Thursday, August 28, 2014

Gospel of Mark 1 Podcast

The Gospel of Mark 1

There are four accounts of Jesus’ life in the New Testament. Each of these accounts is a little different in its focus, but the purpose of each is the same. These four accounts, called Gospels, were written to introduce people to Jesus. Of these four Gospels, Mark is the shortest, and many scholars think, the oldest. 

This morning we are starting our series through the book of Mark.  Mark’s Gospel is a fast moving, almost breath-taking, telling of the life of Jesus.  But, in a short amount of space, Mark has quite a message to tell.  I want to give an overview this morning, as we explore this question: “Who does Mark think that Jesus is?”  

To begin unpacking this answer, we need to do a little background work.  And, it all starts with a very messy divorce.  Those of you who have been through a divorce know that the experience can be devastating.  The emotional and spiritual scars can last for years.  

The divorce I’m talking about was the one between God and his people. Many centuries before the coming of Christ, YHWH, the Lord, God, had chosen the Hebrew people to be his elect or chosen people. He had given them The Promised Land and richly blessed them with many good things. Best of all, God dwelled in their midst. His glory filled the Temple in Jerusalem. The Lord was their God, and the Jews were his people.

Sadly, many things had gone wrong since then. Their love for God had grown cold. Their attitude toward God had soured. They had become a stubborn and rebellious people and refused to turn from their sins and follow God. Ezekiel chapter 10 tells the story of God finally moving out and leaving.

He had wanted to stay. He had wanted to make things work. But, sometimes things cannot be repaired and made right. Through their actions and words, the people had told God to get out. So, with great sadness and reluctance, God packed his things and left. He simply couldn’t stay with the way things were. The last straw was when the priests started bringing their pagan gods into the Temple, which was akin to someone’s spouse inviting his or her illicit lover to move in. The spiritual adultery was being done out in the open. God refused to stay.  He refused to act as if everything was all right.

The years that followed were terrible years for Israel as the people wrecked their nation and their lives with sin. Judgement fell upon the land, with enemy hordes invading, burning buildings, razing homes, and enslaving the people. Finally, the Temple, which had been God’s dwelling place, was destroyed.

By the end of the year 586 B.C., it looked as if the story of God’s people would end in tears and ashes. But, even in the bleakest hours, the Prophets of God foretold of a great hope. Eventually, the people would be set free to return to their homeland. There, they would rebuild their lives and their nation. They would also rebuild the Temple. YHWH would then return in glory, to dwell in the midst of his people, again. He would renew his covenant with the people and give them new hearts.

How would the people know when God was about to return?  Just before the Lord’s return in glory, God would send a mighty prophet, who, like the great prophet Elijah, would announce to the people that God was King. 

The very first thing Mark tells us about Jesus is that his coming is the fulfillment of this promise. Mark says,

“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way’ –

‘a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.”’

 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  

Mark is making a very radical announcement about God and the promises God had made to his people.  He starts by saying, “As it is written in Isaiah.”  Actually, Mark quotes two prophets, Malachi and Isaiah, but, he is following the usual Jewish practice of citing the most prominent of two, which is Isaiah. Both quotations are about God promising to return to his people.  Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3 are both about God, Yahweh, the Lord returning to renew the covenant.   

Before the return of the Lord, the prophets foretold, there would be a mighty prophet, like Elijah, who would come to prepare the hearts of the people. That was John the Baptist. John brought so much energy and caused such a commotion that people were still talking about him 200 years later. Some even thought that he might be the Messiah. God sent him to turn the hearts the of the people back to the Lord.

But, these two passages, from Isaiah 40 and Malachi 3, not only foretell of a great prophet like Elijah, but also of the Lord’s return to his people. Mark is telling us that both promises were kept. John the baptizer was the mighty prophet, who came in the spirit of Elijah. And, the coming of a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth, named Jesus, is what it looked like when God returned as he promised, to claim his right to be King over his people.

That is the radical message of Mark chapter one, verses 1-8. Mark wastes no time in getting to his point. God has returned, just as he promised. It didn’t happen in the way we expected. It didn’t look like what we thought it would look like. But, this is how God has returned to renew his covenant with his people.

Briefly, let’s look at what Mark points out about Jesus, to understand why it is that he and the earliest Christians believed that Jesus was the coming of God.  

First, Jesus had an innate authority. When Jesus stands in the synagogues, to proclaim the word of God, he speaks on his authority. He does not say, “According to so-and-so, or, according to such-and-such book.” He doesn’t even say, at least not always, “According to the Bible.” He says, “I say to you.” He has such authority that he is able to command demons to come out of possessed people, and they do. The people responded, “What is this - a new teaching? And with authority!”

He can heal the sick and cleanse the infected and diseased.  He forgives people of their sins.  And, to prove that he has the authority to forgive sins, like God, he heals a paralyzed man and tells him to walk home.  

He claims to have the authority to say what is and is not permissible on the Sabbath, the holiest day of the week. When his religious critics get upset by his claim, he heals a man, who has a severe birth defect, to prove that he/Jesus is not delusional.  

When Jesus begins choosing disciples, he chooses 12 core disciples, as a sign of renewing Israel and restoring the covenant with God’s people.  He heals the blind and the deaf. He feeds the multitudes.  He raises the dead.  He walks upon the waters and calms the winds of the storm by the word of his command.  He is God. 

He invites people to leave everything behind and follow him.  He calls notorious sinners to turn from their sins and believe in him.  He tells the terrified not to be afraid.  He tells people everywhere to love him more than money, jobs, family, and even life itself.   But, he also promises that those who do will see the Kingdom of God coming in power and that they will inherit more than they have given up. 

Mark tells us that Jesus is more important and more glorious than any religious leader who ever lived, including Moses and Elijah.  And, Jesus demands that we make up our mind about whom he is.  He will not allow us to remain neutral or on the fence about whom he is. 

His standards are higher than the Law, but he welcomes the moral failure.  He enters into Jerusalem as its rightful King, but rides in on a lowly donkey.  Instead of overthrowing the ruling powers by might and force, he lays down his life and dies for the sake of the world.  He is the descendent of king David, but also the One King David called Lord.  

He promises to return at the end of the age, to judge the living and the dead. On the night before his death, he celebrated the Passover with his disciples, telling them that his death will bring about the renewal of the Covenant. Finally, three days after Jesus' death, the women return to his tomb to discover that he had risen from the dead as he promised.

The Jesus of the New Testament is the God of the Old Testament, and, he invites you to follow him.  That is what the Gospel of Mark is about.  Over the next the several weeks and months, we will unpack all of this more carefully.  Today, we invite you to give your life to Jesus and follow him.  

Monday, July 14, 2014

Psalm 46: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb

Anyone who knows me or who listens to my podcasts knows that I am a big fan of Rock n’ Roll music.  A few decades ago, it would have been shocking to hear an orthodox preacher say that; after all, it was assumed that Rock n Roll was the devil’s music.  

Not a lot of people think that way anymore, but to those holdouts I’d say, quoting Geoff More, “Why should the devil have all the good musics.”  Besides, most of the people I have heard say that Rock n Roll is the devil’s music listen to country music.  While I do not want to trash a whole genre of music, I have to say that I have heard plenty of country songs that would make a sailor blush.  Any music style can be used in positive or negative ways.  Any how.  

One of my favorite bands is the Irish band U2.  A particular favorite album is How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb.  The Wikipedia article about this album had this to say: “Although not a concept album in the traditional sense, most of the music on the record deals with the world at the crossroads of its existence. Love and war, peace and harmony, and approaching death are themes of the album.”

The article also said something about the album I didn’t know: “Singer Michael W. Smith joined the band in the studio during the Atomic Bomb sessions and worked on at least one track with them entitled "North Star." That track, which was a tribute to Johnny Cash, has not yet surfaced officially or unofficially in any form. A song introduced by Bono as "North Star" was played in Turin during the U2 360° Tour, however, it is unknown whether or not this is the same song that was worked on during the sessions.”

In an interview I heard, Michael W. Smith talked about how the name of the album came about.  Smith and Bono were talking about all the problems our world faces.  As they did, Bono asked, “Michael, do you know how to dismantle an atomic bomb?”  Michael W. Smith said he did not.  To which Bono answered, “With love.”  

This interview led to me daydreaming a bit about what it might be like for all the nuclear weapons in the world to be dismantled.  As a part of one of the last generations to take part in nuclear bomb drills, I can say that the thought of there being no more nuclear weapons gave me a lot of happiness. If all the nuclear bombs suddenly disappeared, there would be no more terror of a tragic miscalculation leading to the end of civilization.  No longer would the fear of whole cities being incinerated grip the hearts of people who have been traumatized by the paranoia of the Cold War.  How marvelous it would be if we could just rid ourselves of these and other weapons of mass-destruction.

A few weeks later, this daydream was itself destroyed.  An article in a leading newspaper made the claim that nuclear weapons have probably spared the world of World War III and IV.  Until the advent of the nuclear bomb, leaders of nations around the world had been willing, even eager to put the lives of their citizens on the line for the possibility of conquering another nation.   

One terrible example of this fact is the Siege of Leningrad.  For 872 days, the German Army fought for control of this Russian city.  During that time, as many as one and a half million people died.  The Korean War is another example.  Though the U.S. was technically fighting North Korea in this conflict, many of the actual soldiers came from China.  Woefully outgunned, the Chinese soldiers died in dozens for every U.S. soldier that was killed.  Mao is reported to have said, “I would kill off a million Chinese soldiers for the pleasure of killing 100,000 U.S. soldiers.  

But, Chairman Mao was not unique. Throughout history, countless tyrant-leaders have show an abysmally low regard for the lives of their own people. 

The author the article I mentioned made the statement that what likely prevented the U.S. and Soviet Union from jumping into a World War with one another was the threat of mutually assured destruction.  That is, the idea that each side would be turned into radioactive dust kept either side from rushing to war.  The author went on to say that the time-period since WWII has been one of the longest periods in human history that has gone unmarked by a major, region-wide war.  

This, he said, is not because humans in our time are more humane or have fewer reasons for war. Instead, it is a profound fear that such a war would lead to the use of nuclear weapons, that has kept us from another world war. Thus far, such fear has kept us from condemning millions, or perhaps billions of souls to death for the sake war.

Psalm 46 was written in time of great danger for the people of God.  Chaos had threatened to undo them.  As we say in the Southern part of the United States, everything was falling apart.  Still, the Psalmist was able to express his confidence in the Lord, because God was with them.  No matter what the people faced, they could be assured that God would not leave them.

Their confidence was not in their own military might or even in the false notion that God would not let harm come to the city of Jerusalem.  Neither was their hope placed in the Temple, that most subtle form of idolatry.  Their hope was in the presence of God!

In light of recent tensions between Russia and United States, some fear that we may well be seeing the start of a new Cold War.   I sure hope not.  But, who can say?  On May 24, 2014, RT cited Vladimir Putin as saying, “I really would not like to think that this is a beginning of a new Cold War,” he said speaking with the heads of the world media at St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. “I think this is not going to happen.”

This seems to be reassuring, but world events can change in a moment. What I can say, with great confidence is this; violence and war will not have an eternal reign. And, life on Earth will neither be extinguished by, nor be for ever dominated by the forces of death.

Lasting peace will come.  But, it will not come about because of human wisdom or political savvy. It will happen because God will be true to his promises.  

Yahweh, will himself dismantle the nations’ weapons and tools of destruction.  Verse 9 says:

He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.

But, he will do more than that.  Not only will he rid the world of weapons of mass destruction; he will also rid his people of their warring madness.  He will speak and command the nations saying in verse 10: 

“Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

Ultimately, war will end only when the nature of human beings has changed; when their hearts of stone have been replaced with soft, hearts of flesh, that beat with the rhythm of God’s love.  That is why Jesus is called the Prince of Peace.  He alone can bring about the renovation of the heart that will bring lasting peace to God’s precious world.  

Look at verse 4:

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy place where the Most High dwells.

Ezekiel 47 tells about this river.  Its source is God himself and it has the power to give life, to heal, and to renew God’s creation.  It starts as a trickle, but soon is a river flowing deep and wide, capable of renewing all of earth and its people.  

It is the river John says will flow from within those who believe in Jesus; living waters (John 7).  It is same river John tells us about in Revelation 22:

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.”

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy place where the Most High dwells.

When these waters finally course their way throughout the world, then and then only will the nations know lasting peace.

In this podcast we featured the songs, Miss Atom Bomb 1951, by Mistervague, Ticking Bombs by Kidbrother, and Bombs by Kaj, all courtesy of Music Alley by Medvio.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Psalm 138 Podcast

Psalm 138 - It's About Heart

Psalm 138 is about celebrating the greatness of the Lord, who is the God of gods.  The psalmist has made his choice.  Of all the gods that clamor for his (and our) attention and loyalty, he will choose to serve the Lord.  David has decided  to make God his highest focus.  

This Psalm calls for decisive vote for God.  One cannot be wishy-washy and pray this prayer.  This is not a prayer for those still holding on to their spiritual options.  One cannot be neutral and pray this prayer.   We must put our whole self into this prayer.  We must pray it with our whole heart. 

Father Patrick Henry Reardon writes this of  Pslam 138:  “What does it mean to pray?  It is first of all a matter of the heart….in this modern age of subjectivity, it would be easy to interpret this truth as implying that one’s prayer is made ‘with real feeling.’ Indeed, one meets many individuals who spend most of their prayer time attempting to ‘feel’ the right sorts of things, so that prayer becomes an exercise in the cultivation of proper sentiments.  Or worse, one meets those who have actually stopped praying because their hearts are ‘no longer in it,’ so that they do not ‘feel sincere.’   Alas, it is common these days to identify sincerity with emotional spontaneity.  The word ‘heart,’ in the biblical and traditional vocabulary of prayer, bears no such meaning.

When we speak of prayer ‘from the heart’ we mean, rather, from the very core of ourselves, the center of decision and resolve, a region vastly deeper than our emotions.  It is at that level that God speaks to us.  Truly, it is with a view to finding our hearts that we make the great efforts that prayer itself demands.”⁠1

On the Accidental Creative, one of my favorite podcasts, Todd Henry makes the observation that many creative people have an unreal set of expectations when it comes to having a passion for something.   Having a passion for a work does not mean always feeling happy or excited.  It means being willing to suffer for something.  It is about being sold out to a vision bigger than ourselves.  But having such passion is excruciating at times.   Even when we love the work we are doing, it will not mean that we always feel giddy about it.   

This kind of thinking can really trip us up, giving us a false sense of guilt.  We feel bad about not feeling “good.”  So, we feel as if we are being fake or in-authentic because doing the right thing doesn’t always produce the emotional feelings we think we should have.  We even use the phrase of our heart not being in it any more.  Surely we can do things for the wrong reasons, or lose our focus, or have our sense of commitment fade.  All of that would describe our heart not being in something.  But even when our heart is in something, we may not feel euphoria about it.  

Next, notice that though God is great God, high and lifted up, he takes notice of the lowly.  The 6th century church father, Caesarius of Arles (470-543 AD), had this to say about Psalm 138: 

“See, brethren, the great miracle.  God is on high.  You exalt yourself, and he flees from you; you humble yourself, and he descends to you.  Why is this?  Because ‘the Lord is exalted, yet the lowly he sees, and the proud he knows from afar.’  He recognizes what is lowly from close at hand in order that he may raise it up; what is high, that is, what is proud, he knows from afar in order that he may bring it down.  Christ truly arose from the dead in order to get us hope, because the person who dies rises again.  He gave us assurance, so that we might not despair in dying and think [that] our whole life ended in death.  We were troubled about our very soul, but by rising from the dead he also gave us confidence.”  - Caesarius of Arles.⁠2

As I write this devotion, I think about the iconic image of the American firefighter rescuing a kitten from tree.  This common image invokes an interesting complexity of character traits.  Firefighters are rightly admired by the communities they serve.  Brave and strong, these men and women hold a place of great honor.  Yet, most of these courageous servants are also known for being humble servants.  They are just as willing to bring out the truck and ladders to rescue the little child’s kitten as they are to battle raging flames.

The fire chief and assistant fire chief of our little town both attend the church I pastor.  And both are fine examples of the qualities I just described.  This past summer, the chief was called to an emergency.  An amusement park in our city was the scene of the crisis.  A child and his family had paid to go on the zip lines.  

The boys sister went first and did fine.  Things quickly changed.  When his time to zip came, the boy froze with fright, stranding himself 50 ft. above the ground.  His family and the staff tried to coach him through it, but it was no use.   He was stuck.  Reluctantly, the park staff called the fire department.   

Our fire chief and a couple of other firefighters responded.  Using the extension ladder, at the top of the firetruck, they were able to reach the boy, unhook his harness, and bring him down safely.  

After the rescue, the boy’s father was rather embarrassed and sought to make an apology to the chief. “Sir,” he said, “I am so sorry.”  In a matter of fact manner, the chief responded, saying, “For what?  Your son needed help and we came.”  The task was not beneath his dignity, for his a true servant of the public.  It’s just one of the things that makes him and other emergency responders amazing people.  

Music for the podcast comes from Eric Lawrance, Glenn Rowlands, and Paul Starling; courtesy of

1 Reardon, Patrick Henry. Christ in the Psalms. Conciliar Press, 2012.
Page 275
2 Ancient Christian Commentary: Volume VIII, page 382.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Psalm 130 Podcast

Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord!

    Lord, hear my voice!

Hope is a way of looking at the future.  One who has confidence about the future is said to have hope.  Despair literally means to be without hope.  It is the posture or condition of one who dreads the future.  A person who anticipates that bad things are coming is likely to be one without hope.

Have you ever dreaded something?  When I was a young child, a friend of mine and I were playing around an empty building.  Somehow we were convinced that if no one was using the building, and it was sitting there vacant, then it no longer belonged to anyone.  We thought that it being unused meant that it had been abandoned.  Thus, we didn’t think anyone would mind if we broke a few windows.  We were sorely mistaken.  

A neighbor saw the whole thing and contacted the juvenile officer in our county.  About a week later, we were confronted at the elementary school with our misdeeds.  The principal and juvenile officer were there.  Even worse, we were informed that our parents would soon be there as well.  This struck greater fear into my heart than even juvenile officer; because I knew, whatever punishment he had for me, the punishment coming from my parents would be even greater.

More than that, I did not want my parent’s disapproval.  Their approval meant more to me than any punishment.  I could not stand the thought of them being disappointed over my poor decisions.  

At the end of this life, many of us fear to meet with God, not because of some fear of punishment, but because of the fear that what we may see in God’s eyes will be disappointment, and this thought robs us of joy, even as it robs us of hope.  

The Psalmist cries in despair over the thought of standing before God.  After all, God knows everything, and if he were to keep record of our wrongs, the list would be devastatingly thorough, and humiliating in its completion.  Yet, this very feeling of despair drives the writer to seek after God, because “For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plenteous redemption.  And he will redeem Israel from all iniquities.”

As my third-grade-self sat, waiting for my parents to arrive at school, my stomach turned in knots.  As my parents walked in, their stern eyes met mine and I felt shame over the things I had done.  But then, I felt the soft hand of my mother upon my shoulder, and to my surprise, I alsofelt comforted.  The comfort came from the realization that I would not have to face things alone.  However big a mess I may have created, my mother and father would somehow help me through it.

Romans chapter seven is a chapter about the despair sin and death cast over the lost sinner.  It ends with the realization that left to our own resources, we would never be able to overcome ruinous impact they hold out for us.  But just when all hope seems lost, God does for us what we could not do for ourselves, he provides hope and redemption.

Romans 8:1  “So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus.”  We need not dread the future, because of what Christ has done. 

Leo the Great was Bishop of Rome from 440-461.  He says, “We cannot put limitations on the mercy of God or fix limits to times.  With him there is no delaying of pardon when conversion is genuine.”- Leo the Great 361 ACC Volume VIII page 361.  

Have you ever had someone hold something over your head?  Some people love to do this.  Even after we apologize, they hold on to the grudge.  They may act as if everything is forgiven, but in truth, they are holding on to it, waiting for the proper time to use it against us.   God never does this.

Steve Brown tells a great story about a little boy who killed his grandmother's pet duck. He accidentally hit the duck with a rock from his sling-shot. The boy didn't think anybody saw the foul (sorry!) deed, so he buried the duck in the backyard and didn't tell a soul.
Later, the boy found out that his sister had seen it all. And she now had the leverage of his secret and used it. Whenever it was the sister's turn to wash the dishes, take out the garbage, or wash the car, she would whisper in his ear, "Remember the duck." And then the little boy would do whatever his sister should have done.
There is always a limit to that sort of thing. Finally he'd had it. The boy went to his grandmother and, with great fear, confessed what he had done. To his surprise, she hugged him and thanked him. She said, "I was standing at the kitchen sink and saw the whole thing. I forgave you then. I was just wondering when you were going to get tired of your sister's blackmail and come to me."  

Steve Brown, Three Free Sins (Howard Books, 2012), p. 110

The very feeling that our sins have pushed us away from God should be the very impulse that propels us to pray.  

The Wesleyan Study Bible notes that John Wesley noted in his journal that he heard the choir at Saint Paul’s cathedral singing this Psalm just hours before his conversion on May 24, 1738. 

John Wesley was at a very low point in his life.  He had failed in his attempt to be a missionary in North America.  He had shown himself a coward in the face of death.  He had royally botched a failed romance, resulting in his public shame.  He felt miles apart from God.  And at this low moment in his life, he heard these words sung:  

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
    and in his word I hope;

my soul waits for the Lord
    more than watchmen for the morning,
    more than watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!

Later that night, he would hear about the forgiving grace of God, available in Jesus Christ, and he had felt his sins forgiven by God, and his soul pardoned.

Today’s featured song are “Bourne Up In Trouble” by Big Shanty, “Troubled Troubadour” by Greg Smith and the Broken English.  You will also hear music from Jinx Titantic, entitled, “Trouble of the World.”