Holy Spirit


The Lord takes his place in court; he rises to judge the people.  The Lord enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: ‘It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses” (Isaiah 3:13-15 NIV). ”

One commentary says, “[ruined, plunder] Normally refers to that taken by violence, but this is probably Isaiah’s way of condemning a social order which allowed the powerful to grow rich at the expense of the weak, even though this might be done by legal means…all the more appropriate that Yahweh is here depicted as bringing the powerful to trial”

I find it interesting that this passage is probably on the verge of the Assyrian invasion and exile of the Northern Kingdom.  More liberal scholars would place the date perhaps after the exile.  Either way it is apparent here that although it would seem that the Assyrians are in control of history and the fate of Israel and Judah—it is actually Yahweh who calls the shots and is at work.   For instance, in Jeremiah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon is viewed as the Lord’s “servant.”  That is, Yahweh uses him to bring judgment upon his people.  Not a very comforting thought, huh? As a side note:  I don’t think God deals with his people like this anymore, even if he does have to chastise/discipline us at times.  I will not get into it here in this article but let me put it this way…EVERYTHING changes within the life, death, and resurrection, especially the way God deals with his people and all people of the world.

I suppose that the invasion and exile caused many to blame the evil of Assyria or perhaps Yahweh.  Yet this passage here paints a different picture.  It is because of the evil of the leaders of Israel and Judah that terror came upon the region as judgment.  Yahweh is envisioned as The Judge in the court room delivering the accusations and verdict.  It is intimidating and fearful.  He is the defender of the poor and an ever watchful protector of them.  When those leaders whose essential role was to provide for and defend the poor instead exploit and rape them economically, socially, and emotionally, Yahweh intervenes on their behalf.

Although I am discomforted by this image of a forceful god, I am comforted by the thought that he is on my side—or rather I hope I am on his.  He is a god who is involved, and even though there are times where it seems as though he is silent, he is fully aware, attentive, and watchful–especially for the vulnerable.  Leaders should serve with fear because it is apparent from this passage alone that they will be held accountable for the way they lead.  Are they ethical and honest?  Are they egocentric and self-serving?  Are they mindful of the people or are they more mindful of their wealth, power and careers?

This is an important thought not only for leaders to consider but for those of us who live in a quasi-democratic society that “chooses” our leaders.  Who will you vote for for president of this nation?  What is our accountability when we choose leaders?  Are we aware that some of them may be getting rich or making this nation rich at the expense of the poor or third-world countries?  Do we care? What about the abortion issue?  If we vote for a president who supports abortion, is the blood of millions of innocent children on our hands too (an issue for many Democrats)?  If we vote for a presidential candidate whose answer to most foreign conflicts is war, is the blood of all those young men and women who are fighting for oil or our “influence” around the world on our hands (not to mention foreigners blood)?  That’s a typical issue for Republicans.  Or ignoring the poor or making fun of those on food stamps or government assistance.

These are big issues with a lot of consequences.  We must vote prayerfully.  I may even suggest not voting if you don’t have a peace of mind about who you vote for.  Don’t fall for these comments that people make that you are irresponsible if you don’t vote and have no reason to complain then.  That is a lie!  We have every reason to complain when what we are offered for candidates I wouldn’t trust them with cutting the grass in my backyard nonetheless running the government.  And frankly, I am tired of voting for the lesser of two evils.  I vote for Christ because in the kingdom of God he is king and commander-in-chief and is such over this world if they recognize it or not.  My allegiance is the Christ first and foremost and the state is at best secondary.

Let’s also not vote for people just because they say they are a Christian.  I don’t want to hear they are a Christian, I want to see it.  I want to see the fruit of it.  And sadly enough, the Republican candidate who appears to be most Christian of the four stooges is a Mormon.  Then there is another who touts Christian values but has cheated on his wives more than my brother cheats in monopoly.  And that’s just the Republican field.  My point is, God is watching and is fully aware of their ploys and our votes.  Let’s not vote for who we want but for who God wants.  And if we don’t have a peace about anyone…vote for no one.  I believe that when it is our turn to give an account…God will understand that we trust in him and in good conscience could not vote for anyone.

Lord, help me to defend the poor and out of my substance and ability serve them.  I pray for the leaders of our nation that tend to hide behind the rhetorical veil of “freedom” “liberty” and “democracy” and yet either do or are tempted to be drawn by the lust of wealth and power.  May they serve the people like Christ serves and loves his Church.  In Christ name, Amen.

I mentioned earlier that I am quite tired of the bad press the Church is always getting.  Of course there are issues that need to be addressed and changes that need to be made to have a more effective Church, not only in America but around the world.  Yet I wonder if one of the things that need to be addressed and changed is the constant complaining about ourselves.  For one thing the world does not think a whole lot about the Church these days, does it?  And I am not entirely sure they are going to want to have much to do with us when we are constantly publicizing how horrible we actually are as well.  The world says we stink (to put it very mildly) and then we respond, “Yup we do stink.”  Clever!

Like anything it is always easier to point out the negative instead of finding the positive.  So here is one reason why I love the Church…the people.  Now I will be the first to admit that church people aren’t perfect, in fact they are far from it.  But that is exactly what I love.  They are humans, just like me.  They are full of flaws, mistakes, mixed emotions and faulty reactions.  But they are people and I love them for it.  The problem is we expect too much of our brothers and sisters in Christ…we expect them to be perfect.  Really?  Are you perfect?  So we bicker sometimes and often about little stupid things.  Have you been married for more than a year?  Have you lived in the same house with a family member for more than a week?  Then you would know that it is often the people we love the most and that we are the closest to that we find it easiest and most comfortable to bicker with over stupid things.

We are a family!  We are brothers and sisters in Christ in the household of God as Paul says in Timothy.  If you want to find a church where everyone is perfect and always get’s along…then stop looking for a church because you will not find one like that.  Why?  Because even though we are Christians, we are still humans in the process of being sanctified.  It is a process that isn’t immediately completed the moment you say the sinner’s prayer.  In fact, it is a process that will last a lifetime.

So get used to that brother who always makes sure he is the first in line for food at the church banquet; the sister who bellows out every note and lyric of every hymn or praise song above everyone else; the guy who sits behind you every service sniffing in your right ear when all you want to do is turn around, hand him a kleenex and say “blow your frickin’ nose!”; the kid who double dips his communion bread in the cup of grape juice we use for communion leaving bread crumbs floating  for the next victim who is going to dip the body of our Lord in Christ’s blood–thanks kid!; the elderly lady who takes 3 minutes to dig for the loose change at the bottom of her purse while the patient usher holds the plate under her nose; the pastor who tells the same life stories each Sunday to illustrate non related points and the list goes on endlessly.

But these are the people we are commanded to love because they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Why are they goofy?  Because they are people.  They are broken.  They come with baggage and in constant need of healing and a warm friend to say, “Peace be with you…I love you.”  Your hug may be the only hug they get all week.  Your smile may be the only smile that warms their heart.  And we all need each other.  What annoys people about me?  I get quiet and short-tempered when I am tired or hungry and I can tend to be a private person on many things.  I love to talk about theology and scripture and can tend to share more than someone asks for and can thus come acrossed as a theological know it all.  I don’t mean to be that way but I have to be purposeful in not coming acrossed that way.

I love to sit around a table with my church family over good to not so good crock-pot meals and cheap church coffee and for a brief moment in our lives shut out the cares of the world and laugh together.  I love when I am feeling down or things aren’t going so well, to hear the old church lady say in her simple faith “Jeremy, it will all work out for those who love God…he is in control.”  And even if I don’t agree with their premise, I hear and receive the love and care those words carry from their hearts.  I know those old church ladies love me and will be proud of me even if I turned out to be the world’s biggest failure.

I love the hymns I have song a million times and the ability they have to bring tears to my eyes when I hear the small voice of my daughter sing them next to a 90-year-old woman who used to be my daughter’s age.  I love the lipstick marks on my sports coat or dress shirt from the elderly women who gave me hugs.  The smell of Old Spice on the old ushers.  I love the sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence in a charismatic contemporary church or in a reserved liturgical service.  I have found him just as strong in both but in different ways.  Why?  Because the human hearts in a 150 year old church hunger for him just as much as the human hearts in the youthful modern church.

I once attended a church that was very old.  I remarked to one of the lay leaders that the building was very beautiful.  It had a gorgeous chandelier, beautiful architecture, a balcony overlooking the sanctuary, a spectacular painting of Christ behind the platform, and the pews were rather ornate.  After the third time of mentioning to this man how beautiful and historical the building was he interrupted me and said, “It is the people inside that are beautiful.”  He was right.  Those people in that small congregation are beautiful.  They are all unique and they all have different and very special life stories.

I believe that if we would pause and listen to each other we would learn to love and appreciate each other.  I have heard all of the gimmicks of how to fix the Church today, how to start revival and how to make our churches grow.  I have read the countless books and heard the many lectures and sermons.  Yet I believe that what the world wants now more than anything, is a family that will love them unconditionally.  That’s the Church folks.  I find the love of Christ more and sense his presence greatest sitting around a table of brothers and sisters in Christ fellowshipping like a family than I do in loud technological churches with fine-tuned theologies and theatrics.  Each has its place but being a family must be at the center of it all.  Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, mind, and strength.  The second greatest commandment is like the first…love you neighbor as yourselves. What’s that mean?   Well the second is LIKE the first.  I think it is impossible to do the first without also being able to do the second.  At least, obeying the first will cause the second.  Loving God will cause us to love each other.

I love being a Christian and I love Christ’s Church.  Although there is always work and reform to be done in the Church there is so much that blesses me and that I am thankful for.  The Church has never been perfect and if we think the early church had it all together…think again.  The Church has always been filled with humans and humans have always been imperfect, opinionated, silly, childish, passionate and yet lovable.  If God can love us…than we can love us too!

Now don’t run off on me!:) I am aware that terms like “morality”, “virtues” and “ethics” seem quite dry and archaic.  But I think that some of my readers that would initially tune me out here will find this post very encouraging and invigorating.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is a classical historical work by Edward Gibbon that was been a foundational authority on the Roman Empire for the past few centuries.  It is certainly not an easy read, but it is full of priceless information about the long period of time that the Empire existed.  This work is important to Christians because it is during the reign of this empire that Christ lived, died and rose again.  It was during this empire that the early church grew rapidly and thrived.  It was eventually this empire that would adopt Christianity as the state religion under Constatine.  And when this empire collapsed in the West, it was Christainity that remained as the leader of the West in its institutionalized form as well as in its pastoral role.

In one part of this great work, Gibbon addresses the phenomenon of how the Church grew so rapidly in the first several centuries.  Gibbon gives five solid reasons.  For the sake of this post we will examine one, and address the others in later posts.  The one I want to focus on in this post is that the Church grew rapidly because of “The pure and austere morals of the Church” or as he puts it later on “The virtues of the first Christians.”

Gibbon points out that the early Christians “demonstrated their faith by his virtues.”  That is to say, someone outside the Church could pick out a Christian based upon their virtues, moral and ethical behavior.  Imagine that.  In a contemporary society when pastors are divorcing their husbands or wives; ministers are having adulterous affairs or skimming off the top of ministries to buy a Rolls Royce or expensive clothing; Christians are suing Christians at the drop of a hat and so on.  Yet, these early Christians put strong emphasis on the transforming power of God to cause a change in their behavior that they committed to maintaining.

When they repented, they expected a “reformation of manners.”  Good ethical and moral behavior was expected of them.  We see this taking place even in Paul’s letters to the church of Corinth.  In the words of one of my professors, Paul was basically saying in those letters, “Stop acting like that…true Christians don’t behave that way!”  A life of vice was not acceptable.  So much so, that when the “most abandoned sinners” observed this lifestyle, many were attracted to the faith and the possibility that they too could be changed into the image of Christ.  They observed that the “driving passion” of these Christians was a “perfect life”, that is a virtuous lifestyle free from malice and vice.  In fact, they were so concerned with living holy lives, that if they were guilty of anything they were “guilty of an excess of virtue.”  Some of those early Christians would read scripture and take things very literally and at times perhaps legalistically.

The pagan world looked at that early Church and although they might not understand why there was a change in their ethical behavior, they were amazed by it and often drawn to it.  This is recognized by historians like Gibbons, who often states that he as a historian is not interested in establishing theological truths but understanding and stating history.  Yet it is also recognized by external evidence by secular officials of Rome like Pliny the Younger.  While emperor Trajan was in power, Pliny wrote to him asking how he should deal with the people known as Christians in the mid to late second century.  It is a priceless document because in it Pliny states that besides the fact that the Christians refuse to worship Caeser as a god, they are law abiding, loving, and good citizens.  He attests to their moral fortitude.  In fact, the early Christians thought it very important to be blameless citizens, unless the laws interfered with the laws of God.

Further on in the Roman Empire, Justin the Apostate came to power.  Under his reign he attempted to reestablish paganism as the state religion.  However, he admitted that he had an enormous struggle.  The struggle was that even though he had estabished a pretty efficient system of bishops and officials to oversee the practices of this pagan religion, the Christians’ moral and ethical behaviors, as well as their endless acts of charity far outweighed anything the pagans could do.

Gibbon and many other scholars point to this as one of the main reasons why Christianity grew so quickly in the Roman Empire and throughout the world.  There is no doubt in my mind that the Church today needs to return to this.  The Church needs a moral, ethical, love revival.  The Church needs to stop apologizing for its high moral standards found in scripture and tradition and begin to live it out.  Part of why we do and don’t do the things we do is because God expects us to be holy and different than the world.  There should be a contrast that is markedly different about us.  So that when it comes to issues like pre-marital sex, drunkeness, violence, gossiping, bickering, oppressing, ridiculing etc–the Church should be pure and blameless.

Many unbelievers argue that they can be moral and ethical too without Christianity.  I argue that they do not have the longevity, pure motives, and complete ability to do so.  I argue that all you have to do is walk into a mall and see just how well they live out those so called morals by the way they treat each other.  I also argue that the morals and ethics they have are not solely intrinsic but they are running on the fumes of morality taught to our culture by Judeo-Christian inheritance.  Lastly, I argue that any ability they have to give the appearance of morality is based upon what the patristic fathers saw as a mere imprint of the image of God that they were originally created in.  That is to say, that their morality is based upon an inward conviction that God has installed to warn them of what is wrong and right.

The problem today is that the world looks at the Church and doesn’t see much of a difference.  People are not dumb, they know when we talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.  I argue that Christians through the power of the Holy Spirit have the ability to live moral and ethically pleasing lives before the Lord.  However, most Christians don’t even try.  We join churches (which are basically social clubs for many) take on the title of Christians, carry our Bibles, act special on Sundays and then lead worldly lives the rest of the week.  This is not good enough.  Paul would say, “That is not how Christians behave.”

 

So I have this tree.  This tree is a black walnut tree.  It doesn’t bloom and get leaves until June and begins losing it’s leaves in August.  At some point in July it grows black walnuts.  Sounds cool huh?  Walnuts in your own backyard.  Well it’s not so cool.  Because as soon as these walnuts come on the tree they begin falling off the tree all over the yard.  Needless to say, this tree makes a mess of my yard and the leaves and walnuts begin killing the grass.  Last year I got so frustrated with the mess I told my wife I wanted to cut it down this year.  So at one of our picnics I told my father-in-law that I wanted to end this tree’s life. 

My father-in-law knows a guy who would do it for us and would take the wood too.  It would be a quick easy clean up.  I had my mind made up…this tree was going to get whacked!  But then my father-in-law said, “Yeah  we can cut it down, no problem.  You’re gonna lose some shade though.  It’s a really good shade tree for your backyard.”  Why did he have to say that?  I had my mind made up and everything.  I looked around the yard to see how much shade it really offered throughout the day and sure enough it covers almost half the yard.  But it makes such a mess.  “Nope we’re cutting it down.” I thought. 

Then my niece overheard that I wanted to take this tree out.  “Oh my gosh, you can’t do that!” she said.  “I love that tree!”  And in fact I did recall that every time she comes over my house one of the first things she does is run to that tree with a book, climbs it, sits on one of its branches (it looks like it was made for sitting) and reads.  Her younger brother went into the same type of panic mode as well.  He’s a young boy and loves to climb it too.  But dog-gone-it I hate the mess it makes.  But it does provide some nice privacy as well from neighbors. 

Then I realized, I was so obsessed and focused on the negative characteristics of this tree that I failed to see and appreciate  gifts.  In fact, I underestimated this tree and took it for granted.  Maybe this tree isn’t so bad.  So what if I have to clean up a mess now and then.  I think I want that shade and I really do enjoy seeing the kids run to that tree as soon as they get to the house. 

But isn’t this how we are with people?  At times we get so caught up in what we don’t like about them that we fail to see and appreciate the gifts God has given them.  Instead of encouraging them in their gifts we often become jealous, envious, and at times even covet their gifts.  One of my gifts is a gift of learning and teaching scripture.  I can’t count how many times a week I am told by some Christian that “you can have all the knowledge in the world but it doesn’t really matter to God.”  I am constantly reminded that one doesn’t need to go to seminary to be used of God, as though I was not aware of that.  I have even mentioned to my wife countless times that being a seminary student is one of the most thankless things I have ever done because of the passive aggressive attitudes I get about it, FROM CHRISTIANS.  Yet I believe it has mainly been my wife and father and a few other family members and friends who have strongly encouraged me in this calling.  Usually from others though it is a smug dismissal.

But it has caused me to reflect on 1 Corinthians 12-14 where Paul addresses the fact that we have all been given various gifts from the Holy Spirit.  Those gifts come to us only by the grace of God.  Paul often uses anatomy metaphor to illustrate this sundry gifting.  The hand for instance has its own gifts which are far different from the eyes’ or ears’ giftings.  But do we ever get mad or jealous of the eyes because they have the gift of vision or the feet for walking.  No way!  Why?  Because we clearly understand that we NEED them and if they all work together the harmony creates a glorious and productive outcome. 

Am I ever jealous of another’s gifts?  I would be a liar if I said, “No.”  But I have tried to transform that reaction from jealousy to genuine excitement for that individual.  How can I be mad at or jealous of them because of what God has chosen to give them by his grace?  I can’t.   I think the remedy therefore is to be thankful to God and appreciate the fact that he has given the body of Christ an individual with such wonderful blessings as to edify the Church and its mission to the world.

Just like that tree, I have had to change what it is I am focusing on.  Am I distracted by the seeming weaknesses and being blinded to the precious gifts?  I think so.  But now I can’t imagine a backyard without that shade, privacy and special children playing on it.  So I will keep the tree and my cherished brothers and sisters I have in the body of Christ.  “Thank you Lord for the gifts you have given to us all in your wisdom and grace.”

Amen.

I am finding that the book of Acts is becoming my favorite book in the Bible.  If you haven’t noticed already, the book of Jeremiah is my favorite OT book for many reasons.  One of the main reasons how ever is that as I read it I can feel the aching and hoping heart of God.  It is such an intimate book.  However, Acts is so powerful and exciting.  It gives valuable insight into the early Christian Church from the ascension of Jesus to the narrative of Paul under house-arrest in Rome. 

The book is commonly called the Acts of the Apostles which many scholars and ministers state may be a bit misleading.  Many claim that the true main character is in fact the Holy Spirit and perhaps the book should be renamed, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.”  I once heard how many times the Holy Spirit is referenced in Acts but I forgot and to be honest I do not want to take the time to count how many times he is mentioned from the concordance.  But if you want to do it for me and reply to this post–feel free:)  But the number of times is a lot and it dominates all other nouns. 

Given this fact, as I read through Acts I am always shocked when I come to the story almost in the middle of the book in Acts 19:1-7.

While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the inland regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2He said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?’ They replied, ‘No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.’3Then he said, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ They answered, ‘Into John’s baptism.’ 4Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.’ 5On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied— 7altogether there were about twelve of them (NRSV).

WHAT!?!  They never even heard?  Okay, maybe I can give these guys some slack because the Gospel was just beginning to be spread over those first several decades and these guys were all the way in Ephesus.  This city was in Asia Minor and was a long ways off from Jerusalem where the Holy Spirit was first given on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2.  Yet we must note that it was vital and essential to Paul that these gentlemen receive the Holy Spirit.  In fact, the reception of the Holy Spirit is one of six main features that seem to be the essentials for joining the Church and being part of God’s people.  Here they are: 1.Hear the core teachings of Jesus culminating in an account of Jesus’ death and resurrection; 2. Repentance; 3. Faith in God through Jesus Christ; 4. Baptism in the name of Jesus; 5. Forgiveness of sins; 6. Reception of the Holy Spirit. 

These six essentials are found throughout Acts in the conversion accounts.  They are not always present in every account but are frequent enough to be recognised by most scholars as being necessary.  So Paul takes this opportunity to inform these men of the Holy Spirit and he lays his hands on them and they do indeed receive.

What troubles me however is that I often visit many churches or come acrossed many so-called Christians who remind me of this passage.  I begin talking about the Holy Spirit and they look at me like I am telling them about my best friend’s roommates step-uncle who is twice-removed on his father’s cousin’s side.  I talk about the Holy Spirit and they respond in complete confusion. 

I have sat Sunday after Sunday in churches where the Holy Spirit is never mentioned once except maybe in a reading of scripture.  Why is this?  Would Paul recognise our churches as Christian churches?  Would he walk in and start talking about the Holy Spirit and the congregation respond, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”  Now if this is one of the six features that we see dominating early Church conversions and recognition of one belonging to the people of God…shouldn’t we have him as a more dominant subject of our conversations, sermons, books, and experience?  I think so!