This past Sunday I had an opportunity to preach at Lighthouse Mpls Covenant Church where my wonderful friend, Dee McIntosh is the pastor. Check out the sermon in this video:
“What will people think
When they hear that I’m a Jesus freak
What will people do when they find that it’s true
I don’t really care if they label me a Jesus freak
There ain’t no disguising the truth.” – Jesus Freak, DC Talk
If there is anything Christian song that characterized my experience as a young person, it would have to be DC Talk’s Jesus Freak. Released in 1995, it defined what it meant to live a life completely sold out to God. Living a life on fire, as we so affectionately called it, was a big deal for youth like me who grew up in a Pentecostal context such as the Assemblies of God. In the era of the Brownsville Revival and the Toronto Blessing, being consumed with anything else simply wasn’t an option if you were truly a Christian.
We competed for God’s blessings, well rather, the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in our lives. The true marker of our commitment to God was whether or not we could speak in tongues. The second was whether we would get slain in the Spirit or at least, have a prophesy directed our way when the evangelist laid their hands on our head. And because I experienced both of these things, I was confident that I was a truly living a life that was pleasing to God.
We were mainly concerned with the visible works of the Holy Spirit. Sure, we cherished the fruits of the Spirit – things like love, joy, peace, and patience – but there were very little sermons preached about how we live in comparison to ensuring that we were full of the Spirit. We prayed for it. We fasted for it. We did all nighters and See You at the Pole rallies to prove just how sold out to God we were. We toiled and tarried at the altar, sometimes for hours, convinced that if we did our part, God would show up and pour out His Spirit in the same way He did in the early church, at least in the same way He did in the Azuza Street Revival. And we judged other Christians who were not pursuing God in the same manner, attaching value statements to believers, and churches, who were not experiencing powerful demonstrations of the Spirit.
And as God filled us with the power of the Holy Spirit, we hoarded the anointing and spent it on ourselves. We did not care, or cared very little, about how the same Spirit might turn the world upside down. Unlike the early church, fullness of the Spirit to us meant more manifestations evidenced in increased church attendance, new conversions, and acts of speaking in tongues. My, how we prioritized speaking in tongues. But we did not think about how the Holy Spirit might use us to dismantle the systems of injustice that were holding people captive to oppression and pain.
A teacher of the law asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Rather than answer his question, Jesus countered and asked the teacher to define the law himself and the teacher replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Agreeing to the teacher’s answer, Jesus said, “If you do this you will have eternal life.”
But the teacher wasn’t satisfied. He wanted to test Jesus further. “Who exactly is my neighbor?”
Rising to the challenge, Jesus proceeded to point to the one who was most vilified in their society – the Samaritan. The one who was religiously and culturally different from this teacher – and who was consistently exploited for being so – was the very one whom God called him to love. To embrace. To treat neighborly. To display kindness, mercy and humility toward.
Jesus did not stop there. He not only professed love for the socially outcast but built an entire ministry around other marginalized identities including the poor, the widow, the orphan, the prostitute, sinners, women, children and more, showing that true disciples of Christ show mercy and love to all people without distinction. In his ministry to the outcast, Jesus demanded very little of these people, in fact, he continually claimed that the kingdom of God belonged to those at the margins of society saying, “Blessed are you who are poor, meek, merciful, pure in heart, and persecuted for righteousness sake – for yours in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5.3 – 12, NRSV). And at the same time, he continually condemned those in power who were responsible for the marginalized’s misery.
In our day and time, we must consider Jesus’ words and ministry like never before. His injunction to love others unapologetically still applies and this application is not up for debate if we truly do believe that the Word of God is true! In this political moment, the personhood of many immigrant and refugee groups – including Muslims and Latinos – is being called into question as leaders in our nation attempt to pass laws that exclude them. Though some Evangelical leaders suggest that this is not a biblical issue, we do not get to decide what does and what does not apply. God alone calls the shots on God’s own Word, so that if He says that we need to love, we better love. Hard! If not, we have to perhaps consider that we are not only willing to disobey His Word but may be outside of the family of God.
Remember the teacher’s question to Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” For Jesus, love is not a matter of convenience or political expedience; it is a matter of eternal life. Period. In fact, all of the commandments and teachings of the law and the prophets hinge on this one single thing: love. To take it one step further, we cannot even say that we love God if we do not love others – we cannot despise those created in the image of God and still declare that we love God. For us, this means that we cannot say that we love God while simultaneously hating, despising, and oppressing Muslims and Latino immigrants and refugees. Also, remember God has a special heart for the foreigner in our land!
The biblical response to the Muslim Ban and the build the wall nonsense, is to love. And from the place of love, we speak up and speak out against everything that minimizes the personhood of others. We can do this in a myriad of ways including but not limited to writing letters to the editor of our local newspapers, speaking to our family and friends about the importance of resisting despotic policies, joining in protests that affirm the rights and dignity of the oppressed, or informing other Christians about what is going on. The form in which we engage and use our influence as believers is not as important – what is important is that we do something to extend God’s love in this moment.
Today, I sit before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, so that you may live, you and your descendants. – Deuteronomy 30.14
The task that is laid before the people of every generation is whether or not they will follow after God. Will they build upon the good works and faith of the ancestors who have gone on before them? Or will they turn away from the path laid out before them and embrace chaos, destruction, and death instead, pushing the world further away from existence? Will they seek to redeem the despotic decision making of their fore fathers and mothers by fighting for justice and telling God’s good news about deliverance? Or will they, like their ancestors before them, persist in grinding the face of the poor for power and profit?
No matter the good done by those before, subsequent generations are expected to affirm their commitment to living a life modeled after God’s ideas rather than imperialistic obsessions with greed, evil, and death. While the idea of generational blessings has merit from a theological standpoint, this idea still clarifies the need for each generation to stand for justice and righteousness. No generation of people are exempt from having to make such a commitment, each is called to decide and declare its allegiance to God – most notably in times of transition including political and economic instability.
This is the challenge that the Israelites faced after being freed from Egypt. Three generations made distinctly different choices in their decision to follow after God. The first generation, or Moses’ generation, exhibited unfaith even though they witnessed with their own eyes God’s saving power. In spite of all that God had done for them – parting the Red Sea, dropping bread out of the sky, and so many other miracles – they complained, worshipped idols, and also simply refused to believe in God. As a result of their actions, they died out in the wilderness and failed to fully inherit all that God had for them. The second generation, Joshua’s generation, made different choices. Unlike their parents before them, or perhaps because of them, this generation inherited the Promised Land as a result of consistent, albeit imperfect obedience to God. The third generation, not knowing anything about Joshua or how God delivered the Israelites, pursued evil. The people of this generation, and even ones proceeding after it were consistently described as ones who did was what right in their own eyes and had little regard for God.
Similarly throughout the lineage of the Davidic Empire in Israel, each generation made different decisions in terms of how they would either follow God by pursuing justice, mercy, and humility or turn away from God. David, though an ardent worshipper, compromised his faith by pursuing prestige, power, and possessions – even those that belonged to other people. Although God gave his son Solomon the authority to build the Jewish Temple, Solomon greatly oppressed those within the kingdom to not only pull off the building of this great edifice but other visible institutions of the Empire. In addition, his pursuit of political power at the expense of his love for God cost him the intimacy that he once enjoyed with God. And Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, decided to further depart from God’s will instead of improving upon his ancestors weaknesses. Although he knew about how his father Solomon bought and sold people for the sake of expansion, and how David – his grandfather – was responsible for so much bloodshed, both within and without the kingdom, Rehoboam vowed to make things even worse for the people when presented with the opportunity to ease the burden of the oppressed: “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (I Kings 12.11, NASB).
Yet, disobedience and departure from the ways of God came with a cost. In each instance when a generation chose to pursue injustice instead of embracing God’s shalom, there was catastrophe. Though this catastrophe was most often felt among those who were already oppressed – after all, vulnerable and marginalized communities often pay the most in times of civil and political unrest – there were consequences for every decision that squelched the opportunity for God’s love, peace, mercy, and justice to be felt among God’s people. Such was the case with Rehoboam – his persistence in following evil was a pivotal moment in Israel’s history that precipitated the downfall of the empire. Unfortunately, the kings that arose after him made similar decisions which only hastened the eventual destruction of Jerusalem and captivity of the people.
God always gives us a choice. Because He is patient and kind, not willing for anyone to perish, He consistently extends to each and every one of us the opportunity to chose Him. Not just to believe in Him or express faith in Him, but to back up what we believe about God by our commitment to pursue justice, love, and mercy instead of injustice, hatred and war.
Somehow we forget that this is what God is concerned about. We forget, or rather we do not know, that God’s heart aches for the broken and despised in this world. He grieves over the fatherless, the widow, the foreigner – people who have been made poor because of the systems of this world. Because He is concerned about them, He demands that we be concerned about them. Over and over and over again throughout the biblical text, He raises our consciousness on the plight of these and asks us to choose: Choose life so that you may live. Clothe the naked. Feed the hungry. Liberate those in prison. Preach good news to those who are hopeless as a result of their condition.
God’s Clarion Call Today
Once again, we are at a point in history where God is asking us – and by us I want to specifically address Christian believers and also recognize that He extends the same invitation to the rest of the world – to make a decision. I call out the Church specifically because, unfortunately, we have a track record of ignoring social problems – if not condoning them – for the sake of comfort and security. In our time, right now, people across the globe are suffering tremendously because of the United States’ obsession with power. Because of power, we wage war against nations with impunity. Because of power, we consume the world’s goods – without care for who or what we are dispossessing even if the one that is being dispossessed is the earth itself. Because of power, we make allegiances with nations who are bent towards evil and ignore the plight of nations that are suffering because of our policies.
And that is just what we are doing to people outside of our nation’s borders. The things that we are doing to our own kin are just as atrocious and despicable. Although this nation has always despised Black, Indigenous, and Other People of Color (BIPOC), we are now seeing this hatred at a heightened level. The policies that were arguably covert since the Civil Rights era are now overt making it nearly impossible to deny that racism and white supremacy not only exist, but are still preferred weapons of war against non-whites. Will we stand to see stand to see Latinos deported, Muslims targeted, Blacks criminalized, American Indians lose even more land, LGBTQ persons increasingly discriminated against, and the poor of all races and cultures pitted against each other as the nation hoards more and more resources? Or will we stand and say no? Will we make a clear, unequivocal statement saying that we not only support these moves but will resist them through civic engagement, advocacy, civil disobedience, and prayer?
In recent history, the Church was called to make a similar decision. This time, the location was Germany and the people who were being persecuted were the Jews. As Nazism increased in the country, there arose a strange marriage between nationalism and Christianity, where the church produced anti-Semitic literature, banned Christians of Jewish ancestry from membership, and defaced the sacred scriptures – throwing out the Old Testament and amending the New Testament scriptures to erase Jesus’ connection to Judaism.
In his book, Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice, Dr. Curtiss DeYoung writes that in spite of the fact that church leaders were bothered by these moves, many refused to speak against Hitler. “They were encouraged at how the Nazis were reviving the nation’s morale and economy. And Nazi anti-Semitism was far from foreign to much of Christianity, which had a long anti-Semitic history, based on church teachings that Jews were guilty as a race for the death of Christ. (Living Faith: How Faith Inspires Social Justice p 30).”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the few pastors – let alone Christians – who took a stand against Hitler noted how incapable the church was in standing up for justice, in spite of the teachings of the Jesus who advocated for such a witness against evil empires and oppression. For Bonhoeffer this “revealed the problematic character of its entire past: its veneration of and obedience to the state, its support for the traditional class system, its resistance to social change, its indifference to the plight of workers and the poor, and its opposition to socialism and working class politics” (ibid, 35). Unfortunately, Bonhoeffer was not just referring to the church in Germany but the entirety of Western Christian witness noting that delegates at the World Council of Churches held in Denmark of 1934 were resigned to the reality of war in Europe. At such a critical time in world history, Christians failed to speak and exercise the gift of the Holy Spirit working on the inside of them.
Listen, I’m not equating what’s going on in our nation and conspiring nations to what happened to the Jews – although there are strikingly similar comparisons that we must stay vigilant about. However, regardless of the scale of evil – whether it is concentrated in one region of the world or widespread across the globe – as Christians, we must speak out about it. We must speak if it affects us directly and we must speak if it does not. As a result of the church’s failure to speak, millions of people died in the Holocaust – Jews, blacks, people with disabilities, and anyone Hitler found a political threat, including Bonhoeffer himself. As a result of the church’s inability to extend compassion, love, and justice to others, millions more in our own life times are living lives under siege. Will we ignore their suffering and turn a deaf ear to their cries as did the church in WWII? Or will we choose life so that we, our descendants, our kin around the world, may live?
Oh, I pray that we choose life. Today, in this moment, let it be said that this generation chose life. Let it be said that we resisted. That we prayed. That we gathered around the dispossessed. That we extended God’s love to those who are near and far. That we refused to hide behind comfortable Christianity and took a chance on love, took a chance on God. That we welcomed the kingdom of God among us as we provided for the needs of those who are without. That’s my prayer for you, that’s my prayer for all of us as we embrace this New Year.
As we finish off leftovers from Thanksgiving, we usher in another season of advent. And if you are like me, you too have also been wondering what this season means in light of the current political moment. Getting wrapped up in the typical holiday festivities and cheer is tempting – I want my children to have good memories about baking cookies, decorating the Christmas Tree, and of course, opening presents early Christmas morning. And at the same time, this moment demands a level of reflection and responsiveness that is not found in glasses of thick Eggnog, fragrant Christmas wreaths, or even Candlelight Vigils capped by melodic choruses of Silent Night.
Whether we appreciate it or not, this season of advent has already taken on a different meaning. So many people in our nation alone, are hurting and genuinely afraid of what awaits them after this season comes to a close. Our friends throughout the world also wonder the same. Coincidentally, the end of advent coincides with the beginning of a new presidential administration which has already made great promises to hurt and harm the marginalized among us – all for personal economic power and self-aggrandizement it turns out. How will this new administration affect the lives of the already exploited among us? Will they be deported, forced to go back to lands that our nation’s foreign policies have decimated? Will they be forced to put their names of a government registry because of their faith, once again scapegoated for this country’s crimes against humanity? Will they be killed without cause and vindication, either by police or those robbed in hoods of the heart? Will they be sexually harassed without their perpetrators ever seeing their day in court, forced to carry to full term babies born through such evil acts of rape and incest? Will they lose the little bit of land that they have managed to hang onto for all of these years, called trespassers on property that rightfully belongs to them? These are the fears that govern the hearts and minds of the vulnerable among us. What does the advent of Christ mean in such a time as this?
If we are paying attention to how things are unfolding around us while simultaneously studying God’s Word, we would understand that in a time just like this Christ came down. It was during a similar moment marked by intense marginalization and colonial rule, that Jesus was born. And fortunately for us, this Jesus was not born into prestige, resources, or any semblance of power. He was born into a community that had little clout which was being held captive by an empire that thirsted on the perpetual exploitation of not only His people, but other vulnerable communities within its reach.
So when the Bible says that Jesus identifies with our weakness, it means this quite literally. Like many of us, Jesus was an undocumented refugee. Like many of us, Jesus was born out of wedlock to parents who didn’t have enough money for a decent room at a respectable hotel. Like many of us, Jesus was a social outcast because of his ethnicity. Like many of us, Jesus lived in a despotic police state. Like many of us, Jesus did not have rights to free speech. Like many of us, every move that Jesus made was watched. Like many of us, Jesus was considered threatening to the ruling powers of his day to the point that they felt compelled to silence Him.
Advent then, has never been about Jesus identifying with the powerful; it has always and will forever be about Jesus living in absolute solidarity with the vulnerable and weak. This is what the incarnation is all about: the Son of God taking on human flesh and the utter finiteness of that human flesh in a world built of destruction. He could have easily been born to a family of means or during a time when the Jews were in a better political situation. Instead, he chose a family who had access to little resources in a time when His people were prisoners in their own home.
Jesus is rightly called Immanuel, God with us. God with us in the struggle, God with us in the righteous work to affirm the humanity of those who are under threat of losing it every day. He sees the fight we are up against for survival, and instead of standing away from it, He enters into that fight at the deepest level. He’s more than an ally because the same chains that bind others, He has allowed to bind Himself. Working on behalf of our liberation, He also works on behalf of His own, declaring to Himself the same salvation that He pronounces on the world around.
Jesus is not only with us, He delivers us. He does not simply fight for fighting sakes, He actually breaks the chains that keep us all imprisoned to an imperial system hell bent on our demise. He does this subversively, allowing Himself to be imprisoned, beat, and ultimately executed by empire. Rising from the dead, He proves that He has ultimately defeated and conquered them all. Every hint of power that satiates on the oppression of the weak, He destroys. Every idea that insists that it is Lord over creation, He makes irrelevant. He heals the sick. He raises the dead. He brings utter and complete liberty to those who cry out for rescue, proving that He is not only LORD of all, but Savior of all too.
Reflecting on the life and ministry of Jesus in this context gives me hope. For advent has never been about the wreaths and Christmas Carols. Though nice, it has always been about remembering what Christ initially came to do so that His actions would be found in us. And today, we desperately need to have His actions magnified in us – for how else will we stand and protect the rights of our brothers and sisters, our very own selves even, unless we commit to modeling our thoughts and actions after His? This moment necessitates that all of those who are called by Christ, those who say that they are His, to stand for truth and righteousness, forsaking all evil that claims supremacy and that exalts itself against the knowledge of Christ – even if that evil exists within our own selves.
On this day, may the very image of Christ be reflected in us as we likewise enter into the struggle of the oppressed. May God be magnified in us as we fight for the rights of those are at risk of losing them for the sake of material gain. May the Kingdom of God draw a little closer to this earth as we pronounce salvation for those who suffer and grieve in this present moment. To them belong the Kingdom, to them belong the Kingdom.
Jesus, may you come ever so quickly!
What is the Christian, well human, response to the election? In this video for MennoNerds, I talk about just that. My hope and prayer is that as a community of believers we will become more prepared to do the work of shalom, justice, in the coming weeks, months and years ahead.
Jesus, come quickly!
He walked into your life 18 months ago although you’ve known him much longer. He was always the charismatic guy able to woo a crowd, you were just the socially awkward one standing up against the wall across the room. You were delighted when he finally turned his attention toward you. You were instantly drawn to his energy and boisterous words. He talked about his dreams and where he wanted to go in life. And told you that he wanted you in his future. He promised that if you took his hand, he could turn things around for you. Bigly.
When others were irked by his history and antics, you wrote them off as simple minded. When friends and family said they did not like him because he reminded them of an abuser, you called for a more even-handed stance on the issues. Gaff after gaff, you stood by him. Faithfully. You admired his ability to speak what was on his mind without consequence. You loved him for his outsider approach to this thing called life. You coveted him because of the billions that he bragged to possess, never mind how we got them, never mind his history of financial ruin.
So it came as no surprise to none of us when you finally said yes to his proposal. We didn’t expect much more but we hoped that you would reconsider. Oh how we hoped. And we longed for you to choose from among your other lovers. Even the Big Bird killer was starting to look good.
But you didn’t. You were in it for the long-haul because you were convinced that he had what it took. You didn’t care what anyone said or the fact that he was simply not a good look on you. Orange seldom is. Instead, you went ahead and booked the caterer. You secured the location. You chose the priest. You rehearsed the vows, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…” You were in it to win it, and there simply was no other option but him.
As you get closer and closer to the big day, he continues to show you who he is. Bigot. Abuser. Liar. Fraud. Some of the latest news causes you to reconsider, at least a little bit, if he is right for you. You distance yourself while still holding on for dear life because you have deceived yourself into thinking that you have too much to lose if you completely turn away.
I am here to tell you that you don’t. The only thing you stand to lose is your dignity and pride, and in time, that can be recuperated. But if you go through with this thing, you will lose much more.
And then, all I can say is that we warned you. We told you to cancel the ceremony, to get your refund on the location. Cancel the cake, or whatever, keep and eat it if you wish. Just make sure you are eating that thing alone and he is no where in sight. Because if you let him near it, he will steal it, smash it to pieces, and then make you clean up the mess.