THERE WERE TWO TREES IN THE GOSPEL

There were two trees in the garden: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life. Our understanding of the significance of these trees is important for an understanding of God’s purpose for His creation. The first, that of the knowledge of good and evil, is the one from which Adam and Eve were not to eat lest they die[1]. They were free to eat from all of the other trees including the tree of life. Think about it. Choose life and you have all that you need. Good and evil become irrelevant. But choose good and evil and suddenly you become conscious of the law. Adam and Eve chose the law, and with it, death. Banished from the garden, they were denied the opportunity to eat of the tree of life, and sentenced to death. Thus began the long journey of mankind from the garden to that other tree of life: the cross of Calvary, where new life was bought for each one of us.

There are also two trees in the gospel which Jesus uses to illustrate the plans and purposes that he has for us in the living of the new life. Firstly there is the mustard tree, of which I wrote in a previous entry[2]. Jesus gives an illustration that likens the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed which grows to be a spreading tree. The mustard tree, one of the larger, and more beautiful trees of the old Middle East, stands strong and separate. It becomes a place of attraction such that birds come and perch in its shade and even build their nests in its shelter. So, the Kingdom rises up alongside and among the systems of the world, offering a radically attractive, secure, and nourishing alternative to those systems. We, the people of the Kingdom, are encouraged to let our light so shine before men that they see our good works and worship our heavenly Father[3]. In the same way, the mustard tree illustrates the radiant Kingdom that shines in the world.

Secondly there is the fig tree and the multiple times which Jesus’ interactions with it teach us something. Jesus even says: Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.[4] He uses this illustration to encourage us that there are signs that in their precedence indicate an event is near. In this case he is speaking of his second coming, however we could equally point to the budding of the new shoots on any tree and say that they illustrate the growth of new life in our endeavors on behalf of the Kingdom of God.

It is this thought that I believe is worth connecting to the story of the call of Nathanael, found in John chapter 1. We read:

Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”                       “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.                                               “Come and see,” said Philip.                                                                                                                              When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”                                                                                                                                                            “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.                                                                                                  Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.”[5]

A fig tree figures in this story, although it could have been any tree. Nathanael was sitting under it when Jesus first saw him. I have always been drawn to the personal nature of the call narrated here. Jesus saw Nathanael, before Nathanael knew him. And he saw enough of him to know that here was an upright man, an Israelite in whom there was no deceit. Jesus knew Nathanael just as our heavenly Father knows each one of us. It is a wonderful privilege for each one of us that God saw us before we even knew him. Just as He knew the prophet Jeremiah before he was in his mother’s womb[6]. I believe He has known each of us, and prepared works in advance for us to accomplish[7]. It becomes our responsibility to seek Him for His will for our lives, so that we may discern and then accomplish those works.

Nathanael then acknowledges the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The Lord has seen each one of us, and as we recognize Him, we acknowledge His Lordship over our lives and step out into the works of the Kingdom that He has prepared for us.

Jesus’ response to Nathanael indicates that he believed because Jesus first saw him. However He also tells him that he will see far greater things than that. The fig tree is a place of shade and, in season, a supply of fruit. Yet it also becomes a part of a story that illustrates the magnitude of the things that God wants to do through His people. It becomes inextricably linked to the mustard tree which illustrates the scope and size of the Kingdom.

Elsewhere, Jesus curses the fig tree[8] for not being fruitful, even out of season, but here the promise of fruitfulness in the Kingdom flows from an encounter with a future follower who was sitting under the fig tree.

May we always appreciate the lesson of the fig tree, and that of the mustard tree. May we also always choose the tree of life.

[1] Genesis 2:17

[2] https://thefullerreport.com/2016/09/09/kingdom-transformation-a-reflection/

[3] Matthew 5:16

[4] Matthew 24:32

[5] John 1:45-50

[6] Jeremiah 1:5

[7] Ephesians 2:10

[8] Matthew 21:18-22

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KINGDOM TRANSFORMATION – A REFLECTION

In Luke 17:20 we find Jesus saying: The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst, in response to a question from the Pharisees about when the Kingdom would come. Many around him, his closest disciples included, were anticipating the establishment of a kingly and earthly rule, along with an overthrow of the tyranny of Roman occupation.

Elsewhere we find Jesus likening the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed which grows into a tree so large that birds come and nest in it, and to yeast mixed into a large quantity of flour until all of the flour is affected (Matt 13:32,33; Luke 13:18-21). The seed needs to be planted in the ground so that it will grow. The yeast needs to be worked into the flour so that the resulting dough will rise. In both cases something which is already in the midst, is activated to accomplish its purpose.

Some time ago a short animation was a popular evangelistic tool. It depicted a cartoon character going about his every day life, doing whatever he wanted and thinking that all was well with him and his world. Almost unnoticeable in the background, but visible in every frame, was an ill-defined blob. As the story progressed and its subject encounters several of life’s challenges, the blob becomes more and more an unwanted and embarrassing presence. Toward the end the cartoon character begins to realize he cannot live life without help. At that point the blob resolves into a form of the cross.

In the same way this is what the Kingdom of God is like in the world. It is the presence and power of God waiting patiently to be activated by His redeemed creation. It is also the presence and power of God intended by the power of His Spirit to convict the world about sin and righteousness and judgment. It is the presence and power of God lived out through one such as the early twentieth century Pentecostal pioneer Smith Wigglesworth who once took a seat in a railcar when a man seated across from him blurted out: Your presence convicts me of sin.[i] Wigglesworth then led him to the Lord.

Some would tell us that the Kingdom comes about because God’s people take power, redeem the institutions of state and then use them to bring the Kingdom into reality. This approach has been seen in the activity of some Christian political movements from both the right and left wings of the political spectrum. Outside Christendom a present example would be the Islamic State, which through the establishment of an Islamic hegemony, exerts absolute authority over the people in an endeavor to establish Theocratic rule. But surely a top-down approach to Kingdom building like this does no more than repeat the mistake of the early church in its alliance with the State following Constantine’s declaration of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Others working at grass-roots level would liken the Kingdom to a type of fifth-column.[ii] They want to found a movement, which grows to encompass and overtake diverse aspects of a society transforming them into the Kingdom of God.

Whether by imposition or by insinuation both of these approaches endeavor to change something already existing into the Kingdom of God. I don’t doubt that human institutions can be changed; indeed throughout history some have been changed. However the idea that the Kingdom of God results merely from the transformation of humanity’s corrupted history, flowing into the present shape of the nations, seems to me somewhat limiting of the power of God. Just as Jesus’ call to discipleship is a call to a radically different lifestyle, not to be equated to the lifestyles of rabbinic followers of contemporary Jewish leaders, so the coming of the Kingdom of God extends a possibility radically different from the redemption of human institutions. The mustard seed grows to become a huge tree, not dependent upon the support of surrounding structures. It becomes so large, lush and fruitful that birds come and nest within its security. The tree offers a radically attractive alternative to all the other trees the forest has to offer. In the same way the yeast works through inert flour to grow fresh dough that can be used to bake bread. If the flour is corrupt to begin with the yeast will not restore it. Bad dough will result, and with it, bad bread.[iii]

Wherever we find ourselves in ministry – whether church-planting in a modern city, or sharing Jesus’ love among nomads on the edge of desert; whether growing a business that expresses the values of God’s Kingdom, or engaging a community through the power of the creative, let us remind ourselves that the Kingdom is within our midst. Let us live our lives so that through us, and through the community of believers to which we belong, the light shines strongly, people see our good Kingdom works, and they are thus drawn to praise our Father in heaven.

The Kingdom of God is present in our midst, because God is present with His people, desiring for them to offer the world the kind of alternative that is embarrassing in its simplicity, convicting through its presence, and radically secure in its demands. May His Kingdom come!

[i] Quoted in Chapter 14 of Derek Prince – Transformed for Life: How to Know God Better and Love Him More – Chosen Books 2002

[ii] The fifth column is a term originating in the Spanish Civil War and applied to those inside the siege of a city, allied to the besiegers who could bring about its downfall from within.

[iii] Research into a cause for the strange behaviors that led to the 1692 Salem Witch Trials in the Massachusetts colony explored the possibility of members of the community being poisoned by bread produced from a crop of rye contaminated with ergot. See Linnda Caporael – Ergotism, the Satan loosed in Salem – http://www.physics.smu.edu/scalise/P3333sp08/Ulcers/ergotism.html   – accessed September 5, 2016

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Divide

During a summer trip to Tennessee with the family we drove Interstate 81 down Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Along the way we passed the sign which states: “Extent of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed”. I pointed out to the kids that we were passing the point at which all the rain falling behind us (as we drive Westward) should ultimately flow into the Chesapeake Bay and out into the Atlantic, whereas all rain falling ahead of us should flow into the Ohio river system and from there through the Mississippi River to the Gulf.

So, a few weeks later when Jill and I were in Colorado and staying near the little town of Divide my thoughts turned to the Continental Divide of the great Rocky Mountains, the back bone, if you like, of the North American continent. Divide itself is not technically the watershed; that comes a few miles further west at Hoosier Pass, however for the most part, all the precipitation east of Divide will flow either into the Gulf or through the Great Lakes to the Atlantic, while everything falling to the West will flow into the Pacific. There could not be a starker difference between the directions which gravity forces one drop of water to take!IMG_3450

We were on retreat. We were taking time away from work, family and everyday Virginia life, for rest, reflection and prayer. We felt very blessed as we explored, hiked, enjoyed good food and shared fellowship with the three other couples staying at the retreat center. We were also in a land of profound differences. Our retreat was hosted in a lodge hidden away in a quiet forest of ponderosa pine and aspen while down the highway just a few thousand feet below us were the tourist hubs of Woodland Park and Manitou Springs. We enjoyed beautiful clear days with warm summer temperatures, aware that winter brings blizzards and weeks of frozen landscape. When we went to the top of the 14,000 foot (4,200 meter) Pike’s Peak we experienced the immediate transition from lush green forest to barren landscape when we emerged above the tree line. And from the top we witnessed the contrast between a clear blue sun-washed distance, and angry dark thunderheads pouring rain within the atmosphere, while little flecks of snow drifted over us.

Many of our friends and colleagues around the world are affected by strife within their nations. Even as the Olympics bring the world together in Rio, our Brazilian friends live with the impact of the impeachment process of their president. Venezuelans live with a bankrupt economy, while the French grieve over senseless violence, and our friends in Turkey are unsettled both by war to the south and the aftermath of an attempted coup. Britain’s European Union exit vote affects the whole continent and here in the USA many are pondering how an election primary process could have produced two equally unacceptable candidates for Presidential office. The divide within many communities is apparent. Surely in darker times, there is an opportunity for the church to renew Jesus’ offer to the world of the light of the gospel.

The writer to the Hebrews tells us that: The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12) These words remind us of the offence of the Gospel. There is a God in heaven who is audacious enough to tell us how we are to live. No, he is not audacious, he simply IS! The I AM is the creator God. The right to tell His creation how it is to behave requires no audacity. But regrettably, we are living in a society that always wants to blur the lines; a world that does not want to admit the stark divide between the Kingdom of Light and the kingdom of darkness. Regrettably we find this not only in societies where we would expect it but also within churches that profess the truth but live a lie. Sin has become an issue for pastoral accommodation rather than pastoral care; issues of social and religious injustice are excused; and Jesus’ Great Commission to preach the gospel to every nation often remains ignored.

Divide in Colorado denotes a place from which gravity determines which way the rivers flow. However gravity does not determine the choices of the follower of Christ. His choice does not have to be subject to the prevailing social winds. The divide for him must be grounded in the unchanging and eternal word of God.

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A RESURRECTION MESSAGE

On Good Friday Jill and I took Sarah Grace on a journey to the cross. Our local church in Richmond designs a creative experience telling the story of Jesus’ last hours.

On this occasion one of the final scenes shows a series of paintings of the crucifixion from the Great Masters projected onto a white screen. As I sat in the still, quiet sanctuary viewing a sequence of work from such as Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Peter Rubens Christ on the Cross - small

Paul Rubens, I realized they have all seen the one whom they depict. Men, long dead, have passed beyond this world to where their relationship with God has taken them. Freed from time’s constraint they have looked upon the face of the Lord. They have seen the reality on which their earthly art could only speculate, and in a sense, they have seen the result of faith that had previously only found its form from an artist’s palette.

God speaks His word to us through the prophet Zechariah (12:10): They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. On the day of the cross we look upon Him who our own actions have slain, and we recall all that He has done for us. We also look forward to a celebration on the Sunday that we call Resurrection Day.

Resurrection from time’s perspective is all about faith. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that the great men of faith who preceded the coming of the Christ, (Heb 11:13) were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. They were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect (Heb 11:39-40).

What are we looking for in living the Christian life that we have not yet seen? For some it may simply be the salvation of a loved one; for others it may be a strategic advance of the gospel among an unreached people group. How do we view the unseen? With a hint of wishful thinking or with impassioned desire borne of vision shaped by God’s word to us?

The painters of the cross give us glimpses of the suffering of Christ. The artists of the Resurrection present mere mortal interpretations of glory. It is for each of us to lay out a path, through prayer and action, toward what we embrace in faith. But having defined it, we live and work according to the word we have received. And as we take our life and our work to the cross we see His will accomplished through resurrection life.

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WE NEED A NEW CONTRACT WITH AMERICA – CAN WE HAVE IT IN NO TRUMPS PLEASE?

Anyone familiar with the game of Bridge knows that players can play for a contract in which clubs, diamonds, hearts or spades are trumps, ranking higher than any other cards. Or they can settle for a contract in No Trumps where all cards rank in order and no suit is higher than another.

Twenty-two years ago the Republicans gave America a Contract [1], one which they then set about fulfilling. America is in need of a new, but “No Trumps” contract, and, if we can choose another suit, let it not be the “pale blue pantsuit” of a Clinton, successor to the “dark gray three-button” of her husband!

It seems that there are many on both sides of the political spectrum who are tired of the current state of affairs in America and long for something new. The hung over effects of the recession mean that many in the middle and lower end of the earnings spectrum are frustrated by the lack of real growth in incomes. At the same time jobs lost in recent years have been replaced by many more part-time opportunities with fewer benefits. Frustration with political gridlock in Washington, combined with anger at the incumbent’s policies ranging from healthcare to gay marriage and to the impasse over immigration policy, has rallied around a political outsider and the most socialist politician ever to serve in Congress. The former is a millionaire businessman, whose news-making abilities have previously lent themselves to the entertainment tabloids; the latter is an ageing hippy. Both would serve as the oldest to be elected in the history of the American presidency.

The primary election system for the choosing of a presidential candidate appears incomprehensible to the average outsider. Each state has its own rules for the method of voting, and for the allocation of delegates to the national political conventions that choose the party candidate. Each state is free to set the date for its own voting. So, we have the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary to kick off the long season. Sometimes these predict the direction of the rest of the selection process, sometimes they do not. However, there is no doubt that they preview one of the longest of election processes anywhere.

When Donald Trump entered the race for the Republican nomination last year, the Republican establishment did not take him seriously. However there were too many other candidates to allow opposition to Mr. Trump to coalesce around an alternative. At one point there were seventeen candidates. 30% of the way through the process Mr. Trump is the frontrunner, yet his two closest rivals, Senator Cruz from Texas and Senator Rubio from Florida, have between them accumulated a greater number of delegates. More Republican primary participants have not voted for Mr. Trump than for him!

Mr. Trump, or ‘The Donald’, as the entertainer side of him has become known, is a larger than life character. His Wikipedia entry states: His branding efforts, career, outspoken manner, personal life, and wealth have made him an international celebrity.[2] His TV show, The Apprentice, running since 2004 for seven seasons in the original version and another seven in the celebrity edition, has introduced his no-nonsense business style to the American public. On the campaign trail his brutal blend of bluster and braggadocio has ensured that he can keep hitting the headlines with outrageous statements.

It is one thing to be arrogant and pompous. It is an escalation to be proud of being proud! Do we really want a major party candidate, let alone President who says such things as: I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters;[3] Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president;[4] and The wall will go up and Mexico will start behaving.[5]? Do we really want a President who has impressed his image on our national consciousness by pointing a finger across his desk and saying: “You’re fired!”? [6]

However, if we look to the other side of the aisle, what better choices do we have? I am sure that Mr. Sanders is a nice guy, but America has never been a socialist nation. President Obama came up with a great plan for ensuring everyone could get affordable healthcare. For many people the plan just increased the cost of their insurance. Bernie plans to make college free for all undergraduate students. It’s one thing to offer to make things affordable, it’s another to have courage to tackle the reasons why the building block services of our society, such as healthcare and education are so expensive!

That brings us to Mrs. Clinton. Mired in scandals that would have had the media all over a Republican candidate, she has brushed off the problems with Benghazi, and her email server, to ride a wave of misplaced popular acclaim. Let’s not forget that her husband won the Presidency with 43% of the vote in 1992. If Ross Perot had not filtered so many votes away from incumbent George Bush it is doubtful whether Mr. Clinton would have made it to the White House. His presidency was the most scandal-ridden of the last forty years culminating in his 1998 impeachment. Mrs. Clinton rode his coat-tails into political office, first as Senator for New York and then as Secretary of State in the first Obama administration. It is hard to see what her route to either of those offices would have been had she not been the wife of a former President who remained popular with his own party. The history of investigations into her business affairs during her husband’s Presidency and as a result of her position as Secretary of State should, at the very least, give us all a concern about her personal judgment.

But what choice do these candidates really leave us with? The best candidates of this campaign, those who have actually held executive office as governor of a state are falling by the wayside. Scott Walker from Wisconsin for the Republicans and Martin O’Malley from Maryland for the Democrats withdrew a long time ago. We are left with Mr. Kasich of Ohio, who has served his state well, has even won his state primary, but trails far behind the Donald.

Maybe Mr. Trump really believes he can run a nation – he ran some of his businesses into bankruptcy; the United States is already bankrupt! Maybe he only got into the race because he was determined that Hilary would not be the only candidate who could have a bad hair day! At least he is right when he says: She shouldn’t be allowed to run. If that were a Republican that did what she did with the emails they would have been in jail twelve months ago. Clink! [7]

[1] The Contract with America was a document released by the United States Republican Party during the 1994 Congressional election campaign. It detailed the actions the Republicans promised to take if they became the majority party in the United States House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. See also http://www.heritage.org/research/lecture/the-contract-with-america-implementing-new-ideas-in-the-us (accessed March 11, 2016)

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Trump (accessed March 4, 2016)

[3] Stated at a Campaign event in Sioux City, Iowa, January 23, 2016 – http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jan/24/donald-trump-says-he-could-shoot-somebody-and-still-not-lose-voters (accessed March 4, 2016)

[4] Speaking of Carly Fiorina, a former candidate, during an interview on September 9, 2015 – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/donald-trump/11855165/Trump-on-Fiorina-Look-at-that-face.-Would-anyone-vote-for-that.html (accessed March 4, 2016)

[5] Speaking on the Bill O’Reilly Show – June 16, 2015

[6] The weekly elimination of a candidate from his show “The Apprentice!”

[7] Speaking at a rally in Norcross, Georgia, October 10, 2015 – http://www.wmur.com/politics/donald-trumps-most-provocative-quotes/34313688 (accessed March 16, 2016)

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Ashes to Ashes & Dust to Dust – A Lenten Reflection

When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit

– Ephesians 1:13 –

Earlier this month Jill and I said goodbye to her uncle. JE had lived all his eighty-eight years on the land. A lifelong bachelor he had farmed the same land, first with his father, and then on his own since before the Second World War. We called his land The Farm on Lake Anna, however he had lived long enough to remember before the lake existed. He was a Virginia gentleman, quiet and strong. His hands were calloused with the marks of his labors. He loved his animals, he loved children, and he loved his Lord. His funeral took place in Gordonsville after which he was interred near his parents in a cemetery in Louisa. From the dust of the earth he came, with the dust of the earth he lived and worked, and to the dust his mortal remains return.

Wednesday this week was Ash Wednesday and we went to a service of worship at church. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. Following Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, when many Christians of days gone by used up the remainder of their ‘rich’ foods, the church enters a period of reflection and fasting during the weeks leading up to Good Friday. Jill and I both grew up in the Free Church tradition which places far less emphasis on the High and Holy days than the liturgical tradition. Among many of our fellow Presbyterians I suspect the conduct of Wednesday’s service was a new experience. However, an intentional focus upon sin, a call to repentance and a personal sense of contrition were a powerful prelude to the burning of our confessions written on paper, followed by marking with the resultant ash upon each forehead. It was precious to watch our kids embrace the moment. The nearby font provided a welcome reminder that the waters of baptism are a sign that our sins are washed away, just as water will wash away the ashes of the marks of contrition on a forehead.

The mark on my own forehead served as a reminder of my sin. It then confirmed my powerlessness to do anything about that sin, other than rely upon the grace of Jesus expressed upon the cross. It also inspired another thought.

Muslims like to bear a mark upon their foreheads. There have been many times when I have noted the dark mark emphasized in the middle of the brow of a Muslim, looking something like a bruise. For some the mark has become calloused as they intentionally press their foreheads hard to the ground in the ritual of prayer. The position known as sajdah requires the praying Muslim to place hands, knees and forehead upon the ground as he states: Allah-Akbar – God is Great. Some will wear this mark as a mark of pride, boasting in the dutifulness of their devotion to God in prayer. Others will try to avoid such a marking lest they be considered prideful. Either way however, the actions of a devout Muslim are an endeavor to reach God by gaining his pleasure. The mark is a symbol of his own efforts, as through good works and right guidance a Muslim hopes to gain eternity.

Hindus also like to bear a mark upon their foreheads. The Bindi or ornamental red dot upon the forehead is representative of the third eye and associated scientifically with the pineal gland. However, the Bindi is also the symbol of all unity marked where the third eye represents the seat of concealed wisdom. It is intended to focus the concentration of the mind, and lead the bearer into unity with all things. From the times of the Vedas, the Hindu scriptures, dating back 3,000 years, the Bindi was created as a means to worship one’s intellect, to ensure that one’s thoughts, speech, actions and character become pure. It thus represents human striving for perfection. The mark becomes a symbol of the Hindu’s quest to become one with the eternal.

The Apostle Paul, writing his great theological treatise of Christian experience to the people of Ephesus, tells us that when we first believed in the saving work of Christ, he marked us as his own with His Holy Spirit.

My wife’s uncle faithfully served God in rural Virginia. He was laid to rest in the dust of the land, not needing to rely upon anything to see God other than the cross of his Lord and Savior. The ashes, representing our sins in this Lenten season before that cross, are dust in another form; the dust of death, washed away by a Savior before whom all our works count as nothing; a Savior who has replaced the marks of our sins with the anointing mark of His Spirit. We need no other mark upon us.

 

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THE BANQUET

Europe is currently facing the largest migration of peoples since the Second World War. Many of those who are coming to Europe are displaced from Syria by the civil war there and the depredations of the Islamic State. However there are others from nations like Afghanistan and Eritrea that have been destabilized by Islamic militancy or the style of an African dictator.

Throughout the year the media has been filled with horrific stories of human suffering as overloaded boats of refugees capsize in Mediterranean waters and groups of migrants are turned back at European border crossings. In some places churches are actually praying that God will protect their nation from the threat of migrant Muslims. But a prayer against the perceived threat, misses the opportunity that the Lord is presenting to the church.

Oppressed are being set free from Political and Religious regimes under the most horrific of circumstances. Walking across international boundaries carrying what little they can salvage from their previous lives, they are being rejected by the peoples of the free lands to which they have arrived.

Yet in Liverpool, England, Iranians are coming to faith and rejecting the Islamic interpretation that has made their homeland a place of oppression. In Germany and Spain Christian communities are preparing to receive refugees into the towns where they worship and witness.

In Richmond, Virginia, families that came for university study have unwittingly become refugees because their home city of Mosul, Iraq has been overtaken by Islamic State. In Ankara, Turkey, refugees from Syria are being fed and offered other forms of practical assistance in an endeavor to build a new life.

At the same time with more than half the Syrian population displaced by Civil War, multitudes living in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and across the Turkish border are wondering what the next stage of their suffering will involve.

Jesus once told a story to a group of people with whom he was eating supper:

“A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’

“But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’ Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’ Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’

“The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

“‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’

“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’” (Luke 14:16-24)

I wonder if the European church is experiencing a banquet moment at present. There are three things that happen here. Firstly, there is an invitation; the invitation is rejected. Then there is a bringing in, and finally there is a compelling to come.

Across a post-Christian Europe that is increasingly secular, Christ’s invitation to come has been rejected. The gospel and the church are deemed irrelevant; their life and opportunity construed meaningless in a technological and scientific world where fundamental questions are deemed unanswerable. The establishment has abandoned the religiosity that made church attendance a socially acceptable activity in the last century, and the plurality of other faith expressions that have been absorbed with successive generations of migration to Europe, has watered down the appreciation of a Christian heritage.

And yet on the fringes of society the marginalized have found faith. While the church in Spain among the ethnic Spaniard has gone into serious decline, it has grown among the newly immigrant Latin-American community and among the outcast gypsies. In the German town of Hahne a traditional Lutheran congregation of only a handful opened its facilities to an international congregation of migrants from more than fifteen nations. Thirty representatives of the traditional society host more than a hundred of the newcomers. At the same time immigration from Africa and the Caribbean energizes congregations in France.

The encouragement from Jesus’ parable is to bring in the marginalized, and then somehow to pray that those beyond human reach be spiritually compelled to come in. Ministry to refugees, as with all Christian ministry is a calling to love. Love for neighbors; love for enemies; love in the Spirit of Jesus Christ’s love. We are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and practically provide the kind of assistance that makes a new livelihood possible. At the same time, and without condition, or compulsion, we can make the Good News of Jesus Christ understandable, believing that in the midst of tragic displacement, God still offers redemption through his Son and the banquet He has prepared for all.

 

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