BY THE WORD

Pastor Jeremy Walloch is a regular contributor to a quarterly publication for church leaders  in mission for Christ entitled “By The Word.”

That’s Awkward (2020 – 1st Quarter)

Jesus made every situation He entered awkward. Every. Single. Situation. Awkward. When Jesus shows up, the hopeless and mundane becomes awkward. Don’t believe me? Consider Luke chapters 3-5.

Jesus is baptized: the skies are torn open like curtains in the morning, the shocking light instantly causes eyes to squint and darkness to disappear – The Voice thunders – the crowd scratch their heads, “I thought this was just supposed to be a baptism.” Awkward.

Jesus preaches in His hometown: the sermon is only one sentence long, but states that every deepest human yearning for things to be made right has been fulfilled in Him. They want a miracle to validate it. Jesus instead talks about how much God enjoys doing miracles though foreigners, so they try to kill him, but they finally get the only miracle they don’t want: He disappears. Awkward.

Jesus goes down the road and teaches and does miracles there. The first customer served is the last person anyone cares about. His mom stopped sending him birthday cards. Kids dared each other to throw rocks at him. To the entire town he is an unwanted reminder of the presence of disgusting, revolting, mutilating evil – he is possessed. Jesus rebukes the demon with the terse phrases of someone commanding a dog. Awkward.

Simon Peter’s mother-in-law is sick. It’s a fever. It’s that time of year. Did she get her shot? Does she sanitize her hands? To everyone in the room it’s just a regular illness. They ask Jesus to pray for her healing. Instead, He does an exorcism. He rebukes the illness. For Him it wasn’t a regular illness, but
it was the powers of hell ruthlessly pinning down someone capable of meaningful service to the Lord. Awkward.

Then He’s over to the tax collector’s booth. The man is actively sinning, not repentant, but actively ripping off his own people. He’s not welcome in church. He’s not welcome at the family reunion. Out of everyone around Jesus could have picked, he picks Levi as an apprentice. Levi begins to leave everything — his HGTV home, his packed pantry and his impressive wine cellar, but then he realizes the only redemptive use for his stuff: he hosts a party for all the other tax collectors and everyone else in town called ‘others,’ or ’sinners,’ while the stuffy religious people fume outside. Awkward.

Jesus made every situation He entered awkward.

I like to read about Christians in different eras and different parts of the world. One huge takeaway: they fear different things than Christians in the West today. They fear disappointing God, while we fear making a situation a little bit awkward.

You’ve established a rapport with your neighbor: “Nice day, isn’t it?” “Your yard’s looking nice.” “Why didn’t the garbage man come today?” Every Sunday morning you see him on the porch sipping coffee in his bath robe while you drive to church. You want to invite him, but you don’t want things to get awkward.

The family is coming over for Thanksgiving. You’ll say the meal prayer. You know what you want to tell them, what you ought to tell them: “You mean more to me than anyone else in the world. I don’t have much to give you. I don’t ask much of you. But the best thing I can give you and the biggest ask I have of you is to find a church. Get plugged in. If you have to leave, leave quietly, and find another one. But the most important thing is to know the Lord in community.” But you don’t say it. Why? You don’t want things to get awkward.

Jesus made every situation He entered awkward. The last thing His apprentices should fear is making a situation awkward. Instead, guided by His Spirit and unhindered by other’s opinions, we continue His legacy of transforming moments from hopelessly mundane to gloriously awkward.

Nobody Likes the Tower of Babel Story (2019 – 3rd Quarter)

There. I’ve said it. Nobody likes the Tower of Babel story.

Plenty of Sunday School and Kids Church rooms are decorated with Old Testament stories: Creation, Noah’s Ark and Jonah are quite popular. However, I’ve never seen the story of the Tower of Babel featured. For that matter, I’ve never heard a sermon on it.

The story is unloved because of its ending. First, some people get together. They’re getting along. They bake bricks. They whip up mortar. They erect a tower. They build an entire city. And what does God do? He separates them. If you hadn’t known the ending, you probably would have expected God to say, “Finally! You’re actually getting along like I asked!” But no. Instead, God puts an end to it.

When my kids are getting along and building a Lego neighborhood, I celebrate the rare miracle it is. I do not separate them and dismantle their newly-designed scene. So why did God?

The answer is found in the story, in the motivation. Why are the people undertaking this huge project? They say, “Let us make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4 ESV).

Those vulnerably and keenly looking at the church in the West today see the old girl coming down like the Tower of Babel.

It’s happening faster than we expected. It’s hard to watch. A sanctuary needs an expensive repair, or the generous donor passes, or Pastor finally retires, so notification is given, the power is turned off, and the Bibles are put down in the racks for the last time. Or alternatively, things keep plugging along as they have been, but fewer visitor cards are filled out, fewer weddings are celebrated, and the baptismal font gets covered in dust.

There are a number of explanations for what’s going on, but what if part of the explanation
is found in the old story nobody likes? What if God is dismantling churches that are continuing for the sole reason of making a name for themselves? What if God is lovingly wielding the surgeon’s scalpel to cut out all cancerous pride? What if the church decline today is a gift from a babelic God no longer letting us play church in our own strength?

Nobody likes the Tower of Babel story. Certainly nobody likes living through it as one of the builders or caretakers of the falling Tower. But Christian renewal does not happen until people come to the end of themselves, when frustrated and broken people can no longer continue on their own, when all they can do is drop to their knees, and finally, honestly, search their own souls. Christian renewal does not happen until we ask ourselves some hard questions. How am I trying to get through life without God? How am I doing ministry by my own wisdom? How am I trying to make a name for myself?

In these perilous days, Church renewal begins when a faithful minority of people come to the end of themselves, when they care nothing about making a name for themselves, their church, or their denomination. Instead, while holding true to their beliefs, while finally freed of terminal pride, and while courageously, sacrificially blessing those around them, they commit every day of the rest of their lives to advancing the cause of Christ in the world today.

That, friends, gives this unloved story a beautiful ending.

Regrets (2019 – 2nd Quarter)

Looking back on ministry is primarily an exercise in thanksgiving — giving thanks to God for His undeserved blessings throughout the years.

But if we are completely honest, and a bit more vulnerable, mixed in with those blessings are also several regrets not stirred in by the hand of God, but by our own hands.

Here are two of mine:

1. I accepted the world’s definition of success.

I went to business school where I was taught that success was measured in bigger budgets, buildings and staff size.

But then I went into ministry having read the Gospels, where Jesus reminds us where our treasure is, our heart is (Matthew 6:21), where Jesus intentionally reduced His number of followers (John 6:53-65), and where He lived homeless (Matthew 8:20) and died without even one possession (Matthew 27:35). Surely the church as apprentices of Jesus would have a different value system. Surely pastors would have a different definition of success.

I was wrong. The supposedly-countercultural church and pastors use the same definition of success as the world it claims to speak against. I’m embarrassed to admit I accepted this more than I should have. I find no comfort in the fact that I’m far from alone.

2. I was OK with second-hand spirituality instead of first-hand spirituality.

There is nothing that ignites faith like first-hand spirituality: reading the Bible alone and experiencing the Holy Spirit highlighting verses directly speaking to your current situation, praying and seeing God immediately move in your church, or sharing the faith with someone and seeing it click for the first time. There is nothing that can ignite faith like first-hand spirituality.

Much of church life, however, is predicated on second-hand spirituality: praying dusty prayers someone else wrote, reading what someone else got out of a Bible passage, and hearing a sermon of someone else’s observations and conclusions. Much of church life is eating food someone else has already chewed for you. While there is certainly a place for second-hand spirituality to complement first-hand spirituality, it should never replace it.

Or, using Paul’s language, many are ok with sucking down milk we haven’t worked for instead of preparing meat we have hunted for (1 Corinthians 3:2). To mature and grow in strength, we cannot nurse our whole lives long.

The point of sharing these regrets is two-fold: 1) sometimes the evil we do, God can turn to good (Genesis 50:20); and 2) to give you a doorway into your own reflection space. What have been your regrets? What hurts have you caused the heart of God and others? What unfaithfulness are you ashamed of? And how can you move in a more faithful way in your remaining days?

The Crocus (2019 – 1st Quarter)

I grew up in Wisconsin, where the first snow flakes gently meander to the ground around Halloween, and the last shade-dwelling stragglers evaporate after Easter. I have spent the last dozen years in Texas and Arizona, where it gets “cool” but not “cold,” and where naive ones forgivably refer to a light dusting of frost as “snow.”

But when I call and gloat to my parents, I almost feel guilty when I hear the winter taking its toll on their spirits. As February, March, and April press on, winter sounds like a condition that will never be changed.

The one thing that always gives a glimpse of hope is a little flower that sneaks out and blooms in late March, even if it often gets hit with snow after blooming — the crocus.

Jesus came into a humanity where the worldview was unquestioned: the world is dangerous, those in power are callous, and the destiny of each person is the grave. Yet when Jesus spoke and ministered, He shared this lovely message that anxiety is downright silly, that a loving heavenly Father is really in control, and that an eternal life can begin that day — all of this proven not only by his compelling teaching, but also by the sick healed, the demons cast aside, and the dead revived.

But when Jesus is tortured and mutilated, and His grisly corpse is buried, all hope for Jesus’ followers is suddenly gone. Many left Jesus when He first talked about His forthcoming death. Most of the rest had been on the run since Gethsemane. A couple of women remained. We’re not under the impression that they were eagerly awaiting the resurrection like super-fans waiting for the beginning of the big game. If anything, the impression is that their new Jesus- given worldview has been suddenly shattered, and they just don’t know where else to go.

Jesus suddenly appears to them. I would have written Him an epic opening line, something belted out like Mel Gibson in Braveheart, “Death has been destroyed! Sin has been erased! Satan has been defeated! I still am! Wanna try again Rome? Rarrr!!!!!”

Instead, Jesus simply says, “Hi” (Matthew 28:9). That’s it. “Hi.” (Your Bible may be a bit more stuffy and probably reads, “Greetings.”) I love that. Why add words to a moment for which words are inept? By Jesus’ vertical presence, His quiet breathing, and His simple greeting, this realm’s worldview of never-ending winter has been immediately and irreversibly destroyed by the emergence of one crocus.

Jesus is the crocus blooming in an otherwise wintery, dangerous, callous, and grave-strewn world. Though snow continues to surround the crocus and its admirers for a while, when we stare at the crocus we can smile, remember the way the world really is, and is going to be, and we can tell ourselves and then tell others, “You know that summer is near” (Matthew 24:32 ESV).

Observations in the Storm (2018 – 4th Quarter)

John 2:1-11

Twelve years ago when I graduated seminary, it didn’t seem like that far of a stretch to evangelize someone in the United States. Back then, most unchurched people still believed that there was at least “the big guy upstairs,” they were likely to try prayer (if only in an emergency), and they felt there were some universal morals and sexual ethics.

But in the hyper- individualistic, post-Christian culture we now live in, all that has changed. Now world religions are intriguing and exotic, while Christianity is for the intolerant and uneducated. Now churches are perceived as led by charlatans and frequented by bigots. Now evangelism is not a prayer, but a marathon.

Many seasoned pastors who love Jesus may read this, check their retirement account balance, and say with relief, “Not my problem.”

But one of Jesus’ moments offers another perspective.

It’s a beautiful day when Jesus and His disciples get into the boat. But then the clouds go black, the winds bite, the rain saturates and all hell breaks loose. While Jesus snoozes like a man who just took Benadryl, the disciples freak out. Jesus casually calms the storm, chastises the disciples (yet again), and they arrive on shore. Once there, Jesus casts demons out of two men into some pigs (naturally), and then Jesus and His crew return.

The whole purpose of the crazy trip was two-fold: to teach the disciples to have peace amidst storms, and to evangelize two people.

Just two? The whole trip— sails shredded, riggings cracked, boat swamped, end-of-life prayers yelled into seemingly-apathetic skies — then wet snouts and dusty hoofs charging off a rocky cliff so that bones crack, flesh tears and herdsmen are infuriated — all that just to give new life to two people who were dead to the world?

Yes.

That’s the glorious math of grace.

The One you worship has a heart that is willing to go far out of its way for otherwise-lost souls to heal, restore, protect and deliver. The One you worship has a might that is capable of stopping storms and discarding demons.

There is no storm He wouldn’t go through for you. There are no demons He wouldn’t oppose for you. There is no distance He wouldn’t come or hardship He wouldn’t endure that you might know purity and peace.

He’s that kind of Savior, with that heart, and that might.

If you don’t think we’re living in a cultural storm, you are smart enough to not partake in news or social media. The rest of us know we are in a storm, because our shoes are saturated, our thoughts are fearful and our prayers are desperate.

To every disciple who is exasperated, frantic and terrified, this story reminds us that Jesus exudes peace — even amidst the fiercest storms — and that even two souls are worth it.

Even two.

If Only (2018 – 3rd Quarter)

John 2:1-11

This was their “if only” moment.

You’ve had “if only” moments. Some are trivial: “If only I had used this coupon before it expired.”

Others are serious: The boss looks at his employees with disgust and thinks, “If only I hadn’t hired them.”

The patient thinks, “If only I hadn’t driven there then.”

The couple looks at each other after another fight, both of them thinking, but hopefully not stating, “If only we hadn’t married.”

Everyone has “if only” moments. This was their “if only” moment. “If only I had purchased more wine for the wedding.”

Running out of drinks at a wedding today is awkward. Running out of drinks at a wedding back then was devastating.

Wine was a symbol of joy, so like breaking a mirror is a sign of bad luck in our culture, then running out of wine was a symbol of running out of joy. It was a bad omen for what was to come. Whatever joy the couple had has already run out.

It would change the wedding from celebration to shame. Only one thing made a difference: Jesus was there.

Jesus turns water into wine, which fixes two problems: the thirsty get more to drink, and the otherwise-shamed get celebration.

The miracle of Jesus turning water into wine was not just a miracle, it was also a sign pointing to the nature of Jesus and His kingdom, where the thirsty will thirst no more (Revelation 7:16).

It also recalled God’s Old Testament promises—think of it more like a piece of a puzzle than a free-standing book.

Moses turned water into blood (Exodus 7:17-21), showing that disobedience leads to death. Jesus turned water into wine, showing that Jesus leads to joy.

It also recalled the Passover Seder Meal. You might have been to one put on at a church. If so, you remember it because you’ve never drank so much wine—let alone at church. (If you don’t remember it, it’s because you’ve never drank so much wine—let alone at church!) Each of four full glasses of wine symbolizes joy and freedom that God had brought and that God would bring with the coming Messiah.

If God can turn water into wine, what can’t He do?

If He can turn water into wine, can He turn your pain into relief?

Can He turn your shortages into plenty?

Can He turn your boredom into purpose?

“Where in your life do you need water turned into wine right now?” (The Rev. Dr. Larry Kassebaum).

Did you ever wonder why Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding? It wasn’t just that it was a wedding, but this wedding.

Where there is shame, where there is suffering, where there is need, and Jesus is asked for, Jesus comes, transforming your shame to celebration and your “if only” into “thank God!”

Peace (2017 – 4th Quarter)

When you talk with someone and ask, “How are you?”, How often do you hear, “I am peaceful”? You hear, “I’m busy,” “I’m running,” and “I’m giving it,” but how often do you hear, “I am peaceful”?

The word “peace” appears in the Bible 250 times. Early Christians commonly gave their children two names: joy and peace. (If you’d seen someone claim to be God, die, come back to life, ascend to heaven and offer His followers the same, what else would you name your child?) If anyone should exude peace, it should be Christians, but when people outside the church go shopping for peace, they rarely look to a church.

We read in Philippians 4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything.” (How’s that working for you?) “But in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” It doesn’t say, “…let your requests be made known to your friends, to your co-workers or on Facebook.” It says, “…let your requests be made known to God.” It also says, “…with thanksgiving.” There is a connection between our lack of peace and our lack of thanksgiving. We’re anxious over what could be, when we’re not thankful for what is.

“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I don’t want the peace offered by commercials, politicians or this world. I want “the peace of God.” You might say, “It was nice for St. Paul to talk about peace, but he’s a Bible guy, he wasn’t in the real world, with the sort of hard things I’m going through.” And Paul would say to you, “I’m in prison, bro. I’m on death row. I’m waiting for someone to saw off my head. And I’m writing about the peace of the Lord. So why don’t you have peace?”

He says “the peace of God… will guard your hearts and your minds.” He says this with a guard outside his prison. Paul tells us that God’s peace is like that prison guard who decides what will get to you. God’s peace limits what gets to you.

We hear peace is available in a fancy spa filled with candles and oils, in a solid bunker filled with guns and canned food, or in a bank vault filled with silver and gold. But we don’t hear that in the Bible. Peace does not come from what you have but what you are, not from who you are but whose you are, and not from a moment of quiet bliss but from a moment of agony on the cross. In the Bible, peace is not the absence of stress, but the presence of God.

May “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding … guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”