When Celebrating Earthly Kingdoms

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 65.1-2
To a nation that did not call on my name,
I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’
All day long I have held out my hands
to an obstinate people,
who walk in ways not good,
pursuing their own imaginations.

From John: I love celebrating July 4th. It has always been an important celebration in our family and a frequent occasion for unofficial family reunions and gatherings. (Including one this year that will be marked by social distancing and mask-wearing in addition to typical activities.)

I learned from my family a deep sense of patriotism and love for country. Yet, patriotism can become an idol that displaces the Kingdom of God in our hearts. Patriotism is a sin when it raises our love for our earthly kingdom above that of Christ’s kingdom, when we begin to confuse the two as being the same thing, or when we dismiss biblical cries for justice and reform as being “unpatriotic.”

This re-post from 2018, is vitally important for us to regularly grapple with. When we celebrate earthly kingdoms, each of us has the opportunity to check our hearts and evaluate which kingdom we love more—ours or Christ’s.

Reflection: When Celebrating Earthly Kingdoms
By John Tillman

Celebrating the country in which one lives is not unbiblical but it can be a dangerous, idolatrous trap. In American churches, this weekend of July 4th, many worshipers will sing patriotic anthems with questionable theology or, in some cases, completely absent theology.

Hymnody has a long history of politically motivated and theologically dubious lyrics, usually expressing God’s divine blessing on the nation of the hymn writer. In 1778, New England hymn writer, William Billings, published this hymn as a declaration that the colonies were winning the war due to divine intervention. It’s a view that still survives in some quarters.

Let tyrants shake their iron rods
And slavery clank her galling chains
We see them not; we trust in God
New England’s God forever reigns.

Patriotism based on national pride is an easy idol to fall victim to. So is anti-patriotism. This is true whether anti-patriotism is based on national cynicism or idolatry of party instead of nation. Christians must avoid all of these.

In 1932 Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer struggled in a Memorial Day sermon with how patriotic days should be celebrated in his Berlin church.

When the church observes Memorial Day, it must have something special to say. It cannot be one voice in the chorus of others who loudly raise the cry of mourning for the lost sons of the nation across the land, and by such cries of mourning call us to new deeds and great courage.

It cannot, like the ancient singers of great heroic deeds, wander about and sing the song of praise of battle and the death of the heroes to the listening ears of enthralled young people.

Memorial Day in the church! What does that mean? It means holding up the one great hope from which we all live, the preaching of the kingdom of God.

No matter our country or party, by echoing jingoistic patriotic divisiveness we risk diluting the gospel of Christ. We must not be too enamored of any earthly kingdom. As Jesus said, our “kingdom is from another place.”

Wherever we live, we are in exile.
When we pray for our city, we are praying for the city of our exile.
When we pray for our country, we are praying for the country in which we are aliens, not citizens.
May we never settle for earthly kingdoms. May we yearn and long instead for Christ’s kingdom to come.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness. — Psalm 103.8

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 65 (Listen – 5:00)
Matthew 13 (Listen – 7:23)

This Weekend’s Readings
Isaiah 66 (Listen – 5:20) Matthew 14 (Listen – 4:14)
Jeremiah 1 (Listen – 3:00) Matthew 15 (Listen – 4:23)

Read more about Jeremiah, the Unpatriotic Prophet
Christians who see deeply into the problems of their country will often feel pressured not to speak about it for fear of being “unpatriotic” or “disrespectful.”

Read more about Be Yoked to Christ, Not Politics
It is increasingly difficult to defend being yoked to either the Republican or Democratic party while also being yoked with Christ. What fellowship can light have with darkness?

Treasuring Our Temples

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 64.6-7, 10-11
6 All of us have become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
    and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
7 No one calls on your name
    or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
    and have given us over to[b] our sins.

10 Your sacred cities have become a wasteland;
    even Zion is a wasteland, Jerusalem a desolation.
11 Our holy and glorious temple, where our ancestors praised you,
    has been burned with fire,
    and all that we treasured lies in ruins.

Matthew 12.33
Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.

Reflection: Treasuring Our Temples
By John Tillman

Isaiah’s visions held up shocking images from a not too distant future.

The most shocking image to Isaiah’s readers would not be destruction, fire, and death sweeping Jerusalem. It would not even be the king’s sons led away naked, castrated, and in chains to be eunuchs. (Isaiah 39.7) The most shocking would be the one thing Judah thought God would never allow to fall, the Temple, being razed and burned with fire.

It is difficult to overstate how confident Judah was that God treasured the Temple and, for the sake of his name, would never allow it to be defiled or harmed. It was unthinkable that the Temple would fall. 

Yet, the Temple had already fallen. God had already allowed the Temple to be defiled. The kings and religious leaders of Judah had done it themselves. 

They partnered together against the widows and orphans. They collaborated together to oppress the foreigners. Yet they called themselves righteous. The worship they thought that God so prized had become annoying noise that God could not bear to hear and wished would stop, because there was no justice established when they stopped singing about justice.

Comfortable, powerful, western Christians can be guilty of similar thinking. We easily feel that we are so special, so holy, so entitled to our place atop the culture, that we cannot imagine we might ever fall. 

Surely God can’t be unsatisfied with our glorious worship and the music industry it spawned?
Surely God wouldn’t allow our sanctuaries to be attacked, our institutions to be sued, or our rights to be stripped away?

There is a telling line in Isaiah 64.11, “All that we treasure lies in ruins…”  God will ruin whatever we treasure more than him. 

Judah treasured the Temple’s importance but not its inhabitant. They treasured the regalia, not the relationship. Through the Babylonian destruction, God did not allow the Temple to be defiled. He took the first step to cleanse it. May we take warning.

Our first step must be to join Isaiah in confessing our part in collective, systemic sin, saying as he did, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!” (Isaiah 6.5)

It is by our lament for our sin that we are given mercy, forgiveness, and the hope of reconciliation, restoration, and resurrection.
May he purify our lips and send us forth.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
The Lord is King; let the people tremble; he is enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth shake. — Psalm 99.1

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 64 (Listen – 5:00)
Matthew 12 (Listen – 7:23)

Read More about Family Tree
Our family tree is sick at heart and only sickened fruit can come from us without Christ’s intervention.

Read More about In Denial in Exile
Israel thought it was God’s nation…They listened to false prophets of God, who taught that God would miraculously bless them with deliverance, wealth, and freedom.

The Hope of Lament

Today’s is the last post in this year’s Student Writers Month series. Please let us know how you have enjoyed the Student Writers Month devotionals and what month in 2021 you would like to see us repeat this program. Email us with “Student Writers Month Feedback” in the subject line at info@theparkforum.org.

Student Writers Month has been a program welcoming ministry-focused college and seminary students from around the country and overseas to write for The Park Forum. Students who participated are pursuing a career in ministry and received free coaching on their writing as a part of the program. For more information about the program and a profile of each of our student writers, visit our Student Writers Month page.

Today’s student writer is Philip Cox, a student at Charles Sturt University.

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 63:11-13, 16-17
11 Then he remembered the days of old,
of Moses and his people.
Where is he who brought them up out of the sea
with the shepherds of his flock?
Where is he who put in the midst of them
his Holy Spirit,
12 who caused his glorious arm
to go at the right hand of Moses,
who divided the waters before them
to make for himself an everlasting name,
13 who led them through the depths?

16 For you are our Father,
though Abraham does not know us,
and Israel does not acknowledge us;
you, O LORD, are our Father,
our Redeemer from of old is your name.
17 O LORD, why do you make us wander from your ways
and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants,
the tribes of your heritage.

Reflection: The Hope of Lament
By Philip Cox

Even in times of unrest, pain, and brokenness, for many modern Christians, the practice of corporate lament might seem overly emotional, depressing, or even inappropriate. Statements of doubt or despair are often seen as a deficiency in our faith. However, Isaiah, as in many other passages (cf. Pss. 44, 74, 80, 83, 90, 94; Lam 5), shows quite the opposite. 

After the triumphant opening of Isaiah 63, verses 7-19 take an abrupt turn and begin Isaiah’s intercessory prayer and lament over Israel’s long cycle of rebellious actions and apostasy. As Isaiah takes up the role of the “watchman” from 62:6, it is precisely his faith-filled remembrance of Israel’s deliverance which gives him the boldness to now question “Where is God?” (vv. 11-14).  

Lament not only reveals a deep trust in God but, as scholar N.T. Wright explored recently in TIME Magazine, connects us with the very heart of God, who also laments over the fractured state of His creation. 

Multiple times Isaiah exclaims, “You are our father” (63:7-64:12). His use of “father” and “holy habitation” together (v.15) echoes the psalmist who calls YHWH the “Father of orphans and protector of widows…in his holy habitation” (Ps. 68:5-6). Isaiah poetically describes Israel as orphans, a people disowned and forgotten by their forefathers, Abraham, and Israel (v.15-16). Isaiah petitions God to remember His responsibility as the caretaker for the weak and vulnerable. 

These 2500-year-old words still ring out urgently and prophetically for us today. 

Biblical lament is not expressing a gripe or complaint. Complaining arises from a mindset of scarcity that believes God is withholding his goodness. In contrast, lament is anchored in the confidence of God’s abundant goodness (Ps. 23:1). Therefore, lament holds to account what is chaotic and fractured in our world while maintaining hope in God’s commitment to redeem all things (Eph 7-10; Col. 1:19-20; Rev. 21:4-6). 

We are beckoned through Isaiah’s communal lament to look toward God and our hurting world and say as the family of God, “We have sinned!” We, as God’s image-bearers, have a divine task to act as God’s representatives in the world. This begins by cultivating an environment of shalom through protecting those trampled by the empires and systems of this world. 

As we expectantly lament the age-old question “Where is God?”, God comes to us as He did to Adam asking, “Where are you?”. 

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
Jesus said: (to Martha) “‘I am the resurrection. Anyone who believes in me, even though that person dies, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ she said. ‘I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who was to come into this world.’” — John 11.25-27

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 63 (Listen – 3:25)
Matthew 11 (Listen – 4:06)

Read more about Lamenting With Job :: Guided Prayer
Lament is a powerful prayer that connects us to God…lament can swallow up complaining in our lives.

Read more about A Generational Lament
Prayers of lament and complaint are a healthy and fulfilling spiritual practice that can be entered into by individuals and communities.

Lovingly Named

We are happy to welcome ministry-focused college and seminary students from around the country and overseas to write in June of 2020 for The Park Forum. Each of them is pursuing a career in ministry and received free coaching on their writing as a part of the program. For more information about the program and a profile of each of our student writers, visit our Student Writers Month page.

Today’s student writer is Carolyn Soto Jackson, a student at Truett Seminary.

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 62:3-5
3 You will be a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand,
    a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
4 No longer will they call you Deserted,
    or name your land Desolate.
But you will be called Hephzibah,
    and your land Beulah;
for the Lord will take delight in you,
    and your land will be married.
5 As a young man marries a young woman,
    so will your Builder marry you;
as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride,
    so will your God rejoice over you.

Reflection: Lovingly Named
By Carolyn Soto Jackson

Falling in love is often described as a feeling of euphoria with an entertaining sense of exhilaration and confusion all at the same time. We are swooped up into another individual’s life and we want nothing more than to spend every waking moment together. Loneliness and emptiness give way to affection and adoration. Passionate glances and charming pet names like “baby” and “sweetheart” make us blush. 

Yet, the Lord’s delight in us is so much more triumphant than our human pleasures. Christ’s love is immeasurable and unfathomable. Christ takes great pleasure in his Beloved and he calls us by a new name. Our joy cannot be contained when we relish God’s love for us. Our jubilant responses include knees buckling in worship, tear-filled eyes, singing praises of his name, and hearts filled with rapturous, unconditional love. 

This is a love many do not ever encounter. 

Unlike human love which diminishes when we fall into sin, our God declares us his Beloved and patiently woos us back. 

Oh, what great love he lavishes upon us. 

Since the beginning of time, God stated he would not be still or rest until glory, righteousness, and salvation were established in Israel. Our Lord promised to continue working on Israel’s restoration despite their sinful ways. He did not give up on them nor will he give up on us now.

Their land, which was once described as forsaken and deserted, God christened as “My Delight is in Her” and “Your Land Married”. These new alluring names, Beulah and Hephzibah were bestowed upon Zion as a bridegroom would speak to his bride on their wedding night. Unlike the romantic love we have here on earth, God’s raw and tender agape love creates a longing within us to hear those names fall from His lips. No pet name will ever compare to the desirous names given to us by God. 

Our loyal, generous God pulls back the veil of his bride and rejoices tenderly as a newly wedded husband would do. 

Our God is faithful, even when we are not. He restores even when we rebel. Day after day, he delights in you and he delights in me. 

God brought us all out of a desolate place, rescuing us from death and destruction. So make yourself ready, wear your finest and brightest linens, for the time of the wedding is near.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Show your goodness, O Lord, to those who are good and to those who are true of heart. — Psalm 125.4

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 62 (Listen – 2:09)
Matthew 10 (Listen – 5:10)

Read more about His Loving Presence
Jesus chooses messy companionship over perfect solitude. He is the God who risks pain and death to gain our fickle friendship and vacillating love.

Read more about Realizing the Power of Love
The selflessness of God’s love in us, and the actions that should flourish from it have the power, with the Holy Spirit, to change our world.

The Gift of Unequal Exchange

We are happy to welcome ministry-focused college and seminary students from around the country and overseas to write in June of 2020 for The Park Forum. Each of them is pursuing a career in ministry and received free coaching on their writing as a part of the program. For more information about the program and a profile of each of our student writers, visit our Student Writers Month page.

Today’s student writer is Dennis Nicholson, a student at Liberty University.

Scripture Focus: Isaiah 61:3
3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion— 
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    a planting of the Lord
    for the display of his splendor.

Reflection: The Gift of Unequal Exchange
By Dennis Nicholson

What is justice?

If you ask an economist, you’ll probably hear something about equal exchange. Justice in this view is like a balanced scale, where each person receives an equal share in an exchange of goods. Intuitively, this definition of justice makes sense. A pound of apples for a dollar. A day’s wage for a day’s work. A light sentence for a light crime. This is equal exchange. This is just.

But in Isaiah 61, we receive a different vision for justice. The servant of the Sovereign Lord doesn’t come to settle accounts between God and Israel; he comes to fill Israel’s account until it overflows (Isaiah 61:7). He comes to proclaim good news to the poor and freedom for the captives, without asking anything in return (Isaiah 61:1).

How can this be? Because the one who’s speaking in this chapter isn’t Isaiah, but Jesus Christ. Jesus is the servant of the Sovereign Lord, whom God has sent to proclaim good news to the poor and rebuild the ancient ruins of Zion.

And at the center of Christ’s ministry—at the foot of the cross—we find a different economy of exchange. Jesus exchanges his body on the cross for the life of the world (John 6:51). 

He receives nothing from us and invites us to receive everything in him.
He places on our head a crown of beauty and takes on his own head a crown of thorns (Matthew 27:29).
He anoints us with the oil of joy and receives with joy the perfume of burial (Matthew 26:12).
He clothes us in a garment of praise and bears on his back a robe of mockery (John 19:2).
He plants us as oaks of righteousness and himself hangs on the cursed tree (Galatians 3:13).

In the injustice of Christ’s death, we find justice for our own lives. The mission of Isaiah’s servant becomes our own. We define justice not only as advocating for equal exchange for ourselves, but also as laying ourselves down in unequal exchange to serve the poor, the brokenhearted, and the captives.

May we delight greatly in the Lord, for he has exchanged our bloodstained garments for garments of salvation (Isaiah 61:10).
May righteousness spring up in us before all nations, that we might exchange the justice of earth for the justice of heaven (Isaiah 61:11).

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves. — Psalm 126.6-7

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Summertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 61 (Listen – 2:23)
Matthew 9 (Listen – 4:09)

Read more about Convicted by Job’s Righteousness
We confess, Lord. (Job 31.14-15)
We have dishonored and disenfranchised those in the womb, though they, just like us, are being formed by the hand of God.
And we have discriminated against those who are born, who are our brothers and sisters, born equal before God but treated by our hands as unworthy and spoken of as if they were animals.

Read more about God’s Justice
If God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make a final end of violence, that God would not be worthy of our worship.

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