Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Apocalypse 2012

I have to confess. I'm a talk show junky. It doesn't matter much about the content of the conversation; I simply enjoy hearing people discuss topics. Verbal bantering over a subject primarily is entertaining to me, and sometimes it can be informative about social subcultures and philosophies.

While driving home late one evening, I was listening to an esoteric talk show that discusses everything from alien visitations/abductions to cosmological theories with a heavy dose of conspiracy theories to boot. This particular night, a well-spoken, seemingly well-informed guest was talking about the Mayan "Long Count" calendar that terminates on December 21, 2012. Comparing this Mayan phenomenon to similar "prophetic" information in other ancient civilizations (and, of course, Nostradamus himself), this guest concluded that our planet can expect a cataclysmic shift on this date (or at least beginning on that date). While admitting ignorance of exactly what this will be, the guest was quite clear that we should prepare for its inevitability.

Now, that's good talk radio, don't you think? What better way to end the day than to consider a global cataclysm apparently predicted by ancient civilizations? Perhaps, as the theory goes, the Mayans simply were warning us of a similar fate met by their own civilization. After all, scholars still are not exactly sure why this flourishing culture practically vanished overnight. Are we going to face a similar event in 2012? Try going to sleep with that on your mind and see what type dreams you have!

Of course, this is not new information that has come to light. Anthropologists have long been aware of the Mayan calendrical phenomenon. Competing interpretations of it, however, abound. It is interesting to note that on the winter solstice of 2012 the sun will be aligned with the center of the Milky Way for the first time in about 26,000 years, according to astronomists. What are we to make of this information?

While I'm in no position to speak authoritatively on Maya archaeoastronomy, I would like to make a few observations. First, advances in astronomy continue to highlight the relative insignificance of our planet. It is a mere speck on the canvas of the universe. In light of our burgeoning knowledge of the universe, the ancient psalmist captures very well the psychological impact of our apparent insignificance, and God's astonishing concern for us (cf. Psalm 8).

Second, despite the hubris of modernity we really are vulnerable to forces beyond our control. A major assumption of the Enlightenment was that rational human beings could free themselves from the vulnerabilities of nature through increased technology. Obviously, we are beginning to acknowledge that there are forces beyond our control that technology alone simply cannot address. The Mayans, known for advanced writing, mathematics and astronomy, obviously met forces beyond their control.

Third, the Bible does talk about the end of the world as we know it. Eventually, God will bring about a "new heavens and new earth." I am not suggesting that 2012 is when God will accomplish His eschatological purposes. In fact, the Bible indicates that when that day occurs, people will be carrying on in typical fashion, apparently oblivious to its arrival (cf. Luke 21). At the same time, Christians need always to realize that the present order is "passing away;" that there is nothing lasting about our current world (cf. 1 John 2:15-17).

Finally, in light of God's purposes, whenever that might be, we should live each day in anticipation of God's final victory over all His opposing forces. We pray for God's will to be done "on earth as it is in heaven." May that day come quickly. And, may we participate in His redemptive work for our world.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Nature of Ministry

In his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey argues that grace is the church’s single most important contribution to our broken world. One need not be a Christian, Yancey correctly contends, to do wonderful humanitarian acts, i.e., feed the hungry, build houses, heal the sick. There is one thing the world cannot effectively do—it cannot offer grace.

Building on this theme, Yancey offers what I believe to be a correct interpretation of the image Jesus used to describe the church’s destiny—“the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Rather than a metaphor of defense, this figure signals an offensive posture. “Christians,” says Yancey, “are storming the gates, and they will prevail. No matter how it looks at any given point in history, the gates guarding the powers of evil will not withstand an assault by grace.”

As we explore what it means to be a ministry-oriented church, keep at least three important points firmly fixed in mind. First, all ministry belongs to, and is of, God; we are simply participants with Him. Unlike worldly humanitarianism, godly ministry is done in the name of Jesus, and by His power. Second, ours is not a struggle against physical forces. We are at war with the spiritual powers of evil that attempt to keep our world shrouded in darkness (Eph. 6:12).

Third, true ministry occurs within the vulnerable sphere of personal interaction. Jesus did not develop highly organized—and impersonal—“kingdom growth” programs to see how many people he could collect at a given location. No, Jesus simply “went about doing good.” He dared to touch lepers, grieve with those who mourned, and rejoiced with those who experienced God’s deliverance. No program will ever replace the power of a personal touch.

Each time we minister to people in the name of Jesus we apply a solid blow at the gates of hell. May kingdom people wield the weapon of God’s grace boldly as we reach out to our world.