This is a recorded sermon titled, “Jesus Goes Home,” delivered by John H. Armstrong on Sunday, July 8, 2018.
I am regularly asked to review books. I have the far too little time to undertake most of these requests. But such is the opportunity of authors who have many friends who are also authors. When I can, and if the subject of the book interests me, I try to read my friends’ books and write short reviews.
Thus I received the request to read and review, Learning From Lord Mackay: Life and Work in Two Kingdoms (SoS Books, Alberta, BC, 2017). The author, J. Cameron Frazer, asked me to read his book last year. I promised only to try. Finally, I am able to honor that promise.
I confess I did not even know the name James Mackay until Cameron sent me his little book. Now I am grateful he did. Why? For starters, I am deeply interested in the way the church should engage with political and social powers. As an American, living thorough the period now called Trumpism, I believe Christians should be concerned for issues related to public life because such issues are clearly related to living the gospel of the kingdom of God. Further, kingdom oriented believers in Christ must make faith a public concern that is consistent with their vocation in society. This little book captures the essence of the “two kingdoms” teaching of Protestantism in simple and clear prose thus is can benefit all interested Christians. Quite frankly, if you know nothing about “two kingdoms” theology this would be a simple place to start.
Lord James Mackay served as the Lord Advocate of Scotland (1979-84) and then as the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain (1987-97). One legal scholar has called him “one of the most brilliant Scottish scholars of our time.” But there is more to make him important to us, so much more. James Mackay is a humble, faithful Christian who sees all of life as a call to live God’s grace in every sphere of society. Lord Mackay has lived for the gospel and for his neighbors, both out of love for Christ. HIs life and theology speak powerfully to our present American context in which debates over “two kingdoms” rage among Reformation Christians. Sadly, most evangelicals do not even know what this intra-Reformation debate is about.
This little book consists of only four chapters. Chapter One introduces the idea of the “two kingdoms” and succinctly explains what this means. It is an essay which serves well as a primer on this vital subject. This is true even if you care nothing about the person of Lord Mackay. But Chapter Two shows you how James Mackay lived and worked, over the course of a long life, as a faithful servant of Christ in both public and private. Chapter Three shows what can be learned from a observing a contemporary legal and public mind like that of Lord Mackay. The final chapter locates him within many current discussions about law, politics and Christian faith.
Sinclair Ferguson, in the Foreword, asks: “Was Daniel a man like this? Is this why he was able to negotiate life in the Babylonian Empire?” Ferguson wonders aloud, “Is it still possible to ‘sing the Lord’s son in a strange land?’” He suggests Mackay’s life tell us we can. And Fraser wonderfully explains why.
Be honest. It is hard to imagine how a serious Christian, who lives humbly, and possesses a keen intellectual interest in the law or public service, can actually serve in our present context. The partisanship of the present time, as well as the alt-truths parroted by many Christians, makes it terribly hard for me to conceive of a life well-lived in this arena. I can think of only a few Americans I know who’ve done so for decades thus James Mackay, who has done so in an even more secularized society than our own, stands out to me as a role model.
Make no mistake about it. Our society has widely embraced secularism. At the same time religious conservatives, of various kinds and backgrounds, still seek to retain a power in the civil realm. The outcomes they desire for our society, both morally and socially, are not always consistent with Christian truth and witness. How then do we address the tension between secularism and various Christian attempts to control the outcomes of civil and social life? Behind the assumption that there is a radical split between the public realm of “facts” and the private (religious) realm of “values” lies a major problem. Less lie Newbigin saw this ver clear when he said that “the rival truth claims of the different religions are not felt to call for argument or resolution; they are simply part of the mosaic – or perhaps one should say kaleidoscope – of different values that make up the whole pattern” (quoted by Cameron Fraser on page 118). The secularist argument boils down to this – religions are based on private values, thus they are never independently valid. But is this true?
Bishop Newbigin rightly concluded: “No state can be completely secular in the sense that those who exercise power have no beliefs about what is true and no commitment to what they believe to be right” (Fraser, page 118). It is thus forgotten that secularism forgets that ideological pluralism really claims there is no absolute truth. Newbigin rightly concludes, “The difference is not between those who rely on dogma and those who don’t. It’s the difference between those who know what dogma is they are relying on, and those who do not” (quoted by Fraser, page 119). True tolerance, which I believe to a Western Christian virtue, is actually nourished by deep Christian faith, not by the denial of truth. Newbigin says even a state may acknowledge a religious faith to be true and deliberately provide full security for all of those who hold contrary views. An increasingly multi-cultural American society needs to be nourished by Christian truth and by humble Christian servants of truth. James Mackay is a living model of how to do this in public service.
Cameron Fraser shows how Lord Mackay has “been there” (Sinclair Ferguson’s words) for a lifetime and he has always sought to be faithfully there. This is much harder to do than most of us realize. This book shows you how a gracious Christian, with a heart for the gospel and the work of evangelism, can also serve his neighbors in serious and deeply important ways that allow the light of faith to shine brightly in increasing secular context. I highly commend this little book.
Deacons & Service
Roy Hill II
As a deacon, my desire with this writing is to objectively address the spiritual and biblical reality that being a deacon, a servant, is a priceless service-opportunity available to people in different walks of life. I acknowledge challenges to engaging this opportunity. And I encourage knowing that we can overcome the challenges which may be either myopic, self-imposed, or simply Satanic (John 10:10).
The Free Dictionary and Merriam-Webster respectively define Deacon as: “a lay assistant to a Protestant minister” and a person who is “elected by a church with congregational polity to serve in worship, in pastoral care, and on administrative committees.”
Christian author and speaker Jerry Bridges … in addressing service and love … says a scripturally transparent expression of “love” is “fellowship” or “sharing with others.” He says we can share ourselves – our gifts, time, and talents as in “doing helpful deeds for another” (1 Corinthians 12).
Bridges says: Servanthood “requires no special talent or special gifts …. And if God has given us certain natural abilities, we also want to be good stewards of those abilities to serve others in the body. But it requires no spiritual gift or talent to wash feet, clean shoes, or gather firewood. All that is required is a servant’s attitude.”
Curiosity asks: “Is servanthood absent because increasingly human attitudes are ‘of striving for position rather than the privilege of serving others in the Body of Christ?’”
In a February 2018 lecture, Vermont Christian counselor and national speaker Rev. Dr. Andrew H. Selle described three sin-challenges we all face. I wonder if these are the three powers against true servanthood:
Four forerunner examples showing faith related pathways overcoming challenges include:
– Pontius Pilate & Barabbas (Matt. 27:16) vs. God & Jesus’ resurrection (Matt. 12:18, Lk. 9:35)
– President Jefferson (Sally Hemings) & enslavement vs. President Obama (First Lady Michelle) & egalitarianism
– Negro Holocaust Lynchings (R. Gibsond @ Yale U.) vs. NAACP & Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill – J. E. Hoover & bigotry (COINTELPRO) vs. Rev. Martin L. King, Jr. & the Nobel Peace Prize
When challenged by negativity, I know God’s liberating power is always available through the Holy Spirit, prayer and scripture.
I believe that when faith is exercised, God moves (2 Chronicles 7:14), and humanity can realize the prophetic words of the “most powerful song of the 20th Century which started out in a Charleston, South Carolina church: ‘We Shall Overcome‘” ( The song “started out in church pews and picket lines, inspired one of the greatest freedom movements in U.S. history, and went on to topple governments and bring about reform all over the world. … ‘We Shall Overcome’ has it roots in African-American hymns from the early 20th century and was first used as a protest song in 1945. … ‘We Shall Overcome’ might be some of the most influential words in the English language.” – Library of Congress).
Finally: as we faithfully go forth with our God-given gifts, I also pray we foster service opportunities in either the sacred, secular, or both communities (James 1:22-25).
Roy V. Hill II is a deacon from Fairfax, Vermont. Roy recently became a good friend upon our spending some precious time together in Vermont during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 2018. This article was originally published in March (2017) by College Street Congregational church, where Roy serves as a deacon. Hill is the former President of the Vermont Ecumenical Council and lives with his wife Shirley Boyd-Hill (A cancer survivor and Gospel-singer, poet, and the principal founder of the Vermont “Juneteenth” Holiday).
Editor’s Note: Listen and watch Mahalia Jackson sing this famous culture-changing spiritual. She sings it with the “soul” that was intended by the spiritual. No song has impacted me, and especially my teenager years in the 1960s, like “We Shall Overcome.” I find myself singing it a lot these days as I watch God raise up young people to “overcome” ponce again.
22 “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
23 Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. 25 What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?
Why did Jesus ask his disciple these questions, and make these commands, in Luke 9?
It seems apparent that the time had come for Jesus to announce his passion much more openly. Jesus had not only come to open the door to the resurrection for those who followed him but to call them to die with him. If death is not conquered then there can be no real salvation (1 Corinthians 15:25). Jesus will overcome death, and obtain ultimate victory, by choosing the way of the cross that was before him. Following this revelation Jesus says we too must share in his victory over death by way of the cross. This means we too must die!
But what does it mean for me (us) to die? We will all die a physical death, whether we follow Jesus or not. This clearly is not what he means.
The point is quite clear. But it is clearly missed by most Christians in the West.
If we follow Jesus we must daily learn that “denying ourselves” is to be the fundamental orientation of our life!
I once thought this meant something like looking for specific ways in which I could mortify my flesh and spirit. (There is a truth in this idea but it can easily lead you to miss the central point here, as it did in my life for years.) The frequently used and abused idea of “my cross” has an entirely different frame of reference. It means myself, my awkwardness, my personal trials and pains, my many mistakes and (of course) my core self-centeredness. To take up my cross is to die to my ego-trips and constant thoughts about me. It means coping with life’s everyday business without trampling on others or making them suffer because of my ego (and real) needs. This gripped me afresh this morning as I entered into the discipline of this Lenten season after Ash Wednesday.
Further, to deny myself means to reach a point in my life where where my self is no longer the most important thing in the world. I must take a back seat, and I need to learn to do it joyfully. Thus I must learn again and again to accept resentment, diminishment and (even) rejection. Supremely joyful Christians know this dying daily experience and thus they enter deeply in God’s love in the process.
If you’ve lived long enough you know what this means for you personally. This is why we can rightly say “my cross” and personalize this idea. My “cross” and “your” cross are not the same but the core of our call is identical. Follow Jesus into daily death and through this death live in the power of resurrection. This alone will take me into the experience and reality of what I call costly love.
I confess that until recently I had never heard of the ancient Christian custom of chalking the door. (Some say it began in Bavaria.) This custom is an Epiphanytide tradition that is either celebrated on the eve of Epiphany, or on the Sunday of Epiphany (today). The purpose is to bless one’s home. The tradition is still practiced by many Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Catholics, as well as other similar traditions. The practice is to chalk one’s door with a pattern such as 20 τ C τ M τ B τ 18, where the numbers refer to the year 2018 in this instance. The four crosses (I have used a Greek letter τ (tau) since my keyboard did not offer me the “cross” style as a choice) are combined with the letters C, M and B. These Latin letters C, M and B refer to the three magi: traditionally known as Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. But these three letters are also the Latin abbreviation for the words: Lord bless this house!
In some contexts the minister will pray over chalk in the liturgy and then the people take the chalk home to mark their doors in a family ceremony. This custom has a biblical foundation in the story of Israel. You will recall that they marked the door to their home during the passover in Egypt so that they would be saved from death.
There are at least two ways this custom has been understood by churches. It is a liturgical practice that serves to protect Christian homes from evil spirit beings until the next Epiphany Day, at which time the custom is repeated. Families also perform this act because it represents the hospitality of the family of Jesus to the Magi (and ultimately to all Gentiles). Thus we mark our homes so that we too will be hospitable to others.
The chalking thus serves as a special house blessing which invites God’s presence into one’s home.
When I was a young boy my parents bought a new family home, only about three blocks from my first home. I have a lasting impression of them inviting guests into our home on a Sunday evening for a “blessing of the home.” (Anita and I did this in our first home because of my parents model to us.) There was music, food, a brief message and some prayers. I think I was about five, maybe just six, years old. I remember this like it was yesterday. I always thought of our home as a special place, a gift from God and a place of safety and gospel grace. My parents lived this faith and all were welcome at 709 Westwood Drive, both black and white. (My home was the deep South, in the pre-Civil Rights era. I knew of no other home so open to all people!)
I think of all the nations that have come to the shores of America, just during my own lifetime. America has generally been a land of openness with a warm welcome for all who come to our shores. (Our laws regarding immigration and refugees have changed, sometimes radically, but generally we have been both welcoming and tolerant to newcomers.) We should remember at this Epiphany that all of us in this great land came from somewhere else, unless of course we are Native Americans. We are a nation of immigrants and refugees. Chalking our homes this year (even if only in reading about the service in a post like this one) might remind us of this fact and then address our anger at others we do not know or innately fear. What kind of welcome are the followers of Jesus Christ giving to the various peoples who come here? Have we adopted an angry and deeply political response or are we open and generous to others not like us?
On this Epiphany let us pray for the attitude of Mary and Joseph who welcomed strangers to the celebration of Jesus’ birth.
You received a blog from me just a few minutes ago. As soon as I posted it I saw so many errors in the text that I was mortified. (I wrote this after prayer this morning and did not do a serious edit after I finished it.) So, please read this same post with my numerous corrections.
While I am at it, I intend to write more blogs in 2018. TO do this I will write less posts taken from other sources and posted on my Facebook wall, a wall that is privately read by some friends. So watch for more blogs and please forgive me for being in such a hurry to share my newest blog early this morning. I hope this edition is a better, more readable, version of what I tried to write before.
Lord, Orchestrate My Desires
Much of our life is about understanding and responding to our passions and desires. The dictionary says a desire is “a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen.”
Each of us are afflicted by certain passions and desires that occur because of the fall of Adam and Eve. This is something like a disease that has passed down to us as humans. (The Eastern and Western Churches have different theologies of how and why this happened; i.e. of the effects of the fall.) But from the word “passion” we get another word: “passive.” One Orthodox writer says: “The passions are sin sicknesses that have occurred in our hearts after the fall that feel so natural we can have them operate in our lives and we are its passive victim. Because of this, to be healed from them, we have to fight. We don’t fight in our own strength, but in the grace of Jesus Christ. It is still a fight, however, because healing from the passions feels very unnatural to us. But in fact, the effects of the passions in our life is quite unnatural. We were never created for this.”
Many of the passions we experience as persons feel quite natural and pleasurable to us, like gluttony pride, lust, anger and avarice. But in reality, these things cause us to suffer and pull us away from loving and trusting God. Jesus plainly says we cannot serve two masters (Matt. 6:24.
Everything in life, even good things, has the potential to draw us away from the love of the father. Yet most of our desires are fixed, or caught, in the illusions of deeper fulfillment.
As pleasurable and deceptive as these human passions are, we can be healed from them. But this healing can only be found in deep mystical union with Christ. This requires a transformative process that is often painful, prompting Paul to write, “for I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 8:18).
What do we need? We need to see ourselves rightly. We need to know the difference between the passions and desires that entrap us and lead us to move away from the father’s love. We need to realize that these passions and desires are unnatural for us. They are a sickness. We will become well the more faithfully we live in the Spirit and thus allow the fruit of the Spirit to flow in us (cf. Galatians 5:22-23). As with any sickness we attain wellness through healing. The problem with so much Western teaching about sin and fallenness is that it cannot produce hope in us. We assume we are so deeply wedded to the power of our fallen passions and desires that we will always fail so long as we live in this world. (This is one reason we read Romans 7-8 the way we do, a reading that I have long felt missed what Paul was really saying!)
St. Innocent of Alaska wrote: “Every individual instinctively strives for happiness. This desire has been implanted in our nature by the Creator Himself, and therefore it is not sinful. But it is important to understand that in this temporary life it is impossible to find full happiness, because that comes from God and cannot be attained without Him. Only He, who is the ultimate Good and the source of all good, can quench our thirst for happiness.
So if St. Innocent is right, and I believe he is, then we need to turn our desires toward true happiness. And true happiness can only be found in the father’s house, where love abides in grace and mercy. We need to seek God’s love because “God is love.”
Healing from our passions, thus from our fallenness, is always a process. But if we concentrate on this process overmuch we will always fail. We must choose an audacious and bold direction with our life by making choices about what we will do, say, read, etc. We can begin each day by choosing a way that we will gladly embrace, even if it is painful. I can ask God, through the freedom he has granted to me in Christ, to orchestrate my desires in a vibrant loving melody rich in harmony. He can transform my desires and passions into one central desire for the kingdom of God!
Let us pray in 2018 for this single-minded desire for the kingdom, for God’s love and mercy. Here we can find the continuing transformation that will allow us to overcome our passions and desires. But we must never expect that this process will end in this life. This is summed up well by Abba Evagrius:
“What a man loves, that he certainly desires; and what he desires, that he strives to obtain.”
The famous Henry David Thoreau wrote:
Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.
Live the life you have imagined.
That’s not a biblical way of putting it but it is a good way to lay hold of God’s love and purpose for your life.
I will soon by sixty-nine years old. I can now confidently say that I have not lived every part of my life in the way I wish I had. Who can? But I say I have confidently moved in the direction of my dreams. I have lived a life than very close to what I imagined as a young man in college and my twenties. I am satisfied, deeply so. I have made mistakes but I have learned from them, or so I hope.
In the end I am at peace with God, my wife, my children, grandchildren and my friends. Those who are not at peace with me, so far is it is within me, I have tried to be at peace with them. I have enemies but I love them. I have friends too, a lot of them. I could not have confidently moved toward my dreams without so many dear and true friends.
Live your life for God’s glory, for real purpose. Move confidently toward his love and rest in his grace. He is good, all the time.
Matthew’s Gospel has always caused modern readers some consternation when they read the first chapter. Why is this long “genealogy” put here at the beginning of the first Gospel?
I prefer to first think of this list of names here in terms of what is clearly said in the first verse, Jesus is “the son of David, son of Abraham.” But genealogy might sound confusing. One version says, “This is the document of the origins of Jesus Christ.” I like that. It is clear and connects with me in a different way. Why?
The Bible is careful to connect events and persons from the history of God’s redemption. The entire Bible draws strength from a continuity of history and thus from the fidelity of God to his own promises. This is the key to this list, or document, of the origins of Jesus.
There are 42 names in this list. They are arranged into three series of 14 names each. It is quite obvious this list is not complete nor does Matthew mean it to be so. Why Abraham? He is the father of the faithful, of true believers. God promised to unite all the nations around his family. Jesus is also the son of David. Why? Because all Israel knew that from David would come the Savior of the world. This list includes the adoptive father of Jesus, Joseph. Among the Jews, this adoption was sufficient for Jesus to be considered, like Joseph, son of David. The list also includes four women.
All of this document of origins announces, rather discreetly, that Jesus came to save Sinners and to open the kingdom of Israel to the multitudes that would stream in from the pagan world. The Savior is is the fruit of the earth and the the flower of the chosen people (Isaiah 45:8). God led the Jews to a degree of human and religious maturity where the teaching and ministry of Jesus would take on it full meaning.
This document of the origins thus reminds us, especially during Advent, that we are in solidarity with Christ, the anointed One, the Messiah. We are in solidarity through distinctly human ties, thus through the history of Jewish families. This is the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the whole world.