Signs and Seals

Signs and Seals

Selecting a wedding band was once a straightforward affair.   The only real decisions regarded size and engraving.   A gold band was a gold band.   Larger or smaller, bought at a pawn shop or jeweler, it was adiaphora – a matter of indifference.    And as a pastor, the language used in the wedding service at the giving of the rings was also straightforward.

The ring is a visible symbol of the spiritual covenant that you are making today before God.  The ring will serve for you, and for your children, and for all who see it as a reminder of the purity and the permanence of your marriage covenant.   

Like the gold in the ring which symbolizes purity and beauty, your love for one another is to be pure — unmixed and uncompromised by any other priorities, second only to your love for Christ.   And like ring whose shape, the circle, has neither beginning nor end, you are covenanting today, before God, to enter into a marriage that is permanent and unbreakable.

[Groom], one day when your children see your ring and ask you what it means, you can tell them that it is a symbol of your promise to love and cherish their mother for all time and that it is to be a reminder to them that you will never leave them or forsake them.

And [Bride], when your children see your ring and ask you why you wear it you can tell them that it is a symbol of your promise to love and respect their father and that it is to be a constant reminder to them of your loving, unbreakable commitment to your family.

The gold in your ring may get scratched from time to time, but its beauty and luster will endure.  In the same way there will be trials in your relationship as you learn what it means to live as one-flesh, but your ring will be a constant testimony to you that God has brought you together for keeps. 

But now, during pre-marital counseling, I know to ask,  “what type of ring will you have?”  While the design of the ring does not define its value, the liturgy must acknowledge that gold is no longer a given.  Millennials opt for titanium, silicone, and even tattoos.    And nothing says ‘permanence’ like a tattooed wedding band.

While I don’t jibe with everything the in her blog, I appreciate what Laura Ulveling writes in a post promoting GrooveLife alternative rings.

Your ring is simply a universally recognized symbol to show the world and each other that you have committed your life to someone. Whether the wedding ring you chose is cheap or extravagant, gold or platinum, diamond or silicone, its design has no impact on its value.

Even if you decide to exchange traditional wedding rings at the altar, you can still order a set of Groove rings for your adventurous days so you don’t lose your diamonds while you’re climbing waterfalls or deep-sea diving on your honeymoon!

A ring’s design has no impact on its value.  Signs illustrate.  Seals authenticate.  A wedding ring is a sign and seal of the covenant of marriage.   The ring does not make you married and the absence of one does not remove that covenant.   But the ring does point to the undeniable fact that you belong to someone.  The ring can’t make you a spouse, but it can make you a liar.  You have made and received promises.  And those promises define everything about your life.  

In the Bible, one of the pervasive analogies of faith is that of husband and wife.  In the Old Testament, the Lord says to his people, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”   This is the wedding vow of the ancient world.   God is the husband to his people.  The New Testament picks up this analogy.  The church is the bride of Christ.   God makes a covenant of grace with his people.  A promise is made and sealed with his own blood in the person of Jesus.   And this promise changes everything.  

But there are days when life crashes in.  Our experience seems to contradict or nullify God’s promises.   Can we trust his promises?  Can we trust him?  Is God a faithful spouse?   And when I am not faithful, will he still love me and keep his vows?   Psalm 103 declares that the Lord knows our “frame, that we are but dust.”  Yet, even in our spiritual fragility, he has compassion on us and shows steadfast, unwavering, unbreakable love.    To shore up our flagging faith and soothe our doubts, he gives us signs and seals – reminders of what he has promised and assurances that he is as good as his word.

In the Old Testament God gave repeated sacrifices and sacred spaces to teach the people to expect a once-for-all savior who would secure all God’s gracious promises.   Now, he has given us clearer signs and seals – baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  But their purpose is the same, to point us to his promises and assure us of his faithfulness.

In Jeremiah 32, the prophet is in a hopeless place.   It’s the eleventh hour.  Jeremiah’s prophecies of doom and judgment are unfolding.   The Babylonian army has laid siege to Jerusalem.   Jeremiah has been imprisoned for treason.   But God gives a personal, yet puzzling, word to Jeremiah.   His cousin will offer a piece of land for sale.  Jeremiah has the right of redemption, but this was no time for land speculation.  The market hates uncertainty.  And nothing is more uncertain than a Babylonian invasion.   But Jeremiah is instructed to purchase the plot, seal up the deed, and store it away for safe keeping.   Nothing about this deal makes any sense.  

Jeremiah obeys, but struggles with the ‘why.’  Yet in this simple act, God offers a sign and seal that grace, not judgment, is the last word.   Join us this week as we examine Jeremiah 32 and consider the importance of signs and seals as a means of grace for us.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.    You can also join us on Facebook Live @RiverCityARP.

New and Improved

New and Improved

Novelty is a fickle temptress.    We are all fascinated with new things.  The promise of something new is alluring.   A new restaurant, no matter what its offers, will boom for six months.    Every new social media platform renders all others passé.  And when Dr. Oz recommends a new product, demand skyrockets.   But it doesn’t take long for the euphoria of fashionability to yield to a longing for the good old ways – the old places, the old platforms, and the tried and true products.    Novelty is a fickle temptress.    We love change, so long as it doesn’t actually change anything.   As the excitement of discovery cools, we see that newer is not always better.  

But novelty does offer an appeal.   Businesses understand this.   This is why beloved restaurants tinker with their menus and discount furniture stores are perpetually going out of business only to reopen under a new name.   When market share stagnates, products become ‘new and improved’ and businesses go ‘under new management.’    The word ‘new’ pricks our attention.  It arouses consumer desire, but often, not consumer discernment.   

Just what is new?  How is it improved?  Why, if at all, did it need to be improved?   Is the change an improvement?   Some of us are old enough to remember the New Coke debacle of 1985, and it jaded us.   The phrase ‘new and improved’ evokes suspicion.   And ‘under new management’ is often an admission of serious problems — code for ‘we swept the floors and the staff out the door.’   When we hear ‘new and improved’ or ‘under new management,’ we would do well to ask some hard questions and exercise discernment.

But what is true of our economics is even more important for our theology.    When we hear of new teaching or a new interpretation of scripture or a newly discovered ancient text, we must ask some hard questions.    Just what is new?   How new is it?   Why is something new needed?   Is this new thing contrary to the clear truth of the whole counsel of scripture?    The easiest way to lead Christians astray is to provoke our fickle love of novelty – novelty in worship, in teaching, or in practical living.   Ever since the Fall, God’s children have fallen prey to new teaching about God’s nature and His promises.

When we hear about something new, we would do well to ask hard questions and exercise discernment.  Especially when we see that claim in scripture.   Theological understanding demands it.   God promises a new heart, new heavens and a new earth.   He promises to do a ‘new thing’ in the lives of his people as he unfolds redemptive history.  And in the midst of Jeremiah’s Book of Consolation in Jeremiah 31:31-34, God promises a New Covenant – a promise formative in the history and theology of the Church.   

Jesus speaks of the New Covenant as he institutes the Lord’s Supper.

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”  

Luke 22:19-20

And the author of the Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31 twice as he examines exactly what is and is not new about the New Covenant.  

But theological heterodoxy over the nature, membership, and significance of the New Covenant has been divisive in the church, especially since the Reformation.  For some it points to a new way, or dispensation, of salvation.  For others it demotes the Old Testament to a lesser revelation, providing historical background but no continuing authority or relevance for Christian practice.   And many believe it radically changes the nature of covenant membership and therefore the nature of the church.  

With so much at stake, we would do well to ask hard questions when we hear the word ‘new’ in regards to God’s covenant of grace.    Just what is ‘new’ about the New Covenant?   How ‘new’ is it?  And why was something ‘new’ needed?   Jeremiah 31 is the only place in the Old Testament where the New Covenant is mentioned, but the prophet and the whole counsel of God’s Word give us sufficient context to understand just what is ‘new’ about the New Covenant.   And why it is important.

Join us this week as we examine Jeremiah 31:31-40 and consider what is ‘new’ about the New Covenant and why it matters.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.    You can also join us on Facebook Live @RiverCityARP.

Taking Comfort

Taking Comfort

Children can get comfortable in virtually any circumstance.  Alone or in a crowd, stretched out on their bed or cramped in a car seat, circumstance seems to have little to do with their comfort.   For children, comfort is rooted in assurance, not surfaces or society.   If they trust that dad and mom have everything well in hand, they can sleep anywhere and everywhere.   Parenting experts have long pointed out that when children have trouble going to sleep or staying in bed, they are often anxious that dad and mom don’t have it together.    Without assurance, they take no comfort.  With assurance they find comfort everywhere.

Adults are quite a different matter.   We are good at crafting comfortable circumstances — softer fabrics, ergonomic chairs, and bags of meds and supplements that eclipse Santa’s pack.  And spend our time, energy and brass seeking comfort, but little time being comfortable.   If comfort could be acquired, we would have palliated long ago.   Our lives are littered with the right pills and the right pillows.   We have therapeutic socks and smart mattresses.   We have more advanced and available health care than most of the world, but poorer health.   And with 5% of the world’s population, the United States consumes 95% of the world’s opioids.   We are comfortably numb, but devoid of comfort.  

Perhaps what we know about our children, we have failed to learn about ourselves.   Maybe comfort is derived more from assurance than circumstance.   Children gain assurance easily.   They have an unshakable faith in their parent’s wisdom and power.   Even when that faith is misplaced and disproven time and time again.   The willingness of children to rest in their parent’s word is remarkable.  

But as adults we are leery of trusting anyone but ourselves.   And often, we don’t trust ourselves.  Experience has jaded us.  We have been burned.  We have learned never to be at ease.   Even when our mattress is perfect, our medications potent, and our climate control pleasing, rest eludes us.   Real rest.  Soul rest.   The best we can do is to become comfortably numb.  If only we could trust that Our Father has it all together, that His promises and power could be trusted, that his love for us was real. 

Jeremiah spent four decades warning of Judah of judgment and exile.   Through warning after warning, God called the people to turn back to Him, but they would not.  They sought comfort down every path except the path of faith and repentance.   But God did not forsake them.  When hope seemed lost, God gave the prophet Jeremiah a word of comfort.  In the midst of the longest, and most sorrowful book in the Bible, we find bright promises of God’s grace.    Jeremiah 30-33 is often called the ‘Book of Consolation.’ 

Last week we examined Jeremiah 30 and considered how God consoles us in the midst of judgement.  But to take comfort from God’s promises, we must receive them.   We must believe them by faith.   We must turn back to Him.   We must rest in the assurance that Our Father has it all together.  The Heidelberg Catechism underscores this as it begins its summary of Christian doctrine with the question.

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me, that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him.

Heidelberg Catechism, Question 1

With this assurance, we find comfort no matter what, whether in life or in death. Join us this week as we examine Jeremiah 31:1-30 and consider how God calls us to receive and experience the comfort He offers.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.    You can also join us on Facebook Live @RiverCityARP.

The Book of Consolation

The Book of Consolation

Absence makes the heart grow fonder!  With some exceptions this is true.   If “Covidtide” has taught us anything, we have experienced this more keenly.  We were not made for social distancing.   Though necessary, we long for what is missing – our people, our places, and our practices.   And if social distancing has made us more loving and grateful then we will be the better for it.

Absence makes our hearts grow fonder, because often we don’t know what we have until it’s gone.   Grief teaches us this.  We so easily take for granted those we see every day, until the day we cannot see them.   Memories of the difficult times fade, leaving remembrance of what was good.   No matter how things were, absence, though painful, makes the heart grow fonder.  Travel teaches this as well.   The excitement of far-away, exotic travel is quickly tempered with a deep soul-ache for the places of home.

How easy it is to take the best things for granted.   The tyranny of the urgent prevents us from treasuring the best life has to offer – more time to listen to the unfolding of a small child’s story or the extra kiss goodbye.  Then we blink and those little windows are closed, gone forever.   Only then do we realize what a gaping hole in our lives has been left vacant, space that can only be filled with our people, places, and practices.   Absence makes the heart ache, but in that aching fondness grows — a fondness we should have had before.

From the moment the Israelites stepped foot into the Promised Land, they began take for granted the blessings of being God’s people– His Word and presence.   A land flowing with milk and honey is a great gift.  But the real treasure was not the gift of land, but the Giver of life.  To know Him was their inheritance, their very great reward.  He had set his love upon them and revealed his gracious ways and promises to them.    The Psalmist captures it well.

He declares his word to Jacob,
    his statutes and rules to Israel.
He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
    they do not know his rules.
Praise the Lord! 

Psalm 147:19-20

But, within a generation of Joshua’s death there “arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.”   Like the prodigal, they filled their lives with every empty thing.  They longed for a king, like the nations around them.   And the Lord tells a dejected Samuel, “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”  And at that terrible moment when the kingdom is divided after the death of Solomon, Jeroboam sets up Golden Calves to keep the people from returning to the “place where the Lord put his Name.”   So easily they forgot, who and whose they were. Israel had the world’s greatest treasure in Christ.  Yet, they ran after every vanity the world offered.   They lived with their backs to God.

Prophets warned them, starting with Moses. If they lived with their backs turned to God, he would turn from them.  And everything would be taken away.   But they would not listen.   They said, “it is no use, we love foreign Gods.”  They had more gods than towns and more altars than streets.  They were not inclined, nor willing, to hear God’s word calling them back from the brink.   They chose to experience his words of justice and judgement, rather than heed words of grace and mercy.   Yet judgment is not the last word.  To reclaim them, the Lord sent them away.  He took away everything, that they might see what had truly been lost. 

For forty years, Jeremiah wept for Judah.   But it was not until the exile, that the people learned to weep.  Psalm 137 captures it well.

By the waters of Babylon,
    there we sat down and wept,
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
    we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
    required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy!

Absence makes their hearts tender.   Not just an absence from the land, but from the One who makes the land and its people what they are.  But is it too late?  Will God remember mercy in wrath?  Has God’s steadfast love worn thin?   No doubt, the exiles remembered their northern cousins.   Exiled to Assyria a century before, the ten tribes of the north never returned, lost forever.    God would be perfectly just to treat them the same way.  Is there any kindness left?  Perhaps, you are wondering the same thing.   Have you filled your life with every empty thing?  And left no room for the only One who can fill?   What hope is there for you?  What comfort?  

God instructs Jeremiah to speak words of consolation to fallen Judah.  And not just speak them, but write them down.  Words for them and for us!  Jeremiah spent four decades warning of judgment and exile.   Now, when hope seems lost, he opens a new chapter – the Book of Consolation.  In the midst of the longest, and most sorrowful book in the Bible, we find bright promises of God’s grace.    Jeremiah 30-33 is often called the ‘Book of Consolation.’ 

Join us this week as we examine Jeremiah 30 and consider how God calls us and consoles us with grace in the midst of judgement.  We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.    You can also join us on Facebook Live @RiverCityARP.

Letters from Home

Letters from Home

My father was a letter-writer.   On every birthday, there was a card.  Anytime I was away from home, there were letters.  He always wrote to share news from home and a fatherly exhortation.   While my father was not a very affectionate man. his tenderness shined through in his letters.   Without those letters, much of my father’s heart would have remained concealed.  

Unfortunately, the discipline of letter-writing is fading fast.   Instant communication is more expedient, more practical.   The patient beauty of a thoughtful letter has yielded to the pragmatic expediency of ‘messaging’ despite its copious downsides.   Commercial clutter invades every exchange.  Intolerance erupts over every opinion expressed.  Nothing is private or secure.   Conversations become threads.  And our interactions become the stage, upon which we are merely players.   Every word is judged, commented upon, and hijacked by unfilterable group-think.  Yet the promise of immediacy seduces us to abandon the time-honored art of letter writing.  

Perhaps, most insidious in this brave new world is the “death of the sentence.”  My sophomore composition teacher, Ms. Sandidge, warned diligently against using sentence fragments, yet this is now the accepted norm.    The stilted, stuttering language of our instant messages, fast becomes the manner of our spoken word.   And the “death of the sentence” kills more than a way of speaking – it takes with it measured, reasoned, critical thinking.   Words describe, express, and instruct in a way that emojis never can. This is why God speaks to us in words, not images and forbids substituting imagery for God’s self-revelation in the Bible.  

To view God’s nature or purposes through the lens of circumstance or speculation, always leads to a distorted view of God, a pagan view, a view that makes a god after our fallen image.   When God desires to communicate his comfort, his purpose, his grace, his mercy, his love for us, he does it through his Word.  As Augustine famously said, “The Holy Scriptures are my ‘Letter from Home.’”

For decades Jeremiah had warned the people of Judah that the judgment of God was unfolding.   And in 597 BC, Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem and carried off the best and the brightest to Babylon. 

He carried away all Jerusalem and all the officials and all the mighty men of valor, 10,000 captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths. None remained, except the poorest people of the land. And he carried away Jehoiachin to Babylon. The king’s mother, the king’s wives, his officials, and the chief men of the land he took into captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon. And the king of Babylon brought captive to Babylon all the men of valor, 7,000, and the craftsmen and the metal workers, 1,000, all of them strong and fit for war. 

2 Kings 24:14-16

Imagine how these exiles felt.   Taken from the only places and people they had ever known.   What would happen to them?  Had God forsaken them in his judgement?   How were they to live as refugees, immigrants, and resident aliens?   Would they share the fate of their sister Israel, whose ten tribes were carried off to Assyrian and never heard from again?   But God was not done with them.  He had not washed his hands of them.   God had revealed to Jeremiah that he would set his favor upon them.

Thus, says the Lord, the God of Israel… I will set my eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not pluck them up. I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart. 

Jeremiah 24:4-7

The Lord instructed Jeremiah to write letters to the exiles instructing them to live patiently as resident aliens.  In these letters, God’s grace shines through his judgment as he speaks comfort and clarity into uncertainty and confusion

Thus, says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

 Jeremiah 29:4-7

Resident aliens have great power to influence and effect society.   They bring their particular cultural strengths to the table, but also foster the distinctives of their homeland.  They are a part of society, without losing their identity. The Church is to be like this – resident aliens, “an island of one culture in the middle of another.” (Phil 3:20)   But it must never be merely an enclave.  For while the Church fosters the culture of its heavenly homeland, its calling is to transform its sphere of influence, not just “coexist.”  The Church is a colony of resident aliens gathered to “name the name, to tell the Story, to sing Zion’s songs in a land that does not know Zion’s God.”

These exiles were not merely collateral of war, the Lord sent them into exile.  He had a purpose for them among the Babylonians to reveal His glory and seek the “shalom” of the city where He sent them.  We see in their immigration the paradigm and paradox of the Christian life as they are placed by God’s providence in the midst of pagan Babylon, yet called to remain distinct as God’s covenant children.   Join us this week as we examine Jeremiah 29 and consider its instruction and comfort to us regarding how we are to live faithfully as resident aliens in a land that is not our home.

We meet from 5:00 – 6:30 pm in The Commons at St. Andrews Anglican Church at 8300 Kanis Rd in Little Rock for worship.  Get directions here or contact us for more info.    You can also join us on Facebook Live @RiverCityARP.