Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Look Back Yet with Hope

Today marks the end of a year filled with turbulence. It has been like flying in a plane at a high altitude and hitting a pocket of rough air. You remember being pitched around. Your stomach begins to quiver. You grip the arm rests of your seat a little tighter. And you pray a quick prayer...take that back, you pray a long prayer that you might survive. That pretty much describes 2008...only the turbulence just kept coming. There was no let up at all.

The housing market continued its downward slide with foreclosure rates reaching epidemic proportions. Those, fortunate enough to keep their homes, saw values plunge to record lows. And there seems to be no turn-around in sight. Wall Street, a bastion of supposed security and strength, was next to suffer a collapse. Institutions that had survived the Great Depression now closed their doors forever. In order to stay a total economic meltdown, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department infused billions of taxpayer dollars into banks and other lending institutions, and even bailed out an auto industry that was on life-supports. (Don't ask me how it will all be paid for...I won't live that long!)

And now the world teeters on the brink of war. Of course the focus is the Middle East. Even as I write this final blog for 2008, Israeli warplanes continue their aerial assault on Hamas rocket launching sites within the Gaza Strip. Most of the Arab world has remained uniquely silent, secretly hoping, at least in my opinion, that Hamas will be defeated. That would knock down Iran, the largest supporter of Hamas. Of course, the Saudis and the Egyptians and even the Jordanians cannot come out and say that they hope Israel will cause the Palestinian people to overthrow Hamas. And, in Ramallah, President Abbas is also hoping for the demise of Hamas so that he and the Palestinian Authority might reclaim that which was taken from them in 2006.

In just a few days, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Whether you voted for him or not, he is certainly going to need our prayers. His is an unenviable task. I can only hope that he and his family have enjoyed the past few days of vacation in Hawaii because it might be his last vacation for several years.

Looking back, 2008 was certainly a year for weather extremes. I just read that 2008 was one of the most deadly years, weather wise, ever recorded. Over 125,000 people died when a cyclone hit Bangladesh. Hurricane Ike certainly caused its share of grief and hardship along the Texas coast. Tornadoes occurred in record numbers. The Midwest suffered through floods of unprecedented proportions. And now record snowfall and cold have invaded much of the northern half of the United States.

I think, as most of us will look back upon 2008 in the years that lie ahead, most of our thoughts will have a negative bent. Yet, through it all I have still seen God at work. He is still directing this play according to the script which He wrote before He ever created this world. And, I believe the climax of this play is about to come. We are in the last act and, perhaps, even nearing the final scene. So there is still hope for us to cling to. Our confidence is not built upon an Obama Administration nor upon a Wall Street bailout. Our hope is not built upon an economic stimulus package nor upon a ceasefire in the Middle East. No, our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness. "On Christ the solid Rock I stand...and I hope you do as well...for all other ground...political, military, sinking sand."

May God bless your New Year with His presence and His power.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Birthday of the Servant-King

This morning I was reading a series of scripture passages focusing upon the First Advent of Christ. I do this every year as a reminder of the real reason for the season. I have to admit that I never grow tired of reading the Christmas story in all its many settings, from Matthew and Luke, which record the actual events surrounding the birth of Christ, to John and Paul who declare the significance of who this little baby really was.

In reading the accounts in Matthew 2 and in Philippians 2, I noticed two very interesting statements that almost seemed contradictory. In Philippians 2:7, the Apostle Paul states that he made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. While in Matthew 2:2 we read of the question the magi asked of Herod, Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.

Now there is a marked difference between "a servant" and "a king." To be a king implies having something or someone to rule over. To be a king means to have authority over another. To be a king creates the environment where people submit themselves to that authority. The magi came to Jerusalem seeking a baby who had the authority of a king and who would specifically rule over the Jewish people. To be a king was to be exalted.

On the other hand, to be a servant implies having only an authority that someone else gives to you. A servant had no authority of his own. To be a servant means that one's life was given to enable someone else to rise to a higher standard than they were at that moment. To be a servant was to be humbled.

Were the magi confused as to who Jesus was? Was the Apostle Paul confused? Neither was confused. Both the magi and the Apostle were correct. But the time perspectives were different. Before He could become King, Jesus had to take upon Himself the role of a servant. While talking with His disciples, Jesus told them that He did not come to be served, as a king would be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many. All four gospel writers record incident after incident where Jesus served others: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And, His ultimate act of service came when He became obedient to death, even death on a cross. The First Advent is a celebration of His coming as a servant.

But, the Second Advent will be a celebration of His coming as a King. In that same Philippians 2 passage, in verses 9-11, the Apostle Paul declares that God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name. This the celebration accorded a king. And He will be King over everyone, not just the Jewish people. What a great day that will be!

So it is correct to say that Christmas is the birthday of Servant-King.

I wish a most blessed Christmas to each of you. May you experience His presence and be awed by His peace these days. Merry Christmas, and, as Tiny Tim would say, "God bless us, everyone!"

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Mess in Illinois Confirms an Old Truth

In 1887, in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton - better known as Lord Acton - wrote these words: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."

That thought came to my mind as I have been reading accounts of the arrest of the Governor of Illinois on charges of political corruption. Governor Blagojevich has been, I take that back...he has been known to have said that the vacant Senate seat in Illinois would go to the highest bidder. Furthermore, he said that if no one met the price, then he would appoint himself to that seat. Now corruption is nothing new in Illinois politics. I remember living in Chicago back in the early 1980's and the expression "vote early and vote often" was a rule of thumb. The church I served witnessed first hand political corruption. And now, Governor Blagojevich, if convicted, would join three previous Illinois governors who bear the title of "felon." Yes, Lincoln would roll over in his grave.

Now the question will be asked: What did President-elect Obama know about this corrupt practice? Investigations will be forth-coming, and well they should be. And I trust the media will do a more careful investigation than they did during the months prior to the election. Our nation certainly does not need another "Watergate" early in a new administration.

Why is Lord Acton correct in his statement? Unfortunately we have witnessed the reality of this truth over and over again. Politicians, business leaders, and even pastors have fallen in disgrace. Power does corrupt. But does it have to? I believe the answer is no. Just look at Jesus.

He was the incarnate Son of God. He was God in the flesh. All authority under heaven and upon earth was invested in Him. Now that is a lot of power. But how did Jesus use that power? Did He use it to advance Himself? Did He use it to intimidate people to bow to His authority? Absolutely not! Jesus Christ came not to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many. There is the key: Jesus came to serve others. Jesus used His powers to minister to the needs of others. The focus of Jesus was upon others. So He ministered to tax collectors and prostitutes. He touched lepers and those who were unclean. He ate meals with sinners. Jesus wept unashamedly at the tomb of Lazarus; but also spoke strong words against the demonic spirit that possessed a young boy. Jesus came to serve.

Friends, there is the difference between Governor Blagojevich and Jesus. Governor Blagojevich used his power and position to further his own quest for more power. Jesus served others. How sad that our leaders, not only in politics and business, but also in our churches, have forgotten how to serve others.

Lord, give us the heart of a servant. Help us to use the power and positions You have given to us to minister to others. Help us not to seek the applause of men, nor to seek to add to our estimation of who we are. But help us to do it for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mumbai - Why?

This past weekend terrorists struck once again destroying innocent lives. The location was Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. Mumbai is the "New York" of the Indian subcontinent. It is a city teeming with millions of people, many of whom literally sleep along roadsides or on folding tables in front of their very small store fronts. I remember taking a cab from the Mumbai airport to a small hotel late one evening (actually it was very early in the morning). I was shocked to see the masses of people living in such squalid conditions.

But, it was not these impoverished, destitute dalits that were the target of the hatred of the terrorists. No, the target was foreign business people, tourists, and Jews. The attack upon the Hotel Taj Mahal and the Jewish Chahad Center was well planned and executed. The slaughter was both indiscriminate and yet targeted. All who perished never met their attackers. All who perished never knew the reasons why they had become the objects of someone else's anger. All who died were innocent. They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and were of the wrong religious beliefs.

And why were those ten young men from Pakistan so angry that they actually planned such mayhem and murder? Being Pakistanis they had a profound hatred of Indians. That is just a fact of history. Since Pakistan separated itself from India, those two ethnic groups have barely tolerated the others existence. Pakistan and India always seem poised on the brink of destroying each other. But of greater concern than the ethnic animosity is the religious animosity. These Pakistanis were radical Islamic extremists. They had a violent hatred toward Westerners and Jews - in their minds, "the Great Satan" and "the little Satan."

This was another in a long series of religious attacks we have witnessed since 9/11. Instead of trying to understand a different religious viewpoint through dialogue, the objective is the destruction of anyone who does not hold to my particular belief. The Romans attempted to destroy the new way called Christianity by mass crucifixions and coliseum spectacles. The Christians, later during the time of the Crusades, tried to destroy the infidel Muslims. Later even some of the Reformers persecuted Anabaptists who did not hold to a particular belief system. In each of the above attempts at destroying a belief-system, the attempt failed. Christianity survived the Roman persecutions. Islam survived the mayhem of the Crusades. And Anabaptism survived the intimidating threats of Calvin and Zwingli. And, I am convinced, the terroristic threats of radical Islam will fail as well.

I am alarmed that there has been no loud outcry from any Islamic leader condemning the attacks in Mumbai. In fact, there has been no cry at all. If the tables had been reversed and a group of Muslims had been attacked and slaughtered by a radical Hindu sect, then the entire Islamic world would be involved in a firestorm. Remember the outrage over some cartoons published in a Danish paper. Until the Islamic world stands up and condemns these fanatics as being outside of Islamic belief, these assaults will continue unabated because these fanatics will believe that the whole of the Islamic world is in agreement with them. And, perhaps they are correct in their thinking.

What happened in Mumbai is not an isolated incident. Could it happen here in the United States? Absolutely. Have you stayed at a luxury hotel lately? Security is lax. Lobbies are open and inviting targets for terrorists. As 9/11 caused a great change in the way that we travel by security lines prior to 9/11, I believe the events in Mumbai could change the way we stay in hotels. Perhaps we will have to go through screening to even get into the lobby.

This world is changing. It is becoming increasingly more violent just as the Scriptures indicate will happen. We can either cower with fear or we can explode with hope. I trust we will manifest the later.