Return to Me. Remember. Restoration. Revelation.
These are the themes we have explored as we’ve journeyed through the book of Joel. Our fifth and final point of exploration in this final message of our series is “Rise Up”.
I imagine that when you read those words, it conjures an image in your mind. Let that image develop for a minute. What does it mean to you to rise up? What picture do you see?
Undoubtedly, the pictures we see have been formed by what we’ve been taught, what we understand of both our God and the world around us, and our own personal beliefs. Our cultural understanding informs the images we see. Our theological understanding does as well. What we have to discuss today–whether you agree or disagree–is vital to our understanding of God, to the way we follow Jesus within our faith communities, and to our own personal journeys with Christ.
These are the passages Pastor John highlighted in Sunday’s message:
Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war! Rouse the warriors! Let all the fighting men draw near and attack. Beat your plowshares into swordsand your pruning hooks into spears. Let the weakling say,“I am strong!”Come quickly, all you nations from every side, and assemble there. Bring down your warriors, Lord! (Joel 3:9-11, NIV)
The sun and moon will be darkened, and the stars no longer shine.The Lord will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the heavens will tremble.
But the Lord will be a refuge for his people,a stronghold for the people of Israel.“Then you will know that I, the Lord your God, dwell in Zion, my holy hill. Jerusalem will be holy; never again will foreigners invade her. (Joel 3:15-17, NIV)
When we read these verses and think about the phrase “Rise up!”, it immediately appears that the exhortation is one of standing strong as warriors against our enemy.
And it is… as long as we know who that enemy is…and as long as the weapon we carry is the one He has sanctioned.
It would also appear that God is calling for and advocating violence as a means of protection from our enemy.
This is where it gets messy, friends… As Pastor John explained in his message, we can take many different passages of scripture–these verses included–to make a case for retributive righteousness: a moral vindication for all that’s been done wrong, a “getting even” and beyond. Many within the Church, especially here in the United States, buy into this understanding, teach it, and proclaim it as biblical truth. If you’ve any doubt of the truth of that statement, take a quick peek at the social media accounts of many prominent voices who identify as Christian. It’s impossible to miss the connection between many of these voices and the anthem of retribution–this perceived “right” of Christians to treat others the way we’ve been treated, and the subsequent rejoicing in the failings and eventual demise of our “enemies”.
But wait… If I’m remembering correctly…
…we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12, NLT)
Our “enemies” aren’t other people… We don’t fight against fellow flesh and blood. But somehow, we have come to understand that there are those who are “enemies” of us and of our God. And we assume that God does, in fact, enact retributive righteousness–or justice–upon them.
How did we come to this understanding? Perhaps the most obvious reason is that we forget to connect individual verses to the rest of the story. We cannot grasp at certain verses and build a case without first looking at those verses through the lens of all of scripture, and through the filter of the character of our invisible God revealed in the person of Jesus. We have discussed this here before, the importance of seeing, thinking, and understanding through a “Jesus filter”. Verses are taken out of context all the time, and perhaps the most grotesque misapplications of scripture are those that would distort the image of God into an angry, vengeful warrior that looks a lot like the “enemy” we want for Him to conquer on our behalf…
But, thankfully, our God doesn’t look like that. And He doesn’t act like us. He sees judgement and justice differently than we do… How do I know? Because,
Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.
He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation…(Col. 1:15, NLT)
When it comes to Jesus’ beliefs regarding violence, His position is clear. He believed in–and taught his followers the way of–nonviolence. Somehow, His church has moved away from this understanding, but His early followers got it, and lived it.
And it led many of them to their death.
Which is why, I believe, we’ve adapted a new belief system about violence. One that advocates, at the very least, self-defense; and one that–at it’s most heinous–has been used to enact “sanctioned” genocide.
We forget that our real enemy is actually a liar–and the father of lies–and he would love nothing more than for us to buy into a distortion of the heart of our God. A distortion that whispers to our hurting, offended hearts that while God goes to great lengths to rescue and pour out His love on us, He will not do the same for them. No, they will get what they deserve. And we love this lie. Because it makes us feel justified in our anger and disdain, in our thirst for revenge… We don’t like the thought of turning the other cheek, of following in the footsteps of our Savior–because, unlike the saints referenced in Revelation 12:11 who, “…did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die...”, we do love our lives. And our comfort. And our power. And our sense of control. And our “rights”.
I stated above that Jesus believed in nonviolence. I don’t want to make that kind of assertion without telling you how I got there… I have not investigated every verse recorded in the gospels that could be (mis)used to show Jesus as an advocate of violence. I did look at several of them today, though, in the context in which they were recorded. And I have read commentary from people much smarter than me who have put hours and hours of study into this subject.
One of the most compelling articulations I’ve come across is from pastor & author Brian Zahnd, who spoke on Jesus’ stance on violence at the Simply Jesus gathering that I attended in July. Brian spoke about the encounter that Jesus and his disciples had with the mob and the soldiers that came for him in the Garden of Gethsemane. (You can read his full message here.) Brain asserts that the Bible is a violent book, not because God is violent, but because we are. He reminded us that the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, should we fight?”, immediately followed by Peter cutting off the high priest’s ear. Jesus’ response? “No more of this!”, immediately followed by Jesus healing (we could use the word “restoring”) the man’s ear.
Tertullian (160-220 AD), a second century church father, said:
“In disarming Peter, Christ disarmed all Christians.”
Zahnd also spoke about the most quoted verses by early church fathers during the first three centuries. From the Hebrew scriptures, it was Isaiah 2:4,
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
And from the New Testament, the most quoted verse of the early church was Matthew 5:44, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
“But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!”
The verse that directly precedes this one is, ““You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.” (Matt. 5:43)
“But I say…”
What is our faith built upon? What is your final authority? My answer? Jesus. He has the final authority. He fulfills and extends the Law. His way of love, so often made to look like an easy way out of religious requirements, is actually much more difficult than the old way of the law. At one point, “an eye for an eye” was law.
But Jesus says… “love your enemies.”
He knew we would get caught up in the constraints of religion and self-serving theology. He tried to make the truth clear to those who looked at scripture as the final authority when he said, in John 5:39,
You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! (NLT)
Brian said in his message, “Violence belongs to the old age that [passed] away with the arrival of the kingdom of God.”
The Kingdom. It’s the radical alternative to the violence that lives within us. It is the answer to the broken systems that are based in retributive justice. Because the Kingdom of Jesus, the way of love, is all about restorative justice. This is the kind of justice that makes all things right. This is–and always has been–the heart of God for every person He has ever created… To reconcile each heart to Himself.
Pastor John said on Sunday, “God will make all things right consistent with how He has treated me.” And, “The heart of God beats for you… and that heart is the same for each of His children.”
Even those we would like to regard as our enemies.
You see, there is one kind of violence advocated by Jesus under His new covenant… It is that of our putting to death our old selves, with our self-serving, vengeful desires, that we might live as children of light in His Kingdom–here and now–to show others the self-sacrificial way of love. This altogether “other” way that was evidenced by Paul and the disciples and the early church–those who never fought back, but willingly gave their lives to show the world the way of the One who modeled for us what it really means to “Rise up”. Which is to take up the weapon of God’s love, and live for the sake of His Kingdom, as Image Bearers, by the power of His Spirit… Rising up God’s way looks an awful lot like laying down… His is an upside-down Kingdom. And we’re invited to participate in His story–the whole story–not of retribution, but of restoration.
Whenever we find ourselves thinking in binary ways that pit us against other image bearers, it’s wise for us to pause and remember all that Laura wrote above. As both she and Pastor John pointed out, we must take the context of all of scripture rather than picking and choosing verses to meet our own mindsets. We can justify a lot of ungodly behaviors by using scripture to back up our own meanness–but it’s hard to read His word through the lens of Jesus–the image of the invisible God– and treat other people poorly.
All the way back in the book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve chose themselves and their desires over God’s desire for them, God–in His goodness– clothed them with garments and covered their nakedness. There were consequences to their actions, but God still cared for them. They didn’t deserve God’s kindness, yet he gave it to them anyway.
The first act of violence recorded in scripture occurs in Genesis chapter 4 when Cain attacks and kills his brother Abel. When God speaks with Cain, he tells him that Abel’s blood is crying out to him from the ground. In an “eye for an eye” kind of world, Cain deserves to be killed, yet God places a protective mark on Cain so that he won’t be killed. Cain didn’t deserve God’s kindness, but God gave it to him anyway.
The writer of the book of Hebrews references Abel’s blood crying out from the grave, and says that the blood of Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, speaks a better word. (12:24) The blood of Jesus speaks “It is finished.” the blood of Jesus speaks “Behold, I am making all things new.” The blood of Jesus speaks life and love and peace and reconciliation. It is new wine in a new wine skin–a whole new way of doing things.
We are called to be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for (you), an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. (Eph. 5:1-2)
We’ve been called to a new way of life: Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (2 Cor 5:17-19)
Romans 2:4 Tells us that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance meaning that if Christ is in us, and we have been given the ministry of reconciliation, our kindness may lead people to God.
Yet, as Laura wrote above, many people only know of Christians as mean spirited therefore they want nothing to do with God. The anger that is spewed in His name these days is alarming, and heartbreaking. I’m afraid we’re advancing the wrong kingdom.
Jesus was pretty forthright about anger and contempt in his sermon on the mount when he said But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. (Mt. 5:22)
Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy writes that anger is a feeling that seizes us in our body and immediately impels us toward interfering with, and possibly even harming, those who have thwarted our will and interfered with our life. Anger first arises spontaneously. But we can actively receive it and decide to indulge it. Anger and contempt are the twin scourges of the earth. The constant stream of human disasters that history and life bring before us (are) the natural outcome of choice of people choosing to be angry and contemptuous. To cut the root of anger is to wither the tree of human evil. There is nothing that can be done with anger that cannot be done better without it.
The Jesus way is absolutely contrary to the way of our flesh. That’s why He sent us the gift of the Holy Spirit. The only way to live the Kingdom life on earth is to allow ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit. One of the aspects of the fruit of the Spirit is self-control. The Spirit can help us to not fly off the handle, to not be reactionary people, but to be people who live by a different standard.
Haim Ginott, a twentieth century teacher and child psychologist wrote:
“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”
I believe Ginott’s thoughts go well beyond that of a classroom. We have tremendous power to affect the world by the way we handle ourselves, and the way we treat others. As a matter of fact–us treating others the way God has treated us is the plan for advancing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth–but it’s not about our moral behavior. It’s about the transformation of our very beings into the likeness of Christ.
And you know what? The world still takes notice of those who live differently. Last week the Coptic Christians of Egypt were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for refusing to retaliate in violence against their persecutors. Egypt’s Coptic Christians are under constant threat. You may remember a few years ago when ISIS beheaded some of them. They refuse to fight back, and the world is noticing–just like centuries ago when Christians were led into arenas in Rome. They did not fight back. They created curiosity by singing songs of worship and/or praying as lions were sent into the arena to kill them for sport. The way they chose to honor Jesus and his ways as they died pointed people to Him.
The world still doesn’t understand this. As a matter of fact, Jesus told his followers (us included) that we’ll be hated by the world, but not hated because we’re mean, hated because we do not belong to the world’s systems. (John 15:18) We don’t choose the weapons of this world. We don’t choose flesh and blood enemies. We refuse to take sides. We are for all people because God is for all people. We choose the third way, the way of reconciliation.
In Matthew 24, when Jesus is talking about the signs of the end he says that things are going to get tough for his followers, that many will turn away from the faith and betray and hate each other–and then the phrase that haunts me the love of most will grow cold (v. 12). I pray often that my love will not grow cold. I see it happening all around–may it not be true of us. May we remember that:
Kindness is powerful. Grace is powerful. Love is powerful.
I’ve eluded before to the fact that my late childhood and early adolescent years were chaotic. During that time, my grief and confusion sometimes spilled over in rage. One particular evening, I was raging at my dad and ended my tirade by yelling that I hated him and wanted him to put me in foster care. I did not want to be part of our family any longer. He did not yell back. He stood there as I stormed off. A few moments later he came to find me and asked me to get my sweater. I got my sweater and got into the car. I didn’t say a word and neither did he. He took me to play miniature golf, and then to Dairy Queen for a Peanut Buster Parfait. We barely spoke–I didn’t need words. I needed presence, and that’s what he gave me. While we were at DQ, he finally used words. He said, “I know that life is tough right now and that you’re hurting. I want you to know that I love you, and that I will always love you.” No lecture, no removal of privileges, no harsh words–just presence and love. My self-destructive season lasted for another 9 years or so, but there were no more fits of rage and I never doubted the love of my father–and when I was finally ready to come home– my earthly father’s example helped me to embrace the fact that my loving Heavenly Father was not mad at me, but was rejoicing that I was coming home. Neither father gave me what I deserved, and my life is forever changed as a result.
Psalm 103:10 says God does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
Aren’t you grateful?
Let’s choose to live in the power of the Holy Spirit and treat others the way God has treated us. Doing life His way, the counter cultural way, is the only thing that has the power to change the world.
Lord, may Your Kingdom come and Your will be done on earth…