Celebrating Earthly Kingdoms

Scripture: 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.

 Reflection: Celebrating Earthly Kingdoms
By John Tillman

Celebrating the country in which one lives is not un-biblical but it can be a dangerous, idolatrous trap. In American churches, this past weekend (the closest to July 4th) many worshipers sang 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.

Prayer: The Morning Psalm
They bluster in their insolence; all evildoers are full of boasting. They crush your people, O Lord, and afflict your chosen nation. They murder the widow and the stranger and put the orphans to death…He who admonishes nations, will he not punish? — Psalm 94.3-5, 10

– Prayer from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

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

Additional Reading
Read More about Temporary Victory
Elevating political victory to supreme importance is to confess functional atheism.

Read More about The Seductive Idolatry of Politics
We must make sure we are pursuing actions that please Christ rather than pleasing human political kingdoms.

Family Tree

Scripture: 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: Family Tree
By John Tillman

God’s relationship to humanity has often been best expressed in terms of family.

He bore us like his children. He bears with our stubbornness and willfulness just as we bear with that of natural children. He, as Jesus, bore the burden of sin that we could not, so that we could be restored to our position as God’s children.

Family becomes a part of your identity. Jesus spoke of God as father, but he also identified God by association with the family of the patriarchs—speaking of God as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Christ is clear that his definition of family goes beyond biology, beyond tribe, and beyond legal guardianship or rights of inheritance. For Jesus, family is defined by doing the will of God.

This should have been good news for the Pharisees. No one tried harder to do God’s will according to the scriptures than they did. The problem with casting the Pharisees as the villains of the New Testament is that they are the people most like modern Christians.

The Pharisees’ system of regulations was designed to ensure inner righteousness through stringent outer adherence to rules, preventatives, and traditions. Their intentions were to live a godly and righteous life. To do this they constructed rules around their rules, to ensure they’d never get close enough to actually break one.

Most modern Christians have done exactly this at one time or another. We would probably get on well with most Pharisees. We love rules, preventatives, and traditions that protect us from the possibilities of outward sin. It’s hard not to admit their practicality.

But Jesus rejects their systems and ours, pointing out once again that it is inner nature that determines what fruit our lives produce. Our systems, no matter how robust, cannot prevent sin, because sin is already within us.

Our family tree is sick at heart and only sickened fruit can come from us without Christ’s intervention. However, we can be grafted in to the family tree of Christ and bear the same fruit that he wants to bring about in our lives.

Ask the Holy Spirit to work in you. Pray Christ’s words over your life. “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good.”

Prayer: The Request for Presence
Test me, O Lord, and try me; examine my heart and mind. — Psalm 26.2

– Prayer from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 64 (Listen – 2:01)
Matthew 12 (Listen – 6:41)

Additional Reading
Read More about Extremism as a Discipleship Problem
Like the Pharisees, we are not ashamed to make embarrassing political alliances to ensure that we don’t lose our place of cultural influence.

Read More about Sight for the Blind
The Pharisees are easy for us to dislike when we read about their opposition to Jesus in the New Testament, but modern Christians share much more in common with the Pharisees than with Christ’s disciples.

Kingdom Manifestation :: A Guided Prayer

Scripture: Isaiah 61.1-2
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…

Guided prayers and meditations are a common part of Christian spiritual practice. Return to this prayer through the day or over the weekend, as it will be a different experience based on your mood and surroundings. — John

 Reflection: Kingdom Manifestation :: A Guided Prayer
By John Tillman

Today we read the passage that was the subject of Christ’s first sermon in Nazareth, and a passage in Matthew that reads like the fruit that proves the truth of Christ’s claim that Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled.

Pray the first verse, understanding that Christ sent us the Holy Spirit, telling his disciples that we would do greater things than he did

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners

The Holy Spirit can guide you to manifest the kingdom in your world as Jesus did.

The paralyzed are given control of their limbs…
Ask the Spirit to help you move something someone can’t move on their own.

The sinful are forgiven…The unclean are accepted…
Ask the Spirit to help you to show kindness and acceptance to those who are accustomed to being shunned.

The outcasts are welcomed…
Look for opportunities to tangibly help and aid those who are rejected, oppressed, accused, and dehumanized.

The unobservant are invited…
Ask for wisdom to speak kindly to those with no regard for faith. May the Holy Spirit make you winsome and help you listen to understand instead of to argue.

The sick, the blind, and mute are made whole. The dead are raised to life.
Address your prayer to the sickness of sin in your own heart. There is a kind of sin-sickness that we nurse and maintain. Pray that it be healed.
Ask for your eyes to be opened as your blindness is revealed.
Ask to be raised to new life.

Christ’s compassion for the great needs of the community led him to pray.

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Ask God to make you the answer to this prayer. You are called to make manifest the kingdom of God.

Pray God will use you in healing the infectious, in redeeming the lost causes, and in hospitality to the thieves crucified beside you. May your risk reap a great harvest for the kingdom.

Prayer: A Reading
In his honor Levi held a great reception in his house, and with them at table was a large gathering of tax collectors and others. The Pharisees and their scribes complained to his disciples and said, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus said to them in reply, “It is not those who are well who need the doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the upright, but sinners to repentance.” — Luke 5.29-32

– Prayer from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

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

This Weekend’s Readings
Isaiah 62 (Listen – 2:09) Matthew 10 (Listen – 5:07)
Isaiah 63 (Listen – 3:25) Matthew 11 (Listen – 4:06)

Additional Reading
Read More about Christmas is Upside Down :: Epiphany
Christ’s first expository sermon revealed his identity, proclaimed his destiny, and was also the occasion of the first attempt to violently take his life as an adult.

Read More about Radical Outreach to Outcasts :: Epiphany
The backlash that Jesus experienced in response to his Nazareth sermon was sudden and violent. One second they are talking about how well Jesus spoke, and the next they are shoving him toward a precipice, attempting to take his life.

Fear in the Boat :: Throwback Thursday

Scripture: Matthew 8.26
He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

Historically terrible decisions are often motivated by fear. Fear is the tool by which dictators gain and keep power. Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached this sermon in 1933 Berlin during a fearful time in Germany—right before Hitler seized power. It was only the beginning of a storm that would not soon end. — John

 Reflection: Fear in the Boat :: Throwback Thursday
By Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

Fear is in the boat, in Germany, in our own lives and in the nave of this church—naked fear of an hour from now, of tomorrow and the day after. That is why we become apathetic, why we complain, why we intoxicate ourselves with this and that.

But look here, right in the middle of this fearful world is a place that is meant for all time, which has a peculiar task that the world doesn’t understand. It keeps calling over and over but always anew, in the same tone, the same thing: Fear is overcome; don’t be afraid. In the world you are frightened. But be comforted; I have conquered the world!

Christ is in the boat!

And this place, where this kind of talk is heard and should be heard, is the pulpit of the church. From this pulpit the living Christ himself wants to speak, “You of little faith, why are you so fearful? I am in the boat.”

But the other side of the coin is also true. When Christ is in the boat, a storm always comes up. No one has to go through so much anxiety and fear as do Christians. But this does not surprise us, since Christ is the Crucified One, and there is no way to life for a Christian without being crucified.

So we will suffer and make our way through together with Christ, looking always to him who is with us in the boat and can soon stand up and rebuke the sea, so that it becomes calm.

Dear brothers and sisters, what do we know about what Christ can do and wants to do for us, this very evening, if we will only call upon him as we should, if we call out, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” That was fear all right, but it was faith in the midst of fear, because it knew where help comes from, the only place.

They were amazed, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” We can well understand their amazement.

What sort of person is this on whom fear has no effect, who overcomes the fear in human life and takes away its power? By asking this question, we are already on our knees before him, praying to him, pointing to him, the wonder worker, and saying, This is God! Amen.

*Condensed for length. From The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Prayer: The Greeting
You are my hiding-place; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. — Psalm 32.8

– Prayer from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 60 (Listen – 3:55)
Matthew 8 (Listen – 4:09)

Additional Reading
Read More about The Wrong Fear
Fear has made Americans Christians a paranoid and unpredictable group. Liable to believe fake news, liable to vote for candidates and support policies that two decades ago would have been inconceivable, and liable to turn on each other.

Read More about Joy Through Surrender
When this surrender overrides your fear, your pride in the self-made life, and the anger you have because of old wounds, joy abounds.

Judging Our Hearts

Scripture: Matthew 7.1, 16
Do not judge, or you too will be judged…
By their fruit you will recognize them…

 Reflection: Judging Our Hearts
By John Tillman

The most often quoted portion of Matthew’s seventh chapter is probably it’s first three words: “Do not judge.” Most people stop there.

If they continued, they’d realize that Jesus spends the rest of the chapter telling us different ways to judge and the methods to do so.

Jesus gives us the most specific instructions in the section on identifying false prophets. False prophets outwardly look like they belong. Jesus refers to their disguise as sheep’s clothing that conceals an inward nature that is a violent and ferocious wolf. How are we to see through the deception?

To explain this, Jesus switches metaphors to trees and fruit. But he does not focus on fruit that doesn’t match the tree, such as getting olives from a fig tree. That discussion is in James regarding the unnatural way that our tongue blesses God, yet curses humans made by God. It is more relevant to Monday’s post, Killing with our Hearts.

Jesus, instead, shows that fruit cannot come from a plant whose inner nature is not to produce fruit. He connects the nature of the fruit to the inner nature of the tree. If the tree is sickened at its heart, the fruit will be sickened as well.

The theme of inner life affecting outward life shows up again as Jesus gives us a window of discernment into people’s inner lives. But Jesus gives us another step that precedes that—we are to first judge ourselves.

Many people have attempted to interpret verses 1-6 to mean that no one can or should judge them, and interpret verses 15-20 as their blessing to judge others. But the parable about the speck and the log is not a command to leave people alone and not judge them, it is instead a step-by-step instruction of how to judge them.

We are unequivocally commanded to remove the speck from our brother’s eye. We must, however, follow the prerequisite step of removing the log from our own. Christ’s command assumes that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can achieve both tasks.

When it comes to judging, others and ourselves, it is wise to remember another oft skimmed over verse from this passage: “In the same way you judge others, you will be judged.”

May we judge rightly, guided by the Holy Spirit. And by his mercy and grace, we be judged in the same way.

Prayer: The Request for Presence
O Lord, I call to you; my Rock, do not be deaf to my cry; lest, if you do not hear me, I become like those who go down to the Pit. — Psalm 28.1

– Prayer from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Isaiah 59 (Listen – 3:54)
Matthew 7 (Listen – 3:31)

Additional Reading
Read More about Philemon’s Speck and Our Log
Better that we remove the log in our own eye rather than seek to remove the speck from the eye of some deceased writer in another age.

Read More about The Churches Christ Attends
In Christ there is radical, loving confrontation and a passionate pursuit of reconciliation all wrapped up together. This is a mixture that our culture can’t stomach—we prefer excoriation to redemption.

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