, 2,000 years ago, and at that time, the kingdom of God entered into human history in a way it had never done before—the demons were cast out, the sick were healed, the truth of God and the word of God were embodied in a living, breathing human being—that’s the already. We know that Jesus will come again, to finish the work he started, setting all things right, reconciling all things to himself, bringing the fullness of heaven down to earth—but that is not yet here. And so in the present, in the here-and-now, the Holy Spirit is at work in us and through us—as the people of God and the body of Christ—revealing more of that same kingdom, proclaiming the good news of that kingdom, in the midst of the ravages of the Fall in sin and sickness and death.
Any healing that happens this side of Christ’s return points toward the story of the gospel and the renewal that has not yet come but is promised. But any healing that happens this side of Christ’s return will always be incomplete. We and our loved ones will still get sick, we will not always be healed, we will still die. But God’s story moves toward ultimate healing—no death, no sickness, no tears. It’s coming.
Lord Jesus, even as we give you thanks for living the life we could not live and dying the death we could not die and being raised to life that we might be made new, we long for you to come back.
In the here-and-now, break the chains of our sin and sickness and death. Heal us from the ravages of our wounds both physical and psychological, both mental and emotional. Liberate us from our addictions. Be the light in our darkness; be the hope in our disappointment; be the joy in our loss.
Set us free so that we might walk in the life you desire for us to live—life to the full, eternal life. Remind us that we live and move and have our being in Christ, that we have been given authority as image-bearers of the Most High, authority as redeemed children of our Father in heaven, authority as ambassadors of Christ in a hurting and broken world.
We pray these things in the name of the One who was wounded so that we might be made whole, in the power of the name of Jesus. Amen.
A couple weeks ago, I was with some new friends, and we were introducing ourselves, and the cue was
What do we need to know about you to know you?
That’s another way of asking, “Who are you?” If someone were to ask you that question, how would you respond? How would you identify yourself?
By your job?
By where you’re from?
By whether you’re married or single, a parent or a grandparent?
By how old you are?
By what you like to do?
How would you talk about your identity, about who you are?
Psychologist James Marcia proposes that there are four statuses (not stages) in identity development:
Identity diffusion is when a person is unable or unwilling to explore or commit to any particular identity. The least complex and least mature position. Apathy.
Foreclosure occurs when a person embraces clear commitments, but they’re just inherited from parents or culture, chosen without serious thought or exploration.
Moratorium (sometimes referred to as “crisis”) is a time of exploring options of who a person wants to be.
Achievement occurs when a person resolves their explorations, works through crisis and make clear commitments.
According to psychologists and sociologists, young people nowadays are taking more and more time to commit to who they want to become, more time to cultivate an identity. Kara Powell and Chap Clark, who work at the Fuller Youth Institute and interact with a lot of adolescents and teenagers, write:
The breadth of peer relationships that young people experience means they get a wider variety of feedback about how they are perceived. Because friends’ opinions matter so much during adolescence, the result is a delay in identity formation. Quite simply, kids receive inconsistent and too much feedback in response to what they say and how they act, so they often postpone committing to who they want to become.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve had some great conversations with the guys in my small group about what it means to follow Jesus—what it means to be a guy who follows Jesus, what it means to be a 20-something or a 30-something or a 40-something here in DC who follows Jesus, what it means to be a single person or a married person who follows Jesus. All of these conversations revolve around that issue of identity—of who we are.
Because here’s what I think:
who we are determines how we live.
Who you are will determine:
how you respond when something bad happens—whether it’s small like losing a key or stubbing your toe, or whether it’s big like having your heart broken, losing a loved one, getting sick;
what you feel called to, what you are willing to do, and what you will do even if you don’t want to do it;
what you do with your money, what you spend it on, how much you give away, and whom you give to;
what you spend your time doing and who you spend it with;
how you engage in friendships and in dating relationships;
how you think about marriage and whom you choose to marry.
Who we are determines how we live.
But the thing is, many of us don’t know who we are. That “delay in identity formation” feels like it applies not just to teenagers nowadays, but also, still, to some of us: there are so many voices clamoring for our attention, so many opinions, so many perspectives, so many people telling us so many different things, and because we want people to like us, because we want people to affirm us, because we do what we think they want us to do, we end up not knowing who we are, and so we end up not knowing how to live … at least not with consistency and stability.
Pastor and author John Ortberg says,
The soul without a center finds its identity in externals.
Maybe you’ve tried to find your identity in your work, in romantic relationships, in how many people you’ve slept with, in athletic ability, in your families, or in educational achievement.
Maybe you’ve crafted an identity: a work identity—the hard worker, the one who gets things done; a relationship identity—the smooth talker, the one who’s hard to get; a social media presence that doesn’t quite match reality because you only post about the good times; an online dating profile in which every picture of you is flattering or you say you love sports (which is technically true but honestly you’ve watched more sports than you’ve played sports); a LinkedIn page that makes you sound a lot more accomplished than you are or feel—especially because now people can recommend you for the skills they think you’re good at.
Maybe you’ve distracted yourself so you don’t have to figure out who you are (at least that’s what you’re telling yourself): serial dating, assuming every time it breaks down that it was the other person’s fault; sleeping around or just “hanging out” so you can get some sort of affirmation—they may not love me but at least they like having me aroundand that’s better than nothing, isn’t it?
If we don’t know who we are, we won’t know how to live with consistency and stability and integrity. That word “integrity” carries notions of wholeness, of not being divided. That is the kind of life Jesus lived—where his words and his deeds lined up—and that, I believe, is the kind of life Jesus invites us to live with him.
And so, in talking about our identity, I want to talk first about Jesus’ identity—who Jesus was, who Jesus is—because who Jesus is has everything to do with who we are, and in three ways in particular:
we are humans, created in the image of God, created to show God to the world, and Jesus was the most human of us all, the truest image of God, the fullest embodiment of God the world has ever seen—so if you want to know how to live fully, look at Jesus;
we are redeemed by Jesus in order to work with Jesus to reconcile all things to Jesus—so if you want to know your purpose in life, Jesus is pretty important to that too;
for those who have made the decision to become a Christ-follower, to acknowledge Jesus as Savior and Lord, we are called to be like him.
So knowing who Jesus is, is an indispensable part of knowing who weare.
Let’s look at Luke 3:21-23:
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry.
Many of your Bibles probably label this passage as “Jesus’ baptism,” but the funny thing is, the baptism is not the main point here. Matthew and Mark, in their gospel accounts, spend more time narrating what actually happens at Jesus’ baptism; Luke just says, “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too.”
John the Baptist was calling people to repent and be baptized as a symbol of cleansing and entering into a new way of living. People were coming to John to repent of their sins and be baptized, and Jesus was baptized, too. Only … he didn’t have any sin; he didn’t sin—that’s part of why, according to the Christian story, Jesus was able to be the One to save us, because he was without fault, because he never did anything wrong, because he lived life as truly and as fully as a human being was created to. So why, you might ask, did Jesus come to be baptized when he didn’t ‘need’ to be baptized? This is what Scottish theologian William Barclay wrote—and I like this a lot:
In the life of each of us there are certain definite stages, certain hinges on which our whole life turns. It was so with Jesus, and every now and again we must stop and try to see his life as a whole. … When John emerged the people flocked out to hear him and to be baptized. Throughout the whole country there was an unprecedented movement towards God. And Jesus knew that his hour had struck. It was not that he was conscious of sin and of the need of repentance. It was that he knew that he too must identify himself with this movement towards God.
Jesus was saying, “This is my life-direction. This is the time to make public my identification with what John has said, with what John is doing, and, more importantly, with what God is doing at this time and in this place.” It was a hinge-point in his life, a juncture at which he sensed God’s calling to a new chapter.
Luke tells us Jesus was about thirty years old. Thirty meant something for the people of Israel: thirty was
how old you had to be to become a priest;
how old Joseph was when he entered the service of Pharaoh (in Genesis 41);
how old the prophet Ezekiel was when he was called to ministry;
how old David was when he became king.
Now, you may be thirty—or you may not be. Either way, maybe you’re at a juncture in your life where you’ve sensed God calling you to step out in faith: maybe to trust in him for the first time, maybe to commit your finances to him by giving to the church or another organization that’s seeking to see the kingdom of God here on earth—more of up there down here, maybe to commit your future to him by breaking off a dead-end relationship situation or by making a lifelong commitment to somebody.
Wherever you are, I pray that your ears and your heart will be open to what God is saying, and that, like Jesus, you’ll respond and move into that.
Throughout his gospel, Luke presents Jesus as a man of prayer, pointing out many incidents when Jesus would withdraw to commune with God. That’s all prayer is: taking time to talk with God about what we’re doing together.
I want to be a man of prayer; I want to be in constant contact with the One who knows what’s going on—because much of the time, I don’t! I want our church to be a place of prayer, a place where people commune and communicate with God. I want our community to have a culture of prayer: in the midst of the busyness and activity of DC, I want The District Church to be and be known as a haven of consistency and stability and integrity and peace—“the rest of will that results from assurance about how things will turn out,” as Dallas Willard puts it, because it knows and trusts the One who, in all things, is working for our good. That’s why prayer is important; that’s why, even though I think I’m terrible at praying, I keep working at it, I keep trying to grow in it, I keep asking God to help me be a better pray-er—and even that is praying!
So Jesus, after he’s been baptized, prays; after this definitive moment in his life, he talks with God … and “heaven was opened.” The opening of heaven was symbolic of God’s revelation, God’s showing of himself to his people; it was an indicator that God was about to do something big. After hundreds of years of silence, a voice comes calling in the wilderness; John comes as a prophet of the Lord, having received the word of the Lord, to call all people to the Lord. That’s a sign that something is stirring. And now, after the baptism of Jesus, heaven is opened. Something is happening. Winter is coming. (That’s a Game of Thrones reference, in case you didn’t get it.) The King is returning. (That’s from Lord of the Rings … and from the Bible.) God is about to do something amazing.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this happens as Jesus is praying. There have been times in my life where I’ve wondered why I haven’t heard from God, and then he reminds me that I haven’t been listening, that I haven’t been spending much time with him lately. It’s hard to hear when you aren’t listening; it’s hard to have a conversation if you aren’t willing to make time for it.
the Holy Spirit descended on [Jesus] in bodily form like a dove.
Jesus is anointed by the Spirit of God. It’s a sign that he has been chosen by God for a mission, an indicator that he has been commissioned by God for a task and equipped by God for this purpose. It was the Spirit of God that would enable and empower Jesus to do everything he did—signs and wonders; words of truth and love and grace. It was the Spirit of God that would raise Jesus from the dead. And that same Spirit of God, if you put your trust in Jesus, that same Spirit of God lives in you. That same Spirit of God is part of who you are, part of your identity. That same Spirit of God continues to be at work in and through and with you and the larger body of Christ—the Church—to bring life to the world. None of what we want to do—seek the renewal of our city; live good, Christ-imitating lives; love God and those around us with integrity—none of that is possible without the Spirit of God.
And yet so many of us try. So many of us try to change the world/ourselves/other people through our own efforts, apart from God. But God is already working, by his Spirit, in and through people who have dedicated themselves to see God’s renewal on earth—and sometimes even through those who haven’t. What we’re asked to do is be a part of that, to partner in that, to open ourselves up, to trust in Jesus—to trust that what Jesus says is true, to trust that what God says is true.
And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
This is the foundation of Jesus’ identity: Son of God. Beloved by God. Pleasing to God. The language harks back to Psalm 2, the royal psalm, where God says to the king, “You are my son …” It harks back to the words of the prophet Isaiah in 42:1:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
This is who Jesus is: Son. King. Beloved. Servant. Chosen. Spirit-empowered. Justice-bringer. This is who Jesus is, and this is what Jesus is about. Who he is determines how he lives.
I don’t think this was the first time he had heard the voice of God. I don’t think this was the first time he realized that he had a higher calling. In Luke 2, we read about him spending time at the Temple as a boy and telling his parents, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)—he was twelve; it was another hinge-point in his story.
We don’t hear from him for another 18 years, during which time he is presumably taking up his father’s trade as a carpenter in Nazareth, being faithful in the mundane, being faithful in the small things—plugging away at work, taking care of his family, loving his neighbors—just as he would later be faithful in the big things. Next week we’ll hear about the temptations Jesus faced before he began his public ministry, and there as well he was faithful because he knew who he was. Or to put it another way, he knew whose he was. Because God had told him: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
You know, Jesus is the only person in the New Testament of whom God says, “I am pleased with you.” That’s because even at this point in his life, even before he embarked on his public ministry, even before the public acclaim and the crowds flocking to hear him speak and see him do miracles, even before all of the celebrity, he was completely faithful—he had loved God with all of his heart, mind, soul, and strength; and he had loved his neighbor as himself—throughout the course of his life thus far; and that’s why God said to him, “I am pleased with you.” Paul wrote, in his second letter to the Corinthians, about making it his goal in life to please God.
I also want to please God; I want to be faithful; I want to do things that make God happy. But I also do things that I know don’t please God—that’s where repentance comes in; that’s where forgiveness comes in; that’s where grace comes in.
Let me be clear here: I don’t try to please God in order to earn his love; I try to please God because I already have his love. Grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning. For instance, I don’t do things for my wife so that she will love me; I do things for her because she loves me. It’s a very fine line, but it’s a crucial distinction.
God loves us—more than we can ever know—and nothing can change that; but that doesn’t mean God is always pleased with us—especially when we do things that run counter to what he knows is good for us, or when we turn away from him, or when we hurt ourselves or other people. That’s why it does matter how we live. That’s why it does matter whose we are.
Pastor and author Jo Saxton writes:
Contrary to the many mantras of our day, our identity is not found deep within us: it’s given.
It’s given by God, our Creator, the One who made us in his image, the One who knit us together in our mother’s womb, the One who knows what’s best for us. It should not be a surprise, then, to discover that what God says about us and who we are in relation to God are the most foundational aspects of our identity. And yet … global activist Lynne Twist says:
For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of. … Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack. … This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life.
What these voices, this culture, this world, maybe even our loved ones, have said to us about our identity is that we are not enough, that at the foundation of our identity exists a lack, a not-enough, and therefore we must strive—for affirmation, for acceptance, for all that we don’t yet have.
But because of what Jesus did on this earth, because of what Jesus did on the cross, because of what Jesus did in overcoming sin and death, the Apostle John is able to write, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1). Because of Jesus, God says to those who say yes to him: “You are mine. I love you.” And then as we get to know him, we learn more and more how we can please the One who not only loves us but the One whom we love in return.
The words that God spoke to his Son:
You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.
These words grant identity; these words speak of home; these words tell you where you belong and whom you belong to. We seek those words too; we desire to hear them; we glean affirmation from them. We wish we heard them more often.
Maybe from your father or your mother: “You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
Maybe from your husband or your wife: “You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
Maybe from an ex or a significant other: “You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
Maybe from an older brother or sister: “You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”
In some form or other, from some person or other, we seek these identity-affirming words—“You are mine. I love you. With you I am well pleased.”—because we want to know who we are and whose we are. But the only person who will tell it to us in a way that will bring lasting peace and assurance to the very core of our beings is God. It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of other people tell it to us; the only person whose voice carries eternal weight in this regard is God.
When I was in college, I recommitted my life to Christ; and for the first year or so after that, when I would pray, what I sensed God saying to me most often was “I love you.” And I would be puzzled; I’d say to God,
I know that! Everybody knows that. Jesus loves me, this I know for the Bible tells me so. Tell me something new! Tell me what to do!
But the same thing: “I love you.” Day after day: “I love you.” Week after week: “I love you.” And one day, I realized that God was telling me he loved me so often because that was the most important thing about who I was, and that was the thing that was most easy to forget.
When something goes wrong, when something bad happens, when someone gets mad at you, when someone hurts you, when things don’t go the way you want them to go, when things are out of your control, or even when things are going really, really well—any time, any place, the thing that’s easiest to forget is also the thing that changes everything: God loves you. You belong to God.
Marguerite Shuster, a preaching professor at Fuller Seminary, wrote about a Christian kindergarten teacher she knows. In her class there was a young girl, whose parents were in the middle of a vicious divorce. “Climbing into my friend’s lap, the girl said, ‘Tell me again that Jesus loves me. I keep forgetting.’ The girl knew in her head that Jesus loved her, but she still needed to hear it from the outside.” C.S. Lewis puts it this way:
People need more to be reminded than to be instructed.
God loves you. Whatever hand 2014 has dealt you; whatever hand your life has dealt you; whatever has happened to you, in spite of your best efforts; whatever this week has thrown at you; whatever today has dumped on your doorstep—he says to you, “You are mine. I love you.” Even if your work colleague hates your guts, even if your students don’t pay attention to you, even if the patients you treat couldn’t care less about you; even if you aren’t sure if you’re in the right job or the right place or the right relationship or the right marriage—he says to you, “You are mine. I love you.” Because Jesus is who Jesus is, we can be who we were made to be. God says to you, “You are mine. I love you.”
Maybe you aren’t seeking God, or you wouldn’t call yourself a follower of Jesus, but you too know that longing for affirmation, which you’ve sought
in the arms of the next guy or the next girl,
by throwing yourself into work,
by crafting an identity that people think is you but you know, deep in your heart, is not even close to being true, and certainly not close to where you want to be.
Your Creator God longs to be in relationship with you; the One who loves you and cares for you, desires to call you his own. The God who knew you even before you were born yearns to establish you in the unshakeable, consistent, stable foundation of his love.
In Creation, this God made all things to be good, with a purpose; after we turned away at the Fall, he sought us; he sent Jesus to show us the way—to be our Way and our Redemption; and he desires that all would know him, that all would love him, that all would discover the life and beauty and power in the connection for which we were all made—the connection with the one true God, the God who said to Jesus, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” the God who whispers to us, sometimes with tears and sometimes with great barreling laughter, “You are mine. I love you.” And he longs for us to join with him in the work of Renewal, which is that all might know him and that all might be made right, and as we do this, the Father may one day say to us too,
Well done, good and faithful child. With you I am well pleased.
 Powell, Sticky Faith, 56; quoting from “Development and Validation of Ego Identity Status” and “Identity in Adolescence.”
It’s been two months since my last ‘official’ update, and I apologize for that. Life has, as you’ll see, been pretty full.
SEATTLE (AUG 30 – SEP 5)
As a wedding gift, Carolyn bought us tickets to the Seahawks-Packers opening day game. So we got to head to the beautiful Pacific Northwest for a week, see friends, eat good food, and watch my Seahawks beat her Packers. (We’re not going to talk about our teams’ fortunes since then.)
H ST FESTIVAL (SEP 20)
The District Church had a booth at the H Street Festival, an annual celebration in our neighborhood, where over 100,000 people make their way through our part of town. We served ice cream and BBQ sliders (not combined) to folks passing by, and had a number of great conversations.
CCDA (SEP 24 – 27)
One of the organizations The District Church is connected with is the Christian Community Development Association. CCDA’s founder, Dr. John Perkins, has preached at our church a couple of times, including this past August. This year, the conference was held in Raleigh, NC, making it a great opportunity for us to take a sizable crew down — about ten of us from TDC made the trip: we learned a lot, prayed a lot, worshiped in community together, and got to stay together at my in-laws’. (Thanks, Tom and Dana, for the hospitality!)
TWO SERMONS (SEP 28, OCT 5)
I got to preach back-to-back weeks on Mary, the mother of Jesus, and then Jesus’ birth. It was my first time preaching about Mary, and my first time covering Christmas in October! (You can listen to them here: “When God Chooses You,” and “The Most Dangerous Baby Ever Born.”)
BFFS IN DC (SEP 29 – OCT 2)
My best friends Tim and Tiff were able to swing through DC on their way back to London. Tim was my best man in July, but this time he was able to bring his wife and 6-month old daughter, Zoe, with him. It was a tremendously life-giving time; I miss these two (now three!).
We attended the wedding of one of Carolyn’s co-workers and Carolyn’s 10-year high school reunion. Oh, and perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, I got sick right around the beginning of October (I think I’ve finally shaken it); and then pulled my hamstring playing flag football this past weekend.
PRAYER REQUESTS As always, there is much to be thankful for, and much to lift up in prayer:
for grace for Carolyn and I as we continue to figure out life together in marriage. When we’ve had our own way with work schedules, rhythms and routines, and communication styles, for a combined 60 years, there’s a lot of room for … teachable moments. (On a positive note, somebody has learned to stop sleeping diagonally, which is definitely something to be thankful for!)
for a successful (and still in-process) transition into my new role as teaching pastor. I’m still figuring out what my new rhythms and routines look like.
for Matthew in his transition to pastor of the East Side parish. Figuring out how to love and care for dozens of neighborhood kids who show up every Sunday is just one of his challenges/opportunities!
for a new communications coordinator for the church. We’re looking to hire someone who’ll take on (and expand) the communications responsibilities that I’ve been taking care of for the past few years.
for The District Church. Pray that as we continue to grow, we also continue to steward our resources well and to make disciples who make disciples. We’ve seen tremendous things happening in the last year, but we never want to lose sight of our vision (“To exist for Christ and the renewal of our city”) and mission (“To make disciples who are living out their God-given mission in life”).
Last Sunday I preached on Mary, the mother of Jesus, for the first time (you can listen to the full sermon here). As a church, we’ve been going through the Gospel of Luke, and I got to study Luke 1:26-56. Here are three things I learned:
1. God does not see as the world sees.
Mary was one of the most powerless people in the patriarchal society of the day—she was young, she was female, she had no husband or child, and, as we’ll discover later in Luke’s gospel, she was poor. On the social ladder of first century Palestine, Mary was pretty close to the bottom. In the eyes of the world, Mary was no one special. But God does not see as the world sees.
Young, poor, unmarried Mary is the girl to whom Gabriel says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Mary, the Bible says, “was much perplexed by these words and wondered what sort of greeting this might be” (1:29). From Mary’s point of view, for someone like her, a girl from a small town, who wasn’t anyone special, who didn’t have any accomplishments or accolades to her name, being visited by an angel and greeted as one favored by God … well, it just didn’t really make sense.
But God chooses her to be the mother of the Messiah, the Chosen One. At the time, the people of Israel were living under Roman occupation—in fact, they had endured several hundred years of oppression, and they were holding on to the ages-old promise of God that he would send a deliverer, a rescuer, one who would reestablish the throne of the great king David, defeat the oppressors, and restore the fortunes of the people in their Promised Land. Mary’s child, the angel said, would be this savior:
1:30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
God does not see as the world sees.
You think you’re unattractive? God does not see as the world sees.
You think you’re a failure? God does not see as the world sees.
You think you’ve got nothing to offer? God does not see as the world sees.
You think you’re down and out? God does not see as the world sees.
You think you can never change? God does not see as the world sees.
Thank you, God, that you do not see through our dim, myopic eyes, that you see much deeper within, to the things that really matter—the image of God within us, the presence of the Spirit within us, the plans you have for us, the future you have in store for us, the ways you want to write us and invite us into your great story of life.
Some of us need a little God-perspective on our situations; some of us need to share that truth with someone who’s having trouble believing that.
2. Nothing is impossible with God.
Gabriel said to Mary (1:36):
Your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and she who was said to be barren is six months pregnant. For nothing will be impossible with God.
Zechariah and Elizabeth, an elderly couple long considered barren, conceive because nothing is impossible with God.
A young, unmarried virgin from a no-name town in a backwater province in the Roman Empire bears a child because nothing is impossible with God.
The God of the universe chooses to effect his rescue mission of humanity by coming down to earth not in a blaze of glory with armies of angels around him but by emptying himself and being conceived in the womb of a girl called Mary, because nothing is impossible with God.
Jesus grows up, full of faith and wisdom, full of grace and truth, is crucified and raised to life three days later, all to win us back for God, because nothing is impossible with God.
His disciples, who are scared and have locked themselves in a room one Saturday, become the most fearless band of brothers the world has ever seen, taking the good news of salvation and redemption and restoration and reconciliation to every corner of the world, because nothing is impossible with God.
I pray that that perspective infuses the very core of your being, that that kingdom-reality changes everything you ever thought about what you can, and, more importantly, what God can do in and through and with you.
“For nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary’s response reveals so much about her: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (1:38). Theologian AW Tozer says:
God is looking for people through whom he can do the impossible—what a pity that we plan only the things that we can do by ourselves.
When I was a single guy, one of my friends pointed out to me that I had the capacity and the tendency to talk myself out of any relationship; in other words, I could always come up with a convincing and persuasive reason why it wouldn’t work out (because there’s always at least one) and then I’d end up convincing and persuading the other person as well that it wouldn’t work out. And so I’d basically sabotage the relationship before it even had a chance to begin.
I think we have the capacity and the tendency to do that with God, too. “God is looking for people through whom he can do the impossible—what a pity that we plan only the things that we can do by ourselves.”
God wants to change you and transform your life but you’ve told yourself it’s not possible.
God wants to break your addiction to pornography but you’ve told yourself it’s not possible.
God wants to transform your anger problem into a truth-speaking love but you’ve told yourself it’s not possible.
God wants to bring reconciliation to your family but you’re at the end of your rope and you’ve told yourself it’s not possible.
God wants to save the life of your neighbor, your coworker, the drug dealer on your street, but you’ve told yourself it’s not possible.
God wants to effect change in your neighborhood—real change that’s not just economic growth but relational growth, racial and socioeconomic reconciliation, a community that flourishes together—but you’re resigned to the fact that the problems are too big for you to understand and you’ve told yourself it’s not possible.
God wants to reconcile all things to himself but you can’t see further than your own problems.
What a pity we plan only the things that we can do by ourselves.
God of the impossible, expand our horizons, enlarge our eyes, blow our minds, explode our imaginations, give us a vision for your kingdom on earth and for your will in our lives.
I know things can seem impossible. I know things can feel impossible. We all have things in our lives that seem impossible:
I’m never going to get that job.
I’m never going to get married.
I’m never going to have kids.
I’m never going to find my calling.
I’m never going to settle in a place.
I’m never going to make friends who know me and love me.
I’m never going to beat this problem that keeps coming up.
I’m never going to be reconciled with my family.
I’m never going to recover from the hurt that was done to me.
Every single person is dealing with something that seems impossible. For some, it’s been that way for so long that it’s become part of the furniture, it’s just part of life.
But God is the God who does the impossible.
3. God is setting all things right.
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
The Magnificat—Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55—has been called one of the most revolutionary documents in the world; it’s been called a song of reversals, and it’s easy to see why. In those days, those who were rich and those who were proud were seen to have come to their positions by oppressing others, particularly the poor. Theologian Leon Morris writes:
In the ancient world it was accepted that the rich would be well cared for. Poor people must expect to be hungry. But Mary sings of a God who is not bound by what people do. He turns human attitudes and orders of society upside down.
Chiara Lubich, a Catholic activist, wrote:
In the Gospel we find the highest and most irresistible revolution.
You may have heard that we are a church that cares about justice here at The District Church—and the reason we care about it is not because it’s cool, not because everybody’s supposed to care about justice nowadays, but because God cares about it, because God has always cared about it, because justice is part of God’s character, because in God’s economy, the lowly and the hungry—the most vulnerable—are not trodden down or oppressed or marginalized but rather they are lifted up, they are fed, and they are seen by the God who sees.
I want to tell you today that God sees you, no matter who you are, no matter where you come from or what you’ve done—God sees you. I want you to hear that. But I also want to point out the challenge of God’s kingdom, because I know that we have a tendency to place ourselves in the role of the protagonist, the underdog, the one whom God favors; and if the Magnificat—and Jesus and the Bible, for that matter—
doesn’t give us some pause about what kind of God our words and our actions reflect to the world,
doesn’t make us think about what we’re doing with our lives,
doesn’t force us to wonder if we’re rightly stewarding the opportunities and resources God has blessed us with,
doesn’t drive us to ponder what our role is in God’s upside-down—or right-side up—kingdom,
then maybe we need to reexamine what Jesus means to us.
Here in America, and particularly here in DC, it’s all about upward mobility—the next job, the next promotion, the next campaign, the next rung—so that we can make more money, earn more prestige, look better, have more power. Sure, we may reason, we’ll be better positioned to help more people, we’ll have more resources to be more generous; and I think that’s good—great, even—but I want us to really examine ourselves, to be brutally honest with ourselves about our motivations and our dreams.
Are we using God, thinking that he’s a ticket to a better, more materially prosperous, more trouble-free life? Or are we really allowing God to use us to bring restoration and reconciliation to a hurting and broken world, so that it might be as it was created to be?
William Barclay wrote:
Nowhere can we better see the paradox of blessedness than in [Mary’s] life. To Mary was granted the blessedness of being the mother of the Son of God. Well might her heart be filled with a wondering, tremulous joy at so great a privilege. Yet that very blessedness was to be a sword to pierce her heart. It meant that some day she would see her son hanging on a cross. // To be chosen by God so often means at one and the same time a crown of joy and a cross of sorrow. The piercing truth is that God does not choose a person for ease and comfort and selfish joy but for a task that will take all that head and heart and hand can bring to it. God chooses us in order to use us.
Blessing for a purpose. Chosenness for a mission bigger than ourselves. Freedom so that others might also be free. We are loved by our Father in heaven far more than anyone has ever loved us or could ever love us, and he desires the best for us—and, in case you were wondering, that isn’t your comfort. God desires to use us to bring healing and hope, to point people back to him who created them and who desires to be in relationship with them, and to see the kingdom of God come on earth. And according to Mary, the kingdom of God, the world where God is sovereign, is not one where the proud, the mighty, the rich are the ones who will have the last word, but one where God is setting things right on every level: individual and national, personal and systemic, social and economic and spiritual and relational.
This is the trajectory of history. This is the story of God. Thanks be to God.
I fear that we might be more in love with the idea of changing the world than actually changing the world.
I fear that we might be more enamored with the idea of changing the world and are neglecting to allow ourselves to be changed.
I fear that we have an unrealistic and glamorous perception of what it means to follow Christ and what it means to pursue justice. In truth, we have not taken the time to count the costs of following Jesus.
I fear that we might be tempted to compartmentalize the action of changing the world rather than seeing it as a key part of our discipleship journey that will impact the whole of our lives.
I fear that we’re asking God to move mountains, forgetting that God also wants to move us. And in fact, it may be possible that we are the mountains that need to be moved.
It’s a confession that is his–and mine too, and he articulates the challenge that a lot of people in our generation face, that doing the work of justice is much more difficult and challenging than supporting the idea of justice.
That’s one of the reasons I’m excited that Eugene will be coming through DC next week. The District Church will be hosting an event for him, where he’ll be sharing from his book, having a Q&A session, and then signing books.