Are We Prepared to Tell God’s Story?

by Regis Nicoll | Each year Advent draws the world’s attention afresh to God’s story. It’s a story that Christians should be telling “in season and out of season,” through their words and their lives.

It seems peculiar that the gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent centers not on Christ’s first coming, but his second. In all three liturgical years, the gospel passage is taken from the Olivet Discourse—Jesus’s lengthy response to the eschatological curiosities of the disciples. But maybe this is not as peculiar as it seems.

In arresting prose, the synoptic writers report the Creator of all things privileging the disciples with secrets about last things. Interweaving predictions about the destruction of Jerusalem and his future return to earth, Jesus tells them of wars, famines, false Christs, and more. His purpose was not to shock or frighten them, but to prepare them—and not just for the far off events that had provoked their curiosity.

Punctuating his revelations are warnings to be watchful, ready, and engaged in faithful service—imperatives for God’s people in every age. But for the disciples those warnings had immediate relevance which, as many times before, went unheeded.

For, in a matter of hours, Jesus would be prostrate in the garden praying, while his disciples slept; he would be hauled away by an angry mob, while his disciples fled in panic; he would be brought before a kangaroo court to be ridiculed, spat upon, and struck, while one of his closest intimates vehemently and repeatedly denied him; and he would be scourged, marched to Golgotha, and nailed to the cross, while men who had been his constant companions cowered in an upper room, abandoning him to his persecutors.

Incredibly, after three years at the feet of their master, the disciples were no better prepared for the unfolding of prophetic history than they were at the beginning of their tutelage. This should trigger questions in us: Are we prepared? Situated in history between the Incarnation and the Parousia, are we advancing his kingdom as we watch for his return?

More to the point, are we even expecting his return? Given the 2,000 year lapse, have his warnings slipped into the cluttered closets of our memory or, worse, has the delay eroded our confidence in his prophesy or, for that matter, in him?

If those questions cause hesitation, it signals the need to revisit God’s story—the biblical record of divine activity throughout the course of human history. The historical record of what God has done provides a rational basis for confidence in what he has said he will do.

Playing Back God’s Story
Reading the history of Israel is like listening to a CD stuck on “repeat.” Over and over again, widespread apostasy led to divine discipline, provoking national repentance followed by a brief period of revival.

Despite the withering warnings of prophets, the Israelites repeatedly succumbed to pagan influences when they should have been attending to God’s word, they adopted pagan practices when they should have been transforming pagan culture, and they became a stumbling block to their pagan neighbors when they should have been a blessing to them.

To break the cycle, Israel’s leaders continually played back God’s story, reminding the people of God’s benevolence toward the nation: the parting of the Red Sea, the pillars of cloud and fire, water from the rock, manna from heaven, deliverance from their enemies, and the conquest of the Promised Land, to name just a few.

The leaders also proclaimed prophesies, hundreds of them, among the people. Some were given as warnings about the consequences of disobedience while others were given as assurances of God’s ultimate plan for restoring all things.

Two things are extraordinary about the latter: first, they were made far in advance of the events they described; and, second, many of the fulfillments of prophecy—including dozens concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—were recorded and passed on to people contemporary to those events.

From Public to Personal
God’s story is more than a record of past and future works on behalf of mankind; it includes personal testimonies of his working in the lives of individuals in the present.

Daniel, who prophesied about events in the near and far future, gave witness to God’s faithfulness in the present—answering his prayers and delivering him and his friends from capital punishment. In the Psalms, David repeatedly praises God for guiding, protecting, and strengthening him. Jeremiah’s lamentations over the sins of Judah and the destruction of Jerusalem include praises to God for comforting him during imprisonment and rescuing him from his enemies.

Nevertheless, spiritual vacillation produced a generation that was ill-prepared for the coming Messiah. Instead of watching for the Lamb of God who would deliver them from sin, first-century Jews were expecting a conquering King who would deliver them from Gentile subjugation.

A generation later, eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ detailed, in four independent narratives, how he fulfilled the promises in Scripture from Genesis 3:15 to Malachi 3:1. And for those who failed to notice, Paul explained how the fulfillments of prophecy occurred among individuals, still living, who could contest any fictions or correct any errors.

Like the Old Testament writers, Paul also shared how God’s story had played out in his own life. In his letter to the Romans, Paul gives witness to Jesus for freeing him from the law of sin and death. He told the Corinthian church how God had encouraged and strengthened him during a time of personal torment. And to the Philippians, Paul testifies to his Source of contentment and efficacy in all things.

The gospel readings for the first Sunday of Advent remind us that God’s story did not end at Golgotha, the death of the apostles, or the completion of Scripture, but continues on the cosmic stage.

They also remind us that Christians are to be an expectant people, living in the sure hope that as God “showed up” once, he will show up again. Until then, he is active in the lives of individuals who are waiting, watching, and working to establish his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

A Personal Testimony
Most Christians can point to times in their lives when God “showed up”—maybe in an answered prayer, a healing, an encouraging word, or a needed revelation. Throughout my Christian life, I have had a number of such occurrences, of which I’ll share one.

I had been diagnosed with a terminal cancer. My timeline, according to the oncologist, was three weeks. But three weeks turned into three months, then three years, and now, ten years after being declared in clinical remission, I remain cancer-free.

Prior to that declaration, however, two questions hung in the air like the scent of decaying flesh: “Why did this happen?” and “How will it turn out?” I had a strong inkling as to the “why” (as I’ll explain in a moment), but the uncertainty of “how” lingered. Then, one night, both questions were answered for me along with a room full of people.

Joanne and I had joined a group of twenty or so intercessors for an evening of prayer. As we got ready to pray, someone suggested, off the cuff, that we read Psalm 118, which in my NIV Bible has the rather inviting heading, “The loving kindness of God.” It was further suggested that each person read a verse, in succession, according to how they were seated. Since our seating was not prearranged, neither was the verse individuals would read.

As it so happened, my turn fell on verse 18: “The Lord has chastened me severely, but he has not given me over to death.” The words left my lips and, for a moment, failed to register in my brain. When the next person seated failed to continue, I looked around. It was as if all the oxygen had been sucked from the room: mouths were agape, chests were clutched, eyes were tearing, and praises were going up. Then, I, too, was undone.

Earlier in the year, I had confessed to a church class that the greatest obstacle to my spiritual growth was overconfidence in myself. Less than one month later, I was lying in a hospital bed tethered to IVs, listening to an oncologist talk around the hopelessness of my condition, and coming to the realization that this “thorn” was beyond my ability and that of medical science to remove.

The shock of my utter helplessness was met, almost instantly, by a comforting word: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Privately, the message was clear: God was addressing my greatest need—total dependence on him—with his limitless love. Publicly, this message was confirmed to a small gathering of individuals who were watching and waiting for God to “show up.”

Each year Advent draws the world’s attention afresh to God’s story. It’s a story that Christians should be telling “in season and out of season,” through their words and their lives.

Regis NicollRegis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

 



President Trump Cancels North Korea Summit

by Dr. Jim Denison | Denison Forum on Truth and Culture | The threat of North Korea is just one of the challenges we face as a nation (Images: Getty Images).

Sadly, based on the tremendous anger and open hostility displayed in your most recent statement, I feel it is inappropriate, at this time, to have this long-planned meeting. Therefore, please let this letter serve to represent that the Singapore summit, for the good of both parties, but to the detriment of the world, will not take place.”

With these words, President Trump notified Kim Jong Un yesterday that he was canceling their June 12 summit in Singapore.

This decision followed a series of ominously worded statements from North Korea. Their senior envoy for US affairs had threatened to call off the summit and warned that their regime could “make the US taste an appalling tragedy it has neither experienced nor even imagined.” The envoy also described Vice President Pence as a “political dummy.”

The White House says back channels for discussions with North Korea are still open but states that the regime must first change its rhetoric.

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A “challenging threat environment”

The threat of North Korea is just one of the challenges we face as a nation.

Russia is believed to have 4,300 nuclear weapons, followed by the US with 4,000. There are 9,400 nuclear weapons in military arsenals, with another 5,600 awaiting dismantlement. Nearly 4,000 nuclear weapons are operationally available; 1,800 are ready for use on short notice.

The largest Russian bomb, if dropped on New York City, would kill 7.6 million people.

In addition, China is expanding its economic and military power and influence. Proxy wars in the Middle East involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel threaten to escalate.

Dan Coats, the US Director of National Intelligence, testified earlier this year before a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: “We face a complex, volatile and challenging threat environment. The risk of interstate conflict is higher than any time since the end of the Cold war–all the more alarming because of the growing development and use of weapons of mass destruction by state and nonstate actors.”

A nation worth protecting

The challenges of our day show why the men and women of our military are so important to our nation. More than 1.4 million Americans are serving on active duty today. Each of them has taken an oath to defend each of us.

Over America’s history, more than 1.1 million men and women have fulfilled that oath at the cost of their lives. Their memory lives in our gratitude. All we do this Memorial Day weekend to honor their sacrifice is so much less than they did to deserve it.

How does God want us to observe this important tradition?

One: Minister to the families of fallen soldiers. Scripture tells us that “the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). He wants us to be the presence of Jesus as we serve and pray for those in grief.

Two: Pray for wisdom for our military and civilian leaders. In these perilous times, claim the biblical promise: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God” (James 1:5).

Three: Pray for peace among nations. Pray for Kim Jong Un and other world leaders to follow Jesus. Make Paul’s prayer yours: “May the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way” (2 Thessalonians 3:16).

Four: Make America a nation worthy of their sacrifice. When I meet military veterans, I tell them that our nation owes them an unpayable debt. They often respond by encouraging me to make America a nation worth dying for.

Scripture calls us to set the example: “Be holy in all your conduct” (1 Peter 1:15).

“An estate to be preserved”

Noah Webster has been called “the father of American scholarship and education.” On the twenty-sixth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, he delivered a remarkable oration in which he pointed to the values and examples of the patriots whose sacrifice purchased America’s freedom.

At one point, he turned to “the youth of our country, who were not spectators of the distresses of the war.” His charge to them is just as relevant for us: “Let them consider that upon them has devolved the task of defending and improving the rich inheritance, purchased by their fathers. Nor let them view this inheritance of National Freedom and Independence, as a fortune that is to be squandered away, in ease and riot, but as an estate to be preserved only by industry, toil and vigilance.”

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For more from the Denison Forum on Truth and Culture, please visit www.denisonforum.org.



Israeli Blacklist of US Rabbis Points to Widening Rift

Associated Press | Israel's Chief Rabbinate compiles a blacklist of overseas rabbis, including Rabbi Avi Weiss, right, an Orthodox clergyman in New York.

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has compiled a blacklist of overseas rabbis whose authority they refuse to recognize when it comes to certifying the Jewishness of someone who wants to get married in Israel.

The list, obtained by The Associated Press, includes a number of prominent Orthodox rabbis in North America. Among them are a social activist in New York who has advocated for greater rights for women, a Canadian rabbi who is friendly with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a close colleague of the rabbi who converted Ivanka Trump.

The list, which includes 160 rabbis from 24 countries, is another sign of a deepening rift between overseas Jewish communities and Israeli religious authorities.

Tensions have already been mounting between the world's two largest Jewish communities since the Israeli government last month froze plans to create an expanded egalitarian prayer section at Jerusalem's Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray.

The rollback of a deal reached last year to open up the holy site to liberal streams of Judaism was seen as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's capitulation to pressure by his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. Those ultra-Orthodox partners also control Israel's Chief Rabbinate.

Jews who immigrate to Israel are required to provide the government's Interior Ministry with proof of Judaism in the form of a letter from a rabbi. But those who wish to wed in Israel face an additional hurdle.

While the Interior Ministry's criteria are clear-cut and inclusive, the ultra-Orthodox-dominated Chief Rabbinate takes a much stricter line.

For instance, it does not recognize the validity of Reform or Conservative Judaism, which is practiced by the vast majority of North American Jews.

The Chief Rabbinate's blacklist included not only Reform and Conservative rabbis overseas, but some of the most prominent Orthodox rabbis as well.

Rabbi Avi Weiss, an Orthodox clergyman based in Riverdale, New York, who advocates a "more open and inclusive Orthodoxy," said he was unaware of the list and could think of no reason why he was placed on it.

"The whole thing seems to be nonsensical on every level," Weiss said. Although he said he didn't find it personally painful, its existence was "tragic" because it only served to "alienate" fellow Jews.

Another member of the list, Rabbi Adam Scheier, who leads an Orthodox congregation in Montreal and has ties with Trudeau, called it "an affront to the hard work and devotion of so many of my colleagues – of all denominations."

The blacklist, he said, appeared to be "one of the many cases in which the Chief Rabbinate has carried out its function without transparency or process."

Rabbi Daniel Kraus of Kehilath Jeshurun, a major Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan, also is on the list. Kraus serves with Haskel Lookstein, the rabbi who converted Ivanka Trump. Lookstein's name was not on the list, and while his conversions have been questioned by the rabbinate in the past, they are now accepted.

Also rejected were rabbis teaching at Yeshiva University, the flagship university for the U.S. Modern Orthodox movement, a rabbi with the Chabad movement at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and prominent Modern Orthodox rabbis pushing for greater openness in Judaism.

In March 2016, an Israeli court ordered the rabbinate to release a list of rabbis whose testimony it had approved to ITIM, the Jewish Life Advocacy Center, an organization that helps Israelis deal with the rabbinate's bureaucracy. ITIM asked the Chief Rabbinate for the names of rabbis whose letters were approved and rejected in 2016 at the beginning of this year. The rabbinate complied in April.

ITIM founder Rabbi Seth Farber charged that the rabbinate has no explicit criteria for determining the Jewishness of people who wish to marry in Israel.

"There's little rhyme or reason," Farber said. "These are peoples' lives at stake."

A single rabbinate official, Rabbi Itamar Tubul, is responsible for determining the validity of rabbinical letters testifying to marriage applicants' Jewishness. Neither the Chief Rabbinate's spokesman nor Tubul's office responded to requests for comment.

 



Making the Most of Lent

by Rev. Ketlen Solak, Brandywine Collaborative Ministries (image source)

Lent this year begins Wednesday, February 10 and ends Saturday, March 26, during this forty-day journey, we will do our best to walk “The Way” – that is, we will do our best to follow Jesus more closely. Most of us will observe Lent in some manner, perhaps by spending more time in study, prayer, fasting, or by embracing something new that helps us grow spiritually.

The Church calls us to celebrate Lent for that very purpose – for the purpose of deepening our spiritual experience. The season of Lent gives us the opportunity to follow Jesus as he deliberately walked toward Jerusalem knowing that there he would inevitably face the suffering of betrayal, humiliation, torture, and death. Lent gives us the opportunity to remember more keenly the courage, the generosity, and the priceless gift of Jesus.

Hence, on Ash Wednesday we receive the invitation to observe a Holy Lent, which is an invitation to set time apart to engage in the types of spiritual enrichment that I have already mentioned. Yet, for many of us, Lent has arrived at a time when life is particularly difficult and painful. In this case, Lent is a time to simply remember that Jesus understands – a time to remember that Jesus has tasted pain and suffering, and that Jesus is walking the way with you.

No matter where we are in terms of our experience of life, I pray that the Holy Spirit will give us the measure of hope and strength that exactly fits our need. I also pray, as we observe Lent together, that each one of us will gain greater insight about the magnificent grace of God, and that our hearts will be moved anew by the power of Holy Spirit – that our hearts will be moved to new depths of gratitude and adoration for the One who first loved us and has fully demonstrated the meaning and cost of love.

The Rev. Ketlen Solak was called in 2014 to serve as Covenant Rector of the Brandywine Collaborative Ministries (BCM). Solak is leading the work of the three linked parishes of Brandywine Hundred, Wilmington: Calvary, Hillcrest, Church of the Ascension, and Grace Church. Ketlen graduated from the Virginia Theological Seminary (VTS) in May of 2005 and was ordained a priest in the Diocese of Virginia in June of that year. She has a deep passion for music and enjoys to sing.