Saturday, 21 April 2018

I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. – Revelation 2:9

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 21, 2018): Revelation 2

Antiochus III was a Seleucid king who ruled over Syria and large parts of Western Asia by the end of Third Century B.C.E. Antiochus III is sometimes called Antiochus III the Great, but “The Great” is a self-chosen title. Antiochus believed that he was “Basileus Megas” or “Great King,” a traditional title for Persian Kings. Antiochus III was a military king who experienced military success during the middle parts of his reign.

However, he also suffered a major setback close to the end of his reign. Antiochus III pitted his Seleucid forces against the army of the Roman Republic, and for four years the two powers fought for control of Western Asia. By the end of the four-year war, it was clear that the winner was the Roman Republic, and one of the areas that the Roman Republic had liberated was the city of Smyrna in modern day Turkey. The people of Smyrna responded to the liberation by building the first Temple to “dea Roma” in the city. Roma was the female deity that had come to personify the city of Rome.

Over the next few decades, Smyrna continued worshipping the emperors of Rome. And by the time that John was writing Revelation, almost two centuries later, Smyrna had gone from being a place where the Emperors of Rome could be worshipped, to being a city where Emperor worship had become mandatory.

The mandatory worship of the Emperors of Rome presented a special challenge to the monotheistic Christians and the Jews of the city. John remarks that they were poor, and the word used here is not just that there was a level of poverty among the Christians of Smyrna, but that their poverty was severe. The reality was that one of the ways to control the belief structure of the people is to control the employment of the people. Those who did not measure up to the belief standards of the city would be fired, refused employment and robbed because of their lack of belief. These measures continue to be used today. But the Christians were willing to put up with even this level of poverty and the loss of their belongings because they knew they had riches elsewhere. In a city that was known for its riches, Christians were rich even though they were materially poor.

John adds a comment about “those who say they are Jews and are not.” Some have argued that this indicates that true Jews worshipped Christ, but the more logical reading of the text is that there were Jews in Smyrna who seemed to believe that they could serve both the God of Israel and the Emperor, and were possibly encouraging the Christians to do the same. But these were not real Jews. Judaism has always persisted in the radical belief that there is only one God who is worthy of our worship, and as Christians, we too believe in one God, who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is not that the Roman pantheon of gods could not be expanded to accept one more, but rather that Jews and Christians refuse to bend their knee to any gods other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And even if poverty is the result, we will persist in our worship of only one God.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Revelation 3

Friday, 20 April 2018

Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. – Revelation 1:19

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 20, 2018): Revelation 1

Aerospace Engineer Werner von Braun (1912-1977) in the mid-Twentieth Century predicted:that before the year 2000 is over, the first child will have been born on the moon.” It is easy to simply say that he was wrong, but what is often harder to ask is why. Is it possible that, if we had maintained our drive into space with the same intensity as we had during the space race in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, Werner’s prophecy might have become a reality? Or maybe the idea of having a baby in space is simply not healthy for either the child or the mom was something that, at the time, Werner von Braun simply did not understand? But, while standing at his particular place in time, a child born on the moon by the turn of the Twenty-First Century seemed like a possibility. Ultimately, however, we are still waiting for any long-term habitation of earth’s only satellite, and it has been decades since any earthling has even set foot on the moon. (Of course, if you believe that the moon landings were faked, then we have never set foot on the moon.)

When Werner von Braun made his bold prediction, he drew a line from the past to the present, and then extend that line into the future. In the middle of the Twentieth Century, a lot was going on in space research and, by the sixties, all of the focus was on the moon. And I think the belief was that if we could reach the moon, and have a man walk on the moon, then why wouldn’t we want to stay there.

But priorities changed. The Space Shuttle program pioneered the idea of reusable space vehicles; the Space Station pioneered longer-term space living and research. And the moon faded from the focus that we gave it during the mid-Twentieth Century. For this reason, von Braun’s prediction failed to materialize.

John is instructed to write down what he has seen, what is now, and what is yet to come. And John’s Revelation (not Revelations) is a strange mixture of the past, present, and future. It is cryptic, and we don’t know what it all means. But we must remember that another part of the discussion is that John’s Revelation was written near the end of First Century, and at least some of the predictions of John have been fulfilled while others are obviously waiting for the end of time. How much of this prophecy has been fulfilled? That is the question that we discuss. And there is no answer.

When reading Revelation, the best advice that I have is to hold truth lightly. And throughout the reading of the letter, breath the prayer that John closes this work with; Come, Lord Jesus. And throughout the process of your reading, may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen!

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Revelation 2

Thursday, 19 April 2018

The elder, To the lady chosen by God and to her children, whom I love in the truth—and not I only, but also all who know the truth— 2 John 1:1

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 19, 2018): 2 John 1 & 3 John 1

When I was eight-years-old, my family made a move about 2000 miles away from family for health reasons. I remember saying goodbye to family and driving off in a three-ton truck that my father had bought for the move. On that day, everything changed. I was now miles away from grandparents, aunts, and uncles, cousins, all of whom had previously lived in a relatively small area around my house. For the last few months of my time in this sheltered environment, one set of grandparents lived just a couple of houses away, and my other set of grandparents lived only a few miles away. My mom says that the day we pulled out was one of the only times she watched her mother cry. It was a traumatic experience for all of us.

Once we arrived at our new home, I set myself to the task of writing my maternal grandparents a letter. (Actually, my paternal grandparents had made the trip at the last minute to help us get moved.) I still remember sitting down to write about everything that had happened on the week-long trip from my old home to my new one. And I remember signing the letter, Garry. I looked at the letter and wondered if my grandma would remember who I was? After all, we had been separated for almost a week, so I hastily added “Mullen” to the end of my name. Amazingly, fifty years later, tears still well up in my eyes when I think of that moment of my childhood.

John begins his second letter with some cryptic language. It is likely that the letter was written during a time of local persecution. So rather than identifying himself as the Apostle John, he identifies himself as “the elder.” This term is very unlikely to mean a clerical office or position. Elder simply reflects his age. John was likely, at this point, a man of over 90, and also “elder” is a sign of the respect that age and his teaching had naturally brought to him. The early church almost universally recognized that the writer of the letter was John. They knew the author had to be John by use of the phrase “the elder,” just as my grandmother would have recognized my first name without the necessity of me adding my last.

Likewise, although the identity of the recipient has been lost in time, those of that day within the Christian Church would have recognized who the lady would have been to whom the letter was directed. Scholars seem split between whether the lady indicated a specific church (it is highly unlikely that this letter was written to the general church) or to a specific person. But John refuses to name names because he knows that if the letter were to be intercepted, that it could mean someone’s death, including his own. And so he uses cryptic phrasing to get his point across, knowing that those who were meant to understand, would understand, and those who were to be kept in the dark would never know the mystery revealed in this simple salutation.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: Revelation 1

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the father loves his child as well. – 1 John 5:1

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 18, 2018): 1 John 5
Facebook excels at creating religious memes. I was tagged on one recently that promised that if I would share the meme with twenty people, that God would give me a miracle. The message behind the message seemed that God is on a public relations tour and that he is hiring us to be a part of it. So spread the word, share the meme with your friends, and you will be paid for your service. Of course, the meme didn’t depend on just the carrot; there was also a stick. Without actually using the words, the same message that promised a miracle if you did share the message, promised that hell was awaiting you if you did not.

The problem with these posts is that it presents a very skewed image of Christianity, and this skewed image is the only image of which many people are aware. Christianity, for some people in our culture, has become a game of trying to receive the miracles and avoid hell. And on Facebook, the pathway through the minefield is to annoy your friends with all of these silly religious messages.
In reality, being a Christian has nothing to do with sharing these Facebook messages. And it has little to do with miracles or with hell. The main focal point of Christianity is, and always has been, love. And that is it. Love. John’s message is one of love. Love each other, and that will be enough. If you love God, then you love Jesus Christ, his son. If you love the Son, then you will love each other. It is by loving each other that you prove your love for God. The tendrils of love move in and out of our lives. There can be no end to this kind of God-given love for the Christian.

And if we really do want the approval of God, then love is the only path that is open to us. And this is my problem with many Christian examples that I see in the developed world. The examples are almost totally devoid of love. Without love, you cannot claim to know Christ. If you can hate and do not feel guilty about it, then you are far from God because God is love.
Or maybe I could say it this way, paraphrasing the Apostle Paul. “If you share that Facebook meme, but have not love, then you are just an annoying voice in the crowd. If you retweet your belief in God, but have not love, then you are just making noise.”

Without love, our faith is useless. Without love, there is nothing that can redeem us in this life. God is love, and love is the starting and ending point of our faith.    
Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: 2 John 1 & 3 John 1

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

We love because he first loved us. – 1 John 4:19

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 17, 2018): 1 John 4

Ernest Hemmingway in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” writes;

I had an inheritance from my father,
was the moon and the sun.
             And though I roam all over the world,
             The spending of it’s never done.

We understand what Hemmingway was meaning. Being taught to love nature is an inheritance that we can continue to enjoy throughout our lives. This kind of inheritance is not one that we will ever use up but rather renews itself day and night with every moment that we get outside and enjoy the natural world.

John makes a similar statement here. After speaking about the necessity of Christian love, he pauses and tells us where it is that this love originates. Christian love is not something that wells up naturally from the depths of the human soul. It is a gift from God; it is our inheritance from our Father. We love because he made the first move and loved us.

Love is the Christian’s incredible gift given to us by our Father. And like Hemmingway, we can emphatically state that we can roam all over the world, and the spending of our inheritance will never be completed. We will never find ourselves in a situation where love is not required. We will also never run out of love, no matter how much we love because the love that we share flows freely through us from Dad.

Of course, much like the inheritance that Hemmingway speaks of, we have to use our inheritance, or we are in danger of losing access to it. If we do not keep in the practice of love, we will find that we will lose our ability to use our incredible inheritance. There are many Christians that have turned sour and bitter and often maintain a very negative outlook on life. And with all that God has given to us, the only reason that I can find for that bitterness is that they have forgotten how to use their incredible inheritance. This love that God has bequeathed to them has become a stagnant pond. Much like the Dead Sea, love flows in, but it never flows out. And therefore life can no longer be sustained within its reach.

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: 1 John 5

Monday, 16 April 2018

And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. – 1 John 3:23

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 16, 2018): 1 John 3

My paternal grandfather was big on the idea of keeping the family name going. He wanted his Mullen heritage to passed down through the generations; he wanted his family name to be given to his children. And he did his part. Grandpa Mullen had two sons, Duane (my father) and Walden, to carry on the Mullen name. The next generation wasn’t as kind to my Grandfathers ambition. Of his four grandchildren, only one was a male (me). Oh, don’t get me wrong, my grandfather lavished his love on all of his grandchildren; there is no question that he adored his granddaughters, but only one of us would carry on the name. And so as I married and began to have children, the pressure was on. Our firstborn was a girl, Alyssa. My Grandfather loved his great-granddaughter, but he was still hoping for a boy. And the boy came with our second child, Craig. I proudly called my grandfather to announce the happy news. His Mullen name would be carried on for at least one more generation. Grandpa would die in a household accident just a little over a year after that phone call, but I am so glad that he lived long enough to greet and hold his great-grandson.

As I write these words, my son and his wife are expecting their first child. And in the waiting time, at this moment when we don’t yet know whether they will have a boy or a girl, I find my thoughts drifting back to my grandfather, wondering if there will be one more boy to carry on his name through one more generation.

Of course, I am also painfully aware that the name doesn’t mean anything unless we do something positive with it. It is one of the worries that I have had over the years and a worry I still maintain today. Am I a positive example of the Mullen name. Do I bring honor or dishonor to the family of my grandfather? It is a heavy weight to bear, and I am afraid that, at times, I have not weathered up well to the name. And so I try a little harder to carry on with honor and dignity the name that my grandfather has left me.

John says that we have been commanded to do two things. The first is to believe in Jesus, although he phrases it this way – to believe in the Name of Jesus. The Name is important. We sing that there is Power in the Name. Speaking the Name is important because it is one way that we bring honor to Jesus, we perpetuate his Name. The second command that John insists has been left to us is to love each other. In actuality, the two are connected. We bear the name of Christ; we are called Christians. And Christians often have a bad reputation in this world for one reason. I can’t explain why, but we often refuse to love one another. Sometimes we want to put restrictions on that love. The command is to “love one another” which means love other Christians. But to believe in this limited form of love means that we have to ignore Jesus’s parable of “The Good Samaritan.” But even if we do accept that limited definition, we don’t even seem to love other Christians well. Christ commands that we love those who love us and those who hate us. We love when it is easy and when it is hard. We love those who agree with our political stance and those who oppose it. When we have to protest, we do not do it with hate and with guns, but we choose nonviolent forms of protest so that we can get our message across. Again, straight from the words of Jesus, we are instructed to be the ones who turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile.

And as we do this, we bring honor to the name of the Son, the one in whom we believe.   

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: 1 John 4

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. – 1 John 2:9

Today’s Scripture Reading (April 15, 2018): 1 John 2

I am in fairly constant contact with several people who are in the process of deconverting from the Christian faith. They are often filled with angst, and that angst is often directed at me. Admittedly, as a pastor and visible Christian, I make a convenient target. Each one of these friends has a slightly different story to tell, and I try to listen to them as they tell it. But there is one common denominator in all of their stories. One of the main reasons for their deconversion is Christians. Each one of them has suffered hurt, and what they would interpret as hate, from people who claim to be followers of Christ. And I have to admit that we are often not great advertisers for the faith. I believe that there are a few reasons for this.

First, not everyone who calls themselves a Christian, is a Christian. The Christian Church is filled with people who have never fully accepted the claims of Christ. We know that. Some of these pretenders grew up in the church, and they are simply mimicking the things that they believe to be Christian. Some simply want to fit into a social situation. The Christian Church is often a magnet for the lonely and rejected who want to find a place where they belong. But mimicry or wanting to belong does not mean that they accept all that means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Second, we are all damaged. Admittedly, my deconverting friends don’t want to talk about this one, but it is a very real truth. All of us are damaged property. Some of us might hide it better, but that doesn’t make this fact any less the truth. It is impossible to move through this life and not receive some damage. Now, some of us are more damaged, but no one on this planet is unscathed by life. We are a damaged product of our planet. We can blame the damage on life or original sin, but the reality is that we are all damaged. And the truth is that, for every one of us, when we are placed in stressful situations, that damage tends to leak out.

Third, we are in process. I have been a Christian for decades, but there is a marked difference between who I am now and who I was ten years ago. I know there will be a marked difference between the person that I am now and the one that I will be ten years into the future. Some of that might be the process of growing older, but I believe that most of it is the process of God working in my life. There is a huge difference in the character of someone who has been a Christian for a week when compared to someone who has been a Christian for a decade or several decades, regardless of age. We are in process. And we will never be the perfect Christian until after we reach the end of this life. Which means that if you meet a breathing Christian, then you are in contact with a Christian who is in process

There are more reasons why we are not great advertisements for the faith, but there is also a litmus test. A real Christian, of any maturity, loves. Again, all of my deconverting friends have felt a lack of love from Christians, but according to John, that is simply impossible. The truth is that they have felt a lack of love by people in the church, but they weren’t Christians. Christians are defined by how they love. Now, I also need to let some in the church at least a little off the hook. Not all of the blame can be placed on the people in our churches. Did I mention that we are damaged? Often that damage means that we cannot receive the love that is being offered to us. We misinterpret it. We place motives on actions that just are not there. But for a Christian, we desire to persistently love even through even those situations. And there is nothing that anyone can do that will stop us from loving the people that we come into contact with in the world. This is who we are in Christ.  

Tomorrow’s Scripture Reading: 1 John 3