Archive | November, 2018

Christians, justice and leadership in the Church [God’s heart for good government, part 5]

16 Nov

In this series of posts, we have been studying God’s heart for good government in Deuteronomy 16 and 17.  In those chapters, God created levels of governance for Israel: local, national, and over all, the king.

What have we seen in all these levels of government that God had for his people? Many things:  Justice is the foundation of governance.  All people are equal and to be treated fairly.  While there will be leaders, local and national, and they are to be people of high character and wisdom, it is God who is truly king, and we must follow his law.

So how might this passage matter to Christians?

First, these are principles that can apply to any nation, and Christians can work, and I would say should work, towards having national governments that are based in justice for all.  Where there is injustice in society, we Christians should work to correct it.

I’ve been so impressed with our sister church in Chicago, Kimball Avenue, (and even though they changed denominations recently, in Faith Church’s heart and mind, they are still our sister church!) and their Justice Watch group, and how they have for years worked on bringing God’s justice to their community.  It was in Chicago that I learned about babies in the water, which is a thought-provoking story to help us learn about justice.

We should be passionate, therefore, about justice inour community.  Are there any ways we seeinjustice around us? What can we do to address it?

Second, not only justice for the community, but also justice and godly leadership should be our goal in the church.  We can read in the New Testament numerous passages that talk about selecting leaders in the church, and here at Faith Church we have summarized them with the phrase: the spiritually mature should lead the church

But the leaders don’t do all the work.  Just as God wanted Israel to have lower courts and higher courts, we divide up into groups.  The top leader is not to handle it all.  In Ephesians 4:11-13, Paul wrote that the church leaders were to “prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the church may be built up.” Leaders, then, have a job, to raise up others, train them up, help them grow in their faith in Christ, so that more and more people can serve.

We seek to do this at Faith Church.  We have our Leadership Team and ServeTeams.  The Leadership team is focused onleading the church spiritually, while the Serve Teams direct the various areasof ministry.

Leaders in the church must follow theprinciples of leading with justice and fairness.  Leaders in the church must make God theirking.  It is not our church, it is hischurch, he is the one true leader. Pastors, staff and leaders are not to be put on a pedestal, worshiped,because that is a place reserved for God alone!

So let us be a people that pursue God’s heart for justice and worship him alone.

How kings and presidents should lead [God’s heart for good government, part 4]

15 Nov

How should a king or president lead?  In America over the years we’ve seen wildly divergent styles of leadership in our presidents.  Take a few minutes and think about it.  Try to avoid your personal support or disagreement with their political views.  Just consider how our recent 5 or 6 presidents have lived out their leadership style.  How would you describe them?  And furthermore, what makes a good leader?  Plato in The Republic presents his view of the ideal leader, what he calls the Philosopher King.  What about God’s heart for leadership? Can we learn how God wants kings or presidents or those in many positions of leadership to handle their role?

In part 3 of this series, we saw that God knows the people of Israel will ask for a king, so perhaps he can set some laws in place to help this king idea turn out different from the nations around them.  The nations around Israel had kings, and Israel knew what those kings were like.  They could be horribly abusive, selfish, and destructive.  Why in the world Israel would want that when they had YHWH as their king?  Well, God knows the human heart.  We long for celebrities, like kings, queens, and presidents, to worship.  Therefore God wants Israel’s king to be different from the pagan kings.

Look what he says in Deuteronomy 17, verse 15. The first way a future Israelite king would be different is that he was to be chosen by God.  As we saw in 16:18, Israel could choose the local judges, but God chooses the king.

Second, the king must be an Israelite, not a foreigner.  Why?  Because God wants Israel to have kings who see themselves as equal brothers with the rest of the nation.  See that in verse 20 where God teaches that the king should “not consider himself better than his brothers”?  That’s not possible if the king is a foreigner.  What is God’s heart for this king?  He wants the king to be humble.  Not on a pedestal.  Not worshiped.  That is so different from the way of the other nation’s kings. 

Thirdly, God lists a number of rules for the king. Look at verse 16 and following: the king must not acquire a lot of horses, he must not make the people go back to Egypt, he must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. Also he must not accumulate lots of gold. Sound like any of Israel’s kings you may have heard of?  Yup.  Solomon.  Solomon broke all these rules, even ended up enslaving people as laborers for building projects.  God knows the proclivities of the human heart, and he wants Israel to be different.

Those were the negative rules.  Now for a positive one.  Look at verses 18-20.  This is really quite amazing.

When he takes the throne, the king is to write out his own copy of this law. Wow. What a practice! The king’s copy of the law is to be with him, he is to read it all his days that he may learn to revere the Lord! Of course, the king is to carefully follow the Law.

This is huge.  When you think of kings, what is one of the normal activities that kings do to govern their lands and people? (I’m not talking about taxes.)  Kings make proclamations.  Royal decrees.  Kings are the ruler of the land, thus they make the laws.  But not Israel’s kings.  Israel’s kings are to follow God’s laws.  Why?  As we saw in part 3, because God is the actual king!  And his law is best.  No king could improve on it. The king, therefore, was to always know his place, and that is a place of serving God.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if our local and national leaders would strive to lead like this?  Officials who are Christians, you can choose to do so, even if that style of leadership isn’t enshrined in the laws of our land.  Jesus gave his disciples clear instructions about how they were to lead, and it was to be very different from the pattern of leadership in the world.  They were not to “lord it over” people, meaning that Christ-like leaders should lead like Jesus himself led, serving, willing to give of himself out of love for his people. 

Supreme Courts and Presidents [God’s heart for good government, part 3]

14 Nov
Photo by Claire Anderson on Unsplash

God wants there to be supreme courts and presidents.  Really?  Well, kind of.  In this series, we are studying Deuteronomy 17, seeking God’s heart for good government, and we move from what God instructed Israel to do with local governance to what he wanted for their national governance: supreme courts and presidents!

In Deut. 17:8-20, he describes a unique system in which priests and a judge form a national-level law court with the responsibility of providing rulings on the most difficult cases (bloodshed, law suits, and assaults are the three examples given), cases that the lower courts were unable to decide.  It seems this high court, located in the city of God’s choosing, was to be like our supreme court.

What do you think of the fact that this high court was to be comprised mostly of priests?  In verse 12 we read about “the priest there ministering to the Lord,” which might be a reference to the high priest of the land. So this high court had heavy hitters. The judge of the land, and maybe the high priest, and then perhaps also an unnamed number of other judges. What that means is that Israel’s high court includes both the civil and religious leaders.

To our American ears, it might sound odd when we read that Israel was to have priests on its high court.  Can you imagine if our Supreme Court included religious leaders?  But for Israel it makes sense, because the priests were the ones who knew the Law the best.  We see this in verse 10 where God says they were to decide these hard cases, and in verse 11, as they were to teach people the law.

Then the people were to absolutely follow the decision of the court. No wavering. Look at the penalty for those who disobeyed! Verses 12-13 say it is the death penalty.  In our view this might seem insane.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts in our study of Deuteronomy, I’m glad we Christians are under a new covenant.  We also need to remember that it wasn’t some random law that Israel was following.  Whose law governed their land?  God’s law.  The priests and judges were not making up new laws and asking the people to follow them. They were simply deciding cases, based on God’s law.  Their government was a theocracy, meaning God was at the top, God was ruler.  When people disobeyed what this high court decided, they were disobeying God.  That’s bold disobedience, and it was to be taken seriously.  Again, I am so glad the church is not under this covenant. 

So far in this series we have seen God’s desire for Israel to have local courts, and a high court, and now we have one higher level to go: the King, which is described in Deuteronomy 17:14-20.

This section envisions a time in the future when Israel is settled in the land and wants a king, “like all the nations around” them.  Warning. Warning! Warning.  We should be seeing warning signs in this verse.  What warning sign?  That phrase “like all the nations around us.”  What is wrong with that?  Israel was NOT to be like the nations around them.  We have seen that in previous posts.  They were not to worship in the detestable ways of the nations around them. 

And here is the kicker.  They shouldn’t be asking for a king because they already had a king!  Who was their king?  YHWH, God was their king.  This section is just a few verses long, but it points to something that is going to have significant consequences for the nation.  God knows this.  Let’s just jump ahead into the future and see what happens.

We’re traveling to a time about a couple hundred years after Deuteronomy 16. The book of Joshua comes right after Deuteronomy and tells the story of the conquest of the Promised Land, led by Joshua who took over for Moses.  The people settle down, and after Joshua dies, we read in next book, the book of Judges, that there are a series of judges who become the top leader of the nation.  One of those judges was a guy named Gideon who won an amazing battle, and the people wanted to make him king. In Judges 8:23 we read that Gideon was not a fan of that idea and instead responded, “the Lord will rule over you.”  That’s right, Gideon!  The people had a strong desire to have a king like the nations around them. Gideon might have tamped down that desire for the time being, but it would return.

Then maybe another hundred years or so after Gideon, in the days of the very last judge who would rule over Israel, a guy named Samuel, the people were again asking for a king.  I encourage you to read 1 Sam. 8:4-9.  Did you hear how God felt about this idea?  He felt rejected! Israel doesn’t need a king because they have God, the one true king.  The same goes for us, as we Christians worship God alone, and and we do not worship human leaders.

In the next post, we’ll turn back to Deuteronomy 17, and what we’ll see is that God knows the people will ask for a king, so perhaps he can set some laws in place to help this king idea turnout different from the nations around them. What God will say about the king is shocking.

Justice [God’s heart for good government, part 2]

13 Nov

Imagine you were creating a new nation, and you were responsible for writing a document that would become the guiding principles for this whole new society.  What would you include?  If you could narrow it down to just a few key ideas, what is necessary?  What is the basis of good governance?

As we saw yesterday in the first post of this series on Deuteronomy 16:18-20 and 17:8-20, God’s heart for Israel was to have good governance, starting with the people choosing wise local judges.  But how were these judges to handle their position? Look at chapter 16, verses 19-20, and we see that justice is to be primary.  The New International Version, and many other versions of the Bible translate the first phrase as, “do not pervert justice.”  I prefer the New American Standard, which translates the phrase, “do not distort justice.”  The Hebrew word here can be translated, “to stretch out” or “twist”. It is an image of changing something into what it was not meant to be. 

God wants governance where justice is clear and unchanged.  But what does that look like?  Thankfully he gives the people some examples.

First in verse 19, he says, “Do not show partiality.”  Who normally receives partiality?  Think about our day and age.  White people. Rich people.  The principle is clear.  No matter who you are, you should be treated the same. Justice is impartial

Next he says, “Do not accept bribes.”  Who do bribes favor?  Those with the ability to pay them.  The rich. Bribes also favor those in positions of power who can receive the bribes, usually government officials.  Justice should not be for sale.

He further explains this in verse 19 saying, “bribes blind the eyes of the wise and twist the words of the righteous.”  That’s an accurate image.  One scholar I read said that this could also be translated, “bribes subvert the cause of those who are in the right.”  Bribes do that.  They take a situation that is supposed to be based on justice and righteousness and twist it, and subvert it, making it unjust. 

Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve had the opportunity to give a bribe?  I have, in places like Jamaica and Guyana.  Bribes were/are a part of their culture.  Go to the DMV, for example, and unless you wanted to wait in line forever, you would give a bribe.  Or what if you get stopped by the police, but you weren’t doing anything wrong?  You knew what they were looking for.  Give them a bribe and you have an easy day.  Don’t offer a bribe, and you get a ticket for a false violation.

The Lord repeats, therefore, his heart for just governance in verse 20, “Follow justice and justice alone.” So what is justice?  He has already illustrated it two ways: it is not showing partiality, and it is not taking bribes.  But what about the word itself? In these verses, there are actually two words for “justice.”  Let’s look at both.

In verse 19, he uses a word which refers to a just decision in an individual case.But in verse 20, he uses a word which is the abstract quality of justice – what is right, often translated “righteousness.”

There is a famous verse, Amos 5:24, that  includes both words: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

I know the USA is not perfect, but we do believe in justice as the foundation of society.  It is in the last line of our pledge of allegiance. “With liberty and justice for all.” Think about that.  It really matches up nicely with what we just read.

When is the last time you read the Declaration of Independence?  What you’ll find is that justice is all over the place in the text.  A major concern of our founding fathers was that the Colonies were being treated unjustly by the British King and government.  After winning independence, those same founding fathers crafted our Constitution, and the opening sentence, the preamble, says this:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The United States was created on a foundation of justice. 

But remember that what we are reading in Deuteronomy is not God’s covenant with America. It is God’s covenant with the ancient people of Israel.  God doesn’t have a covenant with America.  But we can learn his heart, his desires for how his people should live. God is saying that justice is the best foundation for society, and so it is best for any nation to make justice the foundation of their land. 

Here in America, ours has been a roller coaster history of trying to live up to the idea of justice for all.  How just was it for Europeans to sail to Native American lands and take possession of the land by force or by unfair purchases?  How just was it for Americans to enslave millions of people from Africa, people who had been ripped from their homeland and shipped perilously to ours?  While we can proud of our American ideal of justice for all, we must also confess there are many ways we have allowed massive injustice to reign. 

That is why God had Israel to set up law courts in all their towns.  Because he knows there will be injustice. There will need to be wise, godly judges who have the authority to bring justice to any situation where there is injustice. 

So in Israel’s local law courts, and in their whole nation, justice rules. Check back in for the remaining posts in this series, as we will look at God’s heart for justice in our world.

Choose wise local leaders [God’s heart for good government, part 1]

12 Nov

The midterm elections were this week, the results are in, and now the politicians can get back to the business of governing.  That is good news for us, not least of which because the political road signs are coming down.  Postcards from candidates probably stopped arriving daily in the mail.  The TV ads are finally done. In this day and age, that means the ads on YouTube, Hulu, and other online sources, are also done.  I even got text messages from campaigns.  How did they get my number???  But those, too, have ceased.

How many of you get sick of all the money and attention given to our government elections?  Yeah, me too.  It’s pretty common to complain about elections, politicians and government.  In fact, I heard someone say this week that if you don’t vote, you can’t complain, so they voted, because they still wanted to be able to complain!

I suppose people will complain no matter if they voted or not. Why do we complain?  We complain because we’re not just sick of the election, we’re sick of government in general.  We point to all the ways government is messed up.   Have you heard the quote, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”?  It reminds us that there is so much bad government, even in systems, like democracy, which intend to be good.  It leaves us wondering if there is such a thing as good government. 

As we continue studying Deuteronomy, we arrive at a section in chapters 16 and 17 describing God’s government structure for Israel.  In this series of posts, we’re going to try to learn God’s heart for government.  Is there anything we Christians can learn from this?  Let’s find out.  Turn to Deuteronomy 16:18-20 and 17:8-20.

First, God mentions local judges in Deuteronomy 16:18-20.

For the last 40 years Israel had been together in close proximity as they traveled through the wilderness.  But now, entering the Promised Land of Canaan, they were going to spread out and occupy towns across the whole land.  Israel is the size of the state of New Jersey.  The people were not going to be close together anymore, so their governance had to change a bit.

As we see in verse 18, God is first giving them instructions about the local level of government.  He tells them to appoint judges and officials in each of the twelves tribes and in their towns.  That word “towns” is actually the Hebrew word “gates” referring the town gates, and it was customary in that culture for the elders of the towns to hold court at its city gates.

But how would they know who to appoint as judges?  Israel already had some experience with picking local leaders.  40 years earlier when Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, came to visit, he watched Moses, the top leader of the entire nation, spending all day, every day deciding all the law cases for everyone (Exodus 18).  Jethro said to Moses, “This is insane. Before you burn yourself out, appoint judges to help you.”  He further advised that these local judges were to be “capable, from all the people,” meaning that not just one tribe, but all tribes should be represented.  Additionally, the judges were to be, “men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain.”  This came up also in Deuteronomy 1:13 when we learn the judges were to be “wise, understanding and respected men.”

What we see in all these passages is that God shows a heart for his people to have wise, godly local government, and for the common person to have representation.  There were also national-level government leaders in Israel, as we will see in future posts in this series. But here in Deut. 16:18-20 we see the importance of having good local government.

This principle is very much mirrored in our American federal, state and local governance structure.  We have a governor for the whole state, but we also have local senators.  Same way for the federal government.  We have two senators for the whole state, and the House of Representatives for much smaller groups of population, and of course we have the president leading the whole country. Finally we elect leaders in our counties and towns, such as mayors, commissioners and judges. 

When you elect those those leaders, how do you choose to vote?  On the eve of the conflict 2016 general election, I preached and blogged about choosing leaders.  You can read that here.  What we see in Deuteronomy 16:18-20 (and Exodus 18 and Deuteronomy 1:9-18) is clear: God’s desires local leaders who are known for their wisdom, trustworthiness and character, people who will represent all people.  Do you use those traits when you consider who to vote for?  If you are a leader, elected or otherwise, how will you demonstrate and grow in these traits?

God has a heart that all would represented, and that they would be represented fairly.  In our next post, we’ll dig deeper into what that fair representation should look like.

Celebrating with aliens, the fatherless and widows [God’s heart for the holidays, part 5]

9 Nov

In this series of posts, we are seeking to learn God’s heart for the holidays in Deuteronomy 16, through three feasts he asks Israel to keep every year.  In the previous few posts, God expresses his heart for remembering, and in this fifth and final post, we’re going to look at two more themes. 

The second theme we see in Deuteronomy 16 is about Inclusion.

Did you notice a repeated phrase that described the Jewish feasts?  Look at verses 11 and 14.  Not only did these feasts include a person’s immediate family, but God also wanted them to include the alien, fatherless and widow!  That is astounding.  Why would God want their gatherings to include all these other people? He tells them.  In verse 12, he wants them to remember that they used to be the aliens when they were slaves in Egypt, in a land that was not their own.

Lest we think this was just a teaching for Israel, Jesus talked about this in Matthew 25:31-46 where he says in no uncertain terms that his followers are to reach out to people on the margins of life.  But the way he describes those on the margins is shocking, as he says that as much as we reach to include the stranger, the orphan, the prisoner, or the hungry, we are reaching out to him! And likewise, when we don’t reach out to those in need, we are neglecting him.  In other words, we need to see people like aliens, orphans and widows not as a threat, not as scary, not as uncomfortable, but as an opportunity to express love to Jesus!  Jesus’ brother James would write about this too, when he says in James 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” We Christians should be known for reaching out to those in need, including at the holidays.

Photo by Libby Penner on Unsplash

Who are the people on the margins you can reach out to?  Who can you invite to celebrate Thanksgiving or Christmas with you?  I love the photo above not only because the table is set and ready for guests, but because of the writing on the chalkboard.  Can you see it?  It is Acts 2:46, which is a Bible verse describing how the first Christians, right after Pentecost, practiced being inclusive.  It says, “they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.”

I recently heard the story of a family that hosts Thanksgiving, inviting mentally disabled people from their community.  What a wonderful way to apply this this teaching.  God has a heart for people on the margins, and he wants us to include them in our lives, even in the celebrations that are traditionally focused on family.

The theme of inclusion leads right into the third theme which is Rejoicing.

We see rejoicing numerous times in Deuteronomy 16.  Look at verses 11, 14 and 15.  Three times God reveals his heart: he wanted his people to rejoice and feast.  And specifically it is a rejoicing in the Lord for the blessings he has poured out on them.  At our family holidays, then, we can purposefully focus our rejoicing on the Lord.  With all the delicious food and sharing of gifts and traditional movies and sports, it can be very easy to give the Lord barely a mention.

Families, I encourage you to think about how you can purposefully include the Lord in your holiday celebrations.  Church families can rejoice like this too.  At most worship services, Faith Church has a time for sharing how God has been at work in our lives.  I’m often a tad nervous about what people will share.  Open mics can be free-wheeling, can’t they?  But it is worth it because it gives us a chance to rejoice together!

We Christians, then, are to be people of rejoicing!  I get it, life can sometimes be hard.  It can be very easy to get grumpy, to complain.  Ask the people around you, what are you known for?  Grumpiness?  Complaining?  Negativity?  Criticism?  People of God, we are to be known for rejoicing! We are joy-filled people because God is so good.  We have received his goodness, and we remember, we include others in our remembering and we rejoice.

So may yours be a church family that celebrates, even in the dark times, because of who God is and what he has done, and because of his constant presence in our lives.  He has been faithful in the past and he is faithful in the present!

Why I observe the Christian Calendar [God’s heart for the holidays, part 4]

8 Nov

Does your church follow the Christian calendar?  Just as God instituted feasts for the people of Israel to follow, ancient Christians created feasts as well.  That Christian calendar, while not commanded by God in his New Covenant with the church, is designed to help Christians remember and re-enact the story of Jesus, very much like God’s feasts for the Jews were to help them remember and re-enact the story of his faithfulness and salvation in their nation.  In the previous three posts in this series we looked at three Jewish feasts mentioned in Deuteronomy 16, seeking to learn God’s heart for the holidays.  Now we attempt to apply God’s heart to the Christian church.  To do that, let’s see if those ancient Christians who created Christian holy days (holidays!) were faithful to God’s heart.

There are many variations of the Christian calendar, depending on what Christian tradition you are from.  My guess is that the vast majority of Christians observe at least some of the holidays in the Christian calendar: Christmas and Easter.  But there are many others.  I’m going to describe what we practice at Faith Church, and this would be true for most churches in our denomination, the Evangelical Congregational Church.

In just a few weeks the calendar resets with the season of Advent.  Advent means “the arrival,” and thus points to a period of four weeks of spiritual preparation before Christmas, when we celebrate the arrival of or birth of Jesus, our savior.  We gather on Christmas Eve to rejoice in God’s love for us in sending his son.

The feast of Christmas lasts until January 6th, which is the day of Epiphany, a word meaning “revealing,” referring to the revealing of Jesus to the world.  Epiphany is a season marked by growth in Christ, and it lasts until Lent.

Each spring, there are 7 Sundays of Lent.  Lent is an Old English word for “length,” referring to the lengthening days of spring.  Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, and like Advent, Lent is another period of spiritual preparation, marked by fasting, including the final Sunday of Lent, Palm Sunday, when many churches re-enact Jesus’ Triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Palm Sunday kicks off Holy Week, during which we have a few other special days.  There is Maundy Thursday, remembering the Last Supper Jesus had with his disciples, when he washed their feet and gave them the practice of communion.  That Last Supper Jesus ate with his disciples was the Passover Seder is the first of two times the Jewish feasts intersect with Christian holidays.  The next special day of Holy Week is Good Friday, the day we remember Jesus’ crucifixion and death.

Then on Sunday we gather together with great joy to celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin, death and the devil through his resurrection!  Easter is the high point of the Christian calendar.  The feast of Easter, then, lasts for a few more weeks, until the Sundays of Jesus’ Ascension, remembering his return to his father, and of Pentecost, remembering the giving of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the church.  This is another place Jewish and Christian holidays intersect, as the Church began on the same day as one of the Jewish feasts, the Feast of Weeks.

From there the Christian calendar enters into the long period of growth called Ordinary Time.   Look at the calendar above, and you’ll notice that there are colors for each of the Christian seasons.  Ordinary Time, for example, is green.  At Faith Church we display those colors on our communion table up front, as well as on the back of our weekly bulletin.

The Christian calendar can be a helpful method for us, the church, to remember and re-enact the story of Jesus, just as God wanted Israel to do the same with the story of their Exodus to the Promised Land.  The church I grew up in observed Christmas and Easter, so when I was hired at Faith Church the Christian calendar was new.  But in 16 years I have come to deeply appreciate its rhythm of helping the church enter into the story of Jesus.  Many of us live overly-busy lives, distracted from the mission of the Kingdom of God.  The Christian calendar helps refocus us on that mission, and thus I commend it to you.  No, it is not a biblical practice that is commanded by God, but it does flow from his heart for the holidays!

Tomorrow, in our fifth and final post in this series on the Jewish feasts of Deuteronomy 16, we continue examining God’s heart for the holidays with two more themes that Christians can apply to our lives.