May Salvation and Righteousness Sprout Up Together

Varghese - calming the storm

My morning’s Advent readings focused on salvation and righteousness. The powerful linking of these to the coming of Christ impacted me profoundly this morning. And more than that the imagery of salvation as the coming of justice, healing and righteousness is something that I know I need to embrace more fully as we approach Christmas. Listen to what the scriptures say and reflect on the wonder of God’s salvation: (curtesy of

Show us your unfailing love, O Lord,
and grant us your salvation.

8 I listen carefully to what God the Lord is saying,
for he speaks peace to his faithful people.
But let them not return to their foolish ways.
9 Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him,
so our land will be filled with his glory.

10 Unfailing love and truth have met together.
Righteousness and peace have kissed!
11 Truth springs up from the earth,
and righteousness smiles down from heaven.
12 Yes, the Lord pours down his blessings.
Our land will yield its bountiful harvest.
13 Righteousness goes as a herald before him,
preparing the way for his steps. (Psalm 85: 7-13)

And from Isaiah 45: 6b-8

I am the Lord, and there is no other.
7 I create the light and make the darkness.
I send good times and bad times.
I, the Lord, am the one who does these things.

8 “Open up, O heavens,
and pour out your righteousness.
Let the earth open wide
so salvation and righteousness can sprout up together.
I, the Lord, created them.

And finally from the Gospel of Luke 7:18-22 spelling out for us so beautifully what salvation and righteousness look like in the coming of the Messiah:

So John called for two of his disciples, 19 and he sent them to the Lord to ask him, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?”

20 John’s two disciples found Jesus and said to him, “John the Baptist sent us to ask, ‘Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?’”

21 At that very time, Jesus cured many people of their diseases, illnesses, and evil spirits, and he restored sight to many who were blind. 22 Then he told John’s disciples,“Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.

I Believe In Jesus… or Do I?

Jesus Is Coming - What Are You Expecting

Jesus Is Coming - What Are You Expecting

It is just over a week until the beginning of Advent, that season in which we prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is my favourite season of the church calendar though it is also in many ways the most challenging. At no other season are we more aware of the contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. At no other time of the year are the forces of the secular culture more at odds with what the spirit of God is inviting us to participate in. The spirit calls us to quiet reflection, the world calls us to loud partying. The spirit calls us prepare our lives, the world calls us to indulge in every extravagance.

What we believe about Jesus will shape how we celebrate this season, just as it should shape all that we are and do. We will reflect on this further over the Advent season in the series Jesus Is Coming: What Do We Expect? but I thought that I would give a sneak preview this week. What are those backbone building, soul strengthening beliefs about Jesus that really shape our celebrations and our lives?

This is the sixth post in my series Whatever happened to Our Backbones, and I am continuing my walk through the Nicene creed reflecting on the core beliefs that strengthen my faith and motivate my life. This morning my thoughts revolve around the phrase: for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven. What did Jesus really come to do? What does it mean to be saved? How does it transform our lives? Some of us think that salvation is entirely personal. It is nothing more than a private, personal belief in the saving power of God. Others are more concerned about the social implications and how we live out the saving power of Christ in our daily lives.  For me both are essential. Let me quote from my publication Shalom and the Wholeness of God:

The Greek word sozo most commonly translated save in the New Testament could just as easily be translated to heal, to preserve or to make whole. Salvation, shalom and healing are inseparable because salvation is the process whereby human beings are restored to wholeness and full relationship with God – body soul and spirit – not as individuals but in community with others and with God’s creation, what theologian Paul Tillich calls the the act of cosmic healing. In Transforming Mission, missiologist David Bosch tells us that there is, in Jesus’ ministry, no tension between saving from sin and saving from physical ailment, between the spiritual and the social. Salvation carries with it the same sense of anticipation as shalom – the promise that God’s intention is to restore all things to wholeness.

Salvation is about wholeness for individuals, communities and indeed for our entire broken world. Jesus, our messenger of salvation comes saying: Believe in me, I am salvation, I am wholeness, and I am turning the world right side up. I am restoring and transforming the entire creation to what God intended it to be. I have come down so that you can follow me, learn from me and join me. I have come down so that we can work together, transforming this broken and corrupted world into what it should be. Through your compassionate action the first signs of God’s new world are being made visible.

As Henri Nouwen expresses it in Compassion: Reflection on the Christian Life,

This is the vision that guides us.  This vision makes us share one another’s burdens, carry our crosses together, and unite for a better world.  This vision takes the despair out of death and the morbidity out of suffering, and opens new horizons.  This vision also gives us the energy to manifest its first realization in the midst of the complexities of life.  This vision is indeed of a future world but it is no utopia.  The future has already begun and is revealed each time strangers are welcomed, the naked are clothed, the sick and prisoners are visited, and oppression is overcome.  Through these grateful actions the first glimpses of a new heaven and a new earth can be seen.

In the new city, God will live among us, but each time two or three gather in the name of Jesus he is already in our midst.  In the new city, all tears will be wiped away, but each time people eat bread and drink wine in His memory, smiles appear on strained faces.  In the new city, the whole of creation will be made new, but each time prison walls are broken down, poverty is dispelled and wounds are carefully attended, the old earth is already giving way to the new.  Through compassionate action, the old is not just old anymore and pain is not just pain any longer.  Although we are still waiting in expectation, the first signs of the new earth and the new heaven, which have been promised to us and for which we hope, are already visible in the community of faith where the compassionate God reveals Himself.  This is the foundation of our faith, the basis of our hope and the source of our love.

If you would like to contribute to the blog series Jesus is Coming What do we expect. Please leave a comment to sign up or email me.

Do Miracles Still Happen?

This morning I have been thinking about my friend Steve Ruetschle whom I blogged about a couple of months ago after he was involved in a motor cycle accident that left him a quadriplegic.  Over these last few months I have watched an incredible story unfold as Steve has unexpectedly regained some of the use of his arms and legs – something that happens in less than 10% of such accidents.

Below is a very moving video of the last 4 months in Steve’s life.

I know that people around the world have been praying for Steve – thousands of them.  He is much loved in the Philippines where he was pastoring and here in the US as well.   So of course we expect God to give special attention to our prayers for Steve.  But should we expect that?  Is prayer a simple cause and effect strategy?  If so do people with lots of friends have more chance to be healed than Joe down the street who is known by few except his wife and neighbours?

When I read the gospel stories of who and how Jesus healed I am impressed by how little we really know about when and why Jesus healed.  Sometimes he healed those at the margins, like the lepers, at other times he healed the rich and the important, like the centurion’s servant, and other times he combined both – the healing of Jairus’s daughter is very deliberately interrupted with the story of the woman healed from an issue of blood.  And of course one of the most incredible healings of all was that of his friend Lazarus.

So why does Jesus heal – and why does it sometimes seem like the arbitrary intervention of a capricious God?  After all Steve is not the only quadriplegic who has lots of friends praying for him just as the many Jesus healed by the pool of Siloam was not the only one trying to get into the waters.

So why does God heal some and not others?  I would love to hear your opinion.  The best answer I can give is I don’t know. I do know that I have seen more healings in Africa than anywhere else in the world partly I am sure because Africans are more convinced of the power of God to heal than we Westerners are.   So I do suspect that our faith in medicine rather than in God has something to do with it but that is obviously not the whole answer.

I know too that God wants all of us to be healed and made whole – I blogged about that in a previous post God Wills Healing but we still see only glimpses of that healing.  I believe strongly too that physical and spiritual healing are somehow linked and maybe that is the best place that I can leave this.  Our world is indeed broken and in need of God’s redemptive love.  I so long for the day that God’s healing power will be unleashed in all its fulness.

What Does the Kingdom of God Look Like to Jesus

This is the last of the series of posts from my publication Shalom and the Wholeness of God It focuses on the gospels and the imagery of shalom that Jesus talks about.

The coming of the Kingdom

The Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed is the fulfillment of the shalom vision from the Old Testament. It is a place in which all humanity, particularly the poor and excluded, in fact all creation is freed from slavery and bondage reconciled and made whole.  It is a new heaven and a new earth rich with the promise of shalom, of wholeness and well-being for all and established through the mediation of Christ.

God’s vision of the restoration of shalom was obviously very much at the center of Jesus life.  Throughout the gospels Jesus went about bringing glimpses of God’s shalom future into peoples lives. Time after time He led them out of the old oppressions and into new freedoms. To those enslaved by hunger, He gave the freedom of food and even envisioned the new kingdom as a great banquet. To the guilt-ridden, He announced forgiveness and release from the burden of sin.  He came to lepers who had been excommunicated for their disease and freed them to come back with full acceptance into the community.  He came to the women who had been overlooked and often marginalized and gave them the assurance that they were of equal importance in the eyes of God.  He came to the deaf and opened ears, to the blind and gave them sight. To all human kind He offered the hope of a new life and a new world in which shalom relationships were once again at the center of life.

It is in his hometown of Nazareth that Jesus stands up in the temple and announces the inauguration of this new shalom Kingdom.  The text was carefully chosen to identify Him and His work with the shalom visions of the Old Testament.  “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”  (Lk 4:18,19)   “The passage selected was one dealing explicitly with social restoration and well-being.  It promised physical, emotional and social healing of infirmities, oppression, and injustice.  It sided with the poor and proclaimed jubilee, the remission of debts and the liberation of slaves.”

Then again when John’s disciples come to Jesus asking if He is the Messiah it is to the signs of the inbreaking of God’s shalom Kingdom that He points as evidence.  “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Lk 7:22)  The centre of the Good News that Jesus declared is that God has reconciled us to Himself through personal salvation.  However the good news is more than that and the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed embraces far more than a spiritual compartment of our lives.

“The Kingdom has an ethical quality.  It has values.  It is an ‘upside-down Kingdom’ which presents a direct challenge to and reversal of accepted social and religious values.”

Like the prophets Jesus the Messiah deliberately stood against the false shalom values of both the prevailing Jewish and Roman societies. “As he (Jesus) approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you had only known on this day what would bring you peace (shalom) – but now it is hidden from your eyes.”  (Lk 19:41,42).  Throughout His life Jesus demonstrated what the good life of God really looked like – a life based on bringing glimpses of God’s shalom Kingdom into other peoples’ lives.  He enabled people to discover their true fulfillment as human beings in the Kingdom of God. For this reason, the ministry of Jesus focused not just on preaching the gospel, but also on dealing with the powers that distorted the lives of people in this present world and left them unfulfilled and without a sense of value and self-worth.  These forces obviously included the economic forces that resulted in poverty and economic injustice.

In God’s shalom Kingdom, as in the model of life God designed for the nation of Israel, security and well-being does not come through the protection of military power, the accumulation of wealth, the exploitation of peoples, the use of medical knowledge or even through religious observances but rather it comes through trusting in God in all areas of life.  No wonder Jesus said to His disciples, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear, life is more than food and the body more than clothes…Do not be afraid little flock, the Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions and give to the poor.  Provide purses for ourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:22,23, 32-34).  In other words if you are depending on wealth and military might for your security then your hope really is in the false shalom values of this world.  Nothing could be clearer – Jesus proclaimed new ethical and social standards for His followers to live by.  Just as the covenant God established with the children of Israel was meant to effect their social and economic structures, so too in the establishment of God’s new shalom Kingdom.

Jesus and the message of reconciliation

In the message Jesus preached, forgiveness with God was not an experience that could be separated from reconciliation with people but rather His message demonstrated that the Kingdom of God is based on the rule of Christ over every area of life.  Therefore we cannot just expect to receive God’s forgiveness and go on living as we have in the past.  Our repentance must be demonstrated as we work for restoration of just social and economic relationships within the world community.    And it must be demonstrated through our working for reconciliation between racial and cultural groups.

No wonder Jesus healed the sick, made lepers whole and restored a son to a widow who had no one to look after her.  No wonder he took care of children, showed deep respect for women, fed the hungry and provided for the poor constantly addressing the fundamental and often economic needs of those who were the most vulnerable in the society. As Walter Brueggemann explains in his insightful book Living Toward a Vision: Biblical Reflections on Shalom, “Jesus’ ministry to the excluded (see Lk 4:16-21) was…the establishment of community between those who were excluded and those who had excluded them.  His acts of healing the sick, forgiving the guilty, raising the dead and feeding the hungry are all actions of reestablishing God’s will for shalom in a world gone chaotic by callous self-seeking.”

Most telling of all, Jesus drew a direct connection between the Kingdom and the command to love one’s neighbour as oneself. (Mk 12:23-34).  And He gave a radical new definition of ‘neighbour’.  In the Kingdom of God, our neighbour is anyone in need whom we are able to help, even if that means crossing hostile racial barriers (Luke 10:25-27), touching those with leprosy, AIDS or other chronic illnesses and sharing our economic resources with the poor.  As Brueggemann explains “His acts of healing the sick, forgiving the guilty, raising the dead and feeding the hungry are all actions of reestablishing God’s will for shalom in a world gone chaotic by callous self-seeking.”

Shalom in the New Testament

Several words in the New Testament carry the same sense of God’s desire to bring wholeness to all creation as “shalom” in the Old Testament. The Greek word sozo most commonly translated “save” in the New Testament could also just as easily be translated to heal, to preserve or to make whole

Salvation, shalom & healing are inseparable because salvation is the process whereby human beings are restored to wholeness and full relationship with God – body soul, spirit – not as individuals but in community with others and with God’s creation, what theologian Paul Tillich calls the “the act of cosmic healing”

Missiologist David Bosch tells us that “there is, in Jesus’ ministry, no tension between saving from sin and saving from physical ailment, between the spiritual and the social.”

Salvation carries with it the same sense of anticipation as shalom – the promise that God’s intention is to restore all things to wholeness.

Many biblical scholars agree that the New Testament also uses eirēnē, which in the Greek world usually referred to political stability and order, more in keeping with the Hebraic sense of shalom, often reflecting a phrase or setting from the Old Testament.

For example Acts 10:36 states “This is the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace (eirēnē) through Jesus Christ who is Lord of all.”  Howard Snyder explains “Peace in the New Testament has the same meaning as in the Old, but it now finds its focus and means in the person of Jesus Christ and the New Covenant in his blood”

Shalom and the Cross

The Cross of Christ is the primary symbol of this new covenant of shalom.  It’s outstretched arms stand as affirmation of the fact that our loving and compassionate God wills restoration and reconciliation for all creation.  Paul affirms “For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him (Christ), and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace (eirēnē) through His blood, shed on the cross.”  (Col 1:19,20)  The exciting thing is that through the cross, the possibility of shalom is no longer confined to the Jews.  It is now open to every person regardless of race, sex, or status.  Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, men and women all become one in Jesus Christ. (Gal 3:26-28).

It is in the book of Ephesians that Paul gives us the most graphic imagery of the shalom purposes of God fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Christ.  It is through Christ that the dividing walls of hostility between different races and cultures are abolished and all people are reconciled and find their true purpose. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.   For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier the dividing wall of hostility…His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross.” (Eph 2:13-16) And it is in Christ that the temple of His body – of which we are the building stones – is joined together to become a dwelling place for God.  “Consequently you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles an prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.  In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.  And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” (Eph 2: 19-21) More than that it is in Christ that we are united through the “bond of peace” to use our gifts “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the Body of Christ may be built up.” (Eph 4:3,12)

In Jonathan Kozol’s powerful and passionate book about the lives of children in the South Bronx, he relates many stories about the heavy burden of pain and suffering carried by the children in this ghetto area of New York.  At one point he asks thirteen year old Anthony what he imagines heaven is like.  To me this young man’s response, entitled “God’s Kingdom” so much a reflection of the hope and longing of the poorest and burdened in our society, is a beautiful image of the shalom promise of God at the end of the Bible.

“God will be there.  He’ll be happy that we have arrived.  People shall come hand-in-hand.  It will be bright, not dim and glooming like on earth.  All friendly animals will be there, but no mean ones.  As for television, forget it!  If you want vision, you can use your eyes to see the people that you love.  No one will look at ;you from the outside.  People will see you from the inside.  All the people from the street will be there.  My uncle will be there and he will be healed…..No violence will there be in heaven.  There will be no guns or drugs or IRS.  You won’t have to pay taxes.  You’ll recognize all the children who have died when they were little.  Jesus will be good to them and play with them.  At night he’ll come and vist at your home.  God will be fond of you.  How will you know that you are there?  Something will tell you, ‘This is it! Eureka!’  If you still feel lonely in your heart, or bitterness, you’ll know that you’re not there.”

Anthony’s words could have come straight out of a modern translation of the Revelation of John where we see the culmination of this new shalom covenant – “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1) where all creation is once more living in the harmony and trust of shalom.  It is a new realm in which “the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.” (Rev 21:3)

And the hope that we all look forward to in this new shalom realm is that here God “will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away.”  (Rev 21:4).  There will be health and wholeness and abundant provision for all the nations because the curse of the Fall is lifted through the blood of Christ “On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month.  And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  No longer will there be any curse.  The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.” (Rev 22:2,3)