Reflections On How The “Love of God” Changes Us

In his 1937 landmark book, The Kingdom of God in America, Richard Niebuhr memorably described the weakened message of the church in his day as follows:  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[1]  Tragically, Niebuhr’s devastating critique could easily be said today of evangelical Christianity.  Who has lost sight more of the depth of human sin, the certainty of God’s judgment and the call to repentance than today’s populistic, evangelical churches?  Have you noticed how the prayers of repentance and confession have dropped out of the order of services in many churches?  Have you noticed the quiet re-writing of some of the older hymns to drop out references to wrath, repentance and judgment?  Thankfully, there is a growing realization that, in our attempt to stay at the cultural center of consensus (rather than the prophetic margins) we have inadvertently participated in an obscuring of the gospel.

No where is this problem more evident than how the phrase, “the love of God” is used today.   So much of the biblical meaning has been squeezed out to comply with modern sensibilities.  The word “love” is used in our society for everything from “I love chocolate cake” to “I love that movie” to “for God so loved the world that he gave His only Son.”  The ancient Greeks,  as you know, had four words for love:  eros (erotic love), philia (devoted friendship), storge (parental affection towards children), and agápe (God’s love/ 1 Cor. 13 type love).  Each of these words have nuances of meaning and are used in a variety of ways in the New Testament.   But, it remains instructive.   When we say we ‘love our children’ most understand that this involves a wide range of responses and responsibilities which cannot be understood in merely emotive ways (though it would not exclude this).  When we love our children it involves, among others, acts of compassion towards them, learning to listen, honest truth telling, wise instruction, empathy when they are hurting, forbearing patience, loving discipline, the setting of boundaries, and so forth.  To neglect any of these would not be expressive of the full range of what it means to love.  This is, likewise, true in our relationship with God.  It is misguided, for example, to insist that God’s love towards us does not, at times, involve his disciplining us for our own good.  God has given us moral boundaries, not because He is a tyrannical kill-joy, but because he longs for us to know the deepest joy of His design.  In fact, God is so committed in his covenant-love toward us that He sometimes opposes us in our own inclinations, and deeds, and ideas as to what we think is right because His love is a holy love.

In today’s morally vacuous climate, we can easily become influenced by sentimental concepts of love which precludes his righteous judgment, or his loving discipline.   However, one of the surest signs of God’s love for us is that, like a good parent, He disciplines us, sets moral boundaries, makes judgments according to his revealed will, and so forth.  Sometimes His “discipline” and “truth telling” can really hurt and make us want to flee in the opposite direction.  However, we know from Scripture that “no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).  Paul says that “when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor. 11:32).


[1] Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (NY: Harper Row, 1959 edition), 193.

My Charge to the 2012 Graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary

We live in a world which if it were reduced to a jar with a label on it, that label would probably include the word impossible.  We live at a time when almost everything around us is framed by impossibilities…

●  Peace among Israelis and Palestinians…impossible
●  An America where the threat of terrorism is a distant memory…impossible
●  A congress where Democrats and Republicans engage in healthy, respectful dialogue and work collaboratively across the aisle for the good of America…. impossible
●  A world marked by cultural stability where it is safe to walk the streets at night and crime is low…impossible
●  A society where a man and a woman in their twenties with their whole lives in front of them, stand at the altar of a church and pledge their entire lives to one another – to be faithful until death separates them – and actually do it… I’m afraid too many people would say, nah, …impossible

Most people live in a world of impossibilities… As Thoreau put it we live “lives of quiet desperation.”  Hope is low…expectations are lower… suspicion reigns…cynicism is on the throne…and truth itself is on the scaffold.

Yet, here you are, graduates, poised on this day to go out into this very world framed by such impossibilities.  I charge you, therefore, class of 2012, to remember that the gospel of Jesus Christ is what transforms the impossible into the possible.  Indeed, it is the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus Christ which totally reframes the world and all of human history.  It is these two great singularities – incarnation and resurrection – which reframe a world of despair and cynicism into the larger frame of hope and promise.  This old creation is broken and wounded, but you know that the New Creation is already breaking in!  You are its heralds and ambassadors. You are capable of thinking thoughts that the world cannot think.  You are capable of sacrificial acts which the world cannot fathom.  You are capable of dreaming dreams in a world that only knows ever-maddening nightmares.  You can think about possibilities.

The whole ministry of Jesus was framed by impossibilities…incarnation and resurrection…a virgin birth and an empty tomb.  Someone once said, Jesus came into the world through a door marked “no entrance,” a virgin womb.  He left through a door marked “no exit”, a tomb of death.  Two great impossibilities made possible in Jesus Christ. Nobody had ever walked through those doors before.   In Jesus Christ, the world’s greatest impossibilities are made into possibilities.

Graduates, you would have under-heard the gospel if you believed that the incarnation and the resurrection are mere isolated historical events.  They are historical events, but they serve to re-frame and re-order the whole of human history even today.

You can go out into this world and in Jesus Christ see the impossible made possible.  You can work for peace, because the prince of peace is the Risen and Ascended Lord.  You can re-engage in government and live free of bitterness and cynicism, because the government rests on his shoulders.  You can wage holy war against crime, because God’s love for the world is always greater than Satan’s hate of it.  You can boldly rescue men, women, and children from human trafficking, and the downward spiral of drug addiction because “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all those who dwell therein.”  You can sit with husbands and wives who walk into your office and say “we have given up, our marriage has no hope.”  And you can say, without blinking, God still has the last word in your relationship.  You can preach the gospel to lost sinners and believe afresh in the power of God’s redemption because the cross is still the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes.  I charge you to go forth as ambassadors of hope!  Do not get caught in the net of despair.  Do not get trapped in the web of cynicism.  Do not get swallowed up by all the impossibilities.  Instead, be in Christ, where all impossibilities can be reframed by the hope of Jesus Christ.

 

Why we need the Gospel of John at Christmastime

We are all aware of how any distinctively Christian celebration of Christmas can so easily be lost in “frosty the snowman,” “Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” “Santa Claus finding out who’s naughty and nice,” “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” and the list goes on and on.  What is hard to find is any mention of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  This is why I love John’s Christmas story.  Many people think that the Christmas account is only found in Matthew and Luke with all the traditional band of characters including shepherds, sheep, angels, Joseph, Mary, an innkeeper, King Herod and, later, the magi from the East, etc…  John’s gospel approaches the story differently.  We find in John no mention of angels or shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night.  We do not find in John any reference to innkeepers, starry nights, a travel weary young family, or night time visions.  In John there are no magi looking at the stars, or census’ being taken of the Roman world.  In John we only have the center character in the entire story: “The Word became flesh dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Thank you, John.  Christmas is about God stepping into human history, clothing himself in our frail humanity to rescue us from sin and death.  Let’s remember that this holy season: God became a man – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; this is the Christmas story according to the Gospel of John.

Penn State and Lessons from Kindergarten

Many of us will remember Robert Fulghum’s book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Basic principles like “play fair,” “don’t take things which aren’t yours,” “say your sorry when you hurt someone,” and “clean up your own mess” are just a few of the gentle reminders from Fulghum. The importance of these early “life lessons” is hard to over estimate, isn’t it?

This week the nation has been rocked by the scandal at Penn State. Many careers are in ruins, a great national legacy has been tarnished, a beloved coach has been fired, and, most importantly, dozens of children (now young adults) have been violated in unspeakable ways. It reminded me of something my mother used to say to me and my brothers when we were growing up. Starting around kindergarten and, from time to time, throughout our young lives my mother would say, “never do anything which you would be embarrassed about if it was shouted from the rooftops or put on tomorrow’s headlines.” I heard it when I was so young I didn’t know for sure what she meant. I also remember hearing it in shame when I came home one day (along with my two brothers) after having participated in the “egging” of someone’s house in our neighborhood.  We all wanted to play a prank on one of our friends and so we got some eggs and threw them onto the roof of his house. We were, of course, spotted and within minutes my mother was armed and waiting our arrival back home. We walked in the door and what we thought we had done “in secret” had become known. We were marched back down the street and I spent the next two days scrubbing with soap and water the roof of the house we had violated. My deeds were literally being “shouted from the housetops” as the neighbors all gathered to watch us all up on the roof making restitution. We were also made to wash every window and sweep the driveway and mow the grass. I thought our penance would never be over! But, I learned a valuable lesson – don’t ever do anything you don’t want shouted from the rooftops or put in tomorrow’s headline.”

My mother gave her “shout from the housetops” speech because she knew Jesus’ words “what you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight; and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke 13:3). Penn State needed that basic lesson ringing in their ears back in 2002. These kind of things cannot remain hidden. What is discussed today behind closed doors will, in time, be shouted from the rooftops. In fact, if Jerry Sandusky had learned that lesson in kindergarten, a horrible tragedy might have been avoided.

This is a powerful reminder for us to examine our own lives. Is there anything in our lives which we would be ashamed of if it were shouted from the rooftops or put on tomorrow’s headlines?  If so, then set it right today. I am so glad (now) for the rooftop speech. I hope I never forget it.

Reversal

To change the pace a bit, I thought I would share a
poem I wrote reflecting on the great meta-narrative of the Gospel….

Reversal

By Timothy C. Tennent

It is good, the first Day breaks,
It is finished, how it quakes.
In the garden, Tree does call,
Second garden, Life for all!

Life and breath he did bestow,
Given twice to us below.
Sin broke Day, defeating all,
Death is risen in the Fall.

Out of Egypt He did bring,
Covenant, and priest and King,
Temple built and ark secure,
Justice reigns and hope for poor.

Law is broken, idols reign
Back to slav’ry, infants slain
Waiting, longing, hope and fear,
Praying Yahweh will come near

Lo, He comes into our Time,
Second Man, oh how sublime!
On the Tree, he bore our gall,
Breaking chains, reversing Fall!

Life emerges, out of womb
Risen Life from empty tomb,
Lo, he comes, O how Hell shakes!
Life is ours, the Keys He takes!

Fire is falling, tongues set free,
Wind is blowing, loving Thee,
Babel’s broken, hear the sound
Praise and holiness abound!

On this rock, He builds us up,
Kingdom rising, lifted cup,
Twice born heralds, serving poor,
Praising Him forevermore!

Second coming, sky is rent,
Back to world, O He is sent.
On the throne, he reigns in sight,
Day has come, all is set right!

New creation, now with us,
City comes with righteousness!
Ever praising, sin no more,
His forever, we adore!
Meter:  77.77 D

Looking into the Pit of Hell by Timothy C. Tennent

We are still basking in the wonderful good news of Easter.  During this Eastertide, I am reminded afresh of the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This past January, my wife and I spent two weeks in the Holy Land.  No words can really ever capture the power of walking this land.  One of the most moving juxtapositions in the trip was the last two days.  We were in Jerusalem and spent half a day at the Holocaust museum.  I have been to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. and in Richmond, Virginia. Both are moving experiences, but nothing quite like the one in Jerusalem, especially being with our normally very loquacious Jewish guide, Mishi Newbach, who was reduced to silence and tears as we walked through the horror of the exhibits, documentary films and paraphernalia.

One of the highlights of the holocaust museum in Richmond, Virginia is the very clock which hung in the Ten Boom workshop.  As you may recall, this was the one used to alert the Jews they were hiding of impending danger.  Corrie Ten Boom was eventually arrested, along with her father, mother and sister.  She witnessed the worst horror of Ravensbruck, including the death of both parents and her sister Betsy.  In Jerusalem I was struck by a room which was filled with quotations about the holocaust. The one which really grabbed me was by Elie Wiesel, the famous Romanian born Nobel Laureate writer who is Jewish and one of the most well known survivors of the Holocaust.  He is the author of many books but is especially known for his book Night.  In Night he shares the horror of his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  He movingly writes that he looked into the pit of the Holocaust and saw such unspeakable horror that God must be dead.  The Holocaust put God to death for Wiesel.

The day after our trip to the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem we went to the Garden Tomb, known as Gordon’s Calvary.  There I was able to walk inside a first century tomb hewn out of rock outside the city gates and just below a massive outcropping of rock which looked like a gigantic skull (Golgatha is an Aramaic word meaning “skull”).  It was a powerful place to be reminded of the central truth of our faith:  Jesus Christ is Risen!  He has born the sins of the world and is victorious!

This is what made Wiesel’s experience of the Holocaust so different from Corrie Ten Boom’s.  Corrie Ten Boom looked into the same horrifying pit as Wiesel.  However, she saw something even deeper than the pain, agony and suffering of the Holocaust.  She saw the sufferings of Christ who bore the sins of the world.  Wiesel looked into the pit of hell and declared, “there is no God.”  Corrie looked into the pit of hell and wrote, “there is no pit so deep, that the love of God is not deeper still.”